LOS ANGELES — Until recently (before all the rioting, violence and assassination plotting) Thailand would not have appeared to be a deeply troubled society. Generally speaking, Thais were, as endlessly advertised, scintillatingly smiley, and the country as a whole — vast rolling expanses of poverty notwithstanding — nothing less than a lush landscape of warmth and love — and fabulous food.

But on the evidence of the recent political traumas, you now have to believe there’s something seriously wrong in the paradise kingdom that was once called Siam.

It has been said lately that the aging monarchy is at fault: It is the horse-and-buggy authority relic in an age of modernization and globalization that’s holding everyone back.

Then, it is also said that it is the common folk of the vast rural areas who are at fault — uneducated, unrealistic, unproductive: a dead weight on national achievement.

And then it is said that it is the ultra-ambitious urban elites that are to blame — for they are so toxically dismissive of the “lesser folk” that, in fact, they are closet authoritarians (and so enter the army, reflecting the views of the king and the elites) that seek to repress commoners.

However culpability is assessed, the bottom line is that Thailand is not working nearly as well as it should — and all honest, introspective, caring Thais know it. So what is the problem?

No national community can stand if it is divided against itself. If the urban elites feel so superior to the rural poor, then community gives way to hegemony and the political ethic is one of master versus slave. If the rural poor see that they are disrespected by those who feel superior, then they know the system is tilted against them and fairness is impossible to achieve. With that lack of acceptance, they no longer buy in, but want out.

The general issue at stake in such a society was outlined years ago by a legendary American philosopher who, as far as I know, had never been to Thailand (his loss). But his understanding of the way egotism eats at the concept of community, the way that a sense of superiority undermines a sense of fairness, was profound — and relevant.

The late John Rawls, chairman of the Department of Philosophy at Harvard University for many years, offered the world a monumental and inclusive theory of justice that emphasized the necessity of inclusive decision-making among all parties, poor to rich, so as to build a society in which all had a stake at preserving, improving and honoring.

Central to his conception (which many philosophical peers regard as a milestone in Western philosophical thinking) was the continuing need for equal respect for all persons as distinct and separate individuals. A taxi driver might be a member of the lower economic class, but in a just society the level of his acceptance would be the same as that of a university professor or a business executive.

The enemy of society was thus the sin of personal, exclusive pride, expressed in the insistence that “they” treat “us” as their superiors. In a sinful relationship of “quality people” versus “common people,” evil civic behaviors surface as selfish, egotistic sharks that only make public waters unsafe for everyone else.

To quote the late Rawls directly: “It is the sin of one group which seeks to dominate another group that gives rise to the fear of communal dependence; but in (a true) community as such, and in the heavenly community (that we need to create on earth), we have no such fear.”

The evil that lies beneath the surface of the land of the smiles, therefore, is the fear that Thailand is not one community but a house divided — worse yet, one house in a rich upscale community that seeks to tower, morally and politically, over the ramshackle huts in the banished lands.

The core of the Thai malaise is thus the repudiation of the idea of the unitary community in a presumptive democracy. Human and humane relationships become disfigured as elite egotists treat themselves as if they were of royal blood, and regard all others as worthy of no more than far-off worship or closely monitored economic slaves.

It is Thailand’s urban preening class that must come to terms with the urgent need to help engineer a modern polity that works for all, not just for them. How precisely that is done is up to the Thais. But if it is not done, then you can say goodbye, for a good long time, to the Thailand that once was known as the land of the smiles.

Veteran journalism Tom Plate, a former university professor and author of “Confessions of an American Media Man,” is writing two books on Asia. © 2009 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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