Today, March 21, is General Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s birthday. He is 66 years old. As his birthday present, this commentary will encourage readers to understand the heart and mind of Thailand’s prime minister. Please note that to understand is not the same as to excuse. To understand is to study the past, in order to learn how we come to the present, because without understanding how the past led to the present, we cannot build the future. In fact, we would be confused and divided, as we are now.
Thailand’s present circumstances are not necessarily different from elsewhere. The generation gap, divided not just by age, but also by past experiences, present mindsets and future ambitions. Tradition versus progress. Conservatism versus liberalism. Security versus freedom. These are human circumstances, not specific to any one country. However, each country has its own culture, therefore each conflict has its unique manifestation.
The General was born in 1954, after the Korean War (1950-53) ended. He did not fight in the Vietnam War (1955-1975), as he was still at the Chulachomklao Military Academy when the war ended. In fact, he was never in a major war.
He’s not a gritty veteran with war stories as his biography and battle wounds as his badge of honor. But he’s a Thai Baby Boomer (borned after World War 2), who became a career soldier during the Cold War Era. His experience is not that of a Millennial, who grew up after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, signifying the end of the Cold War.
The world of General Prayuth
The younger generation grew up in a globalized world. The General grew up in a world divided between the US bloc and the Soviet bloc.
When talking of revolutions, the younger generation think of Digital Revolution, Technological Revolution, Social Media Revolution, Communication Revolution and others.
The General, on the other hand, lived in a world of civil wars, destruction and massacres. People climb over the walls of the US embassy to catch the last helicopter and get the hell out of the Third World, like in some Chuck Norris movie.
When talking of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, the younger generation think of beautiful, yet affordable vacation spots and possible business connections. If there’s any fear, it would be that they will catch up to Thailand in terms of economic competitiveness.
The General, on the other hand, lived in a time when those neighbors of ours were torn apart by civil wars. Unimaginable destruction of lives and of cultures. If there’s any fear, it was that the very same thing would happen to Thailand. This wasn’t war in the Middle East on the other side of the continent. This was right next door, and spilling into Thailand itself.
When talking of the mountains of the north and northeast regions, the younger generation think of vacation time and Instagram opportunities. For the General, the mountains were strongholds of communist insurgents.
The General and the older generation grew up in a different world. There was no K-pop, iPhone or hashtags. It was a far more brutal and dangerous world, especially for the war-torn region of Southeast Asia.
In the 1950s, Thailand wasn’t much different from any other Third World military dictatorship. Fragile, unstable and in danger of falling into civil war and communism. Where’s the hero? Who’s the savior? The nation needed someone to rally around, an identity that could unite us. We found this in the person of King Rama 9.
After the monarchy was kept under the shadow of successive military dictators, during the rule of General Sarit Thanarat (1957-1973), King Rama 9 stepped out and became the heart and soul of the nation. His image cultivated. His actions recorded and applauded. His person revered.
The heart and soul, the king who rallied a nation. With the military stood guard, weapons readied. Thailand made it through the turbulent times of the Cold War Era. Communist insurgents were defeated. There were also tragic episodes, for instance, the massacres of university students on October 14, 1973 and October 16, 1976, who rose up against military dictatorship.
Aside from the likes of Adolf Hitler, history is rarely ever about good versus evil. Rather, more often than not, human conflicts — past, present and future — are about two opposing groups of people, both capable of goodness and evil.
But historical fact cannot be denied, Thailand made it out of the Cold War intact, because of the monarch who became our national symbol and the military that stood guard.
There’s only one Thailand, after all
The Thai Baby Boomers who lived through this, understand this. However, there were also many Thai Baby Boomers who stood against this, such is the way of human conflicts. But no matter which side they were on, they all lived through it.
The rest of us only read about it. In fact, from Generation X down to Generation Y, Millennial and Generation Z, how many actually know anything about it? Far too few. As well, those that know, tend to see things from only one perspective.
But the General lived through it, and as a soldier, he simply cannot understand why the younger generation want something else, something different. What are these things called globalization and democracy? What are these things called rights, liberty and equality? He never had any of these growing up. That was never his world. How can he understand today’s world, when he only learned about google over a year ago?
Take the General, multiply by millions upon millions, and you have a generation that looks at young people today with sadness and disappointment, with fear and anger. Why do they want a change from a system that has kept us safe for decades? Why would they want to deviate from a path that was set? Don’t they know the danger we lived through, the sacrifices we made?
Most young people don’t know or understand any of this. Just as the General and many of the older generation can’t comprehend that the world has changed.
Young people today grow up with a world quite literally in the palm of their hands. With a click of the finger, they can learn and experience knowledge and cultures from across the world.
What they see are cities with infrastructure that works. Governments that function with competence and accountability. Laws that are democratic and just. Societies that are innovative and progressive. Leaders that inspired. Young people from around the world who are encouraged to stand up and speak out. They see other Asian nations developed to rival those nations of the western civilization, from Japan to South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore.
Then the younger generation look at Thailand and they merely question: Why can’t we have those things too? Why must we be left behind?
Dear general, the younger generation may go about it in a way the older generation see as “rude” and “inappropriate”. But all the younger generation want is simply a better future. However, they won’t have a better future, if you refuse to let go of the past. Thailand must evolve.
For Thailand to evolve however, the younger generation must understand the past better, rather than to just dismiss it. The older generation must understand the demands of the future more, rather than just hanging on to the past.
Because past, present or future, we are all in this together. There’s only one Thailand, after all.