For the past 86 years since the change from absolutism to constitutional monarchy in 1932, Thailand has been switching back and forth from being an infant democracy to a temporary dictatorship.
A look at the list of the country’s prime ministers since 1932 would reveal that half the time, Thailand has been ruled by either an outright dictator or a military strongman appointed by a cowed civilian parliament.
We today are the sum of our past. The sum that makes up our culture. For Thailand, democracy simply isn’t integrated into our cultural conscience. For the west, democracy is very much an integral part of its cultural conscience. History explains this.
Western civilization traces its democratic heritage from Athens and the Roman Republic. Modern democracy may look to England and the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 as the new dawn for the concepts of freedom and human rights.
Between 1642 and 1651, England fought a civil war that saw one king beheaded, the rise of a lord protector, a failed experiment with republicanism and the restoration of the monarchy. Thousands were slaughtered during the time, but also there was a bustling of new thoughts and writings based on freedom and human rights.
Then came the Glorious Revolution of 1688, where the English parliament threw out an English king and invited a Dutch royalty to take the English throne. Why? Because the new king was willing to accept the rights of parliament and the limited power of the monarch.
A century later, the American Revolution (1765-83) overthrew its English overlord and established a republic. Meanwhile, the French Revolution (1789-99) saw both the king and queen guillotined and a republic was created. Tens of thousands of people died, but the ideals of freedom and human rights spread like wildfire, to the chagrins of absolute rulers all over the continent.
World War I (1914-1918) saw the fall of European royal absolutism, but also the rise of fascism. World War II (1939-1945) saw the fall of dictators, and the spread of both democracy and communism. In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, and with it, worldwide communism. Through all the wars and conflicts of the last century, tens of millions of people died.
With old traditions torn down and new ideals established, today democracy reigns as the hallmark of western civilization and the cultural conscience of its people. But also, tens of millions of people died in the struggle for western democracy.
Look at Japan, once a militaristic society ruled by a God-Emperor figurehead. On the morning of August 15, 1945, the Japanese people heard the voice of their emperor for the first time. Over the radio, the words were to announce Japan’s surrender. The world that the Japanese once knew was no more. It was done away by millions of casualties and two atomic bombs destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The man who ruled Japan hence was a pipe-smoking gaijin from Little Rock, Arkansas. The old system was broken, a new Japanese Constitution was written, by the gaijin.
Name a country that has undergone drastic changes, and the theme is one and the same. Disruptive destruction doing away with the old to create something new. For better or for worse, this is how history evolves.
Meanwhile, in Thailand. Never has been colonized, proudly. Didn’t quite inherit Greek writings and Roman laws, obviously. Little affected by global events such as the world wars, when compared to other countries. Saved from the spread of communism during the Cold War.
Then in the year 1932, the mass of Thai people woke up one morning in June to find out, “Wait, we’re a democracy now? Hold on, what is this democracy thing? All that I knew in my entire life is work the field, give almost everything to my master and always bow humbly in his presence.”
Then in 1938, “What, we are a dictatorship now? What is a dictatorship? All that I knew in my entire life is work the fields, give almost everything to my master and always bow humbly in his presence.”
The same set of questions play like a ping pong match, back and forth for the past 86 years. Fortunately, millions did not have to die. Unfortunately, things haven’t much changed.
But see? Millions do not have to die. Traditional values do not have to be torn down in order to build something new. Why? Because we have centuries of world history to learn from and apply to our own culture.
Of course, it’s more difficult to open a book and learn. Than to point a finger and shout. Or to point a gun and shoot. Or to just sigh and say it’s impossible. Obviously, it’s also more difficult to persuade someone with reasons and facts. As oppose to with a gun. Or a clever manipulation tactic such as appealing to tribalism or nationalism.
But it will be well worth it, if we open our minds and try. The alternative to learning and teaching, is bickering and fighting, which is what we have been doing, not just for the past decade or so, but for the past 86 years. It’s been far too long.
To move Thailand forward is to develop a democratic conscience, as a people and a culture.