(The following article was published yesterday at The Nation newspaper. Here below however, is the originally un-edited submission.
(Original ‘Thai Culture Poster’ from the late 1930s advising Thais to dress smartly….like foreigners)
A few days back, while browsing through the Thai language newspapers, I was startled to read a sensationalist report on teenage pregnancies “According to a world survey, Thailand ranks number 5 in the world” Of course, it was complete baloney, but it seemed the article was leading to just one thing and that was – the frivolous fault of Western culture. How wrong they are, in Thailand’s historical past, it was completely normal to start a family in your teens. As for that new idea about finishing college before enjoying sex and making babies – sounds like an imported one to me.
The Cultural Ministry and the mass Thai language media continually concludes that the decadence of the Thai youth is due to their lack of Thai culture and their embrace of the imported Western one. The Thai press may make mockery of randy males trying to sow their oats with girls they meet on the Internet, but they forget that having an assortment of lovely girls at ones disposal was once part of every day life. Historically, a collection of minor wives was viewed as a sign of hierarchy and status. Such practice was not shunned upon by Thai society and it was even perfectly normal for the common-in-law wife, on behalf of her husband, to go and find a high caliber minor wife in the local village.
Let’s see what the Cultural Ministry has to say about Thai culture – “It shows the dignity, honour and pride of Thai people”….“It is for stability in Thailand, philosophy, discipline, customs, traditions, values and the essence of being Thai”
Ok, let’s look into the bit about discipline and customs and read for ourselves about two of Thailand’s greatest literal and cultural influences. Now, how about the legendary goings-on of a certain Khun Phaen? Instead of fooling around with girls of a more sensible age, Khun Phaen preferred them nice and fresh, his first naughty bedroom encounter was with his darling Miss Phim when she was just 15 years old. Later in the story, Khun Phaen has a string of different ladies and is a complete womanizer. Well, his ways must be part of Thai culture as his adventures have been, for donkey’s years, compulsory reading in Thai schools.
(If the Cultural Ministry complains that Thai youths are taking to alcohol because of Western influence, let’s just go back to the old ways – and smoke opium instead…)
Next up we have another cultural star who is compulsory reading in Thai schools. He is of course, Thailand’s most revered poet – Sunthorn Phu. This guy is so famous in fact, that you can pay respects to him on national Sunthorn Phu Day. So, how about Mr. Sunthorn Phu, what kind of Thai values did he promote? Well, he was one very colourful character indeed – it was recorded that he had an affair with a married woman when he was still a teenager, turned into an alcoholic and was imprisoned for violent behaviour. So, how about his writings? Well, let me quote for you today, some of Phu’s advice on Thai customs (on being a true Thai woman) “If your husband should rise up in anger, you should quench his wrath, do not raise your voice and answer back” and what about this one “Every night you should crouch at your husband’s feet and pay homage”.
You simply don’t read of the Cultural Ministry suggesting that young Thai women adhere to the traditional family values of Sunthorn Phu, so that proves in one way, that they are selective in only trying to pick out and promote what they feel best about Thai culture. As for the shady sexist side of things, seems like the Ministry has deliberately forgotten about it. You could almost call it another form of censorship.
Traditionally, Thai women had very little power and were treated like second-hand shovels. So, how come they are free to go to university and pick their own husbands these days? Of course, such women’s liberation is a shockingly bad example of the import of modern Western culture. Following Thailand’s historically cultural guidelines, a husband ought to have the right to punch his wife if she forgets to wash his socks.
(The Bunnag family, regarded as one of ‘the most influential and powerful families’ in Thai history. They came from Persia.
Next, take the aspect of dress. The Cultural Ministry hires half a dozen staff to browse through magazines pointing out all the awfully indecent pictures of sexy girls posing in revealing spaghetti tops. On the other hand however, just pick up some old Thai history book, and you may see lots of interesting photographs of Thai women waltzing around topless showing off their breasts. To claim that any Thai woman who exposes her cleavage for the eyes of others, as being devoid of any traditional Thainess, is a load of rubbish. The idea of woman covering up and wearing and bra was only just recently imported from the West. Most Thais seem to forget that though, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Thai children are even taught in school that Thailand invented the brassiere.
Much of this transition to Western clothing was encouraged by none other than the one and only ultra-nationalist dictator Plaek Phibulsongkran. During his revision of Thai ways, not only did he implement a groovy set of cultural mandates which included saluting the national anthem twice a day, eating with spoon and fork but he also ordered a crackdown on uncivilized pauper-like dress. Schoolgirls had to look presentable, out with those ugly sarongs and in with nice skirts. Businessmen had to look smart too, out with those pathetic longyis and sandals and in with shirt, tie and jacket. And to top it all off, the wearing of a nice English-style hat when out in public, was also considered mandatory.
So, if the whole of Thai culture is really great as the Cultural Ministry makes it out to be, then that means that the likes of corruption is a perfectly moral practice. One thing that Thais have been conditioned to believe for the past two hundred years is that respect be given to elders and others of a higher status. It was traditional in Thailand therefore, that clients gave gifts to patrons in exchange for protection and favours. As for any of those ‘free our country from corruption’ ideas, well perhaps Thailand should just send them back to the West – they are not part of Thai culture.
Every now and then, we hear of high ranking officials teaching us that due to the possible threat of a foreign take over, it is necessary to limit the rights of all foreigners. But, however, if you look back to just yesteryear, foreigners have for hundreds of years been influencing Thailand in ways deemed completely all right. Take the noble Bunnag family of the nineteenth century, they have gone down positively, as ‘one of the most influential and powerful families in Thai history’. Did they come from Phuket? Afraid not, they came from Persia. Take the Father of Modern Thai Art, Silpa Bhirasri, well he wasn’t exactly Thai – he was Italian. In fact, you could fill this whole newspaper up with a fountain of truth about the positive influence of foreigners upon Thai society.
I would like to suggest therefore, that the Cultural Ministry and the Thai media stop promoting xenophobia, get to grips with reality and realize that Thai culture isn’t as perfect as they wish it was. Should they continue to blame Western influence for the decadence in Thai society, then not only are they naïve to the historical facts but also just making up on big lame excuse.
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