Myths in Thai Society

by Dr. Chaiwat Santha Anan


I want to share with you some of my structural understandings of the Thai society. When I am asked to introduce Thailand to some friends from abroad, I would share about the myths in Thai society. And I would submit to you four myths in Thai society:

  • That Thailand has never been colonized;
  • That Thailand is a Buddhist society;
  • That Thailand is a monolithic society; and
  • That Thailand is a democratic society.

I do not mean that these are all lies. Myths mean to hide certain aspects to reveal part of the truth. So I urge you to go through this list with me and perhaps at the end we can put a question mark at the end of each statement. I think this will help you understand more about the Thai society.

If you read history books or travel guides, one of the things that they say about Thailand is that it is unique for that fact that the Thai society has never been colonized. My submission to you is that this statement is not totally wrong. But we have to qualify this statement, that is, Thai society has never been formally colonized. Let me paint you an old picture of Thai elite then. Years ago, you will see old photographs of the Thai elite wearing western clothing. They would send their children to study abroad - meaning Europe in those days. In many of their letters, they used English as a medium of communication. In Thai society, I feel that there is a tendency to regard white Caucasian people more superior compared to the rest. Where does that come from? I think it comes from a feeling that the West is more superior to others. We forget our Indian heritage. We are successful in amalgamating the Chinese. And a lot of Thai will be surprised if you tell them that the Buddha is an Indian. So in this sense we can put a question mark at the end of the statement that Thailand has never been colonized.

The second myth is that Thailand is a Buddhist society. You can judge the religion of the society by the number of mosques or temples or churches and by the number of people who indicate in their registration card what religion theirs is. But looking at the precepts of that society and comparing it with their way of life is also one way of judging the religion of that society.

There are five precepts in Buddhism: (1) abstain from taking lives of living beings; (2) abstain from stealing; (3) abstain from sexual misconduct; (4) abstain from lying; and, (5) abstain from intoxicating drinks/substances.

Abstain from taking lives of living beings. You can look at it directly through the crime figures, the number of guns sold, you can see that the Thai society is not very peaceful. But if these precepts were followed strictly, it should be very peaceful. Witness October 14, 1973, October 6, 1976 and May 1992. These incidents prove that Thai society is not immune to violence. Now, we can extend this precept to counterpose with the military spending of the country. From 1982 to 1991, about 17.35% of the total government budget is allocated for the military - compare that with education which is16%; public heath, 4.45%; and environmental protection, 0.067%.

Abstain from stealing. Aside from the crime statistics, you can extend this to corruption because, after all, corruption is a form of stealing either of time, money or other resources. And the Thai society run very high in the corruption scale. You can see the evidence in the newspaper.

Abstain from sexual misconduct. Go to Patpong and feel the atmosphere how this has become normalized and accepted, if not celebrated, to some extent. NGO figures reveal that there are around 800,000 prostitutes and 50,000-80,000 child prostitutes. We have vagrant children wandering in the parks at night waiting to be picked-up. There was a research done in Chiangmai where it was found out that most of these vagrant children have the HIV-AIDS virus.

I think based on the above, it is fair to put a little question mark at end of the statement that Thai society is a Buddhist society.

The third myth that the Thai society is a monolithic society means that everyone in this society is a Thai - culturally, linguistically, historically. In Thai society, there are many ethnic groups. If you go to the north, you will find a lot of indigenous people whose lives are becoming more and more marginalized unless they join the mainstream of Thai culture. If you go to the northeast, you will find many Laotians and Khmers who work in middle class homes where they speak the local dialect. If you go down south — the southern provinces of Patani, Narathinat and Yaia — people there speak Malay as their first language. In Satun, people speak in Thai but they are mostly Muslims. So you may say that people in these areas of the south live in the Malay cultural world. By that I mean that the people feel more at home with people from Malaysia or Indonesia because they share the same cultural traits— like food, festivals, language. So I think that Thai society is by no means a monolithic society.

The fourth myth — that the Thai society is a democratic society. Compared to many other countries, I believe that the Thai society is freer. Freedom of the press in Thailand is much greater than in Indonesia, Singapore or Malaysia. Opposition party in Thailand has a greater voice. Dissention in Thailand can be somewhat accommodated at this point in history. But whether Thai society is democratic or not, we have to debate on what we mean by democratic. Formally, yes. We have an election. But if you define democracy elsewhere, for example freedom of expression in the absolute sense, perhaps Thailand is not. There is a taboo about what we can say. There is a boundary by which you can make political discourse in this society. And you will be free as long as you do not cross that boundary. That Is one area which people do not normally talk about. The process of election itself is another story. By law, politicians in the Thai society could use a certain amount of money to get elected, in the area of 450,000 baht. We have figures that some business persons spent close to 23 million baht to get elected. Secondly, to have money is not enough to get elected. You have to use it through the cultural channel which exists in Thailand.

Another thing is that Thailand is run by bureaucrats. This country has been turned into bureaucratic polity which means that polity characterized by initiative implemented by the bureaucracy. It has good and bad sides. We have had so many coup d’etat and if politicians and ministers are important, something must have happened. We have so many constitutions, it has become a joke. This country is ran by the bureaucracy. And if that is the case, there are three entities that we have to look at. One is the foreign ministry. Then the military. And you have to look at the National Security Council to see how foreign policies are formulated. These then pass through the minister and although he cannot alter the general direction, he can make some changes. Much of Thailand’s modern history during the past three decades, Thailand’s economic policy direction has been formulated by only one agency, the National Economic and Social Development Board, staffed mostly by American-trained economists. And while different political parties come to power, the economic policies does not change. The five-year or seven-year development plan is being followed.

Where does all these leave Thailand? Thailand now is at the crossroads. There is an interesting intersection in downtown Bangkok which I feel is a symbolic representation of Thai society. On one corner is a Arawan Hotel. Arawan is the mythical three-headed elephant in Hindu mythology. It is considered highly respectable in Thai culture. Opposite of that is the New Plaza representing the never-ending construction works going on all over the city. On another corner is the World Trade Centre which houses the Zen Department Store. What does this tell you? To me this means that Thai society is now at the stage where they can achieve enlightenment by shopping. And there are a lot of people in this society who spend much of their time after work spending their money. And the other corner is a police hospital. We also have an army hospital and a monks’ hospital. I thought health care is for all. So Thailand is now at this kind of crossroads.

Finally, I am not saying all the four statements I mentioned in the beginning are false. I am saying that we should regard these with caution. And put a little question mark at the end of the statement and perhaps you may understand Thai society a little better and more realistically.

(Ed. note: This paper was presented at the 26th CCA-URM Programme Committee Meeting, 12-18 February 1995, Bangkok, Thailand.)