What is nationalism?
When we think about nationalism, we immediately associate both; negative and positive emotions with this terminology. Thinking of nationalism remembers me of people who sacrifice themselves for their country. I think of a society that acts in a loyal and devoting manner in order to serve its nation-state best. But does this automatically mean that nationalism is bad for a society? Can we only look at it from a negative point of view? When I think more thoroughly, I can actually also associate positive emotions, such as the feeling of unity to a specific group, which helps to make one feel part of something bigger, like a sense of belonging. It can encourage the pride in national achievements, and likewise make one feel rooted to a place.
Consider Thailand’s culture and society. Flags, national portraits, murals, and statues can be found anywhere you look at in Thailand which are primarily there to uphold the Thai identity. Thai people are well-known for their nationalism and they are stereotyped as promoting their country’s interests in attempt to maintain the country’s sovereignty. This is at least what the western world thinks of their culture, including me. But what are really the Thais opinions of nationalism within their country? And, more importantly, what are the consequences within their daily lives? These are some questions that I asked myself before diving more in depth into this subject matter. I am attempting to answer all questions throughout the blog and create a clearer picture on Thai nationalism.
When did Nationalism evolve?
First and foremost, we must look at the terminology and when it all started with nationalism. Nationalism evolved in Thailand with the presence of King Vajiravudh who was ruling from 1910 to 1925. He established the Thaification, which is a by-product of the nationalism nowadays, so people with different cultural backgrounds would become incorporated into Thailand’s main culture. This was the main idea behind Thaification, which first seems positive, but was rather meant in a badly manner. This is by reason of the coup leaders, who operated in line with the German nationalist and anti-democratic counterparts.
The governments tried to establish a central Thai culture’s kingdom-wide domination. With this in line 12 Thai cultural mandates, issued between 1939 and 1942, also known under the terminology of state decrees, were being enforced in both the heartlands and rural areas to support the Thai identity. Looking at for example the second mandate, which consists of multiple statements such as;
Thai people must not engage in any business without considering the benefit and safety of the nation, or
Thai people must never reveal anything to foreigners that might damage the nation. These actions are a betrayal of the nation.
one can see the harsh sense behind these mandates. They can be visualized as a symbol to “civilize” the Thai society and strictly bind them toward their nation-state. Considering this, it is likewise worth mentioning the country’s name “Siam” changed to Thailand during this stage, which can be traced back in mandate number one . Many changes occurred and have been enforced around the early 20th century, and Thai nationalism started to spread fast among the country and its people. Until today, a lot of impacts from the Thaification, or as we refer to “nationalism”, can be seen in Thai’s people daily life. In 1935 the country started to play the national anthem on a daily base in order to honour its majesty, the king. Every day, at 8am in the morning and 6pm at night, Thai people are asked to stand still, whether they are outside in the park, or inside doing businesses. Through loudspeakers the whole nation hears the anthem, must listen to it, and admire the king by showing respect and approval of his presence . The king is seen as the highest among all, who needs to be looked upon at all times, even though he has barely any legal rights. In fact, the current king, his majesty king Maha Vajiralongkorn is the richest king in the world and Thai people refer to him by saying “Prachao Yu Hua”, meaning “Lord above your head” . This clearly demonstrates how much value and courtesy the nation extends to him. Or, when looking at it from another point of view, it tells us how dominant the king must be.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn, known as King Rama X
Lèse majesté law
There is a Thai law, named “lèse majesté law” which entails article 112, a legal provision stating that anyone who criticizes, or assaults the monarch system, especially the king, or queen, shall be imprisoned from three to up to fifteen years. Article 112 in Thai law, in my opinion, accurately represents the monarchy, and by understanding what it says, each of us can form our own opinion on it. The royal family wields a significant amount of authority, and Thai people must be cautious while expressing their feelings, ideas, and opinions on specific cultural issues and topics.
Protests and demonstrations
Following up on this subject matter, Thailand’s streets have recently seen massive demonstrations and protests. This caught specifically my attention since I have seen several videos of young people protesting against the monarchy. I was then curious as to why the system is so disliked by the younger generation in particular, and to what extent I could connect it to the theme of nationalism. While doing research, I came across an article, publishing some quotes of protestors and activists, who are stating their position. One person said:
You tell us we should love our country, religion, and monarchy. We have very different ideas about what this means. The country is not its government. The country is its people. And I love my country, but I will love it on my own terms… Not because a power tells us what to think and who to love under fear of death and imprisonment .
This, in my opinion, sends a powerful message to the audience, and I suspect, after reading several articles, the younger generation, in particular, no longer wants to be told what to think or believe.
Let me summarize some more concerns of the youth. Firstly, they would like to remove the 12-Values indoctrination from the educational system, which is extremely nationalistic and serves as a guide for the ideal “Thai” behaviour and way of living. Further, the younger generation wants to ensure that the monarchy is being closely monitored within the political system, which has been used as a weapon of legitimacy for a long time, and they are arguing about reforming the monarchy overall. There is a huge dispute about the relationship with the monarchy and the military. Activists protest for an ending of military influence in politics and its government resignation. Although, above all, the right for equality seems extremely important for the nation!
Now, what can we say as a closing word after weighing down the pros and cons of nationalism and picturing the system’s impact on the Thai society? Will the Thais keep accepting the demanding tone of their leader, or do you think there is an end in sight of this type of rulership?
My personal thought about this, is that the elder generation, which accounts for a significant percentage among the Thai society, still supports the monarchy, and sees it as a long-standing tradition. I feel like, an increasing number of younger people will consistently try to resist the dictating tone, but I do not believe they will succeed in terms of ending the monarch system at all. Backing this up with some numbers and facts, a poll from 2007 to 2013 showed two third of the respondents are accepting misuse of power, and likewise the existence of the demanding tone if they benefit from it themselves. Therefore, nationalism in Thailand will continue to be present since another study revealed that people may also associate other national figures with nationalism. In fact, 37 percent of the society agreed to this statement, whereas Buddhism here for example, is widely respected as a sense of national belonging .
In regard to the very first question, concerning the impact of nationalism on Thai people’s daily life, I believe it is most important to highlight the monarchy’s role in this context. The concept behind playing the national anthem ever day and expecting from the society to stand still while listening to it, has an effect on each individual. The anthem serves as a silent reminder, specifically directed at Thailand’s society, who must appreciate and value their country’s pride and all it entails. With this being said, nationalism is a prevalent topic and certainly influences the society. Nationalism provides a feeling of belonging, tradition, and identity for especially the older generation, hence, looking at it from this point of view, nationalism can be seen as a beneficial tool. Adding up on beneficial tools, in todays globalized world, people have become more aware of the fact that nations might melt into one another. Nationalism aids the society to develop a stronger sense of identity in order to defend and protect their cultural patterns, beliefs, and traditions.
For the future, I believe and truly hope the Thai society will be able to gain and safeguard their nation’s freedom of speech and identity. With the support of young activists and protestors this should be achievable, so Thais will continue to honestly smile, to their hearts’ delight, simply because they feel home, in the Land of Smiles.