The Buddha: "All is burning..."
So, the fighting is all but over here in Thailand, at least for now. The recent protests by the Red Shirts has not only left the country with damaged buildings, a damaged economy, and damaged (as well as dead) people, but also the gaping wounds of a divided nation are exposed for all to see. For, despite some people's narrow focus on issues such as the challenged legitimacy of the current government and the Red's desire to see former prime minister Taksin Shinawatra back in power, there are deeper, much more destructive problems lingering in this country.
Here in Ubon Ratchathani, a city in the Red's heartland of Northeastern Thailand, the rioting seen in the capital Bangkok was replicated, albeit on a smaller scale.The local city hall - as with similar buildings across Northern and Northeastern Thailand - was set alight by protesters and subsequently gutted. Early reports last night were claiming that two people had been shot dead in Ubon, but as yet I've been unable to verify this information. Earlier in the week, a drive-by shooting took place at a branch of Bangkok Bank (which has connections to a senior government official) and spent cartridges from an AK-47 assault rifle were found at the scene. Thankfully, nobody was hurt. For pictures and a report of the damage done here in Ubon on Wednesday, please read the following report by my friend Jason at Isaan Style!
As hinted above, there are underlying grievances that lie at the heart of the protests and violence that have occurred in Thailand over the past few months. These grievances are not so recent in their origins, however, and will therefore be difficult to identify and deal with by Thai society. The Red Shirts mainly consist of poorer people from the North and Northeast of Thailand, where the majority of the population are subsistence farmers. In the case of the Northeast, where most people are ethnic Lao, not Thai, central Thais and ethnic Chinese (Sino-Thais) often look down at them, seeing them as provincial and uneducated country bumpkins. The wealth of Thailand is concentrated geographically in Bangkok and central Thailand, and ethnically it is concentrated in the central Thai and Sino-Thai communities. And, recent estimates suggest that the gap between the rich elite and the poor is widening.
Usually, there is a Bangkok bias in the national news outlets - all based in the capital - which either focus on issues specifically pertaining to the city, or look at wider national issues from the Bangkokian perspective. The provinces are clearly not seen as important by the Thai media, reflected in this attitude. As to the faces that appear in the Thai media, most newscasters and reporters have Chinese features, most distinct from native Thais, and national politicians too usually have Chinese features. Most actors, pop stars, and business moguls also come from ethnically Chinese backgrounds. Go into any gold shop in Thailand, and the owners will usually be of Chinese origin (or predominately Chinese origin, as there is a small degree of intermarriage between native Thais and Chinese). Ethnic Chinese make up roughly 14% of the Thai population compared with the 34% that are North-easterners.
Such ethnic, political, and economic disparities between the various regions and social groups of Thailand creates social unrest, a sense of injustice where Bangkokians and ethnic Chinese are richer, more powerful, and somewhat arrogant in their treatment of those less well off. Seen from this perspective, the frustration and protests of the Red Shirts can be viewed with some sympathy, and the position of the economic and ruling elite as untenable in the long run. Unfortunately, human nature is based on greed, hatred, and delusion, so those people who are more privileged wish to cling to their advantages, whilst those struggling to make ends meet desire to emulate their richer rivals. This, of course, is not a unique situation in Thailand, but right now this country is bleeding from its societal splits, and no doubt such conflict will erupt again in the future if these ills are not treated.
"Monks, all is burning. Burning with what?...Burning with the fire of greed, burning with the fire of hatred, burning with the fire of delusion." (The Buddha, in 'The Fire Sermon')
From the Buddhist point of view, how are we to respond to this situation? Well, at the risk of sounding overly simplistic, it comes down to those two old qualities of wisdom and compassion. Whatever we do, whether we live in Thailand or not, as Buddhists we can endeavor to come from a position of mindfulness; mindful of the way things are, not only in the mundane sense of the term, but also in the ultimate sense. From the mundane, worldly point of view, we can be alive to the issues written about above that have driven so many Thai people to desperate acts, whilst at a deeper level we cam remain aware of the basic characteristics of our minds that fuel both positive and negative behavior. At a even more fundamental level, we can simply be aware of the spaciousness that is home to all the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that arise in our consciousness. In such a state of openness, both wisdom and compassion have space to grow and be expressed.
Rather than simply reacting to the problems that Thailand faces from our preconceived ideas and biases, we can get back to (Buddhist) basics, and be aware of that in which all this sense data and emotional responses arise. This naked knowing is a place of peace, a sanctuary amidst the turmoil of the conditioned world. If we can approach the challenges that Thailand has from this serene perspective, we have a greater chance of benefiting both ourselves and Thai society. Rather than reacting from opinion and declaring how terrible this group is, or how wonderful that person is, we can see things in the clarity of this 'Buddha Space' that lies at the heart of our being. Doing this, we are less likely to exasperate the situation, being a calming influence rather than adding fuel to the already rampaging flames burning through Thai society.
Thailand has (or had) an international image of being a kind of paradise on earth; this is clearly not so. Dig beneath the surface of those inscrutable smiles and you find a people barely suppressing their greed and hatred of each other. Greed and hatred are always accompanied by delusion, however, and here we have the key to the situation. The delusion of being a separate self, whether as a rich Chinese defending one's wealth or a poor Lao grasping after another's, is the cause of our suffering. On the worldly level, yes, we are these humans we take ourselves to be, full of loves and hates, but on the level of psychological transcendence, we are pure awareness, awake to the conditioned world and yet beyond its grasp. Living from this knowledge, we are able to liberate ourselves and others from the prison that is the ego. May all beings be Happy!