In its pursuit of ‘thainess’, the government seeks to restore long-discredited values
The phenomenon generated by the TV series “Buppesannivas” (“Love Destiny”) has included a fashion fad as Thais dress in period costumes. We believe this might be good for commerce, but it’s politically incorrect. The television soap opera is a massive hit, sparking mania among Thais of all generations, who are flocking to the filming locales in historical Ayutthaya. People have their photos taken in classical costumes, not only at the shooting sites but also for their national ID cards. Restaurants have added dishes to their menus solely because they’ve been mentioned on the TV series.
However the military-led government under Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is wrong to interpret this phenomenon as a revival of Thai nationalism. It wants to exploit it for political gain. The government wants to seize the momentum to promote Thai culture and nationalism as a match for its Bt100-billion “Thai Niyom Yangyuen” (“Sustainable Thainess”) programme launched earlier this year.
Government officials have been encouraged to wear clothing made of Thai fabric during work hours, though the move has drawn complaints that those who don’t comply face discrimination. The Culture Ministry and Tourism and Sports Ministry dived into the “creative economy” concept with the goal of celebrating “Thainess”. Anyone wearing traditional Siamese attire was admitted to national museums and historical parks during Historical Thai Heritage Conservation Week, which ended on Sunday.
“Buppesannivas” is set during the reign of King Narai of the Ayutthaya Kingdom. That was three centuries before the concept of a “nation-state” was adopted in this land. The series, which will end later this month, is about a kind-hearted woman named Kedsurang whose soul is transported back in time to the Ayutthaya Period to live in the body of a second woman called Karaked, who is cursed for plotting a murder.
While there are some historical scenes in the TV series, “Buppesannivas” cannot be called truly historical. It’s just a love story with Ayutthaya as its backdrop. Hundreds of period films have been produced over the years, but few have found an audience. “Buppesanmivas” became a hit because it’s about ordinary people and there’s little in the line of politics.
Scholars have said the soap opera reflects nostalgia, a yearning for the past. Thais have been told for generations that their kingdom was far better in the past than it is today. Education and entertainment have reinforced this mistaken belief, implanting it in the Thai mindset to help the established elite maintain the status quo. The elite always say “Thainess” is preferable to Western ways.
However, Prayut and the Culture Ministry – which is planning to co-produce similar historical dramas evoking Thainess –need to realise one thing, that Ayutthaya during King Narai’s time was already westernised in many aspects, notably in its diplomacy and culture.
The Thailand of the distant past was no Heaven on Earth. Inequality was prevalent. There were masters and slaves. There were no such ideas as democracy or rights. Women were the property of men. The pursuit of “Thainess” might be a disguised attempt to restore such inhumane values.
Rather than talking about “the good old days” and Thainess, the government should remember it has a vision for the future that requires adherence to modern values. There’s nothing wrong with watching soap operas and dressing in traditional costumes for pictures, but it’s incorrect for the government to exploit the current fad to mislead people about a past that never existed.