I was chatting idly with my maid the other day putting the world to rights as I sat drinking hot tea in vain attempt to shift a deeply unpleasant bronchial infection that had kept me off work.
Conversation circulated around the usual staples of children, her errant husband and international relations. After discussing the relative merits of our nations of birth she said ‘England is so big, Thailand is so small’ and smiled a knowing and rueful smile. This is the way of the universe, her shrug seemed to say, who are we to challenge such things?
But hang on, I thought, that can’t be right. It took me 10 hours to drive to Phuket. And it took my friends 8 hours to drive to Chiang Mai. Even discounting the terrible state of the roads, 18 hours of driving would suggest a huge distance. I mean, if you started at the most southerly point of the United Kingdom and drove due north for 18 hours you’d end up somewhere in the region of Jan Mayen island wondering how the hell your car stood up rolling and frigid waters of the North Sea (it didn’t, you drowned barely twenty meters from the northern coast of Scotland but I admired your spirit – we will never see your adventuring like again).
It turns out that Thailand is twice the size of Britain. I was about to mention this but by this point the maid was doing the ironing and I love an uncreased shirt more than I love proving how right I am.
However, I get the feeling she meant powerful more than size. The underdog in world affairs. Little Thailand, just smiling away and trying to avoid upsetting anyone. Unless they’re Cambodian.
Curiously the perception and the reality, as is often the case in the land of smiles, doesn’t really match.
Thailand is quite a large player in regional politics, it spends huge amounts on its military (which has increased in recent years) and despite the recent coup is seen as a key ally of the United States. It therefore seems somewhat incongruous that a nation could perceive itself so differently to how it actually is. How can it possibly be both powerful and weak? Large yet small? Friendly yet terrifyingly violent?
As always these self-perceptions of a nation are rooted in the past. And in the past, Thailand was the only nation in the South East Asian region that was not colonised by the dominant European powers in the area – the French and the British.
Thailand remaining uncolonised is a source of national pride and helps to fuel not just a sense of shared identity (Thailand is not the monoculture it appears to western eyes) but also a sense of superiority to her neighbouring nations. Ignoring the fact that huge swathes of the country were signed away in various treaties or that the British forced massively advantageous trade agreements – including exemption from Thai law for British citizens – backed up by the threat of force or any of the other concessions forced by European powers, Thailand never sacrificed its core sovereignty.
The image of plucky little Thailand, standing up to the combined might of both the British and French empires, deftly treading the diplomatic line, using force when needed, is best manifested in the unsubtle phallus of the Victory Monument – built to commemorate a Thai victory over French forces in a small war set against the wider conflict of WWII. It’s something of an embarrassment, a militaristic, western style monument to the defeat of western style militarism. But it remains a lasting legacy of Thailand’s independence.
And that spirt of independence influences how Thailand, as a nation, reacts to the wider global community. Be that in ignoring condemnation at a democratically elected government being overthrown, scoffing at calls to improve efforts to clamp down on human trafficking or shrugging shoulders at the extrajudicial killings of suspected drug smugglers.
When quizzed about these things, Thais generally resort to the default statement of ‘farang don’t understand, Thailand is different, Thailand is special‘.
We may feel the time and impact of colonisation has passed, but the shadow of empire casts a long shadow; one that affects many more nations than were coloured pink on Victorian maps.