A Thai Fairy Tale
Your stepdaughter, a very ordinary young girl of 15, comes home from school one day complaining of harassment by a local boy, also 15, who has apparently asked her a number of times to be his girlfriend and been rejected politely but firmly each time. He has started following her around both at and outside school, sometimes entreating her, other times berating her. She is too embarrassed to go into detail but you establish that there has been no physical contact besides the one time he grabbed her by the arm to demand that she listen to him.
Your wife talks to her mother about the situation and grandma suggests just letting time take care of the problem. She is very insistent that approaching the boy’s parents to complain will have nothing but negative consequences and the same goes for going to the school administration.
The context here is utterly “Thai”, or perhaps “Asian”. The boy’s family is distantly related to the richest family in your neighborhood. The land that all your houses are built on used to belong to the boy’s grandfather’s half-sister’s husband’s family. The school the two young people attend is headed up by a corrupt autocrat who has made a habit of tearing up and rebuilding various outlying buildings and gardens on school property as a way of using the capital budget to generate graft and kickbacks in a way that subtle one-time improvements to the students’ environment just would not.
You don’t really see the significance of these elements of the context until the boy actually physically assaults your stepdaughter outside the school one day soon after, leaving her cut and bruised and emotionally traumatized. A few of her friends accompany her to your home and your wife’s mother immediately takes her to hospital. A few other students follow behind as the little group half-carries the crying and limping teen to your door. It turns out that once the law becomes involved in this situation, there will be two groups of students “giving testimony”: a group of “her friends” and a group of “his friends”.
At this point you have to imagine yourself straining at the bit to simply walk out, find the lad and kick his ass for him, leaving him in just a little bit worse shape than he has left your stepdaughter. Failing that you insist again and again against the hushing and shushing and suggestions to calm down that the police need to be called and charges must be pressed, regardless of the reputation for incompetence and corruption of the Thai police. Against the urgings of your mother-in-law and just about everyone else in the immediate vicinity your wife finally decides to go to the police.
Over the next two days, a number of things become absolutely clear.
1] Your stepdaughter’s injuries will heal quickly, she will not be scarred physically nor does she have any broken bones. She is already insisting that everything is alright and you are told to not upset her by suggesting that she must be feeling upset by what happened. Apparently attempting to deal with the trauma by acknowledging it is in fact tantamount to creating it. You imagine things might have been like this for your mother’s generation and grudgingly accept it in spite of everything you believe about emotions and their place in a healthy life.
2] The police will not actually “investigate” the incident until they have received ten thousand baht to do so. Once they have received the ten thousand baht to cover the expenses of the “investigation”, they will be prepared to accept a delegation from each side to present the case as it appears to them. What this really means is that each family must find a suitably “influential” person to advocate for them with the police. Unbelievably, everyone around you seems to feel that this will be the deciding factor in whether or not charges are laid or any further “investigation” is undertaken.
3] The school head has made it clear that for a suitable payment (unlike with the police there seems not to be a set fee for this service) he will gladly back up one of two possible stories. If the boy’s family pony up it will transpire that the lad was the victim of a seductive vixen playing hard-to-get who finally just pushed her game-playing a little too far for the poor innocent boy to control himself. If you are the successful bidders (and this is why no set price was initially announced) it will turn out that the lad has made a nuisance of himself on a number of other occasions and your little girl is just his latest victim.
Most outrageously to your alien sensibility, the two groups of student “friends” will be available as back-up for whichever scenario goes forward. The teacher who communicated all this to a friend of grandma’s after a tutoring session with one of the girls in your step-daughter’s “friend” group was apparently urging you all to simply let it go. It was not good for the students to be involved in this sort of “unclean” dispute.
In the end, which seemed to come rapidly out of absolutely nowhere to you with your alien expectations of police procedures and the workings of justice when a crime has been committed, the boy went to your home with his mother and apologized to your daughter, who was accompanied by her mother and grandmother. And that was that.
What had led to this denoument was instructive. While the boy’s connection to the local big family had led everyone to believe that you would end up somehow in the wrong and have to make some payment to the boy’s family for having wrongfully accused him, grandma’s husband, who no longer lives with her or has any meaningful contact with your in-laws, called on an old connection with someone very high up in the police force, who put in a brief appearance and “out-big-faced” the boy’s “uncle”. Case closed.
Interestingly enough, no money changed hands between the officer and the old gentleman estranged from your part of the family for over a dozen years, and the ten thousand baht payment to the police was returned. You don’t imagine the boy’s family got their “investigative fee” returned and you never found out whether the “uncle” was being paid for his appearance or some of other “family value” was invoked to bring him onside.
What remains is a simple question: What does a fictional story like this have to do with either “free speech”, Thai politics or the ubiquitous Democracy?
The answer is:
1)Nothing, to Thai liberals and their insistence on the primacy of things like elections and free speech.
2) Everything, to people who understand that without rule of law and equality before the law, abstract principles like “free speech” and hollow extravaganzas like elections have nothing to do with what is actually intended when people utter the word “Democracy”.
At some point, inevitably, many people begin to talk about “Thai culture” and “patronage” and “corruption” as if these things were among the immutable building blocks of Thai society.
It is obvious that this sort of mindset cannot co-exist with either rule-of-law or equality before the law but it is just as obvious that this tendency is deeply engrained in the thinking and the emotional responses of Thai people. That after all is what is meant by ‘culture’ in this context.
Given that this is the case, even the most intrepid “reformer” will sigh and suggest that it will take generations to move Thai people out of this way of thinking.
And this is simply wrong.
That is the wonderful thing about legal liberalism: it doesn’t matter whether you agree or not, or whether your emotional responses are in synch or not .
If something is against the law, it is, not to put too fine a point on it, against the law.
And it doesn’t matter who your great grandmother slept with or whose Mercedes your uncle drove for 20 years, when you break the law, you stand before the law like anyone else.
And while there is no doubt that no liberal democratic society in the real world has ever achieved this perfect equality or a method of parsing law in such a way that all instances of certain behaviors are clearly either legal or illegal, these imperfections do not come anywhere near the tawdry lawlessness of the present Thai state.
Usually when people think of ‘patronage’ they think about “vote buying” or “crony capitalism”or opportunities for advancement at work working more on the “who you know” than “what you know” system, raising loyal incompetents to high positions and holding back the competent who cannot attach themselves to the right patron.
And all these things are true enough. They do however fail to capture the all-pervading nature of ‘patronage’ and how it corrupts and undermines any and all attempts to use law as a means of ordering society. It makes democracy itself a meaningless term to be appropriated and abused by all and sundry.
What do the young people involved in this scenario learn?
They learn that there is neither good behavior nor bad behavior, neither legal nor illegal action, only power. And the money it takes to purchase a little power when it becomes necessary.
They learn that the “truth” of a matter is less important than who your friends are and which ‘truth’ will benefit them more.
The adults involved learn nothing, of course, having lived all their lives under the system.
The adults already know that the police are corrupt and will do absolutely nothing for “ordinary” people unless sufficient money changes hands.
They already know that the school system is rife with administrators who are little more than thieves and that there is nothing they can do about it because it would require corrupt police or other more highly-placed and equally corrupt bureaucrats to “investigate” the administrator’s corruption. And since corruption pays so much better than most honest livings in Thailand, and since becoming a school head requires a patron in the first place, there is absolutely no chance of justice in the system.