Thailand, an over seven century-old country, is at the brink of another major change. Its new epoch is about to begin in the reign of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, or King Rama X, alongside the current military government. What will the future bring at the dawn of this era? The capitals of Siamese have undergone many changes—from the “Dawn of Happiness” of the Sukhothai period, to the “War & Peace” eras of the Ayutthaya and Thonburi periods—but in what direction is the Bangkok (or Rattanakosin) period heading?
Changes and uncertainties are what most people dread (although some embrace). In Buddhism, change is inevitable because the physical realm is impermanent. So as we long for the good old days, we have to reinvent ourselves in tandem. Through the peaks and falls of Thai history, we seem to have a knack in revamping our identities, images, and outlooks after any crisis. The Kingdom’s latest economic model, Thailand 4.0, sounds like another gimmicky technological invention, but this innovation-driven scheme may succeed if we look to the past as lessons learned, and to the future as dreams to realize.
History has taught us a great deal, but most of us are simply too stupid to learn. In recent decades, Thailand has gone through many changes—from the good, the bad, to the ugly. Before the 4.0 scheme, which pursues security, prosperity, and sustainability, Thailand was on its way to become one of the newly industrialized countries, or NICs, in the late 80s and the early 90s. Our economy boomed together with other “Asian Tigers”, but went bust in the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. The ‘Tom Yum Goong’ bubble burst and left us with a bitter taste. Afterwards, we picked up our home-grown industries and dusted off luxury labels, and started the trend of new Thai designs and innovations. It only lasted until the arrival of the new millennium and the surge of regional economy. Thai social values thus went back to honouring face values again. Superficiality seems to surpass the essence of the matter.
So how can we be secure and prosperous and sustain all of this if we cannot change our behaviours? Should we start changing some infrastructure first? A key to solid social structure is education. The nation has a wealth of natural assets and cultural treasures, however most of us are spoiled rotten and our human resources are underdeveloped. Among Thailand’s almost 70 million people, most are impoverished in mental and spiritual development. Our educational system is in dire need of a reform, not only the formal and higher education, but also the fundamental learning habits, attitudes, and guidance to moral and ethical conducts. Conscience and civic duties should be learnt and practiced by everyone to make this nation grow in the right way. Without this, we are left with a lack of skilled, competent, and responsible citizens. So leave the robots to the scientists for the moment and make sure that we all can run smoothly ourselves.
Towards another new and improved version of Thailand, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej gave us both information and applications via his sufficiency economy projects. It’s up to us if we want to carry on his vision and legacy and ensure that our country will survive in any era. With the right policies and implementations, Thailand can prosper steadily. We have tried to eradicate poverty for decades, but the disparity of wealth seems to get wider because we have allowed certain conglomerates to monopolize some industries. No innovation is going to help if we keep letting this happen.
As Thais’ smiles can contradict our feelings, Thailand is always full of paradoxes. With our big hearts and generosity, we let others abuse our kindness easily. Or have we become too indifferent and blasé about pressing troubles? After 85 years, Thai democracy hasn’t progressed very far. When good governance barely exists on paper, how can the society get its engine to function efficiently? We haven’t tackled traffic problems, corruption, or environmental crimes. We have let some monks behave badly. We have left many of our artistic and cultural heritages in sad states. We don’t even know how to conserve and restore our national monuments, such as the prangs of Wat Arun. We have accepted all of this as a norm. So as “Thai” means free, it doesn’t mean we are free to do anything or let things go unrestricted. Our freedom always comes at a price.
Our colourful country is still far from perfect with its foibles and idiosyncrasies but the number of visitors increase yearly. Why do we still attract them despite all the good and bad reputations? Perhaps, our traditions are still relevant yet evolving in modernity. Glittering temples contrast with neon-lit pleasure palaces, and sunny beaches outshine political turmoil. The sense of sanuk, and being carefree, overtakes human rights issues. Being Buddhists, Thais’ worldview straddles between hope and despair. Thailand is forever transforming, and yet it has really never changed.