Thailand is a constitutional monarchy. The King of Thailand has a significant moral influence over the country but the day-to-day affairs are handled by a prime minister and Parliament.
Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, A History of Thailand, third ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), Kindle Edition.
Years ago, I read David Wyatt's "Thailand: A Short History" but it was a bit too dry and not too short. I nearly gave up as he went on and on reconstructing the pre-history of Thailand. But Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit's “A History of Thailand” has been a completely different experience. The authors have written a briskly moving narrative that gives you the big picture, highlighting the important people and events in the development of the country without getting bogged down in the details. The first chapter (Before Bangkok) takes you through early history to the founding of Bangkok in 1782. In not too many pages, the authors give a helpful picture of the 15-18th century, the empires of Southeast Asia, the old Thai feudal system, and the steps leading up the founding of the Chakri dynasty. And it is the Chakri dynasty and the last 200 years of Thai history that form the bulk of this book.
As the book unfolds however, tracing the political, cultural, and economic development of the country from Rama 1 (1782) to the pre-coup political climate of March 2014, it becomes obviously that writing a history of “Thailand” is problematic. As it were, there was no “Thailand” per se, until the colonial powers forced the kingdom of Siam to define it borders in response to French and British colonial acquisitions in Cambodia, Laos, and Malaysia. In the late 19th century, the kingdom of Siam spread across what is now Central Thailand into Western Cambodia, while the Lao kingdoms and Shan States functioned rather independent of Siam to the north, albeit many of them in a tributary relationship to Siam. The region that constitutes modern day Southern Thailand was also only loosely connected to Bangkok. But as the colonial powers claimed some of these territories and agreed that others belonged to Siam, the government of Siam felt that it was necessary create a sense of unity and nationhood among these different territories and peoples in order to consolidate power and ward off interference from foreign aggression. These reasons, along with the belief that the majority of “Thai” people are passive peasants, led to justifications for a strong state with Bangkok as the center. The strong state was first embodied in the absolute monarchy, but after the revolution of 1932, the strong state re-emerged on-and-off in the form of military dictatorships up through the 1970s and beyond.
Dear Friends & Family,
Perhaps you noticed that we did not have a prayer letter this past April. We were tired and really close to vacation time so decided to skip a month. We’re in the midst of Thai hot season, which is particularly hot this year, so it was good to get away to the beach for a couple weeks even it is often not so restful with two small children.
When we arrived back in PhraBaht, we were glad to discover that Pastor Jareun and his family were about to head out for a week of vacation. Thai people almost never take vacations, and only take a few days off around international New Year’s (Jan 1) and Thai New Year’s (April 13-15). Jareun and his family really needed a rest so we were glad that they decided to do something counter-cultural here in Thailand - taking a vacation.
Anyone who has lived in Thailand for some period of time knows that Thai people like to have fun. If it is not fun, why do it? Even work has to be fun. And apparently some people think that protesting government corruption has to be fun too.
One of the odd trends that is emerging in the Bangkok protests is for people to dress up like Marvel superheroes (okay, it's only 2 so far but I am hopefully waiting for Ironman to make an appearence). I'm not sure what to make of this, but at the very least it says something about the importance of fun in Thai culture.
SpidermanDecember 2, 2013
Those outside of Thailand may have seen in the news recently reports about massive street protests in Bangkok and wondered what it is all about. In this post, I want to give a super short summary of the background to this situation and provide some prayer points.Timeline
Prime Minister Taksin ousted in military coup, because Taksin was alleged to be corrupt.
2007-2013After a year of military rule, the government has swapped back and forth between the party favorable to Taksin and the one opposed to him. The people not in power protest those who are, saying they are illegitimate. Also, Taksin was convicted of corruption, etc. by Thai court but he is not in the country. If he comes back, he goes straight to jail.
2013 Prime Minister Yinglack (Taksin's sister) and her party (puppets of Taksin?) try to pass amnesty bill to forgive all political transgressions since 2004 (which would let Taksin come home a free man). That triggers street protests against the amnesty bill.
A couple days ago, a missionary friend called me up and asked, “What do you think about all this stuff with the red shirts in Bangkok?” He was referring to the conflict between red-shirted protestors and the Thai government that has turned downtown Bangkok into a virtual battlefield. Since he is a good friend and fellow missionary, I gave him my full unedited opinion of the situation. However, that was a private conversation, not a public announcement. I tend to be cautious and try to maintain a position of neutrality when I talk with Thai neighbors and speak with people at church. Although I have some strong opinions, there are reasons why it is usually better not to voice them or to get involved in the political scene here. In general, missionaries are well advised to stay out of local politics in the countries where they are serving. Here’s three reasons why:
1) It’s Not My CountryI am in Thailand as a guest. I must receive permission to stay in the country and I do not have the right to vote. Thai political issues must be decided by the Thai themselves and it is not my business to tell them how to decide their own issues. Simply put, it is not my place to be telling the Thai how to run their country or who they should vote for.2) Don't Know EnoughThai politics is huge tangled ball of yarn that I am only beginning to sort out. The issues run deep and historical, cultural, and religious factors come into play. At this point my Thai language ability is good enough that, for the most part, I can track with the news on the TV or radio, but that doesn’t mean that I have an accurate grasp on what is really going on. I’ll pick up the Thai newspapers sometimes and read the stories but, unlike many English language papers, Thai papers often don’t give summary background information in the articles so I don’t always know who the article is talking about or what their importance is. It is kind of like coming into the middle of a long running soap opera and having to catch up on the story line as you go. I have been learning bits and pieces of Thai politics for several years now. I know enough to have some opinions and talk with close friends but not enough to make any learned proclamations as to what should be done.3) Avoid Putting Words in God’s MouthIf a pastor in his own country expresses a strong political opinion from the pulpit, it can easily be perceived by many as the official position of the church (whether it actually is or not). On most political issues, churches shouldn’t even have official opinions because it is not the job of the church to govern the country. That’s the government’s job and it is fully appropriate for individual Christian believers to be involved in politics, as they are citizens of the country as much as anyone else. While it is certainly appropriate for pastors to teach what the Bible says on moral issues (like prostitution, for example), it is inappropriate for him to offer his political opinion as God’s opinion when the Bible doesn’t say anything one way or another (such as many economic issues). Otherwise, he will be foolishly creating division and dissension where there need not be any.
Missionaries are in a similar situation. As ministers of the Gospel, we need to be sure that we are not presenting as Scripture more than Scripture really says. I fully believe that both pastors and missionaries should teach what the Bible teaches about the relationship of the Christian believer to the government (Romans 13, for example) and provide principles for political involvement. It is very appropriate for a pastor or missionary to help a believer think through the Scriptural principles and real world ramifications of their political involvement, especially if there is the possibility of physical harm or illegality involved. Some forms of law breaking may arguably be appropriate at certain times (peaceful civil disobedience during the civil rights movement, or having a sit-in at an abortion clinic come to mind). Other acts of law breaking (such as firing a rocket propelled grenade into your local government office) bear closer scrutiny and any Christian who is considering engaging in such acts should be challenged to justify his actions according to Scripture.
A full discourse on Christians and government is beyond the scope of this post, but let me conclude by saying that political neutrality doesn’t mean that missionaries don’t say anything about politics. Rather, it means that they publicly avoid taking sides for the sake of avoiding giving people the impression that God supports any particular party or candidate. For the missionary living abroad, it is helpful to avoid the perception that you are sticking your nose in other people’s business, where it doesn’t belong. To take sides in local political issues runs the risk of alienating people unnecessarily and compromising the message that you’ve come to bring. The missionary’s job is to bring the message of the Bible to people, help them understand what it says, and what it is that God requires of them. Maintaing political neutrality helps keep the main thing, the main thing. And the main thing is the Gospel.ENTER YOUR EMAIL TO GET NEW POSTS IN YOUR INBOX
As red shirt protesters swarm into Bangkok, blocking roads and surrounding military headquarters, I have been fascinated to watch the developments unfold on Twitter. An assortment of foreign journalists, local expats, and Thai people on the ground are constantly tweeting (i.e. sending updates via Twitter) about the latest movements of the red shirt protesters. While the up-to-the-minute updates are mostly reports of where the red shirts are now, you also get a fair amount of commentary from foreigners and Thai alike on how they feel about what's going on. Here's a screen shot of the Twitter feed on the topic of #redshirts:
The Thai church is growing faster than it ever has in the past and there is much reason to rejoice at how God is working in Thailand. Yet, as a new year begins, there is still much need for prayer. Still less than 1% of Thai people are Christians and the challenges to the spread of the Gospel and growth of the church are many.
For those who want to pray for Thailand in the new year, I have put together a brief list of prayer needs. This list is not exhaustive but I believe that it hits upon some of the major needs of the nation and the church. Read it below or download the PDF, print it out and stick it in your Bible to pray for Thailand this coming year.
Sun and I went down to Bangkok last week to shop for some baby items that we couldn't get up country and everything seemed "business as usual" in the capital but as I have been reading the Thai newspapers recently, there is talk about internal dissention in the current interim administration and maybe more bombings or another coop. Please be in prayer with us for the Thai nation and people. Below is a brief update from the our mission's field director here in Thailand.
"OMF Thailand is presently monitoring the unrest in Thailand. These struggles are political, and not against foreigners, or religious based. There are rumors of another coup, and the army has stepped up it's presence in Bangkok and other major cities across the nation. OMFer's are staying away from large group gatherings, and government/military offices and bases. Please pray for God's daily protection and also for His peace. Even though most Western countries are advising their citizens not to travel to Thailand at this time, OMF leadership believes that it is still safe to come and to be here."
The city of Lopburi recently celebrated their annual Narai festival, in honor of King Narai who reigned over Thailand from his palace here in Lopburi about 400 years ago. Part of the story of King Narai includes ambassadors from France who came to visit the king and initiate diplomatic relations between Thailand and France. Later on, the ambassors, together with some Jesuit priests, all got knocked off because some higher up folks in the royal entourage were afraid that the priests were getting to close to converting the king to Catholicism. So, for the Narai festival parade, the organizers needed some white guys to be the French ambassadors. I thought it would be fun, so I volunteered. It was, kind of, but I felt somewhat ridiculous in my ambassador's costume, especially the wig. Even more ridiculous than the guy with the cone on his head in the picture below.
I was a serious French ambassador marching in the hot sun. I look silly enough being a white guy in Thailand, so why not put on some funny looking clothes to top it off?
The Thai political crisis continues to worsen as protesters try to bring things to a head in Bangkok, shutting down both the new Suwanaphum airport and the old Don Muang airport, effectively closing the country off to much of the world. The protesters demand the resignation of the government and the government says no, but refuses to do anything other than riot police containing the crowds. The news is constantly changing here so if you want latest, I would recommend looking at the website for the Bangkok Post (www.bangkokpost.com) or the International Herald Tribune (www.iht.com). The Bangkok Post will have more up to date information although the IHT will have a more readable summary of the events and the context of the current crisis.Our family lives two hours north of Bangkok, and thus plenty far away from any of the disturbances. Everything seems to be confined to Bangkok right now. However, after I preach in Ayuthaya this Sunday, we'll head down to OMF's Mission Home in Bangkok, which is not far from the Don Muang airport, one of the sites of mass protests and some violence. We will drive in to the mission home the back way, using the outer ring road and Expressway from the north, so we won't have to
Siam is the old name for Thailand and I have never known why and how that name change came about. A Bangkok academic is now petitioning the government to change the name back to Siam in order to make a step towards creating greater peace and unity in the nation. For those who are curious about the history of the name change from Siam to Thailand or wonder how on earth changing the country's name could do anything in the way of reconciling a divided nation, check out the Bangkok Post article "What's in a name?" The comments on this article are at least as interesting as the article itself as people weigh in on whether they think the change is a good idea.