Fit to be Thai-ed
This year’s Royal Birthday Speech included another call for unity, echoing previous years’ addresses as well as pronouncements from just about everybody with a claim to some form of national leadership. A call for disunity would hardly be helpful, so this all seems to be perfectly acceptable, if a little anodyne.
Until some of them demonstrate that by unity, they in fact mean uniformity.
So Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, in trying to close down the debate over the lèse majesté law by adding to it, remarked that that those who do not like this perfect law should stay away from the country. This seems another way of repeating Pongpat Wachirabanjong’s acceptance speech at last year’s TV awards when he likened Thailand to ‘father's house’ and ‘if you don’t love dad anymore, then you should get out of here’.
(And as if to demonstrate the insanity of Gen Prayuth’s ‘perfect’ lèse majesté law, he was promptly prosecuted under Article 112 - case later dismissed with no action taken against the accuser as far as I can discover.)
The mindset here appears to be that there are certain essential characteristics to being Thai and anyone failing to display these characteristics forfeits their Thainess and their right to a place in Thai society. (I will leave it to people like Dr Tul Sitthisomwong to provide the scientific proof of the genetic bases of these characteristics.)
But if we are going to get into cultural eugenics, then I fear that a lot of people, through sheer ignorance, may fall foul of the details. I have been searching the sociological literature for a clear explanation of the defining features of Thainess and I have been disappointed with the vagueness of the results.
The somewhat nationalistic texts tell us that proper Thais are polite (except when they drive), tolerant (except for people who have different opinions), honest (unless they belong to the majority who think corruption is OK as long as it gets the job done), prudent (but not when it comes to crash helmets), self-sufficient (until you have a problem in life, in which case you run to the next person for help) and respectful of tradition (provided this does not involve a knowledge of history).
Worthy as these ideas may be, they are next to useless as a practical guide to the proper way of being Thai. Highfalutin virtues are all very well, but we need concrete examples.
So let me, as a disinterested observer, provide some help by starting, not from lofty principles, but from hard facts on the ground.
1) A true Thai should never be serious, a fundamental character fault incompatible with proper Thainess. Most Thais already know this, judging from the frequency with which you hear ‘Yaa serious, na!’ A lack of seriousness is especially valuable in activities where most cultures value seriousness, like studying.
2) It is never necessary for real Thais to walk quickly. Thais should walk more slowly on narrow footpaths or when walking 3 or more abreast, and the speed of pedestrians should be in inverse proportion to the number of (pathetically un-Thai) people behind you trying to get past.
3) Any Thai product, from bread to housing, can be improved by bright pastel colours. Coloured fluorescent lights will similarly enhance any Thai occasion, from fun fairs to funerals, especially if they blink.
4) All psychological or spiritual troubles of true Thais, from PMT to PTS, are best cured by shopping. Many devout Thais (meaning those who are devoutly Thai) will visit a shopping mall, supermarket or convenience store at least once a day and substantial national resources are devoted to the continuous construction of ever more retail outlets.
5) True Thais have an infinite capacity for being surprised. Drivers who run red lights or cross railway lines when the bells are dinging are genuinely shocked to be involved in accidents (and absolutely gobsmacked should they be given a ticket). The most hackneyed, drawn-out, ham-acted slapstick skit will cause hysterics in real Thais, who find such performances most original and creative, even if they watched virtually the same thing last night.
6) And most of all, real Thais will not believe a word of this, partly because of a distaste for anything that smacks of analysis, but primarily because of the unshakable belief that Thainess is something that only Thais can understand, and non-Thais who write clever-clogs stuff like this ought to be deported.