Friday, May 21, 2010

Buddhist Thailand Burns

 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!


Buddhist_philosopher said...

Wishing you and your family peace and safety, Gary.

G said...

Thanks, Justin. We're fine. Hopefully, Thailand can start a process of genuine reconciliation now.

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Glad to hear it. In the risk of pushing you into overly political territory, what do you think reconciliation would mean exactly?

I met a woman here of late who noted that there is worry about how influential the royalty might be now, given that the king did/said nothing (or nothing of consequence, it seems) in the midst of this civil strife. Could he have done anything? Should he have?

And I have another contact in Thailand who laments that the Yellow Shirts show greater support for the Buddhist hierarchy (major monasteries and universities) than the Red Shirts, even though the latter represent a more egalitarian - and thus 'truly' Buddhist (!) - perspective.

Where are the nation's major religious leaders in this? And is their apparent absence tied to that of the king? My respects and apologies if these are sensitive questions, but my desire to dig deeper demands them.

G said...

No apologies required, Justin - I'm sure I'm up to the task of answering them, that's all!

Reconciliation would mean, in the Thai context, a reaffirmation of what it is to be Thai, which is, in effect, one big family. Influenced in part by Buddhism, the Thai ideal is to be friendly, forgiving, but not necessarily forthright in one's interactions with others. Whilst the first two qualities are pretty self-explanatory, the third may need elucidation. Thais are very reluctant to speak the truth when it is potentially upsetting or damaging to someone's 'face' (reputation). This seems to be an adaption of Buddhist teachings on right speech, using words that are kindly and unoffensive. Unfortunately, this can lead to problems and differences being brushed under the carpet: and sometimes these problems burst to the surface, with devastating consequences! So, friendliness and forgiveness will help in the short term reconciliation of Thai society, but in the long run, forthrightness will surely be needed too, so that the underlying causes of recent events are recognized and dealt with.

The King is a highly revered figure in Thailand - many/most Thais are probably monarchists first, Thais second, and Buddhists third. (Although in the popular Thai consciousness, these three are completely intertwined.) the King has intervened in politics previously to call for reconciliation, but this time dis not. He is an old, ill man, so perhaps he didn't get involved because he couldn't - but due to the 'mystique' (secrecy) around the Thai monarchy, who knows? If he had asked for a cessation of conflict, it almost certainly would have happened, so it is a mystery why he remained silent.

As to yellow shirts and red shirts, I'm more of a no-shirt! Taking sides in a situation like this doesn't help in the long term nor the short. Reconciliation involves working together, understanding each others' viewpoints and acting out of compassion and wisdom. So what of the 'saffron shirts'?

The monkhood in Thailand has, certainly in modern times, been apolitical, unlike in Sri Lanka. This is in accord with the teachings and rules regarding the Sangha's relationship to wider society found in the Pali Canon. As the most prominent and powerful religious leaders in Thailand are members of the Sangha, it is unsurprising that they have remained aloof to the protests, counter-protests and general political shenanigans going on in this beautiful country.

There is a lot of work to reconcile the disparate political and social groups in Thailand. Lasting peace can only come with a degree of sacrifice on the part of these groups. The rich and powerful elite cannot continue to ignore (or is that trample all over) the concerns of the less fortunate members of Thai society. On the other hand, those not born into riches or without the connections and ruthlessness to make to the top must accept that they will never have complete economic parity with the elite. Political and social equality are another kettle of fish, however, and this is where the upper strata of Thai society can compromise - accept the democratic will of the majority of Thai citizenship (who are made up mainly by farmers, unskilled workers, and the poor in general.)

If the Thai nation is to retain that lovely familial feel that it has nurtured for centuries, then it must behave like a loving family, and not sibling rivals trying to defeat each other in the battle for their inheritance. Otherwise, all they will inherit will be even more bloody and destructive conflict.

madsolitaire said...

Your post also brings to mind the possibility of bringing justice through peaceful means. Of course I am reminded of Martin Luther King Jr and the wise words of the present HH Dalai Lama. When i read the papers or follow the news on television, i am sorry and deeply saddened by the unnecessary loss of lives and injuries.

G said...

Yes, Solitaire, the inspirational words of Martin Luther King and the Dalai Lama are well worth remembering on matters such as these. Let's hope that compassion and wisdom will increase not only in Thailand but around the globe, encouraging people to live in peace with each other and the universe in which we live, Solitaire.

Anonymous said...

Please Be well and safe G . How are things in Thailand now?

G said...

Thanks for the good wishes, Yan. Things are calm again here in Thailand - for the time being. All things are impermanent, however...