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Hoary Old Cogs

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HOARY OLD COGS

By Andrew Biggs

The truth and the military make strange bedfellows.

This is not, necessarily, a savage indictment on Thailand’s current military regime. It’s true of any military. When ranked from most important to least, qualities like courage, fortitude, strategy, strength and unity are considered characteristics way, way more important to the military than trifling, annoying tenets such as truth and honesty and, let’s be frank, democracy.

There are two particular characteristics of any military that are on opposite sides of the boxing ring to truth and honesty, and they are power and face. Over in the West we know all about power. We don’t treasure saving face as much as it is treasured in the East, though that’s not to say we are devoid of it. Look at the foot-stomping, dummy-spitting imbecile ruling the White House; any hint of an attack on his character and by god he’s hittin’ that Twitter keypad with all the fury of a woman scorned.

This power and face-saving permeates not only the military but also Thai society, even in these modern, technology-driven times. Any foreigner trying to understand the Thai psyche needs a crash course in Siamese history, plus both an understanding and acceptance that no matter how much the Thai government may bleat about Thailand 4.0, the social psyche remains entrenched in Ayuthaya 2.5.

This was borne out in the last seven days with two big stories.

The first involved Thailand’s Education Minister, Teerakiat Jareonsettasin, or Dr T as we will refer to him today. He’s a real doctor, not an academic, and a psychiatrist no less. He has a platform of educational reform particularly in the field of English language teaching. The man is up against the plodding, slow cogs of the oversized Education Ministry machine, hindering his progress in the many reforms he has instigated, and indeed, a lot of teachers don’t like him for the changes he wishes to implement. The important thing is this: the man is smart. He’s not a military man despite his position … but he is also Thai.

Thus this week, when he was in London, while speaking to a small group of Thai students and businesspeople, he let down his guard and spoke frankly about Thai society. His comments were hardly original or ground-breaking. In fact he was just speaking the truth; saying that unlike England, Thailand was a society where the bigwigs were brazen. If accused of any wrongdoing they didn’t stand down like they do in the West. He referred to the case of the House of Lords member, Michael Bates, who turned up late for Parliament a few minutes late and was unable to answer a question directed to him from the Opposition. He offered his resignation for that, which was turned down by the prime minister.  

“But in Thailand, having 25 watches is okay,” he said, referring to Prawit Wongsuwan’s dubious stockpile of top-end timepieces.

Dr T’s comments were spot on. Only a foot-stomping imbecile, the likes of which were referred to above, would think otherwise. And yet this honesty hit the cold metallic wall of the military government, not to mention the well-padded pink walls of Thai culture.

Upon his arrival back at Suvarnabhumi, Dr T probably didn’t bother about trivialities such as Customs and Immigration. Once the wheels hit the tarmac he whisked himself off to Parliament House to prostrate himself before the very man who refuses to budge from his position thanks to his 25 watches.

In a perfect world it would be the other way around, wouldn’t it? “Dr T, forgive me for my transgressions and for not standing down when it was revealed I had not been very complicit in the government’s policy of zero corruption! Let me step down immediately!”

There was even talk of Dr T having to step down for his comments, which didn’t happen, probably because even our military government might have had the wisdom to foresee the loss of face over an Education Minister resigning for telling the truth. He took business leave instead.

As clever as he is, Dr T is still part of a culture — and as minister, part of a regime — that places face and power over truth and honesty. What he did back in Thailand was expected of him and unsurprising.

That meeting, with the Prime Minister and Prawit Wongsuwan, was held right before the weekly Tuesday Cabinet meeting. Dr T didn’t make an appearance at that Cabinet meeting. Nor would I; imagine the glares and muted mutterings as he entered the Cabinet meeting office. Unsurprisingly the Minister for Timepieces was there and probably was welcomed with ingratiating >>wais<< from all and sundry as he swept into the room.

The other example of this curious value system has been running for two weeks now.

It is the case of super-billionaire Premchai Karnasuta being caught red-handed by a struggling parks official from an impoverished family.

Premchai hunted, shot, killed and skinned protected and endangered animals in Thung Yai Naresuan Sanctuary, Karnchanaburi. These included the Black Indochinese Leopard which was skinned. Thanks to park official Wichien Chinnawong’s diligence and — here come those words again — truth and honesty, he managed to get Premchai to a police station.

That in itself is a magnanimous feat in Thailand, where a wealthy person has any number of ways to get himself out of a sticky criminal situation before the cops even get involved.

(Premchai has denied the charges. He’s done nothing wrong by hauling arms, ammunitions and a huge bag of salt into a national park, he says.)

Wichien was lauded by Thais as a national hero. How interesting to see the reaction from the police, though, clearly a little uncomfortable with having to book a powerful billionaire. Nowhere at police academy do they teach them how to do that.

First, the investigation would take 45 days. That seems an inordinate amount of time for a clear cut-and-dried case of poaching.

More sinister were the comments from Sirivala Ransibhramanakul, Thailand’s deputy police chief, who intimated the cops would be pressing charges against Wichien himself, for the crime of waiving a 100 baht entry fee when Premchai entered the park.

(It is even more sinister when considering it within the framework of Thailand’s >>phu yai<< patronage system that he had to do that. Any order from the top down, such as waiving of fees, must be followed without any consideration of its legality. As head of the police force, Srivala is more than aware of that.)

Srivala’s comments offer non-Thais a glimpse of the shadowy undercurrent of Thai culture, or what happens when power and saving face are threatened by truth and honesty. It is much easier to exonerate a powerful construction mogul by discrediting the evidence of a disgraced sanctuary worker, as opposed to an heroic one.

So it is not just Premchai who is on the hunt. The system is intent on hunting down those who dare to question or prosecute the powerful ones. Just this week the Prime Minister vowed to crack down on those protesters demanding democracy, saying these protestors had to “follow the law” — a curious remark from a man who ripped up the constitution in 2014.

The Black Leopard. Dr T. Wichien Chinnawong. Three separate hunts. It is up to the growing numbers of thinking, educated Thais, armed with technology and knowledge, to ensure those hunts don’t all end the same way.

/Andrew

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