Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The unbearable lightness of Thai culture

The ownership claim by Thailand of the jeeb gesture, a gracious hand movement of the Ramakien epic, and of the shadow theater using large leather figures (nang yai) is considered as a priority for Mrs Sukumol Kunplome, the new minister of culture. It is hard not to spot an hint of nationalism behind this move as it is a reaction to the registration by Cambodia of the Royal Khmer Ballet and of their own version of shadow theater on the Intangible cultural heritage list of UNESCO in 2008. But more importantly, it allows us to dig into this notion of “Thai culture” which is continuously emphasized by various government agencies as a supposed pillar of the Thai way of being.

In this official format, Thai culture is rather restrictive. It includes mostly the court culture (royal rituals, khon, ramakien, buddhist ceremonies) and some aspects of the commoners culture, as Thai boxing or regional dances. Curiously, some villagers’ traditions are discarded and never presented by officials as part of the Thai heritage, as for instance betel chewing or cock fighting, even if the carrying of betel boxes was, in the past, a sign of rank. This bureaucratic approach to culture divides cultural behaviors and habits into “proper” and “improper” : wearing a sarong is improper but joining palms to wai is proper ; speaking the ratchasap (royal language) is proper but speaking the earthy northeastern Lao dialect is improper. This narrow idea of culture also tends to ignore various creative ventures by young and old artists, who are deemed too uncontrollable to fit the rigid framework. It is not an all-encompassing notion of culture, aiming to celebrate the diversity and creativity of the multiple groups and talents belonging to the country, but a defensive culture, choosy about its picks and always weary of opening up and sharing. In 2002, the minister of Culture, Pongphol Adireksarn, famously proposed a draft law aiming to ban the teaching of Thai boxing and Thai massage to foreigners so that “Thai wisdom stays in the hands of the Thais”.

By claiming ownership of the jeeb gesture and the shadow theatre, the official Thai culture is on its ground : what has been integrated formally in Thai culture has become sacred and inviolable. In face of such dogmatism, it is tempting to hint at the Indian origin of Ramakien - a reality sometimes ignored, as showed by an upper-class lady telling me : “Oh, do they also have Ramayana in India ?” - or at the popularity of shadow theater in the Malay world. Such ownership claims asserted by the Thai minister of culture are a little bit like saying that Celtic music belongs to French Britanny. The same twisted logic explains why some Thai archeologists use the category “Lopburi style” to speak about Angkor style monuments. There is a process of Thai-isation of foreign inputs, which is perfectly fine as long as cultural history is not denied. Nobody owns culture.

Going further, the world of Thai culture is mired in contradictions. As i was asking in a large book store for a copy in Thai of the classic Khun Chang Khun Paen, an employee took a long time to painfully retrieve a unique copy hidden on a shelf. But no less than four different Thai versions of the Chinese epic “Three Kingdoms” (sam kok) were exhibited behind the main cashier counter. Chineseness is an important part of the Thai way of being, especially in large urban areas, but why such a fundamental Thai classic as Khun Chang Khun Paen is not widely available in bookstores ? Should this book be the Jewell of Thai culture ? It is not particular to Thailand. In Indonesia, the great javanese epic “The Book of Centhini”, store of much of the island's ancient culture, had never been translated in bahasa indonesia until a few years ago. It was translated into Indonesian and then French at the end of the 1990s under a project coordinated by writer Elisabeth Inandiak.

Arnaud Dubus

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Beyond the call of duty

For some time i have been intrigued by the Thai expression pathibat natee (ปฏิบัติ หน้าที่) or “accomplishing his duty”. Repeatedly said by politicians and bureaucrats during discourses, in front of courts of justice and in reply to embarrassing questions, it has a mantra-like quality that is found in many other overused Thai expressions. In the last few weeks, I found this expression in various news items. One was quoting the current army chief, general Prayuth Chan-Ocha, explaining that military officers and rank and file military should not be worried by the coming change of government, in regard to the brutal repression of the Red shirts demonstrations of April-May last year. “Why should we be worried, because we have accomplished our duty ?”, he said. In another article, it was said that the policemen who killed a seven year old boy during an operation to catch a drug trafficker in the course of the infamous “war on drugs” in 2003, had received reduced sentences of a few months in jail by the court, because they killed the boy “while accomplishing their duty”.

Obviously, something was amiss. Can we say that a taxi driver who crush a passer-by on the road can be forgiven because he was “accomplishing his duty” - driving his car in quest of customers ? In which country the killing of tenth of mostly unarmed civilians by security forces would be considered as part of their duties ? There seems to be, here, a play on the words, a semantic trick to justify the unjustifiable.

Of course, much depends on what meaning you give to “duty” ? When I was a conscript in the French army in the mid-eighties, a young officer made a speech during the very first day of our training period. He said that, if an officer gave us an order to shoot into a crowd of civilians, he hoped that we would have the common sense and determination to refuse to follow the order “because the French army is a citizens’ army”. Obviously, for this officer, duty included something else that the blind obedience to whatever command was received from the hierarchy. So there is a sense of duty which is wider than the narrow focus on “doing his job” without any considerations of the broader implications. This higher sense of duty is based on the respect of the right of others, on some basic moral principles, on the use of the brain and on the will to be not only a mechanical part of a larger machine. In Thailand, the narrow focus on “duty” appears to be mostly a corporatist protective tool for the bureaucracy : whatever wrong is done, there is always a way to land back on his feet by saying “Well, there was a large loss of life, but I stuck to the bureaucratic rules”. To the letter of the rules, that is, but not to the spirit, because you can always manipulate the letter the way you want.

Another element is the absence of a built-in punishment system in case of wrong doing. A journalist who distorts facts will be fired. A businessman who invests in loosing ventures will be ruined. He won’t be able to cover his failure by saying that he “did his duty”. “Accomplishing his duty” has then to be seen as the fig leaf of bureaucrats. And every time we hear this expression, we should enter rebellion.

Arnaud Dubus