Opinion: How did we let Thailand become a country with no hope?

The concept of Gross National Happiness is well known, as a fun fact that has become a staple of introductory economics classes.

“Gross National Happiness,” the former king of Bhutan had once declared, “is more important than Gross Domestic Product.”

Whether there is any efficacy in using Bhutan’s idea of GNH to measure well-being in Thailand is a debatable proposition. Yet these days, I find myself wondering about a different sort of GNH than what the Bhutanese monarch had in mind — Gross National Hope. 

The phenomenon of Thais lacking hope is not new, of course, but it is undeniable that it has been felt more broadly and with a more remarkable intensity as of late. Those without a penchant towards endless doom-scrolling will have recently found social media as an intolerable source of constant gloom.

At this point, it’s almost redundant to recount the various ailments that may have caused this particular sense of hopelessness. Indeed, bad news arrives everyday with more and more dire implications.

But the past few weeks, with constant talk of infection, death, economic disaster and political incompetency, few seem willing to dwell on anything other than guilt and misery. Perhaps there may be light at the end of the tunnel, as the government’s vaccine plans takes shape, albeit months late.

But how much more will Thailand have to suffer through before we reach that point? 

And to add insult to injury, the recent ruling that Captain Thammanat Promphao, Thailand’s most famous flour seller, could continue in his position as a cabinet minister made an entire nation chuckle in both a weary sense of expectation and disbelief. The court may have been right on the technicality that his conviction had been handed down by a foreign judiciary — but as many legal scholars have argued, the spirit of the laws was certainly not defended, and Thailand now suffers the international embarrassment of having forced down a prime minister who hosted a cooking show but letting a convicted drug-dealer stay in office. 

I know. It’s hard to say much that’s hopeful about Thailand right now.

I usually try, but on this rainy day in May — and it’s been unseasonably stormy since April, although I’ll let someone more proficient at the art of fortune telling read whether it foreshadows anything for the nation — it’s simply hard to feel particularly positive.

We’ve managed to mess up one of the rare bright spots of the Prayut era — a successful public health response to the coronavirus. We’ve messed up the economy even more badly, and it wasn’t exactly great even before the pandemic started. We’ve also messed up the political system after seven years of “reform,” and if you don’t believe me, I point you two paragraphs backwards to Exhibit A: Captain Thammanat. 

Perhaps this general atmosphere of hopelessness is best encapsulated by the “Let’s Move Countries” Facebook group, where young Thais are exploring ways to move to somewhere with, well, more hope. Something is seriously wrong with a society where so much of its youth feel no sense of hope, whatever the reason may be. And while I disagree with that general sentiment — the only way to make something better is to fight for it, not to run away — I also disagree with the government, whose only response is to issue legal threats. 

Speaking of which: does the government have much hopeful to say right now, either? 

On some of America’s worst days, Joe Biden looks at you in the eye and says with a straight face that he’s never felt more optimistic about his country. You might not like Boris Johnson, but you can admire his singular mission in life to defy “the doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters.”

Meanwhile, on some of the darkest days of this premiership, instead of cheerleading the nation towards the difficult task that lies ahead, the Prayut government released a statement blaming the public for a mess they made. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in me, but in you, the people!  

Yet let us remember that this is a pre-pandemic phenomenon. One of the biggest failures of the Prayut government may be the fact that it never provided a vision of the country that people can believe in. Perhaps it was Thailand 4.0: a complex, bureaucratic vision that hardly permeated the national consciousness. Even that is seldom referenced now. Yes, officials are still obliged to pay lip-service to it. But why does the prime minister barely ever talk about it anymore? What, then, is his vision for the country?

Memories may now be hazy, but Thailand used to be a hopeful country. In the 1990s, it dreamed of becoming an Asian Tiger. Even in the 2000s, after the Asian Financial Crisis, it still radiated dynamism and potential. As recently as seven years ago, a certain ballad had promised that a “beautiful country” will soon return.

Now, if you ask someone if the country’s best days lie ahead, the answer would probably be: who knows? 

The toxic combination of an aging society and the middle income trap means we now stare down the daunting prospect of growing old before getting rich as a country. And instead of aspiring to stand with Japan or South Korea, Thai policymakers now spend their days wondering whether it’s a question of when, not if, Vietnam will surpass Thailand’s position as mainland Southeast Asia’s regional leader. 

Oh, but the government still hopes Thailand becomes a developed country by 2036. It’s a pretty sweet thought! But color me unsurprised if people don’t buy it, because they don’t have a reason to. Instead, we’ve come to the point where the nation’s governing philosophy seems to be Mao’s maxim that “all under heaven is in chaos; the situation is excellent.” Except, while we can all agree on the chaos, no one thinks the situation is excellent. 

In some ways, perhaps we all bear some fault for the malaise we find ourselves in. During this pandemic, we’ve seen irresponsible peddling of worst case scenarios by certain public figures and the media and an exaggerated and constant talking down of our country. And this, too, precedes the third wave. When Mike Rayong tweets, for example, that Thais pay Swiss-level taxes for beggar-level living standards, the only possible response is: seriously? 

But I digress. Above all, it is the duty of government to communicate a vision, a dream, that people can believe in. It is also their job to communicate a credible method to reach that dream.

And in that, they have failed. 

A silver lining, if one can call it that, is where the government’s successful response to the first wave of coronavirus disguised the faults in our politics and outdated bureaucracy, the third wave has revealed them in no uncertain terms. It has also shown, as clearly as it can be, how our national sense of hope has fallen to a record low.

It doesn’t matter where on the political spectrum you stand: it’s more evident than ever that there must be a national reckoning about the direction we are headed as a nation, that something must be done to shake the country out of the torpor it find itself in. That we must collectively find a way to restore vigor and hope to a society that has disillusioned its youngest. 

Haruki Murakami once said, “When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what the storm’s all about.” In the middle of this storm, one can only hope that nugget of wisdom applies equally to countries as it does to people. Thailand, after all, still has several strengths. As a perennial optimist, I still want to believe in the potential of this country. But we must do something to turn that desire into a real conviction: to make it possible to dream again. 

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