Opinion: Amanda Obdam and Hegemonic Thai Identity

Amanda Obdam during Miss Universe 2020 pageant in Hollywood, Florida on May 16, 2021. Photo: Miss Universe
Amanda Obdam during Miss Universe 2020 pageant in Hollywood, Florida on May 16, 2021. Photo: Miss Universe

Thailand’s Amanda Chalisa Obdam may not have won Miss Universe 2020 Crown last week, but the debate about her Thai identity was ignited anew.

First were those who found Amanda’s political stance un-Thai. Amada had earlier tweeted in support of the right for monarchy-reform protesters to demonstrate. In a deeply polarized political and ideological climate, some ultra-royalists consider monarchy-reform protesters and their supporters “nation haters,” or “chang chart” in Thai.

This is an attempt to monopolize what Thainess constitutes, ideologically speaking. Some tweeted while the Miss Universe Competition was broadcasting live from Florida, cursing Amanda, wishing that she would be eliminated as soon as possible, and mocking her after she only made it to the top ten. Others went further. They bullied and degraded her by setting up a price for her for a night on social media.

It’s clear that these people do not see Amanda as representing Thailand in the competition due to her ideological stance. To these ultra-royalist conservatives, there can only be one way to be Thai and to revere the monarchy is to be ‘genuine’ Thais.

Back in February, the beauty queen tweeted from her account @amanda_obdam in Thai and English: “How can we talk about love when there’s still violence on the streets” with photos of riot police cracking down on monarchy-reform protesters.

The incident led her to be stripped of her role as goodwill ambassador for the Department of Mental Health.

Narrow-minded government agencies and some Thais seek to alienate Thais holding competing political ideologies as un-Thai, thus nation haters and making ‘the other.’

On another front, is the perennial question raised whether a Eurasian representing Thailand at an international beauty contest is Thai or Thai enough or not. Is Amanda truly Thai or Thai enough since she’s Thai-Canadian of Dutch, Thai and Chinese ancestry?

When Amanda was crowned Miss Universe Thailand 2020 last October, she was asked about her about the complex identity.

“I was born to a Thai mother, I couldn’t have been more Thai. So I wanna show you all of me, all of my Thainess, because I am Thai,” she said.

I am happy to report that this issue is becoming less and less relevant among Thais now, and those who say she is only 25 percent Thai because her father is Canadian and her Thai mother has 50 percent Chinese blood is but a tiny minority or some expats stuck with the notion of Thai racial purity. Thai racial purity is basically a myth and out of sync with reality.

Thais are people of diverse ethnicity even before the arrival of Europeans. In the northeast are people of Laotian and Cambodian ethnicities, in the deep south are Thai Malay Muslims. Many Chinese migrants, particularly their offspring have ‘gone native’ and inter-married with Thais of other ethnicities long ago. To try to locate pure Thai blood is a joke, if not impossible.

On a side note, a Facebook friend who is Thai-Indian once wrote that upon being asked by a Thai whether he’s Thai, he replied in Thai: “I was assembled in Thailand from imported parts,” borrowing the analogy of auto-industry assembly line.

What’s more, you might also want to note that the second runner up of Miss Universe Thailand 2020 is a Thai-Indian. Paveena Singh who looks totally South Asian and speaks impeccable Thai as she was born and raised in Thailand as a Thai and south Asian.

I have no problem with this beautiful graduate of Thammasat University, a fan favourite, representing Thailand in the future if she re-runs and wins. As a matter of fact, given the Thai-Indian communities contribution to Thai society, it’s about time we let a Thai-Indian represent Thailand not just in international beauty pageants but other arenas as well.

It appears to me that Thai identity, at the very basic, is bound by a common Thai language, standard Thai and its regional varieties, and a common experience of years if not decades spent inside this parochial society.

I would argue that many migrants, be it from Asia or further afield, who have stayed in Thailand for a decade or more and are fluent in Thai should also be regarded as one of us as well.

Think about LGBT struggles for acceptance for the third, fourth, and fifth sex. It might help understand that just like there’s no one single sexual identity, there’s no one single Thai identity as well.

Fighting against narrow-minded and hegemonic Thai identity – political or racial – is something still worth doing.

Let no one tell you you’re not Thai, or Thai enough, because of your look. Let no one tell you you’re not Thai, or hate Thailand, because of your differing political belief.