Editorial: September 2014

 |  March 30, 2015

Growing up, my name was Pim Shaw _ it’s my English father’s surname. In 1998, when I took over this magazine, I changed it to my mother’s Thai surname, Kemasingki. The only reason I did so was because I knew that I was going to be writing about Thailand and that it would not always be complimentary. I figured, correctly as it turns out, that I could get away with saying a lot more about this country as a Thai.

An incident involving an expat friend made me think of this. She lives in a typical well-heeled moo baan and was recently screamed at by her Thai neighbour for making too much noise during a party. Fair ‘nuff. I’ve been shushed numerous times by my incredibly patient neighbour (though he prefers to bang a stick against his wok for emphasis…or lately send me Facebook messages _ ah, technology!). But it was the moo baan neighbour’s, “Don’t act like that in MY country,” comment that got my gander. Her ownership of Thailand should have nothing to do with her genuine grievance, as my friend’s nationality should have nothing to do with her bad behaviour (sorry, mate).

Thailand has always simmered with xenophobia, but it’s the recent exacerbation of the forced deportation of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, along with the high profile (and maddeningly opaque) immigration ‘reform’, that is truly alarming. There is simply no place for such ham-fisted policies.

It appears that many Thai people believe that foreigners who visit or live here are merely guests in our country, their welcome contingent on their hosts’ beneficence and their own behaviour. It is, apparently, a privilege to be allowed to step foot into the Kingdom, and as long as visitors conform to the Thai norm (whose?), they are welcomed with smiles. Those who dare to express a contrary opinion (again, to whom?) or fall between rigid parameters of expectation, should just leave. Never mind that many expats and visitors _ and indeed Thais _ have enough sense to love parts of Thailand, but not all. Or that some must work and make a life here, for other reasons than great affection for the country.

During a recent trip to Rangoon I asked a Burmese journalist what he thought of Thailand. He only had good things to say, ending with, “we are like brothers; we have been friends for centuries.” Contrast that with the viewpoints of the average Thai who has been taught that Burma is our traditional enemy. We love them when they build and clean our houses, but our education, our media, our entertainment and our values reinforces our sense of superiority.

There is such a startling disconnect between reality and our forced perception of it that we are flummoxed when encountering The Other. What? The world doesn’t think it is OK for us to summarily deport migrant workers, ruining thousands of lives with an ill-conceived stroke of the pen? What? Not all farang are grateful to be here and love us unconditionally? It is this false narrative that leads to our hubris-laden policies and attitude.

As the world’s borders blur and multiculturalism and technology redefine traditional lines of commerce, communication and power, nationalism and pigeonhole-type policies should become obsolete. A recent talk with Chiang Mai’s Immigration Department highlighted this. When asked about digital nomads _ yes, I know you don’t like this term, but come up with a better one then! _ and their visa status, the answer was that of course they are welcome in Thailand, no there is no visa for them, they must use a tourist visa, and yes, that is illegal because they aren’t allowed to work on a tourist visa, but because they are valued (read: they spend money here) we want them here anyway so we will turn a blind eye to their labour status.

Yup, time to reevaluate how we regulate and interact with our foreign visitors and residents, understanding that nuances will continue to become more subtle and complex. While it is important to maintain law and order, protecting our country’s interest, we must also learn to be flexible and less ethnocentric in our interaction with the world at large.

No one is coming here with a spade to dig up pieces of Thailand to take home. There is no imminent threat to our sovereign nation but our bumbling fear of and kneejerk reaction to The Other.

Citylife this month:

It has been 100 years since the start of the Great War, and CityNews’s new editor Mark Fenn spent quality time in Chiang Mai’s libraries sneezing his way through dusty archives to give you a fascinating overview of how it affected the north of Thailand. Aydan Stuart takes a humourous, though rather alarming, look at Thailand’s K-Pop craze…and while we are on crazes, Hilary Cadigan writes about the latest trend to hit Chiang Mai – cat cafes, yup, you read it right, cafes with a gazillion cats.

I write about my recent trip to Bhutan, gushing about this tiny Himalayan Kingdom and also spent a few hours interviewing two incredible men who have spent nearly a decade volunteering to help protect Thailand’s endangered species. Lots to read this month, we hope that you enjoy it.