Glad Thaidings from the Land Of Smiles

An economic downturn with no end in sight, soaring unemployment and business failures, growing poverty, political chaos and social unrest? Just one or two of these is more than enough to guarantee an explosion of gloom and doom in the West...

timber yard reduced to ashes in Bourg Saint Maurice France - click to see full-size pic(Click to see full-size pic)... Watching this fire rage out of control last week led me to thinking how illusory human control of events, the permanence of prosperity, can be. A quiet crowd of people looked on as the fire ravaged a timber yard, reducing it to ashes.

... So what happens in Thailand when times are tough? The exact opposite according to the Assumption University's annual research into the Thai people's 'Gross Domestic Happiness', as we head into 2009. Despite a recent history including a military coup, huge disruption to tourism with the airport occupations, a tsunami that killed more than 10,000, demonstrations ending in violence and deaths, increasing economic difficulties, the Thais remain relatively optimistic in the face of adversity. The countrywide survey of over 4,000 people showed a climb in 'GDH' to a coefficient of 6.81 points from 6.55 in 2007 (out of a possible 10).

Not that Thailand figured particularly high in the world's happiness league table last year, according to the much-quoted 2007 White study "A Global Projection of Subjective Well-Being"... but the interesting fact is that while contentedness with one's lot has plummeted in the West over the past year, in cultures less oriented towards the accumulation of wealth their peoples are apparently considerably more stoical about a potential increase in hardship.

Moving on to the political arena, today's Bangkok Post international online poll suggested that respondents are overwhelmingly behind the redshirt UDD (National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship) movement.

Current returns (10,000+ votes so far, closing date Jan 5th):

"Do you agree with the red-shirt protest against the new government?"

  • 27% - No, give the government some time
  • 51% - Yes, I agree with the red-shirted people
  • 1% - Not sure. This is not really my concern
  • 6% - No, the Democrats are good to lead
  • 15% - Yes, the Democrats are not good to lead
Redshirt UDD protesters gather in Chiang Mai - click to see full-size photoThe huge poster behind the speakers says "We Love Democracy"... (click to see full-size photo).

With the UDD protesters on the march today in an attempt to prevent the Democratic coalition from making its policy statement on Monday, events this week will be a crunch indicator of the strength of the movement. Thaksin's influence seems to be seriously on the wane (his fortune allegedly shrinking to well under a 'mere' 1$billion according to certain press claims this week... frozen assets, plus his investments taking a clobbering in the current economic climate...) So how effective can a disjointed and underfinanced movement be, irrespective of its extensive grassroots backing, in a country such as Thailand? The powerful interest groups massed against the UDD are very aware of the Thai people's conflict-avoidance mentality, combined with a determinedly fatalistic outlook, and no doubt are counting on these factors to ram home the advantage gained via what some observers have described as their 'stooge' PAD movement over the past year - aimed towards a backdoor erosion of democratic rights in Thailand.

So despite all the indications that the contradictions and conflicts within Thai society are far from resolved, despite the economic turmoil, the Thais keep on smiling. Does this reflect naive optimism? Do they know something we don't? Do they measure happiness by less materialistic criteria? If the latter, they are certainly better equipped to survive the global economic malady that confronts us for at least the immediate future. In an unprecedented situation, where the world financial system has caught a massive cold, and as yet no therapy is proving effective, few pundits are prepared to stick their necks out and predict the depth and durability of the recession. But the Thais are happier. Why worry about those things one cannot change...

Mont Blanc peak - click to see full-size photoThe Mont Blanc - click to see full-size photo

A reminder of the illusion of control of man's environment yesterday, standing on a 3000m snowy peak on the French/Italian border, looking across to the Mont Blanc at close to 5,000 metres. Hardly the roof of the world, but those familiar with the extreme conditions, it's close enough to feel more than a little vulnerable and, somehow insignificant. Perhaps Thai fatalism and equanimity better equips them to deal with the ups and downs life can throw our way...

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Mike said...

Good article Pete.

However I can't help but think that sometimes the Thais seem to stick their collective heads in the sand. Often appearing not to address issues that are of public concern.

As I come to understand Thailand a little more I cannot help but think that a lot of the optimism is born out of ignorance (of true facts)and class differences.

I will be an interested spectator as we sail further into the economic down turn. Which in my opinion must eventually come home to roost even in LOS.

Lloyd said...

I think there is a large percentage of blissful ignorance, people simply do not know or understand the depth of the problems some economies are facing and how it will effect everyone.

That said, I am happily looking forward to finishing work in the UK and a future in Asia without a hint of concern for my future, some things you cannot change, or let change you!

hoo Don said...

Pete up here in Udon I think the common person does really care about their country, but with no money and very little hope what can they do. They put money each month into the "unofficial" lottery hoping to maybe win 5000 baht, Udon Thani, Thaksin country, the big district man who runs the lottery racket, he's PAD. What can they do, without hope they have nothing.

Britinbangkok said...

Oh god, please don't report the Bangkok Post poll - it's a joke. I myself voted in it 35 times, one after another. There's no way 58% of Thailand (or BKK Post readers) support these red-shirted idiots.

I don't know a single Thai that supports them. Everyone I know wants them to at least give Abhisit a chance to govern. But at least the red shirts don't have the support PAD did. They already got out smarted today, so don't think they'll manage what PAD did, thank God.

Happy new year by the way :-) Sorry to hear you're going to miss all the fun over here :-)

The FrogBlogger said...

Mike, Lloyd, there's bound to be some ignorance, but I'm not sure that it's any greater than that of the average British EastEnders watcher ;-) As for recession (technically two successive quarters of 'negative growth'), it's forecast as early as the end of the first quarter of 2009 in Thailand (by Thailand's Ministry of Finance), so you've not long to wait Mike.

HD, you're right, it's not easy to spend time and energy demonstrating if you're worried about where your next meal is coming from.

BiB, tried to do that myself after seeing a similar comment after the article, but from a fixed IP it didn't seem possible. However I would bet that a majority of BP readers (international) are more in favour of the redshirts than PAD - that's certainly the sentiment across virtually all the articles in the international press I have read, roundly condemning the PAD movement and the aims of its shadowy backers.

Out of interest - why do you describe them (UDD redshirts) as idiots?

Happy New Year!

Alice said...

Hi Pete

Just a comment re BiB comment - living in Chiang Mai, I know quite a few people who support the "red shirts" and for them it's not just about supporting Mr Taksin anymore, but they genuinely feel that they are fighting for their democratic rights.

On a lighter note (and a bit of food for thought), my 9 year old cousin thought Santa wouldn't be coming to Thailand this Christmas - when asked why, he said because Santa wears red!

Anyway, Happy New Year to you and your family! : )

Britinbangkok said...

Pete, I'm at the point now where I think both sides are idiots. :-)

Nothing against the red shirts and, yes, if I had a choice I would support them over the PAD who are foul, but I think it gets to a point where you just have to play the hand you're dealt and get on with it and try to get the country back on an even keel. Thailand has been so badly damaged by the PAD that it's going to take it years to recover. These on-going demonstrations by the reds are only going to prolong the agony.

And I do genuinely like Abhisit (don't like how he came to power though). I think he could be an excellent PM if given the chance, unfortunately, again, he may not get that chance and that would be a shame for all of Thailand, poor and rich alike.