No one knows who put a bomb on a Thai Airways jet scheduled to carry Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to Chiang Mai, but respected media outlets such as the Matichon newspaper and the Bangkok Post have hinted that the bombing may have something to do with drugs from Myanmar.
“Unfortunately it’s to be expected,” sighs Sunait Chutintaranond, a Burmese-speaking Thai scholar who notes that the initial U.S. media reaction to the Oklahoma City bombing also involved finger-pointing based on unfair ethnic stereotypes. Sunait, an advocate of friendship and understanding between the two nations, is worried about the tendency to blame Myanmar for everything that goes wrong in Thailand from petty crime to terrorism. Director of the Thai Studies Center at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, Sunait, educated at Cornell University, is the author of “On Both Sides of the Tenasserim Range” and “The Image of the Burmese Enemy in Thai Perceptions and Historical Writings.”
“During the Cold War, ‘communist’ was the catch-all term for evil,” explains Sunait. “It was a way of labeling the enemy, assigning blame and creating a pretext for a certain kind of policy. Nowadays, the buzzword is drugs. The nuance of the Thai term ‘ka buan kan ya sep dit’ (narco-terrorism) is important; it goes beyond illegal substances and points to an organized criminal force.”
The origin in Myanmar of the drugs crippling contemporary Thai society adds fuel to the fire, given the “dormant historical enmity” between the Thais and Burmese. While the current border troubles are primarily about domestic politics in Myanmar — there is a brutal power struggle between Yangon and restive minorities that is being played out on the border — there is the danger that Thais will misconstrue the slightest spillover as a deliberate provocation and attack on Thai sovereignty.
Last year, Sunait organized a joint Thai-Burmese conference at Chulalongkorn’s Faculty of the Arts to discuss the mythologies of Thai history and the demonization of Myanmar. He marvels at how little anti-Thai sentiment can be found in Burmese popular culture. “Thailand is never mentioned as an enemy,” which is a stark contrast to the heavy dose of anti-Myanmar sentiment in Thai textbooks, films and media reports. Two current big budget films, “Bangrajan” and “Queen Suriyothai,” pit heroic Thais against villainous Burmese, while Myanmar’s celluloid epics, such as “Never Shall We be Enslaved” tend to be about fighting the British since nationalism there was shaped in a colonial context.
How did Myanmar get to be the bogeyman? “Laos is too small, China is too far, Cambodia is ‘ungrateful’ but not threatening, and conflicts with Vietnam, with no shared border, usually focus on Cambodia.” Thailand constructed its national myth with Myanmar as the archetypal other, dating back to the Burmese sacking of Ayutthaya in 1767.
The frail state of the Thai economy is cause for further worry. Many Thais share the perception they were beaten up and humiliated by the International Monetary Fund and powerful bankers, which has fueled nationalist sentiment of the sort that kept George Soros from showing up for a scheduled speech at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok last month.
“The information Thai people get about Burma comes from two main sources, the military and the merchants. Not surprisingly, the military paints Burma more darkly and wants the border sealed, whereas those interested in trade and tourism want an open border. Newspapers reflect this split rather evenly, but television, being more conservative, tends to offer short and sensational reports of border trouble,” said Sunait.
The Thai Army, preoccupied with security and sovereignty (not to mention funding), has its own reasons for playing up the apparent threat. Yet Thaksin’s new defense minister, Gen. Chavalit, enjoys good personal relations with power brokers in Yangon, so the dynamic might change slightly, with some military elites shifting to favor engagement and trade with Yangon, while other elements of the military and parliamentary opposition continue to argue for sanctions.
“Most of Thailand’s current troubles have nothing to do with Burma at all,” said Sunait. “But Burma is the most convenient enemy.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.