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Thai exceptionalism - a myth or Reality?

AN IMPORTANT part of education is how we teach about our own country in a balanced in-depth way. When I studied US history in school, I never learned about President Roosevelt's executive order 9066 of 1942, which incarcerated innocent Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast.

With the Asean Economic Community (AEC) era starting in 2015, it is important for Thailand to rethink its rather ultra-nationalistic curriculum and related teaching.

In recent years and months, I have given numerous presentations on the controversial concept of Thai exceptionalism. Many western scholars take issue with this notion, which they consider elitist and argue that it contributes to Thais feeling superior to their neighbours in Asia.

A major principle in cross-cultural teaching and training is that you must understand your own culture before you can begin to understand others.

This discussion of Thai exceptionalism hopefully may help Thais to appreciate their own culture even more and the essence of Thainess. At the same time, it can help those in other Asean nations better understand Thailand.

Unfortunately, there is confusion about the meaning of the term exceptionalism. It does not mean superiority, though it can contribute to feeling superior and promoting ultra-nationalism. Its actual meaning is uniqueness; something that one country has that is distinctive, which no other country has.

Defined in this way, I have identified a number of examples of Thai exceptionalism. Some are quite important, while others are fascinating but rather trivial.

The first and most important is Thailand's royal system and how most Thais across the political spectrum cherish this institution. There will be a picture in every school of the king. Though many countries have monarchies, there is none in which all students graduating from public universities receive their degrees from a member of the royal family. Many families proudly display pictures of their children receiving degrees from a member of the Royal Family.

His Majesty the King is the longest-serving monarch in the world. Between the years 1968-1993, he never travelled abroad but instead visited all the districts of his nation.

Second is the Thai language. There are over 500 Thai heart (jai) compound words showing how incredibly nuanced the Thai language is in conveying complex emotions. There is a special language (rachasap) which is used in communications with high-ranking royals and monks.

Though the Thai language has tone marks, many tones are implicit not indicated by a tone mark (unlike Vietnamese where tones are totally explicit or Chinese where tones are not shown). Also Thai has a karan symbol to indicate when not to pronounce a letter. Lao, once had the same mark, but no longer. Also Thai has a huge number of acronyms often with only the last letter of the acronym followed by a period. I have a 243-page dictionary of Thai acronyms.

Third, Thai has a remarkably sophisticated and complex naming system with all kinds of diverse titles. Also all Thais, even prime ministers, have nicknames such as "Poo" and "Mark".

Fourth, despite negative international stereotypes about Thai women, they have been remarkably successful particularly in the business sector. Some 49 per cent of chief executive officers in Thailand are women, the highest proportion in the world.

Fifth, Thailand is unusual among developing nations in that it imports little food and often is a major food exporter, frequently being the world's number one exporter of rice. For this reason, Thailand rightly deserves the title of "kitchen of the world" and there is even a published directory of Thai restaurants in Africa.

Sixth, while many nations are known for having friendly people, Thais in general are super friendly, especially toward outsiders. Only in Thailand have I had a taxi driver offer me food. Seeing that I had respect for the Thai Royal Family, one stranger gave me a copy of a book of photographs taken by HM King Bhumibol, a gift that I really cherish.

Seventh, despite current intense political polarisation and conflict, throughout its modern history Thailand (with the exception of persistent problems in the Deep South), has been remarkably peaceful. As the result of its highly effective bamboo diplomacy, Thailand suffered the least during World War II. During the war in Vietnam, Thailand suffered far less than Cambodia, Laos, or Vietnam. Though it has had many military coups since 1932, just one, on October 6, 1976, was seriously violent. In the six months of recent political turmoil there have been only about 23 deaths, far less than in other countries currently suffering political conflict.

Eighth, though some Western scholars argue that Thailand was a "semi-colony", Thailand is rare among developing countries in never having been colonised and is the only country in Southeast Asia with this unique status.

Ninth and this is a negative, Mechai Viravaidya, the Condom King, has called Thailand a nation of "lawbreakers". Various laws are continually being broken in Thailand. Civic and citizenship education needs to be improved to deal with this problem.

Tenth there are several fascinating but trivial examples of exceptionalism: In Thailand the zoo and Parliament are in close proximity (again noted by Mechai). There is a golf course in the middle of Don Mueang International Airport. Bangkok is one of the hottest cities in the world and has traffic jams and congestion at 2am in the morning in the Sukhumvit area.

In learning about its AEC neighbours, Thais need to think about what is exceptional about each of them. For Cambodia, it would be magnificent Angkor Wat, the largest religious complex in world. For Laos, it might well be the awesome Lipi waterfalls and the approximately 4,000 islands in the Mekong River there.

Each AEC nation and its citizens can take pride in what makes them exceptional without feeling superior and becoming ultra-nationalist.



Gerald W Fry, Distinguished International Professor,

Department of Organisational Leadership, Policy, and Development

College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota

gwf@umn.edu






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