The increasing frequency of terrorist attacks by Islamists in Thailand gets very little play in the US media. Commentator Barry Rubin describes some of the reasons why the rational, pragmatic Thais have difficulty understanding the Middle Eastern mindset that gives rise to the phenomenon.
Reading the Middle East in Bangkok
By Barry Rubin
A fascinating way to try to improve one’s own understanding of the Middle East is to try to explain the region to people from a totally different culture and history. I’ve done this in several far-flung places around the world but Thailand provides a particularly interesting example of the particularity and–in global terms–bizarre nature of the Middle East.
Of course, many people in Asia have the fewest preconceptions about the region because Hindus and Buddhists do not have the links to the Holy Land or what might even be called the Holy Region, a factor which so affects Christian, Jewish, and Muslim thinking.
While there are certainly some strategic interests in the area, they also tend to be less than in many other places. There are certainly economic links, notably the flow of tens of thousands of workers to the area and the dependence on energy from the region. On the former issue, many of the workers go to the Persian Gulf where low pay by local standards brings relatively large savings when brought back home. Even in Israel alone there are an estimated 30,000 Thai laborers. As for oil and natural gas, China’s modernization effort, to cite one example, is largely dependent on Middle Eastern energy imports.
Then there is another Middle Eastern export: terrorism and radical Islamism. At first glance, it is surprising this has become a major problem in Thailand. But the country’s Muslim population is 10 percent, mostly concentrated in the far south. To compound the issue, there is an ethnic distinction involved, as well. Ethnic Thais are about 70 percent of the population, while the Muslims are Malays, the same community as the one dominating neighboring Malaysia.
In recent years, Thailand has played unwilling host to what is probably the most mysterious Islamist terrorist movement in the world. There is no group, no apparent leadership, no demands, and no clear evidence of external support. Yet Buddhists in the south are being murdered on a regular basis in particularly gruesome ways, including workers at rubber plantations, peddlers bicycling down lonely roads, and students walking to school.
The death toll is already between 2000 and 2500 and the situation has gotten so bad that Buddhists are starting to leave the area, presumably one of the terrorists’ main goals. There have been a few terrorist attacks even in Bangkok, the capital where 20 percent of the country’s 68 million people live.
The army rules Thailand in a military junta and plans are just starting for a return to civilian rule. Yet this is by no means a repressive or militaristic system. Everything is done in the name of the king, who this year is celebrating both his eightieth birthday and his sixtieth year on the throne. This military wants to avoid any impression that it is “occupying” the south and so is going very cautiously in dealing with the problem. It is not yet considered to be a war but that time may come in time.
What are some of the characteristics of Thailand that makes it so difficult for its leaders and intellectuals to understand the Middle East? They are actually virtues, though some might open them up to suffering as a result. One is the clear sense of pragmatism that animates the country.
While the country has many problems and real poverty it has also made remarkable progress. Moreover, it has a good record of solving internal disputes and avoiding problems with neighbors. For Thais, it could not be more obvious that problems should be examined in practical, logical terms in order to find solutions without resort to fanaticism or ideology. How could people choose to flatten their own countries?
Several Asian countries have achieved outstanding successes in moving toward democracy and raising living standards by hard work and a willingness to make changes. In almost every positive category of social and economic statistics, Asia is ahead of the Middle East. To comprehend that pragmatism is rejected by most of the Middle East, in terms of governments and movements, intellectuals and institutions, simply does not seem to make sense to Asians.
Second, is an open-handed acceptance of Westernization, modernization, and globalization. Thais have long accepted the idea that they can learn a lot from the West and import ideas and cultural items without fear of destruction. Again, there are real problems–the most famous one being the sex industry–yet there is no one who doubts that this is the proper path.
One is left with the startling conclusion that the many of the biggest defenders of Western civilization today are found in Africa and Asia. These are people who having experienced or seen at close-hand war, poverty, and oppression believe they have found a way to achieve something better. Again, this is an approach far different from what is seen in the Middle East, much to the latter’s detriment.
Third, alongside this Western-oriented approach is a strong sense regarding the security of their identity. Listening to classical music, reading Shakespeare, or wearing Western clothes do not make them frightened of ceasing to be Thai. The clearest example of this phenomenon is Japan, though South Korea, the Philippines, and even China are also case studies of the ability to mix one’s own culture, system, or ideas with those of the West with great gain. This is quite different from the Arabic-speaking and Muslim-majority world.
On more than one occasion, Arab friends have told me about discussions they have had with people in China or Japan. One conversation went like this:
“Having been the victims of Western imperialism,” a Chinese official was asked, “for so many years how do you feel about this?”
“We got over it and moved on with our lives,” was the response. There is a lot of wisdom in the Asian approach on these matters. In some ways, they are very lucky that they don’t understand the Middle East.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs, and author of the recently published The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan).