If PM really wants to promote Thainess, he must listen to the voices of the people
Inspired by the success of a nightly soap opera “Destined Love”, Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha is encouraging Thai citizens to wear traditional outfits from that era in public places.
This should not come as a big surprise since Prayut, the junta chief-turned-politician, has been looking for gimmicks to sell to the public to boost his image and change his perception from a military strongman to a caring public figure. It’s in line with his Thai Niyom initiative and it’s clear that the PM thinks turning the clock back, at least for the sake of appearances, must be a good thing.
Prayut’s encouragement comes amid a campaign that saw people in period costumes flock in large numbers to the month-long festival designed to help Thai people overcome the sadness of the recent past and pay tributes to the monarchy.
There is nothing wrong with harking back to Thai traditions and customs to promote your own political agenda. But the truth is that when everything else fails, falling back on nationalism and conservatism often seems to be a safe bet.
This seems to be a worldwide trend. Even a country such as the United States, which expounded the values of multiculturism and pluralism, has ended up with a ruler like Donald Trump, who came to power by exploiting people’s fears and anxieties about pluralism and multiculturism.
We have to ask ourselves first whether our society really values pluralism, especially when our education system encourages our children to believe that we are superior to our neighbours?
We are told that we are “Thais” and we should embrace “Thainess”. But the definition of Thai and Thainess were defined by the state, not by the people who reside within the political borders of this nation. It is, indeed, a loaded word and it offers little space for people who speak a different language (Lao, Mon, Khmer, Lanna, Malay, etc.) but are full-fledged citizens of this nation.
Our country is a melting pot made up of people whose ancestors came from different parts of the world.
But in reality, we still look down on people who don’t speak central Thai – the language and dialect that is used in the Central region. Too often, people who see themselves as guardians of this “Thainess” are discriminatory, and typecast as ugly and backward people from other regions of Thailand. What’s ironic about this scenario is that the parents or grandparents of some of these self-proclaimed guardians were Chinese or Vietnamese immigrants.
Prayut might want to be just a little more careful when picking and choosing which era and historical narrative he wants to promote. As we all know, looking at old historical photographs, common folk back then wore no shoes and women often went topless. Will he or the authorities give the nod if some of the people showed up barefoot or topless? Will that era of Thainess be acceptable?
The prime minister can draw inspiration from many other sources for the future of our country instead of a soap opera that paints a dreamy picture of what our society was supposed to be like. Young people from all walks of life are speaking out more and more about what kind of country they want to live in, while the general public is tired of the junta and would like to see the country move on from this era of political deadlock.
Instead of watching soap operas, perhaps Prayut and the junta should try listening to them for a change.