A lot of people argue that the Thais are not ready or not equipped for democracy. There may be a grain of truth in this statement. However, I would retort that I learned how to swim by my father first throwing me into the pool.
Life is a trial by errors, learning is doing, no risks no returns, nothing ventured nothing gained – there are plenty of sayings that serve to remind us to not live a life full of excuses. Like the great philosopher Nike of Beaverton proclaimed so many years ago, “Just do it.” Nonetheless, there is still something to the first statement of this column. Let’s examine it.
On Aug. 4, 2017, pandemonium ensued during the freshmen induction ceremony at Chulalongkorn University where students were expected to prostrate on the ground. Led by the former student president Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, a group of students refused to participate. The incident led to one professor putting a student into a headlock in trying to prevent him from leaving the ceremony. On social media, netizens expressed their furor over the students’ action. These students received academic penalties.
Fast-forward to this past week, 25 Western scholars and scientists, including seven Nobel laureates, issued a letter to Chulalongkorn. In the letter, they offered understanding on the importance of the Thai culture but also urged the university to recognize the importance of free speech and an educational institution’s obligation to foster an atmosphere of openness. If any content in the letter could be construed as negative, it may have been use of the term “embarrassment,” in the context that the entire incident was embarrassing for the university.
Read comments left about the related news article on Khaosod English’s Facebook and find social media reactions that explain the thinking of its largely Western or westernized readers. On Khaosod Thai’s Facebook, the social media comments illustrate a completely different mindset. While it may be true that public sentiments are shifting politically, that’s because we are tired of the junta leaders and want to move on with elections and democracy. But that’s about the junta-government. When it comes to culture and tradition, public sentiments have yet to shift from deep-seated conservatism.
One public reaction is the usual cliche we know so well: Farangs should mind their own business; farangs should not comment on Thailand; and of course, farangs can never understand Thailand. Another is in the realm of tragic comedy: Western schools have so much freedom that students are free to shoot them up on a regular basis.
But the attitude relevant to this article is this: Most comments are fine with freedom, and no one espouses hatred of freedom. But, these comments point, freedom must be confined by culture and restrained by tradition. Freedom must be restricted within the boundaries of socially accepted behavior, or the term we Thais like to use: appropriateness.
Who we are today is the consequence of our past. I’ve written many times on how the historical evolutions of Western vs. Thai society have produced different cultural mindsets. Freedom, culture and tradition are important everywhere. However, where a typical Westerner might put freedom as No. 1 on his list of social ideals, a typical Thai may put tradition on top. As such, in Thailand, whenever conflict arises between liberty / human rights vs. culture / tradition, in general the betting odds are on the latter.
This norm does not just dominate our history, it is also what we are taught in schools. From an early age, we are taught to subjugate ourselves to the authority of our elders, prostrate before tradition and bow to social norms. Therefore, it is simply the logical consequence that when young students refuse to prostate or when foreigners critique, we have reactionary impulses. We are fiercely protective of the things we have been taught to love and obey since we were young.
Now, if a society does not value rights, liberty and freedom above all things, then naturally democracy will struggle. The solution to this quandary is something people have talked about for decades, but nothing has ever been done: education. It’s a cycle difficult to get out of. Cultural mindsets are taught and nurtured, but how are we to foster the minds of the young to be different, when the teachers themselves adhere to old traditions, without exception?