Monday, November 12, 2007

Deconstructing Chang Noi: Plaek Pibulsongkram's Cultural Mandates Making a Comeback

The culture of the cultural bureaucracy

Chang Noi

The Nation

Here are the money quotes:

The ministry has recently reissued a booklet entitled "Thai Social Etiquette". The booklet is written in English and offers visiting foreigners the usual tips about performing a proper wai, not pointing with the feet, and not patting the head. But it is much more wide-ranging than most such guides. It tells its readers how to sit, eat, lie down, walk, speak, dress, make a phone call, queue for the loo, drink, use a spoon, give a speech, pay a visit, and perform at a seminar.

It sums it all up like this: "In Thai society, where seniority is given much importance and politeness to everyone is stressed, in order to be a person with good manners, one must be aware and careful of almost every gesture or movement, and also of almost every word or sentence one utters."

In a business office or factory, the foreigner would find people interacting without any attention to the booklet's rules about social behaviour. In a village, all the booklet's procedures about how to pay a social call would make no sense at all. At the shopping mall, on the bus or Skytrain, the visitor would be forced to conclude that almost none of the people were Thai since they did not seem to walk, talk, sit or dress in the prescribed manner. The booklet warns, "Refrain from holding hands in public as it may have undesirable implication", and declares that "Men do not roll up their sleeves as if getting ready for a fight", but the visitor would find even such desperately stern injunctions being transgressed in full public view.

By now the visitor might conclude that the booklet is a work of complete fantasy on the level of "Star Wars". But that would be wrong. The society described and idealised in the booklet does exist, but is not "Thai society", either past or present. Rather it is one rarefied segment of the society, occupied by senior bureaucrats of the sort that work in or with the Culture Ministry.

They have some defining characteristics. They have a good surname proving they come from a good family - or else they wish they did. They have a private income because it is difficult to maintain the proper public display on the standard bureaucratic pittance - or at least they wish they did. They belong to a profession which used to be very influential but which is being rapidly marginalised as the society becomes richer, more commercial, and more open - and they are nostalgic for an idealised past.

In the early years after its rebirth, the ministry spent a lot of effort compiling a master plan defining its role. The first part of this plan goes out of its way to emphasise how varied Thai society is (in terms of ethnicity, region, urban/rural, occupation), and how dynamic it is as part of the modern globe. This part is descriptive - describing how things are in all their messy variety. But moving to the second part, which frames what the ministry is going to do, the plan slips into another mode altogether. This part is prescriptive - prescribing how things ought to be. And this part junks the enthusiasm for messy variety in favour of a much narrower view.

The results have been both hilarious and tragic. The ministry has tried to outlaw risqu้ songs on the grounds that they are "against Thai culture" when in fact these songs belong to a great tradition of boisterous counterpoint singing which is the historical culture of far more Thais than the courtly arts. The ministry rages against "un-Thai" forms of dress which are rather similar to the way most ordinary people dressed around a century ago. Much more tragically, the ministry has obstructed some highly creative contemporary work in theatre, cinema and the plastic arts.

You can read the column in its entirety here.

Nice to know that the Culture Ministry in the year 2007 has decided to complete the work of dictator Field Marshall Plaek Pibulsongkram's "Cultural Mandates" 70 years later.

Let us review the year: Military dictatorship, kangaroo courts, cultural mandates, self-censorship in the press, Thai media owned and/or controlled by the military and its allies, bloggers going to jail for criticizing the king, websites blocked, books censored and banned, movies censored, the passing of an internet censorship act, the passing of an Internal Security Act, an unaccounted for military buildup, generals joining the civilian government and taking over state industries, concentration camps in the South, civil war in the South, crackdown on foreign workers, political disenfranchisement of the poor. confiscation of foreign business, cozy relations with Burma and China, promotion of cult of personality and worship of the head of state as a God, martial law, using the police powers of the state to silence dissent, the demonization of political enemies and the criminalization of politics.

You would think that Thailand would have learned something from the horrors of the last century. I guess not.

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