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A Country Beginning with T

So who are we talking about?

  • Between World War 1 and World War 2, this country underwent a major change in its system of government, although of late there have been signs that some vestiges of the old system are being quietly reintroduced.
  • Despite this major change, ‘the state bureaucracy, the military corps and the basic social order never really died, preserving status and property for those ready to serve the new government’ according to one recent analysis.
  • The founder of the new system decreed a cultural revolution that ordered changes to dozens of features of daily life, such as what people should wear on the heads and how the language should be used.
  • The person behind these things went by a name they weren’t born with.
  • The military has taken over the government many times, always claiming to protect the most sacred institutions of the state.
  • Nationalists maintain a belief in an erstwhile empire that the more chauvinist hope one day to revive.
  • There is a long-standing and unresolved separatist movement in the most distant region of the country that has repeatedly erupted into violence.
  • Despite being nominally secular, the state is under pressure from religious militants to formalize the status of the dominant religion.
  • The current leader declared a ‘new’ country in 2014.
  • Because of the deterioration of democracy and worrying human rights violations, the traditional alliance with the US and the European democracies has recently been weakened, and the country has instead strengthened its ties with another major power.
  • The current government has been rattled by protests over a park.
  • Any and every national problem is routinely blamed on a former politician now in exile.

Well, all these statements are true of Thailand (and I am sure my well-informed readers have already spotted this and require no further explanation).  But they are also true of Turkey.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire after its defeat in World War 1 led in the 1920s to Mustafa Kemal and his Young Turks taking over the government, abolishing the sultanate and declaring a republic.  The new state was resolutely secular and banned all manner of symbols associated with the old regime, like the fez, but there are indications of a creeping re-Islamization of society.  The state language, Turkish, was imposed on everyone, linguistic minorities be damned, but it now uses the Roman alphabet with loanwords from Arabic and Persian patriotically purged.

Just like Plaek Khittasangkha, who became Field Marshal P (he hated the ‘Plaek’) Phibunsongkhram, Mustafa Kemal started life as Ali Rıza oğlu Mustafa, was given the ‘Kemal’ bit (meaning ‘perfection’ or ‘maturity’) by a teacher and later had ‘Atatürk’ (‘father of the Turks’) added by a grateful parliament.

Turkey’s history as a republic has been punctuated by tensions between Atatürk’s military descendants, who have regarded themselves as the guardians of his memory, and two competing forces.  On the one side, urban cosmopolitan liberals have looked toward democratic western Europe; on the other, a more deeply religious conservatism in the Anatolian hinterland has chafed at the absurdity of pious university co-eds with their hair under a headscarf, worn for their religion, and the headscarf hidden under a wig, worn for their education.

The Kurds of southeastern Turkey remain a bête noire for a Turkish state that has never thought much of diversity.  The human rights violations visited on them, and others who have come into the regime’s crosshairs, may have held back Turkey’s admission to the EU (though there were other factors at work as well) but never really got in the way of acceptance by western powers until Turkey got embroiled in regional conflicts.  The US fights ISIS but not the Kurds; the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds fight ISIS; Turkey fights ISIS, but also the Kurds (inside and outside the country).  A recipe for tension that has suddenly made Putin a friend of Ankara.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was far more shaken by the widespread protests against turning Gezi Park in Istanbul into yet another shopping mall than was Thailand’s military junta by the minor scuffles over Rajabhakti Park.

And while Thaksin remains the Voldemort of Thailand, Turkey’s equivalent is Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan’s one-time ally and a current resident of Pennsylvania, accused of being the mastermind behind the 2016 coup attempt and much, much more.

While the similarities, from the broad-brush to the picayune, are striking, there are important differences.

On the days when the Thai military’s ignorant vindictiveness is getting you down, you might take some comfort from the fact that the centre of Pattani town, unlike Diyarbakir, has not been reduced to rubble by airstrikes, and there have been no mass purges of the bureaucracy, academia and the judiciary that have left courtrooms bereft of lawyers, prosecutors and judges who actually know the procedures for conducting a trial.

And there is one more contrast that is still to be seen.

Instead of endlessly postponing elections like the NCPO, Erdoğan actually brought forward elections scheduled for November 2019 and held them last June (after repeated promises that he wouldn’t do this – sound familiar?)  Despite mass arrests of his perceived enemies, a state of emergency and evidence of ballot stuffing traced to Erdoğan himself, his party’s vote actually fell.

I wonder.


About author: Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).