It has been two years since I last set foot in Thailand, a country that I was lucky to call home for eight years working as a documentary filmmaker. This time, it feels very different, as if something awful is about to happen at any moment.
Walking around Bangkok, a city of an estimated 12 million people, there are depressing scenes of war readiness: piles of sandbags, razor-wire barricades, menacing men in ski masks, and netting overhead to thwart grenade attacks.
Everywhere there are more and more visible symbols of patriotism and nationalism — on billboards, T-shirts, and television — designed to emphasize the unquestionable unity of the Thai people.
Friends and strangers spoke of civil war, or at least the beginnings of it. It is certainly new to hear Bangkok residents speaking like this, but in truth there has been a civil war in Thailand for nearly a decade. I witnessed its spark, not in the streets of Bangkok but over 500 miles to the south, near the Thai-Malaysian border, back in 2004.
'The elites claim they can best decide for other 'lesser' Thais what the future of the country should look like.'
There, in a small seaside town called Tak Bai, a violent security crackdown of ethnic Malay Thais killed 85 protesters, and escalated a bloody Malay-Muslim insurgency against the Thai government. Bombings, executions, and arson attacks are now routine in Thailand’s three southern provinces.
Nearly 6,000 people have died violently there since 2004, and the growing separatist movement has shattered the myth of Thai unity. The conflict I saw at first hand now sadly feels like a prelude to a nationwide civil war.
For years, successive Thai governments have promoted a homogenous "Thai" identity in a country of ethnic and linguistic diversity. Malay-Muslims in the south were forced to give up their language and use Central Thai. The same went for Lao-speaking Thais in the north-east and Lanna-speaking people in the north.
These policies were designed to unite the country under the banner of the monarchy and the state. Naturally, those closest to the purest symbol of "Thai-ness" — the monarchy — felt the greatest sense of entitlement over the wealth and affairs of the country.
The pecking order went down from there, and whoever lacked the perceived attributes of Thai-ness belonged further down. At best, those at the very bottom were called kheak, a derogatory term meaning guests. At worst, they were seen as enemies devoid of any rights.
With spreading civil unrest, this obsession with Thai-ness and who best represents Thailand has taken on an even more dangerous rhetoric. The elites claim they can best decide for other “lesser” Thais what the future of the country should look like.
Conspiracies about Cambodian assassins seeding chaos are rife among royalist anti-government protesters. Xenophobia and fear have long been detectable in Thailand, but now that climate is much more menacing. And — as Thais fight Thais in bloody street battles over who is more patriotic — it is ripping the country apart.