Conquering the enemy deep within

The rise and rise of malicious nationalism in Thailand in recent years is not a good sign.

Early last week, the young Thai singer Image tweeted "Thailand sucks" as she expressed her frustration at the long wait for a public bus in Bangkok. The result? Many ultra-nationalists rebuked her on social media even though delays in public transport are a common problem.

The reactions of these so-called patriots were extreme to say the least. One slammed her as "the betrayer of the nation". Another questioned her very existence: "Born Thai but no love for where you come from. So what were you born for?" Yet another said she was "privileged" to be born Thai: "If you're not happy ... just leave," it read.

As the debate rages online, some have tried to inject a bit of reason by admitting Thailand still faces many problems – which the ultra-nationalists choose to overlook -- but that it is nonetheless a great country.

In Thailand's colour-coded political conflicts pitting the yellow shirts against the red shirts, malicious nationalism plays its role. The former pride themselves on their "mission to save the nation" while rebuking rivals for "not loving" Thailand enough.

On July 26, the Appeal Court handed jail terms of eight months to six yellow-shirt leaders for trespassing on Government House during the height of their anti-Thaksin Shinawatra protests in 2008.

Some of their supporters cried foul on social media. "Why do those who saved the nation get jail terms?" asked one post. "I would rather see those who burned [buildings] and then ingratiated themselves with the nation pay for what they did," read another.

A heavy dose of schadenfreude was the order of the day for other yellow-shirt supporters as they gloated over red-shirt rivals who were killed, injured or abused during the 2010 crackdowns.

The internet has aggravated malicious nationalism, allowing strangers to trade their own versions of righteous behaviour and rebuke others for lacking a sense of patriotism.

Vengeful nationalism is not new. It has been whipped up throughout Thai history for "the sake of a strong nation", while its hidden agenda has been to maintain the status quo of the rulers and bureaucrats.

Enemies of the state have been defined and stereotyped: imperialists, communists, and more recently people who think differently from nationalists. In the past, ethnic-Chinese were also targeted for undermining Thais, partly because of their wealth.

In the first half of the last century, the administration of Field Marshal Plaek Phibulsonggram promoted nationalism through state-controlled media and education.

Siam was later renamed Thailand, meaning "the land of the free". But all Thai students have been required to sing the national anthem and salute the Thai flag before class every morning.

In class, the students are also obliged to speak the central Thai dialect despite the cultural and linguistic diversity of the nation.

Evidently, the 1957 military coup led by Field Marshal Sarit Thanarath whipped up a strong sense of nationalism. Communists were targeted as enemies of the state as Sarit adopted the anti-communist policy of the US.

Military regimes often drum up nationalistic support by suppressing free speech and resorting to propaganda -- and Thailand is no different.

In the past decade, nationalism has emerged with different themes -- equal rights and democracy; peace and security; more recently, royal-nationalism.

No matter what definition is used, this kind of tainted nationalism will lead to deeper political divisions, not a "stronger" nation.

This is the kind of nationalism that blames others for not loving the nation enough.

A kind of nationalism that demands the rural poor hand over land they have lived on for generations to the state for development.

A kind of nationalism that calls for transparency in state expenditure, but condemns the use of tax money to promote equality through social welfare schemes.

A kind of nationalism engrossed in the glory of independent Siam that can't tolerate opposing views.

I believe we all want to see Thailand improve its social welfare, public transport, protection of human rights and democracy.

The haters will only instil conflict and lead us nowhere. To march forward, we must first conquer the enemy within ourselves.

Paritta Wangkiat is a reporter, Bangkok Post.

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