Tom Plate / Syndicated columnist/SEATTLE TIMES - JAPAN TIMES - KOREA TIMES - SINGAPORE STRAITS TIMES - SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST - ASIA MEDIA CENTER
Despite adversity, political turmoil, Thais carry on, with a smile
LOS ANGELES — When social scientists or journalists are in doubt, sometimes it's best to consult the artist. Here's what I mean.
There was recently a big referendum vote in Thailand. It passed, but no one is that thrilled about it — no one except the ruling junta. It had kicked out the previous prime minister, who is now in exile, and cooked up the new referendum to make it harder for someone like him to ever have so much power again.
The referendum did well enough in the urban areas of Thailand, but it pretty much bombed in the rural areas, where the previous PM is still thought a hero. His name is Thaksin Shinawatra, and the reason he is liked in the sticks is that he gave the impression he really cared about the plight of the poor.
The gap between rich and poor is a big problem in Thailand, even if poverty is no worse there than in the rest of Asia. Increasingly, in fact, it's a regionwide concern. India's intellectual prime minister has offered deeply thoughtful and timely speeches to his wealthy business elite as well as to his countrymen about it. China's current leaders have openly admitted that creating wealth alone is not enough if the rich-poor gap only gets worse. Even Japan, with its samurai-socialist-capitalist system, which equates proper income distribution with social harmony, is alarmed by its own apparently widening gap.
But up to now, none of these three giant countries has been able to dazzle the world with original and effective gap-reduction policies. Thailand, under Thaksin, had hoped to be different. Instead, Thaksin's pro-poor policies were viewed as deeply demagogic and insincere by ruling circles, and triggered a military takeover almost a year ago. To say the least, the country's oft-admired king did not appear notably unhappy about the ouster.
You would think that all this political turmoil would have made Thailand into something like another gloomy Burma. But that hasn't happened. Why? Allow me a diversion about Thais in general. You can travel as much as you want and go wherever you want, but you may not find a more likable people anywhere. In their culture, there is no hour for the dour and they go the extra mile with a smile.
This is where the artist as expert comes in handy. Chris Coles, who divides his time between Bangkok and Los Angeles, is a huge fan of the Thais as a people and often paints them in his art: "In my paintings (see www.chriscolesgallery.com), there is tremendous resilience in the Thai culture and personality which can deal with an amazing level of adversity without complaining, a primitive energy that can work six 12-hour days and still find the energy to party hard a few nights a week. And there is also the Buddhism, which helps Thais maintain a strong desire for the middle way (i.e., endless compromise and wavering) instead of violent confrontation."
Coles loves painting Thais precisely because their stoic energy brings his canvases so much to life.
And if the artist has in fact caught the national character more or less exactly right, the character of the Thais should long endure over the defects of the country's political system and culture, at least as we in the West see them through our own ethnocentric eyes.
You don't have to be an expert on Thailand to appreciate the enduring Energizer-Bunny energy level that is manifestly on view. Coles himself admires the Thais for more than their vivacity as models; he admires their vivacity in life. He says the reason that unemployment in Thailand, despite all its troubles, hovers at a mere 2 percent or so has little to do with government policies. But it has everything to do with the Thai character. These people work and when they lose a job, they don't wait for someone to help them; they go out and find a new job.
Says Coles: "The big capitalists and industries will keep growing, the tourists will keep coming, and the Thai people will carry on."
Artists are not always known for being optimists, but this one optimistic view by one optimistic artist is going to be my view for the time being. Thailand is never going to become a leaden Burma or a disaster like North Korea. Bumping along, working hard, it will find its rightful place on the Asian stage — and find it with a smile as big as the country itself.
UCLA professor Tom Plate is a veteran U.S. journalist. His new book is "Confessions of an American Media Man."