MANY Filipinos have an affinity for Thailand, regarding it as a country as beautiful as ours, its people as friendly and the food – no matter how spicy – just as rice-based (e.g. pla muek phat phrik phao!). Of course, from the Thai script alone, there is no mistaking our two countries but the common imprints of globalisation, shared climate and similar features of our peoples give off a sense of familiarity that one does not feel in most other global cities.
Indeed, when you encounter a mango vendor in the streets of Bangkok as you walk down from an MRT or BTS station, you can be forgiven for momentarily thinking you’re in Manila.
I first visited Thailand as a college student in 2006, when I was asked to chaperone my younger cousins Hannah and Elise.
While Ayutthaya’s temples reminded me of Thailand’s long history and deep, Buddhist-influenced culture, Siam Square reminded me of the transformations taking place in the kingdom. Especially since Bangkok has become a regional hub for many international organisations – the role that Manila once played – my visits have become more frequent over the past few years, and I’m glad I managed to visit Khao Yai National Park early this year, just as people were beginning to wear face masks.
Having gotten to know and work with Thai professionals in my generation only confirmed my admiration for the only country in the region that was never colonised by foreign powers.
Last year, for instance, I met the landscape architect Kotchakorn Voraakhom and visited the “green infrastructure” she designed in Chulalongkorn University: a 4.4ha green space that functions both as a reservoir to prevent floods and as a beautiful park that uses the same reservoir to sustain its green land- and water-scape.
How I wish our government would see such innovative, sustainable projects as their mandate and not cosmetic changes like putting dolomite in Manila Bay!
This brings me to my only sadness whenever I visit Thailand: to witness, year by year, how far we are being left behind – in our economy, our tourism, in infrastructure development.
“Don’t feel that way!” Kritaya Sreesunpagit, a friend who grew up in Bangkok, would tell me, expressing her frustrations about their own politics, the corruption and the rising inequality. Her recollection of the flooding in 2011 – where over 800 people died – speaks of the problems that escape the casual observer’s attention. A grim episode also hits home: former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s drug war in 2003 that killed thousands.
“There are two faces of Thailand, ” another friend, HIV and LBGTQI advocate Midnight Poonkasetwattana, once remarked. “The one visitors see and the one we experience.”Their words resonate today as we live through a pandemic. On one hand, we admire Thailand for its successful and most enviable
handling of Covid-19, one that my colleague, the epidemiologist Rapeepong Suphanchaimat, attributes to long-term investment in its public health system, prioritisation of public awareness and commitment to protecting the most vulnerable populations.
Moreover, Thailand’s TV shows are increasingly captivating global audiences, signalling a bright future for Thailand’s cultural capital.
The Boys Love series 2gether has gained so much attention that it seems to have inspired similar shows in the Philippines. A recently announced F4 starring its actors is sure to win Filipino audiences.
Even so, Thailand is caught in a political crisis and is far from the idyllic college life portrayed in 2gether. Its students are taking to the streets, remonstrating against
a political system, demanding reforms to a monarchy which remains protected and largely immune from accountability.
Like the youth of Hong Kong, they are mobilising social media to build a largely leaderless movement – and they face similar political and physical risks, underscored by the disappearance of the pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit.
If we are to live together in this part of the world, we must confront the two faces of Thailand.
Yes, there is much to understand from its long history, much to explore in its diverse country, much to learn from its public health system and much to appreciate in its popular culture.
But there is also much to learn from its young people, whose activism should inspire us not just to look at our own issues with the same sense of urgency, but to pay attention to similar such issues in the region. Can we not join hands with them, in ways much better than the way Asean leaders pose in their awkward photo-ops? — Philippine Daily Inquirer
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