There are different ways to look at the ongoing debate over whether MPs, particularly women, should be allowed to wear traditional local dress to Parliament.
Some may think there must be more urgent issues for MPs to deliberate. House Speaker Chuan Leekpai expressed such sentiments himself on Wednesday: “Are the dress-code regulations what is most important? … Let me end the issue of the dress code here, otherwise people will accuse us of not having anything else to talk about.”
Others may see the matter as about political jealousy, since the main target of criticism is the MP Pannika Wanich, the spokesperson of the anti-junta Future Forward Party. Meanwhile much of the criticism comes from pro-junta Phalang Pracharath Party’s MPs, particularly Parina Kraikup. Parina has publicly lambasted Pannika for weeks, after all.
But the matter has symbolic importance that should not be overlooked.
Last week in Parliament, Pannika and a few other women MPs did not wear the traditional Thai national costume that is popular among Bangkok elites during special occasions. Instead, they wore polite, local northern dress, composed of a sarong paired with a blouse. The attire can be interpreted as an attempt to value traditional local dress on par with traditional national dress.
There is no reason why MPs, of whatever gender, should have to stick with Western or Bangkok-style national attire when working in Parliament. It is only befitting that MPs, who are representatives of voters from all regions and classes, should be able to wear local dress. They represent neither just Bangkokians nor just elites, nor even just the middle class — but all classes of voters nationwide.
อี่นายซ้องปีบ ก่ะจ๊าววววว วันนี้ “ช่อ” พรรณิการ์ วานิช มาในธีมอี่นายซ้องปีบ จากละครกลิ่นกาสะลอง ฟูลเทิร์นเบาๆ จ้าาาาาาา #ช่อ #พรรณิการ์วานิช @Suthida_Pl #สำนักข่าวไทย #กลิ่นกาสะลองฟีเวอร์ pic.twitter.com/cRGTDMaMEm
— Suthida Plongpudsa (@Suthida_Pl) July 4, 2019
Still, some who cling to the dominance of Bangkok over the rest of the kingdom see local dress as a challenge to Bangkok’s rule. The Facebook page “Everything is Political” wrote in Thai on Saturday that Pannika’s act contained a symbolic challenge and can be read as an attempt to “divide the country into pieces”.
The Facebook user went on to make an ominous prediction: “In the future, Thais will increasingly speak local dialects and use local products. This will reduce the power of the capital. And you know whose power will be undermined.” The writer did not offer further details about who they were referring to.
Such is an example of the paranoia which sees any cultural diversity and devolution of power as a threat to the hegemonic power of Bangkok. The truth is that Thailand is more likely to implode if it doesn’t accommodate local identities and voices.
Pannika is not from the northern region but from Bangkok. But that shouldn’t stop her and other Bangkok-based MPs from honoring other regions by donning their beautiful traditional and semi-traditional dress.
It’s unclear whether House Speaker Chuan will revisit the issue any time soon. Future Forward Party is currently seeking to have the dress-code regulations amended.
In the meantime, it falls upon conscientious MPs to represent varying classes and regions around the kingdom sartorially – and beyond – in order to challenge Bangkok’s hegemony. After all, Thailand is not just Bangkok.