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Thinking and Non-Thinking in Thailand

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On a recent trip to Hua Hin, a couple of hours south of Bangkok via the expressway, I was reminded yet again of how the road using skills are of so many people. Car, bus and pickup drivers, as well as motor cyclists and pedestrians, routinely ignore what appears to be rudimentary common sense in driving the wrong way down the road, reversing on to the highway without so much as checking the mirrors and generally acting as if no one could possibly affect them or be affected by their actions.

The truth is, of course, that the great majority of people do not receive the basic routine training that, in most western schools, is provided via schools and reinforced by government public service broadcasting. The result is that the number of accidents is hugely more than it needs to be, thereby ruining thousands of lives annually, not to mention the economic cost. So, now that we are in the pre-election season and the parties are setting out the policies that make up their flimsy and mostly ideology-free manifestos, why does no one ever mention road safety?

It is not just road safety but a whole range of issues that are, it seems, never discussed in the public sphere. Some of these areas are obvious and too dangerous to do more than mention even here (e.g. the role of the monarchy, who owns what exactly and should there be autonomy for the south) just in case someone is watching -- after all, Thailand under the military-backed Abhisit regime has become one of the most censored societies in the world. But in addition to these political issues, there are so many other mundane areas of life that are never addressed. For example, why is it that every version of a standard Thai dish has to be presented in exactly the same way without variation? Why should we think that unity is a good thing? Why should we respect the elderly above and beyond anything they might personally have achieved?

To some extent, it appears as if people have internalized the areas of public and political life that it is not permitted should be discussed as voids that can never be broached. It is difficult to cause most Thai people even to acknowledge that there are vast areas that cannot be discussed and even mildly probing this area causes a degree of discomfort. This is not accidental, obviously, since it is of great benefit to the ruling elites, who have successfully marked out huge areas of dissidence that can never be seriously considered. As George Orwell wrote in 1984, when people do not have a vocabulary to describe concepts, then they can never discuss or even envisage their nature. So it is here in Thailand: the likelihood of meaningful political change has been significantly reduced by the way in which people have become unwilling to acknowledge important subjects. Considerable efforts have been expended by the ideological state apparatuses that exist largely for this purpose. Internalizing the contradiction this entails for those who do wish to bring about political change can have a psychological cost. Of course, the state agencies make play of this by labeling political opponents or anyone who speaks out against the establishment as being "mentally unstable,' thereby bringing into play powerful East Asian taboos against mental problems of all sorts.

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John Walsh is Assistant Professor at Shinawatra University in Bangkok, where he lives with his wife and daughter. He has previously lived and worked in Sudan, Greece, Korea, Australia, Abu Dhabi and his native UK. He normally published academic (more...)
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