Sunday, August 07, 2011

Beyond the call of duty

For some time i have been intrigued by the Thai expression pathibat natee (ปฏิบัติ หน้าที่) or “accomplishing his duty”. Repeatedly said by politicians and bureaucrats during discourses, in front of courts of justice and in reply to embarrassing questions, it has a mantra-like quality that is found in many other overused Thai expressions. In the last few weeks, I found this expression in various news items. One was quoting the current army chief, general Prayuth Chan-Ocha, explaining that military officers and rank and file military should not be worried by the coming change of government, in regard to the brutal repression of the Red shirts demonstrations of April-May last year. “Why should we be worried, because we have accomplished our duty ?”, he said. In another article, it was said that the policemen who killed a seven year old boy during an operation to catch a drug trafficker in the course of the infamous “war on drugs” in 2003, had received reduced sentences of a few months in jail by the court, because they killed the boy “while accomplishing their duty”.

Obviously, something was amiss. Can we say that a taxi driver who crush a passer-by on the road can be forgiven because he was “accomplishing his duty” - driving his car in quest of customers ? In which country the killing of tenth of mostly unarmed civilians by security forces would be considered as part of their duties ? There seems to be, here, a play on the words, a semantic trick to justify the unjustifiable.

Of course, much depends on what meaning you give to “duty” ? When I was a conscript in the French army in the mid-eighties, a young officer made a speech during the very first day of our training period. He said that, if an officer gave us an order to shoot into a crowd of civilians, he hoped that we would have the common sense and determination to refuse to follow the order “because the French army is a citizens’ army”. Obviously, for this officer, duty included something else that the blind obedience to whatever command was received from the hierarchy. So there is a sense of duty which is wider than the narrow focus on “doing his job” without any considerations of the broader implications. This higher sense of duty is based on the respect of the right of others, on some basic moral principles, on the use of the brain and on the will to be not only a mechanical part of a larger machine. In Thailand, the narrow focus on “duty” appears to be mostly a corporatist protective tool for the bureaucracy : whatever wrong is done, there is always a way to land back on his feet by saying “Well, there was a large loss of life, but I stuck to the bureaucratic rules”. To the letter of the rules, that is, but not to the spirit, because you can always manipulate the letter the way you want.

Another element is the absence of a built-in punishment system in case of wrong doing. A journalist who distorts facts will be fired. A businessman who invests in loosing ventures will be ruined. He won’t be able to cover his failure by saying that he “did his duty”. “Accomplishing his duty” has then to be seen as the fig leaf of bureaucrats. And every time we hear this expression, we should enter rebellion.

Arnaud Dubus

No comments: