By SANITSUDA EKACHAI
The mother was holding her baby tightly under an umbrella, trying her best to guard him from the pouring rain.
I could not see her face in the picture. But as a mother, I could feel her shaking fear, not for herself, but for her baby's safety, as a group of soldiers forced her and other Karen refugees to board a boat back to the war zone in Burma.
As a Buddhist, I know I should not feel enraged. Yet I was doubly enraged at the forced repatriation in Mae Hong Son last week.
It is bad enough to know that Thai troops have no heart for the innocent people who are war victims. But to force them back to face possible violence and death on the holy day of Asarnha Bucha? How could they possibly do this?
The cruelty is eye-opening. When such an important holy day has no power to arouse even a pinch of morality among those who declare themselves as the protectors of Buddhism, and when society at large feels nothing against such inhumanity, we are in a very deep, dark pitch.
But condemnation, however legitimate, only deepens our negativity. To have any hope at all of cleansing our souls and our sins, we must probe the roots of such cruelty.
It helps to go back to the gist of the Buddha's First Sermon on Asarnha Bucha Day. In case we have forgotten, here it is:
Our suffering stems from our likes and dislikes rooted in the false sense of self.
To end this cycle, we need to see that we are mere temporary composites of mind and matter under the natural laws of impermanence and conditionality. To realise this truth, the Buddha advises we follow the Eight-fold Path to see for ourselves the natural laws or dharma, to maintain ethical conduct, and to foster spiritual development.
The path helps us to avoid hurting or exploiting others. When the cessation of anger, greed and delusion can be many lifetimes away, constant contemplation on impermanence can miraculously fill our hearts with calm and loving kindness.
The realities of our daily struggles and politics have made it difficult to follow the path. That is why we celebrate Asarnha Bucha, so we can stop and review ourselves.
Buddhism is an optimistic system. People are not originally bad. Our behaviour is conditioned. We can change when the conditioning changes.
So we must ask why the military and the public believe that forced repatriation is not sinful? Also, why do we believe we are good Buddhists when we treat ethnic peoples like dirt?
Is it because fear has made us heartless? Is it because our traditional concept of sin has become too narrow for the modern age? Or is it because we are the faithful followers of a religion much more powerful than Buddhism - that of racist nationalism?
Is it all of the above?
The forced repatriation in Mae Hong Son last week was not the first, and it won't be the last, which failed to shake our hearts.
The public felt undisturbed when a group of youngsters from the Hmong refugee camp in Phetchabun was repatriated to Laos without their parents. Their camp was burned down after a petition against power and sexual abuse. And when they tried to make their voices heard in Bangkok, they were immediately deported to risk their lives from persecution in Laos.
Similarly, we feel nothing in using immigrant workers as slave labour, or when their families are shattered by separate deportations.
Meanwhile, the deep South has become a war zone because we insist on seeing the ethnic Muslim Malays as outsiders.
If this is not racist nationalism, what is?
As the country is fired up by the Preah Vihear nationalistic frenzy, I wonder how the Karen mothers and their children are doing back in the war zone.
It is still raining hard. Can they find shelter and food? Can they stay safe? Can they forgive us our sins?
Sanitsuda Ekachai is Assistant Editor (Outlook), Bangkok Post.