Various recent political controversies have seen the re-emergence of that old phrase, one which will be familiar to all foreigners interested in Thailand and its people: “You don’t understand. Thailand is different.”
Certainly, different countries and their people do differ from each other in noticeable and important ways. For example, climate and geography influence the type of food available to people and that in turn influences what they look like (i.e. tall or short, slight or well-built) and a number of health impacts (e.g. prevalence of diabetes or heart disease). Linguistic differences, meanwhile, influence the way that people think and express themselves and that in turn affects behaviour and philosophy. The weather, on the other hand, determines whether people meet indoors or outdoors and what kind of community relations exist between them. A reasonably long list of such factors could be written, no doubt, although the processes of globalisation (e.g. television and internet shows us how other people live, cheap air travel increases experience and so on) mean that there is some convergence of lifestyles on a regional or global basis: nearly everyone owns a pair of jeans, for example, while mobile phone and personal computer penetration is increasing around the world.
Do these variations actually mean that people and systems are different or are they simply symptomatic of environmental differences? In other words, are things so different in Thailand that foreigners cannot properly ever understand them and, therefore, western-originated institutions such as democracy can never work in the same way in the Land of Smiles as elsewhere?
For ideological reasons I, of course, would strongly dispute this. As a supporter of universal human rights, working rights and equality, my opinion is that these rights should supercede local variations: so, female circumcision should not be permitted since even though it may be sanctioned in some cultures it is nevertheless cruel and abusive and contrary, therefore, to human rights.
However, my opinion is neither here nor there and I might well be wrong, after all. Let us consider whether Thai Exceptionalism (i.e. Thais and Thailand are different) benefits everyone equally or does it serve a specific section of society. Privileging Thai values over human rights, the right of free association or the right to collective bargaining, for example, would benefit whom? Rich or poor equally?
Privileging Thai values over genuine democracy benefits whom? Powerful and weak equally? Those with money and the poor equally?
And, finally, who are the ones who proclaim these Thai differences?