Opinion: It is patriotic to question Thailand’s myths and institutions

When I was growing up, my mother used to chide me for questioning the state narrative in Thailand or questioning the mythologies of the Buddhist religion. Whenever I wanted to point out flaws or logical inconsistencies within the national “story”, she would say “why bring it up? It will only make us look bad to the foreigners.”

This attitude is not unique to Thailand, many countries around the world preach a degree of zealotry towards the national myth in order to create a sense of patriotism or at least a homogenized state.

Take for example the American devotion to their servicemen and women. Serving in the armed forces guarantees you a degree of thanks and appreciation wherever you go. This is a recent phenomenon, think of the way Vietnam War veterans were treated, but one that has become widespread and commonplace throughout the United States. If one were to question someone’s service, or the mission of the armed forces, accusations of treachery or a lack of patriotism can be expected.

But I would say that Thailand is unique in the way the zealots defend the national mythology.

Rather than fulling buying into the creation myths that prop up our glass kingdom, most Thais know that there are severe flaws in our taught history, in our system of governance, in the way authorities abuse their power, in the corruption prevalent in our society. But the zealots defend these myths and pretend the country is perfect anyway because they do not want to “embarrass” Thailand to the outsiders.

Maybe this has its roots in the quest to be “civilized” that was undertaken with such importance by our forebears. Remember that in our quest to not be colonized by competing European powers, our ancestors traded in a lot of our culture to become more civilized and less ‘primitive.’

Perhaps the cultural and social heritage of our quest for civilization is the feeling of necessity among our older generations to prop up the flaws of Thai society by ignoring it or pretending they are qualities. Anything to not embarrass ourselves before the Europeans.

But the time for such ignorance is over. Patriotism no longer requires servility or national pliability but dissent. The flaws which we have papered over and hidden for so long now threaten our development as a nation.

We should no longer ignore our flaws because our flaws have become our biggest handicap. Perhaps it is time to endure a little national embarrassment in order to address our shortcomings and move on.

Our historical leaders made one big mistake when they decided to model our society after western powers. Europe and America did progress faster than the orient because of the way their society is structured. But it wasn’t through blind patriotism that their progress was gained but because they had a society that allows dissent, that values differing voices, and that doesn’t always accept orthodoxy as a permanent value.

So if your parent or your elders ever ask you “why bring it up? It will only embarrass the country,” tell them you’re bringing up the issues that you are because you want our country to no longer be an embarrassment.

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