Friday, May 29, 2009

It takes a foreignor to write creatively about something we Thais take for granted, street food

This is a really good read from the The New York Times:

"Food Vendors: A Thai Tradition with a Twist of Innovation" by Brian Mertens

I love street food in Thailand and miss having ready cooked snacks or filling meals available 24 hours a day. You can hop on your car even at midnight or 5am to get something to eat. In my opinion, the variety and choices of food we get on Bangkok streets beats any offered by other street vendors around the world. Come to think of it, Thailand street food vendors seems to be a much more sustainable and equitable business model than 7-11s. The city authority can do a lot to give them support, such as has been done by checking on their health standards. Maybe more can be done for finding them good sanitary locations.

In the story linked to above, Brian writes about some Thai designers have shown/researched about traditional packaging, such as banana leaves. This is a good trend for the development of biodegradable food containers, something Thailand is pretty much up front. What made my eyes pop in the said article was the quoted annual sales of these vendors amounting to a whopping $1.6 billion. That's not peanuts at all. The writer also reports that a successful food vendor can earn substantially more than an upper middle class income.

It's really cool that an old tradition can be remade to be sexy and hip (with a foreignor's new eyes and his creative writing based on equally creative researching by young forward thinking Thais who have not overlooked humble traditions).

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Thai Cultural Context

This was part of a paper I wrote some years ago to present to my colleagues in a media class, trying to explain the possible difference that could exist between an oral culture (which I think is Thailand) and a textual culture (such as the west).

I somehow thought it might be relevant to discussions raised with fellow bloggers, Krajog and Albert.

Culture, according to Jan Vansina (who has studied oral tradition as history), “can be defined as what is common in the minds of a given group of people.” Culture is a society’s collective representation of ideas, values, and images. Each culture expresses and conceives its messages in its own unique cognitive terms. An understanding of a society’s cultural context is, therefore helpful in any attempt at social analysis.

Two of the most important determining cultural elements of Thai society are the closely related ordering principles of Buddhism and monarchy. The King has always been seen as an upholder of moral Buddhist values who holds the order of Thailand in place. A monarch’s role as topmost center of social power fits with the Thai hierarchical model of the universe.

Thai interpretation of Buddhism is blended with elements of Hindu, Brahmin and local animistic spirit worship. Representations of Thai cosmology can be found in abundance in arts and crafts, architecture, and cultural traditions. Temples jedis, tiered royal umbrellas, mural paintings of the Thai universe, flower arrangements, textiles, pottery, silver/copper/neillo wares, and jewelry designs, all contain some form of circular symbols representing Mt. Meru, the center of the universe, which is defined by its seven concentric rings of alternating lands and oceans.

In mandalic form, this central “mountain” is seen as stabilized by four cardinal points (NW, NE, SW, and SE), placing the concentric circles within a square plane.

Sumet Jumsai (a much esteemed Thai architect who explains Thai cosmology from the architectural structures he has studies) believes that this cosmology could predate Indic influence, and that it comes from an ancient interrelationship with an environment where land and water were constantly shifting. (If you are interested, please look up Acharn Sumet’s “Naga: Cultural Origins in Siam and the West Pacific)

This “mandala”, as a cosmological model, has been found to be so prevalent in Southeast Asian region that it has been adopted as a model for explaining local power relationships. The center’s power is dependent on its tributary’s perception of the center’s ability to negotiate (balance, relate, or communicate) with internal and external forces to maintain a stable balance. This center is never seen as absolute, and is always seen in relation to other higher or lower centers of power. The circles or centers are infinitely repeating patterns of self-reproducing patterns, in many ways similar to fractals.

This mandalic model of center, symmetric and balanced, produced in Thai society cultural codes that are deliberately contrasted. The tension between this contrast, such as that between the center and its periphery, is designed to intentionally produce paradoxical polarly opposed forms of behavior in which conflict is resolved by means of relationship. Concepts of power versus moral goodness (pradej-prakun), or connections of goodness and debt (bunkun) or what can be called patron-client relationship is found at all levels of Thai society. This highly interdependent form of social relationship originated from strong oral traditions that evolved from ancient aquatic/riverine centered settlement. These processes of relating and resolving of polar opposites form the basis of Thai society’s dynamism. In this way, unpredicted natural phenomena or unbalanced political crisis have been known to make unpopular kings and prime ministers who were not well-versed in manipulating the symbols of change, balancing adversity, and cultivating beneficial relationships.

Control over natural resources such as irrigation, land and capital were not as important as an ability to mobilize people. This worldview of continuous change and the importance of relationships meant that textual codes of conduct and legality usually had less weight than a “gentleman’s agreement” or word of mouth. Example of such flexibility can be found in how royal succession was not “written” and was flexible. If the King did not declare who he wished as a successor, (in some cases, even if he did), it was a council that had ultimate say in who would be the new ruler. In some rare occasions, blood lineage was not a necessarily a legitimizing element, such as King Taksin. Historically, a King had to prove his legitimacy as ruler through moral deeds and demonstration of ability, such as in the case of King Ramkamhaeng.

The emphasis of causal interdependence of all phenomena produced a Thai concept of time where beginnings and endings are not important. The prevalent belief in the laws of karma and belief in rebirth are clear demonstrations of this concept of repetitive time. Space is conceived not only as one-dimensional spatial but also multi-dimensional relational. The Traibhumikatha expresses the Thai belief in the world as a space for not only physical beings such has human and animals, but also for non-physical beings, such as, spirits, angels, demons, gods, and indescribable chaos.

Thongchai Winichakul (in his book “Siam Mapped) demonstrated how misunderstanding the incompatible concepts of space vis-à-vis colonial powers put Thailand at a disadvantage in the mapping of their territories as it impinged on the traditional Siamese sphere of power, where no clear boundaries need be defined. According to the Thai concept of power, a shifting periphery was tolerated since these outposts shifted alliances and loyalty depending on their perception of which center was more powerful and could offer them better protection.

Thai cultural context is clearly the opposite of Western rationality that is based on reason and logic in which clearly defined space and time are important.

Some images of mandalas from Acharn Sumet's book:

Friday, May 8, 2009

Why Generals have such a strong hold in Thai society

"Shadow play", my husband commented when I briefed him about the Sonthi assassination plot, "Thailand's politics has many levels of complexities not easily understood by outsiders."

I was explaining to him why Thanpuying Viriya can wield so much power in Thai politics. (BTW, can someone knowledgeable about Thai politics tell me: there was one "Khunying" or hi-so lady who was well known for being an arms dealer. Is this the same person, or what was her name?)

My husband once wrote a paper about the role of Generals in Thai politics in his NUS days when we had just first met. His classmate and good friend was a Thai General. So he knew something more than I did, or sometimes it's the fresh eyes of someone a bit removed from it all that can catch certain things we in the midst of can't see. (He's not a Thai national.)

Most people who have observed Thai politics for some time know about the vicous cycle we go through with coup d'état, appointed government, elections, corrupted politicians, and coup d'état once again. A naive conclusion would be that we have a tendancy to like dictators, strong men, etc. Not so....

If you really dig deep and follow the relationships of the Generals, you'd understand what makes a coup succesful or not are the relationships among certain cliques of Generals. The twists and turns of the aborted coup of 1981 would be a good example among others. "Cliques?", you may ask, "How's that?" Not so obvious is also the fact that in a country of only 60plus million with forces of about 300,000 we have around a hundred Generals. Isn't that absurd? Why do we have so many Generals?

You see, the military is like one of the oldest bureaucracies in Thailand older than the bureaucracy which is pretty old itself. People who enter the military service have paid for education, housing, guaranteed employment and job advancement for life, like a bureaucracy, but better (especially the housing and education part). The "modern" armed forces were set up in 1852 by King Mongkut but the heart that is intertwined with a military mind goes back several hundred years when Kings were also exceptional warriors, or exceptional warriors could become King, the most recent being the general that founded Bangkok and modern Thailand. Let's also not forget that it was the military that was behind Thailand's change from Absolute Monarch to Constitutional Monarchy. Their legitimacy to political power is engrained in the minds of military cadets from the first moments of their training.

The Military Academy is, however, the main culprit in why we can't rid ourselves of generals who feel they have political legitimacy. Class relationships are everything in a Thai student's life. It is why parents are willing to pay so much "additional" entrance fees to get their children in select school, because it ensures their kid's social circle for life. These circles are effective ways to get businesses moving, finding you that reliable doctor and lawyer and what not. The military class relationships tops all by being the forces that can define national government.

I had once thought, well, these Generals were all getting old and will eventually fade away, and maybe we can put hope in our new generation of soldiers who would be professionally trained to be just solders and not hope to be coup leaders. I was once optimistic that Thailand had evolved out of that vicious cycle of coups and elections but my hopes were obviously dashed by the coup of 2006. Then came the yellow shirt/red shirt face off, more power to the Generals.

The often not spoken about damage that Thaksin has done to Thailand, apart from a long list of unpardonable things, is that he had sparked hope and taught to the police cadets or other police strong men that maybe they too could become "One" in the country. I also wonder about the line of relationships that he has bought in the Thai bureaucracy that will try to trip good policies initiated by any well meaning government that will take time to wash out and hence make or politics fragile for some time to come.

Maybe I will write a blog about what makes the common mind of a Thai police.

Just some thoughts from one of the silent golden majority who abhors political demonstrations but have a strong opinion about the mess politics has done to our country. So please don't be too harsh in your comments.