Sunday, 6 February 2011

The plague of fanaticism

via CAAI

Published: 6/02/2011 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: News

What I write for the Sunday column usually hits me around 2am Saturday morning, while standing in some god-forsaken nightclub, starring down at the bottom of a whiskey bottle, trying to find the meaning to life. Whiskey bottles are bottomless, I tell you, but that's neither here nor there.

Friday night in a taxi (drinking and driving is unhealthy), the driver was raving about the border clash that led to one dead Cambodian soldier, one dead Thai villager, five captured Thai rangers (despite initial reports, four were captured and later released) and several people injured.

''We should destroy them,'' he moaned. ''We are bigger and stronger, we can wipe them out,'' he groaned. ''They shot at us first,'' he blasted.

His sentiments undoubtedly reflect those of many Thais, shocked and angry, and, most importantly, ready to go to war.

All of this over a stone tablet, a flag and a pagoda on 4.6 square kilometres of dirt? Of course not, that would be silly. On the contrary, the cause is something far more existential, far closer to the soul.

All of this, because of what happened when a few old men, like People's Alliance for Democracy leader Maj Gen Chamlong Srimuang, Thai Patriot Network leader Chaiwat Sinsuwong and Santi Asoke sect leader Samana Photirak and their Cambodian counterparts woke up one morning.

They woke up, looked in the mirror and were stupefied by the horrific reality of their benign existences, of the political irrelevance staring back at them. Shocked silly, they had to immediately find a justification for their existence on this Earth _ a reason for living, a motivation to breathe, a reminder that they are not just taking up space and wasting oxygen.

That reason is a stone tablet, a flag and a pagoda on 4.6 square kilometres of dirt.

Men have fought wars over some pretty stupid issues through the 7,000 years of human (ahem) civilisation. One that is most common in its absurd stupidity is a war where young men are sent to die and innocent civilians are blown to bits to serve the vanity of a few old men made insecure because they can no longer control their bowel movements and have to wear diapers. (The irony is, they soil themselves, yet they run the world. But then again, look at the world, it sort of makes sense.)

Fingers are pointing. You shot first! No, you shot first! Like juveniles quarrelling in a backyard. You started it! No, you started it! Like those bickering children in the playground. This was mine first! No, this was mine first! Like those tattletale little punks running to adults. He's lying! No, he's lying! (Yes, I know, referring to the United Nations as ''adults'' is a bad metaphor.)

The irrational, illogical and uncritical zeal for a cause, the extreme and blind obsession over a stone tablet, a flag and a pagoda on 4.6 square-kilometre of dirt _ it's not nationalism, it's fanaticism. It's stupid. Like Winston Churchill once said, ''A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject.''

Is it possible that Maj Gen Chamlong, Chaiwat and Santi Asoke's Samana Photirak and their Cambodian counterparts might wake up tomorrow, look in the mirror and see other causes worth fighting for? Like poverty? Corruption? Social injustice? Plus a host of other real problems plaguing Thailand and Cambodia?

No. It's 4.6 square kilometre of dirt, and there is not even oil underneath it. That would be a reason worth sending young men to die and blowing innocent civilians to bits. Shall we then invade Cambodia to bring freedom and democracy to its people? Would you chuckle a little if Newin Chidchob pointed at Thaksin Shinawatra and screamed, ''You're corrupt!''?

Fanaticism is a continuous cycle of mounting stupidity. Two years ago, it was about an old ruin called Preah Vihear. Last year, it was about 4.6 square kilometres. Two weeks ago it was about a stone tablet on that 4.6 square kilometres. This past week it was about a flag and a pagoda on that same land. Yesterday, it was about the shooting, the deaths and injuries to soldiers and civilians on both sides.

Today, as you're reading this, more reasons are surely arising for Thais and Cambodians to kill each other. And tomorrow? Even more reasons.

What happens five years from now, if the fanaticism of those old men, who are too insecure and egotistical to just retire and tend to a garden, or actually help the country by building schools or homeless shelters, isn't checked and curtailed? Millions of innocents, both Thais and Cambodians, will suffer.

Because fanaticism is an airborne disease, foaming at the mouth, it catches on quick. Yesterday, bickering over 4.6 square kilometres may seem silly. But tomorrow, the deaths of fellow countrymen would demand that most foul, that most base and that most destructive of human impulses: vengeance, a driving force of fanaticism.

Look around the world. People aren't blowing each other up because of some thousand-year-old ancient feud. No, they blow each other up because yesterday their brother, cousin, friend, or that dude who just happen to have their same skin colour, same passport or same religion, was blown up _ and that demands what? Vengeance!

Fanaticism lies, dormant or alive, in the heart of every man. But in Thailand, we _ for the most part _ haven't gone so far as to strap C4 explosives to our behinds for greater glory, not just yet. However, there is a burgeoning, a blossoming of fanaticism. Look for clues, in both the red and the yellow camps.

A year ago, if you asked a red shirt why he marched, his answer would be for democracy, for a general election, for justice for Thaksin Shinawatra. Ask him today, and his answer would be because of the May 19 crackdown and his comrades killed on that day.

In 2006, if you asked a yellow shirt why he marched, his answer would be for the Royal Institution and to fight corruption. Ask him today, and his answer would be 4.6 square kilometres of dirt and ''they shot us first!'' And, oh yeah, ''Because Abhisit sucks!''

Two things both camps have in common. The first is the irrational, illogical and uncritical zeal for a cause, an extreme and blind obsession. The second is rich old men who have the talent for stirring speeches and the willingness to send the young against bullets (rubber or live) in order to justify their benign existence and to boost their political relevance.

And rest assured, none of them can change their minds, nor will they change the subject. Although I do hope they can prove me wrong.

Beware of fanaticism. It's a disease that has killed more than the plague. Nip it in the bud.

After the taxi driver calmed down a bit, I said, ''Sure, we can beat them in war.'' Because, heaven forbid, if I express any doubts over the might of the Thai armed forces against Cambodia, the driver might have kicked me out of his cab. Stranded on the tollway at midnight, on a journey to find the meaning of life at the bottom of a whiskey bottle _ no, we cannot have that.

So I said, ''Sure, we can beat them. But at what price? Is one life of somebody's son, brother, husband or father worth 4.6 sq km of dirt? The life of a daughter, a sister, a wife or a mother? Soldiers or civilians? Is one human life worth 4.6 sq km of dirt?

''It will be a guerrilla war. There will be terrorist tactics. Is your home worth getting blown up over 4.6 sq km of dirt? Living in fear and paranoia each and every day?''

I'm not a pacifist. There are reasons to fight, but 4.6 square kilometres of dirt is not one of them.

So at 2am in the morning, standing in some god-forsaken club, starring down at the bottom of a bottle, looking for life's meaning, what I saw instead was fanaticism and its meaninglessness.

But I also saw hope. Because, you see, the taxi driver was able to see reason, and he said he only had a sixth grade education. Surely, the rest of us could too. Surely, the Thai government and military and their Cambodian counterparts won't let the fanatics dhmanipulate the situation any further.

The question would then become, not who shot first, not who was here first, and not who this stretch of dirt belongs to. But who is willing to extend his hand first, and make peace.


Contact Voranai Vanijaka via email at


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