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Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2007

Thai character trumps flaws of politics

LOS ANGELES — When social scientists or journalists are in doubt, sometimes it's best to consult the artist.

On Aug. 19, there was a big referendum vote in Thailand. It passed, but no one is that thrilled about it — no one except the ruling junta. It had kicked out the previous prime minister, who is now in exile, and cooked up the new referendum to make it harder for someone like him to ever have so much power again.

The referendum did well enough in the urban areas of Thailand, but it pretty much bombed in the rural areas where the previous prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, is still considered a hero.

The reason Thaksin is liked in the sticks is that he gave the impression he really cared about the plight of the poor. The gap between rich and poor is a big problem in Thailand, even if poverty is no worse than in the rest of Asia. Increasingly, in fact, it's a regionwide concern.

India's intellectual prime minister has offered deeply thoughtful and timely speeches to his wealthy business elite as well as to his countryman about it.

China's current leaders have openly admitted that creating wealth alone won't do if the rich-poor gap only gets worse. Even Japan, with its samurai-socialist-capitalist system equating proper income distribution with social harmony, is alarmed by its own apparently widening gap.

But up to now, none of these three giant countries has been able to dazzle the world with original and effective gap-reduction policies. Thailand, under Thaksin, had hoped to be different. Instead, Thaksin's pro-poor policies were viewed as deeply demagogic and insincere by ruling circles, and triggered a military takeover almost a year ago. To say the least, the country's oft-admired king did not appear notably unhappy about the ouster.

You would think that all this political turmoil would have made Thailand into something like another gloomy Myanmar. But that hasn't happened. That's because, if I may be allowed a diversion, you can travel as much as you want and go wherever you want but you may not find a more likable people anywhere than the Thais. In their culture there is no hour for the dour.

This is where the artist as expert comes in handy. Chris Coles, the painter who divides his time between Bangkok and Los Angeles, is a huge fan of the Thais as a people and often paints them in his art: "In my paintings, there is tremendous resilience in the Thai culture and personality that can deal with an amazing level of adversity without complaining, a primitive energy that can work six 12-hour days and still find the energy to party hard a few nights a week.

"And there is also the Buddhism that helps Thais maintain a strong desire for the middle way (i.e., endless compromise and wavering) instead of violent confrontation."

Coles loves painting Thais precisely because their stoic energy brings his canvases so much to life. And if the artist — with his slashing expressionist lines and bucolic bursts of color — has in fact caught the national character more or less exactly right, the character of the Thais should long endure over the defects of the country's political system and culture, at least as we in the West see them through our own ethnocentric eyes.

You don't have to be an expert on Thailand to appreciate the enduring Energizer-Bunny energy-level that is manifestly on view. Coles himself admires the Thais for more than their vivacity as models; he admires their vivacity in life. He says the reason that unemployment in Thailand, despite all the other troubles, hovers at a mere 2 percent or so has little to do with government policies.

Rather, it has everything to do with the Thai character. These people work — and when they lose a job, they don't wait for someone to help them; they go out and find a new job.

Says Coles: "The big capitalists and industries will keep growing, the tourists will keep coming, and the Thai people will carry on."

Artists are not always known for being optimists, but this optimistic view by one optimistic artist is going to be my view for the time being. Thailand is never going to become a leaden Myanmar or a disaster like North Korea. Bumping along, working hard, it will find its rightful place on the Asian stage — and find it with a smile as big as the country itself.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a veteran journalist and author of "Confessions of an American Media Man."

Copyright 2007 Tom Plate

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