Recently, I took up a teaching post at Webster University. Over beers and hot wings one evening, five teaching staff, three western and two Thais, engaged in a discussion over white privilege, social justice warriors, safe space and other delicious topics. Since everyone lives and works in Thailand however, the conversation invariably drew comparison to the kingdom.
Specifically, we were discussing the Age of Enlightenment, which started around the early 18th Century in Western Europe. This was a time of burgeoning democratic conscience, struggles for civil rights and liberty, advancements in science and technology, the industrial revolution, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Underlining all of this is of course the ideal of freedom. Free the mind. Free the soul. Be enlightened. Then all things become possible, including scientific advancement and economic prosperity.
It was proposed that the Age of Enlightenment formed the backbone of western society today, even though many might argue that the backbone is rotting away at the present.
The obvious question then became, when was Thailand’s Age of Enlightenment? Anyone? Anyone? Anyone? No?
But it’s not just Thailand, is it? Most of the world did not go through the Age of Enlightenment. Why? Superiority of western culture? White privilege? God chosen? Historical accident? Too busy getting colonised? There are lots of fun and racially rambunctious theories to be had. But we’ll save that for another day. Opening too many cans of worms at one time only lead to too many worms.
From the establishment of the Sukhotai Kingdom in 1238 to the fall of the Ayutthaya Kingdom in 1767. From the short-lived Thonburi Kingdom (1767-1782) to the rise of the Rattanakosin Kingdom, the Thai people were 694 years under absolutism, then we woke up one morning in 1932, heavy heads and sleepy eyes, muttering: “What? We’re a democracy now? What’s a democracy?”
Then, from the 1932 Revolution that ended absolute monarchy to today as you are reading this, we have been playing a ping-pong match between democracy and dictatorship. The match saw 19 military coup d’etat attempts, whether fail and success, not counting the 1932 revolution. That’s averaging one coup attempt every four to five years. Half of the period we were also a pawn in the Cold War between the US and the USSR.
So, where was Thailand’s Age of Enlightenment? Anyone? Anyone? Anyone? No?
We are the sum of our pasts. Who we are today is the accumulation of our historical evolution.
If the ideals of freedom, liberty and equality are generally embraced in western culture (even if these ideals have come under attacks at present time) it is because the democratic conscience has been fostered in western culture for centuries, since even before the Age of Enlightenment.
If the ideals of freedom, liberty and equality generally hold second position in Thailand, lagging behind the top priority of tradition and Thai-ness, then this is simply the sum of our historical evolution.
Hence, through the past 86 years, Thailand may have had democracy as a set of rules written in ink on a piece of paper. But papers can be torn up, as happened so many times with the Thai constitution. For democracy to work, it can’t just be ink on paper. It has to be in the national conscience. There has to be a democratic conscience.
However, we can’t change history. What can we do?
One western professor pointed out, “Well, Voranai, you seem to understand all of this, and you’re Thai.”
Therein lies the answer. We can’t change history. But we can learn from history. If I “understand all of this” (which I would never be presumptuous enough to claim “all” about anything) then I understand it through education.
I should be put in charge of Thailand’s education reform.