Opinion: A fragile moment in our national history

This year, Thailand was given a score of 70.9 in the latest Fragile States Index, a ranking that seeks to measure a state’s vulnerability to collapse. The score placed Thailand 82nd out of 178 countries — a middling score, one could say, and perhaps unworthy of much further discussion. How much worth, after all, can we place in a score that seeks to quantify something as nebulous as the risk of state collapse? 

A valid perspective, but one that may fail to consider that Thailand has in the past six years been on a constant downward trajectory in this ranking. Indeed, it would chime with many peoples’ sentiments that Thailand somehow has felt consistently ever-more fragile in the past couple of years. Analysts often discuss how ‘Teflon Thailand’ seems able to weather anything. Yet surely even the sturdiest of rocks begins to wear away with every thunderstorm to which it is exposed, and Thailand has certainly been through quite a few.

Now, we are facing what may feel like the heaviest of those storms. Daily caseloads of the coronavirus hardly imaginable even just a few months ago have led to a mounting death toll. The public health system, in which so many of us took pride, has found itself overwhelmed.

In a blog post last year, I had quoted a UC Berkeley history professor’s email at the start of the pandemic. It read: “The Baby Boom generation in the West…is an exceptional one, extraordinarily fortunate by any historical standard, and our own experience today is ultimately closer to the norm. In other words, we are joining countless past generations in a shared experience, which may not be enviable, but which is survivable and eminently human.” 

That was before over four million people around the world had lost their lives to the virus. A year and a half later, these words come to mind once again. Survivable, yes, although perhaps to a lesser degree than we had imagined; and eminently human, yes, in that it has truly taught us the realities of what being human entails: loss, impermanence, uncertainty. This regression to the mean in terms of our historical fortune may have simply been a matter of time, but that does not lessen the weight of our experience.

To be sure, what Thailand is going through is not new. We had watched these scenes play out in countless countries around the world last year, when we lived our lives mostly normally. Nor are we alone: the Delta variant has engulfed practically all of Southeast Asia, ripping through our neighbors Myanmar and Malaysia, overwhelming even a former success story like Vietnam. 

Yet I digress. What does it matter if these experiences are not unique? Does it lessen the sense of helplessness we feel? When doomscrolling on the couch at home is possibly the most patriotic act most of us are capable of at this moment in time, how can we not help but wonder at what has become of our world? When the country feels so fragile that any further shake feels like it could lead to irreversible disrepair, how can we not become gripped by despair?

Where, then, can we find hope in these troubled times?

To me, it is the fact that even when the state is fragile, the people, at least, are strong. It is the generosity and the spirit of the Thai people: well known in ordinary times, and especially prominent in extraordinary times. The belief in khon la mai khon la mue, which translates roughly as everyone doing our part. 

At this moment of despair in our history, the selflessness of so many have become visible. The frontline workers who work tirelessly to save lives. The volunteers who courageously risk themselves for the benefit of others. Those who lose sleep trying to find spare beds for the sick and those who spend day after day assisting vulnerable communities. The flip side of a human crisis is those other aspects of human nature: compassion and kindness.

I was surprised, recently, when with some fellow alumni friends, we quickly shattered goal after goal for a campaign of charitable giving. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been: is this not what happens every time Thailand is in crisis, after all?

It is often noted, of course, that charity is needed in the absence of effective government action. There has been a great deal of commentary on how the government has landed us in this pickle of a situation, and there will be more. There will also be more columns about what the government needs to do — and here I borrow this phrase shamelessly from a number of Western leaders — to build back better, after the pandemic. Thailand undeniably feels fragile, and the people alone will find it difficult to restore its strength without government leadership.

But that is a matter for another day. It is the courage and the selflessness of the Thai people that I want to celebrate. To say thank you to everyone who has done, are are doing, and will continue to do something to help Thailand through this crisis, to make this experience more bearable. 

In the midst of the Second World War, Nationalist China produced a number of characters to represent the country’s national struggle. One was given a name that translates as I fight fate.

Thailand may not be quite as Teflon as some of us would have wished. But at least, in this moment of great vulnerability, we still find some strength in our resilience, produced by our unending supplies of generosity and care about one another — qualities that an index on fragile states cannot capture. And it is with this resilience that we, too, fight fate.

I am reminded, at this juncture in time, of a speech by Queen Elizabeth II all the way back in April 2020. “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return. We will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.” 

This experience is survivable. It is eminently human. 

Fragile though our nation may be at this time, we will make it out. 

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