"Only taboo when it’s inconvenient!" - Interview with Thai author Kaewmala on the outrage at topless Songkran dancers

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 19, 2011 Traditionalists and other self-proclaimed heralds of the 'true' Thai culture are having a tough time these days. Especially in the most recent Songkran (the Thai Lunar New Year) festivities they bemoan that it essentially has been reduced to almost a week full of excessive water fights and heavy drinking, that lead to countless deaths on the roads.

Now they have a new reason to cry wolf ever since a video emerged online, depicting three young girls dancing topless during a nightly water fight on a bustling Silom Road in downtown Bangkok. What followed was a flood of public condemnations, with authorities fearing yet further moral decline and the loss of cultural 'Thai' traditions - at least until the moral panic blows over quickly, which normally is within a few days.

Undoubtedly, the girls (who, according to the latest news updates, are actually underage) have done something terribly regrettable and in today's day and age it was a matter of time when somebody whips out his or her cell phone, films it and uploads it to YouTube. In many other countries they would get little to no further punishment to the public embarrassment - but since this is Thailand, all parties involved are being prosecuted, with the girls facing a 500 Baht ($17) fine and the uploader astonishingly threatened with a hefty 100,000 Baht ($3,320) fine and up to five years of prison thanks to the draconian Computer Crimes Act.

All this public fervor is accompanied by a barrage of self-proclaimed moral figures sternly wagging their fingers. Case in point, the Culture Minister Nipit Intarasombat, who openly scolded the girls and suggested them to do social work, like reading the holiday's true meaning to school children. The minister has also urged authorities to prioritize the hunt of the girls, since their actions are "destroying the country's reputation." Come again?

To discuss about the public outrage and what it says about Thai society, we talked to Thai author "Kaewmala". In her book "sextalk", she gives a unique, raw insight into what Thais think about love, romance, sex and everything that comes with it. She also reflects about Thai language, politics and other current affairs on her blog and also can be followed on Twitter @thai_talk.

Saksith Saiyasombut: Were you surprised about the public outcry following the videos of topless girls?

Kaewmala: Not a bit. The “outcry” was entirely predictable, though still ridiculous and tiresome.

Culture Minister Nipit Intarasombat was very vocal about this incident, saying it negatively affects the reputation of Thai Culture. Is there any place for nudity in (modern) Thai culture?

Are you kidding?! Ever heard of Thai body massage? Or been to Patpong (Ed. note: which is actually located just down the road from where this incident happened), Nana or Ratchada? People often shed their clothes in spas and broth-, sorry, message palors, you know.

Seriously, I think Mr. Nipit was just being a good Thai parrot reciting the inviolable state of Thai Culture (with a capital C). The fact that he is the minister of Culture means he has to be an even more zealous parrot with an official mission to “protect” the “reputation” of Thai Culture. Of course what Mr. Nipit and his ministry consider “Thai Culture” may not be the same for much of the Thai public, many of whom have moved along with time to see Thai culture in its existence in the present century— not the one frozen in time or fashion like that exists in the mind of Mr. Nipit and other Thais like him.

In my view it’s the official, fantasized notion of “culture” (shared among many conservative Thais) that is at the root of the “outcry” - and the source of hilarity as we have seen in the Ministry of Culture’s reaction to the Topless in Silom incident and its response to the public criticism of its hypocrisy, its website banner with several traditional beautiful pairs of bare Thai breasts in particular. (Ed. note: on the same day word of the banner made rounds around the banner, the ministry quickly replaced it with another one.)

Is the harsh reaction partly because of the country's sensitivity towards its international cliché of 'easy' girls the government is trying hard to clamp down?

I’m not sure if that’s what people, the source of the outcry, were thinking. I’m inclined to think that their reaction was almost automatic really. Every time a Thai girl’s bare skin is exposed to the public, you can count on people like Mr. Nipit to jump up and down, pointing to the vice, ranting on the deterioration and eventual apocalyptical destruction of Thai Culture like a bunch of Thai cultural Taliban squad. In fact, it would not be inappropriate to call them Thai Cultural Talibans as their idea of Thai Culture is based on faith, not facts.

The way these people go on and on about Thai female chastity you would think all Thai women remain a virgin till their breasts are wrinkled like a pair of old socks. Of course that isn’t the case. Many Thais and non-Thais do know that not a century ago, Thai women were still walking around bare breasted. So where did this make-believe puritan “model” of Thai Culture come from? It sure didn’t come from the old, ordinary Thai ways. Thai folks in the old days weren’t sexually uptight if you read old Thai literature. Just read "Khun Chang Khun Phaen", the classical Thai epic, the hero Khun Phaen made a move on the heroine Nang Pim when he was a still novice in yellow robes, in the temple. He broke into her bed chambers at night, slept with her servant, before making his way into her bed, in the same night

King Rama V’s and his successor’ mission to modernize Siam involved importing Western technologies and values, initially to apply to the royal and noble classes and those in the upper echelons of society. The modernization program was quite successful and the new modern ways would spread among the aspiring classes of officials, merchants and commoners. I gather Victorian values came with this wave of Western import, then another wave when Phibun Songkram made it mandatory for Thais to civilize up, or else! And that included not walking around bare-chested.

Phibun’s time was just 70-80 years ago, but modern Thai history education is funny. Somehow it has managed to make many Thais believe that we’ve always been the way are told to be. Proper, grand, and “civilized.” Thai females are the embodiment of the post-Phibun ideal of Thai Culture: very prim and proper. Of course I’m not suggesting that our ancestors weren’t civilized or Thai women were historically slutty, but this notion of “civilized” and “proper” ("riaproy pen kulasatri Thai") is recently constructed and if it has any root in the old Thai culture it wasn’t from the ordinary folks. What we have here is the adoption of the old Siamese court culture combined with the newly imported and constructed idea of culture to be the official national culture known to Thais only in the last few generations.

The sad part is I don’t think many Thais like Mr. Nipit realize that their idea of Thai Culture is a recent construct, something of a delusion. The problem with what’s made up is that sooner or later it’ll come unstuck, exposed But the problem is it’s culturally delusional people are in the position of power dictating what is and isn’t Thai Culture.

What do you think of some early suggestions that the girls might be working girls or even katoeys?

That to me is quite an interesting aspect, though again, not unpredictable. Those who have a set way of seeing things, in this case an inflexible idea of what “real” Thai women should be can’t process or accept the fact that some actual Thai women would do things outside of their expectations. So some tried to rationalize the incident by supposing that the girls must either be hookers, katoey or drunk. The three Topless in Silom girls turned out to be 13, 15 and 16 years old. Not working girls. Not katoey. Not drunk. They’ll have to chew on that!

The really interesting part of this reaction to me is that the implication that if these girls were prostitutes and not real women (but transvestites) their exposing their breasts would somehow be acceptable. Apparently this may not be the case either, given the cops in Pichit province arrested two katoeys for dancing bare breasted. The subtext of these reactions is that women who sell their bodies and “Type 2 female” transgender have less value than natural born women who are the “good girls.” The same people (men) who would demand female chastity from the “good girls” would be visiting brothels or massage palors and have their ways with “Type 2 females” because they are thought to be game, available, easy.

What does it say about Thai society, when even the person who filmed and uploaded the video is being prosecuted?

Is he? Or she? I didn’t know. But for sure, the punishment for possessing and disseminating the offending clip (100,000 Baht or $3,320 fine and up to 5 years jail) compared to 500 baht fine for the girls exposing themselves, is beyond ridiculous. But this is the usual shooting the messenger syndrome. It’s just the pattern that we’ve known Thai authorities to do: tackle the tail-end of the problem first.

What does this whole brouhaha say about the maturity of society's openness towards sexuality? Is there a sexual hypocrisy?

We can spend hours discussing Thai maturity or lack thereof in sexual matters, but the word hypocrisy sums it up pretty well.

Obviously, sexuality is still a taboo in Thailand, with sex ed lacking on the school curriculum and censorship cracking down harder on nude scenes than on e.g. depiction of gruesome violence. Is this yet another case, as seen in many other cultures and countries, of the youth being more knowledgeable and thus being more comfortable with sexuality?

Sexuality both is and isn’t taboo in Thailand. It is taboo only when it’s inconvenient or causes embarrassment (real or perceived). Thais like to think that we are a conservative and proper society when we really aren’t - at least behind closed doors. People have a delusion that Thai kids are too innocent to be contaminated by sex education, another area of inability to deal with facts. There are people who actually buy into the ideal Thai Culture line (good, grand, long-lived, sexually innocent or sexless, religiously Buddhist). And these people will not tolerate any deviation from this ideal and would sing the chorus to the occasional outcries, whenever the media drum one up. Like most cultures, much of the Thai Culture is sexualized (mostly involving females) and people are drawn to sex.

On violence, my theory is that we Thais still have our originally Thai penchant for violence. Thai people love blood and gore. Stabbing, kick boxing, shooting, blowing things up - you name it. You might even say it’s in the culture. This Thai love for violence has never gone through any westernizing or civilizing process, so here we are. Sex is bad (new notion believed to be old). Violence is normal.

A recent public opinion poll in the aftermath of the controversy, a whopping 91 per cent said that Thai society has long deteriorated. Do you agree?

Deteriorated from what? Some fantasized golden place and time? I don’t know where or when that society was. Plus, the chance of 91% of poll respondents giving the same answer can only result from a set of push questions from the pollsters. I would not lend too much credence to that type of polls.

What needs to be done? Does Thai society need to 'loosen up'?

Thai society needs to get real. Work with the facts, not fiction or fantasy of what Thai Culture is said to be. And understand that cultures are not static. A culture cannot be frozen in time or in some fantasy like a fairy tale. Cultures change as people change. Culture is supposed to evolve, for better and for worse.

As we see, increasingly Thai government is tightening its control over the Thai narratives and rules on culture, morality and behavior of citizens. The tension of late is that more and more Thais are unable and unwilling to accept the official(ly imposed) narratives. We'll see how this emerging struggle will turn out.

Finally it’s just a couple pairs of breasts! Get over it! There are plenty other consequential issues to deal with. People are killed, our systems are broken, the country’s future isn’t looking that great! Don’t get distracted by just a couple pairs of breasts!