culture

The state of LGBTI in Thailand: Tolerated, but still not quite accepted

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 17, 2015

It pays to be welcoming and tolerant - that piece of mundane everyday wisdom especially applies if you’re the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). In one of its few moments of actual good marketing, the TAT launched 'Go Thai. Be Free'. a couple of years ago. The campaign is specifically aimed at lesbian and gay travelers and Thailand can pride itself as a destination that is rather liberal towards the LGBTI community - or can it?

Despite Thais being able to express their different sexual identities publicly and without fear of persecution, the country is still not quite at the point where everybody is fully included, as many are still facing obstacles and discrimination in their lives and change is coming at very slow pace.

Ironically, we may say real change under the current authoritarian military junta government, a regime generally more known for promoting sanctimonious moralist and traditionalist ”values”, which has passed of the Gender Equality Bill and potentially the Civil Partnership Registration Bill.

The Gender Equality Bill, which was passed in March, aims to outlaw: “Unfair discrimination among the sexes’ means any act or failure to act which segregates, obstructs or limits any rights, whether directly or indirectly, without legitimacy because that person is male or is female or has a sexual expression different from that person’s original sex.” It is the first of its kind in Thailand to explicitly recognize gender diversity, but rights groups have criticized exceptions stipulated in the draft concerning education, religion and ”public interest.” These parts have been removed from the final version.

A rather long history has been behind the campaign for marriage equality, starting back in 2012 and gained an unprecedented bi-partisan push in 2013 well on its way being passed, before eventually getting lost in legislative limbo due to the political crisis and the subsequent dissolution of parliament in late 2013.

This issue was picked later after the military coup exactly a year by the junta’s fully-appointed ersatz-parliament in form of the Civil Partnership Act, which defines “civil partnership” as “two persons of same sex who have registered under the bill,” and includes stipulations including property rights between partners and rights in case the partnership has ended.

However, this bill is also not without its problems:

Superficially, civil partnerships seem to enjoy the same rights and status as heterosexual marriages under the Family Act. However, when looked at in detail, the bill does not entitle homosexual partners to raise children. Moreover, the minimum age of those allowed to register civil partnerships is 20, while for the heterosexual marriage it is 17.

Unlike the Civil Solidarity Pact in France, which allows either opposite-sex or same-sex couples to register for civil partnerships, Thailand’s draft civil partnership bill is for homosexual couples only.  

Anjana Suvarnananda, head of Anjaree and a renowned LGBT rights campaigner in Thailand, considers this bill as yet another form of discrimination, which puts homosexual couples into a different category and as a result, they enjoy different rights from opposite-sex couples.

Same-sex marriage may come true under Thai junta”, Prachatai English, October 9, 2014

Not only the controversial fine print in the bill, but also the general political situation led to debate in the LBGTI community. On one hand it would be a unprecedented watershed moment towards marriage equality in Thailand’s history. However, on the other hand, given how problematic it could be for future elected governments to amend or pass new laws because of the military junta’s political ”reforms”, it could mean an imperfect marriage equality bill that is very unlikely to be amended in the near future.

But the problems for the LGBTI community are facing are not only of legal or political nature, but more often than not they run much deeper, especially when it comes transgenders. Social critic and Siam Voices contributor Kaewmala said in a 2012 interview:

Compared to many other societies, yes, Thai society is quite open in day-to-day treatment of people with different sexual orientations and gender identities. (…) We have transgender people working prominently in shopping malls, in customer services, in beauty, entertainment and sex venues. But that’s pretty much where most of them are. Very few of them are in regular jobs, often not because they don’t want to, but the opportunities are limited. They are still discriminated against widely in terms of employment. Their opportunities are even officially restricted, in particular in government, police and military jobs. Military service regulations still include “katoey” as a prohibited disease and hence disqualifies anyone who is a katoey to apply for jobs in military service. Only months ago that the official branding of transgender people as “having a permanent mental disorder” on the military conscription exemption paper was finally put to stop. This paper has been the biggest obstacle for transgender people for a long time and has prevented them getting jobs, visas, doing legal transactions, etc.

In short, socially there is a fair amount of tolerance for people with different sexual identities but they are still lots of problems and unfair treatments going on based on attitudes and laws and official regulations in this country, most particularly concerning transgender people. It’s not all peaches!

On ‘100% Thai manliness’ and the reality of LBGT in Thailand”, Siam Voices, June 7, 2012

And systematic discrimination already starts very early, as a joint-study by UNESCO, Plan International and Mahidol University found out:

Nearly one-third (30.9%) of self-identified LGBT students reported having experienced physical abuse, 29.3% reported verbal abuse, and 24.4% reported being victims of sexual harassment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. Around two-thirds of victims said they did not report these incidents or even talk about them with anyone.

The report paints a troubling picture of the impact of this bullying has on teens. Nearly one-quarter (23%) of those bullied because of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity/expression were depressed, as compared to only 6% of those that had not been bullied at all. This depression can lead to self-harm. Most alarmingly, seven percent of those bullied because of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity/expression reported having attempted suicide in the past year.

Media Release: Study shows Thai schools have a long way to go in promoting acceptance of sexual and gender diversity, and school safety”, UNESCO Bangkok, November 29, 2013

Unlike most of its regional neighbors (except for Vietnam, which recently decriminalized same-sex marriages), Thailand has a head start on LGBTI issues, but it must not rest on its laurels.

There are no reliable statistics (yet) on what percentage of the Thai population identify themselves with as LGBTI, but there’s really no point denying anymore that people of various sexual orientations are part of Thai society and all efforts should be made to include everybody in this society (and any other societies around the world for that matter), regardless of what somebody identifies as and who somebody choose to love.

May 17 marks the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT)

ThaiMiniCult's newest puritan crusade targets underboob selfies

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 19, 2015 The "appropriate" display of female breasts, according to an actual banner on the Thai Ministry of Culture in 2010.

Thailand's overzealous cultural watchdogs made international headlines again this week, and as usual for entirely the wrong reasons. This time, they have targeted yet another apparent online phenomenon:

Thailand's military government warned women on Monday against posting 'selfie' photos of the lower half of their breasts - a social media trend that has gone viral - saying their actions could violate the country's computer crime laws.

Thailand's 2007 Computer Crimes Act bans any material that causes "damage to the country's security or causes public panic" or "any obscene computer data which is accessible to the public".

The culture ministry said offenders faced up to five years in jail, but did not say how they would identify the culprits.

"When people take these 'underboob selfies' no one can see their faces," ministry spokesman Anandha Chouchoti told Reuters. "So it's like, we don't know who these belong to, and it encourages others to do the same.

"We can only warn people to not take it up. They are inappropriate actions."

"Thais warned against taking 'underboss selfies'", Reuters, March 16, 2015

Yes, (regular readers know what's coming next) the self-proclaimed cultural heralds of everything "Thainess" we usually call ThaiMiniCult are once again setting out on their puritan crusade again to safeguard sanctimonious sanctity of what's appropriate and what's not.

And even though there's no concrete evidence that the "underboob" selfies have gotten ahold in the Thai online community, as Yupa Taweewattanakijbaworn admitted to Thai Rath, the director of the ThaiMiniCult's Culture Surveillance Center nevertheless insisted almost step-motherly that, "Thai culture [as a whole] doesn't approve public display of scantily clothed [people] anyways."

Predictably, this (non-)incident was picked up by the international media rather quickly (and due to the fact that an international news agency like Reuters actually wrote about it), further making a mockery of the ruling authoritarian military junta, which has already a tough time to promote itself and its "values" - let alone to foreigners. However, this open vigor by the ThaiMiniCult is not a new occurrence and popped up even before the current military government.

As previously with Buddhist tattoos on foreign skins, mediocre foreign TV-sketches, and whatever that short-lived 'planking'-meme was, Thai authorities - and especially their colleagues at the Ministry of Culture - always see the need to combat these with a threat to use the law to their fullest possible punishment. It doesn't make it any better when the law they are citing to clamp down possible offenders with - when these acts of perceived cultural indecencies are made online (and, much to the apparent annoyance of the Thai authorities, anonymously) - is the Computer Crimes Act, which we've lambasted in its current and very likely future form.

Also, long-time Siam Voices readers will have noticed by now, most episodes of ThaiMiniCult's outrage involve the public display of female breasts one way or the other. The most infamous case goes back as far as 2011 when the then-Culture Minister called for a public witch hunt after an online video emerged showing women dancing topless in the streets during the Songkran new year holidays - only then to find out the women were underaged.

Back then, author and Siam Voices contributor "Kaewmala" said in an interview with this author that Thai society "needs to get real" with sexuality and stop hiding behind a "taboo only when it’s inconvenient or causes embarrassment." In a later article on this blog, she said that the Thai cultural heralds have pathological "mammophobia". The underlying theme of sexual hypocrisy in Thailand was also picked up by Siam Voices contributor Thitipol Panyalimpanun, who recently wrote that "Thailand put itself into this struggle by positioning itself as noble society."

It is this holier-than-thou-attitude by the self-proclaimed Thai cultural heralds that leaves easily mockable, mostly because of their overzealousness in protecting whatever their one solid vision of "Thainess" entails, but also their argumentative inconsistency. In an online post that mercilessly mocks this brouhaha, while the ThaiMiniCult has an apparent problem with "underboob" selfies, it hasn't gawked at Thai magazine and newspaper covers featuring otherwise barely covered female breasts - and never mind that infamous banner (see above) the ThaiMiniCult itself had on their website in 2011...

Thailand threatens to sue Singapore for 'stealing' Songkran

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 19, 2014 As April approaches again, so is the traditional Thai New Year's festival known as "Songkran". Many Thais will take the days off and travel to their families, conduct merit-making and/or join in the fun of splashing each other with water - which has arguably taken over as the main part of Songkran for many, most of all foreign tourists.

It is also arguably - besides the Christmas season - the time of year that is most heavily advertised by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) in order to bring in a lot tourists (and given the current political crisis, the country needs a lot of tourists now too). Where else in the world could you celebrate the Thai New Year other than in Thailand itself, right?

Well...

A Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) executive said on Tuesday that she plans to consult other state agencies to see if legal action could be taken to protect Thailand’s cultural heritage in the wake of a Singaporean plan to hold a “Songkran” festival in the city-state next month.

TAT Deputy Governor for Tourism Products Vilaiwan Twichasri said she would hold talks with officials at the Department of Intellectual Property, Ministry of Commerce and Ministry of Culture to study intellectual property provisions on the issue.

If the law allows, TAT could take legal steps to prevent member states of the Asean Economic Community from conducting and organising traditional cultural activities based on Thai arts and culture, such as Songkran and Loy Krathong festival.

"Suit eyed for Singapore Songkran", Bangkok Post, March 18, 2014

*gasp* How could they! How could the Singaporeans exploit something essentially Thai and attempt to make an easy buck at the same time when the tourists are to supposed to come to Thailand and spend their money here?

Don't let the ever vigilant Thai Ministry of Culture get hold of this...

A senior Culture Ministry official has threatened to sue organisers of a Songkran festival in Singapore next month, saying it will undermine the value of the rival Thai New Year celebration.

Culture Surveillance Bureau director Yupa Taweewattanakijbaworn said Songkran is not just about splashing water for fun, but is aimed at strengthening relationships between family members and communities.

Singapore is using the festival to promote tourism, without acknowledging the value of the traditions behind Songkran, she said. "This is wrong because the value of the traditional celebration is being distorted," she said.

"Official threatens to sue Singapore over Songkran", Bangkok Post, March 19, 2014

...too late! The self-proclaimed cultural heralds of 'Thainess' - or as we regularly call them "ThaiMiniCult" - yet again come out swinging hard, all in the name to protect the sanctimony of Thai culture - or the construct of what they believe it supposedly is. Just as seen numerous times in the past, the (moral) Thai authority knows best how to preserve our values and traditions against pesky foreign influences, as it happened with Thai food just to name one case. Or that one time where it saw Thailand's moral reputation endangered by a lame SNL-sketch? Or that other time Lady Gaga wanted to buy a fake watch? And does anybody still remember "planking"?

As if that wasn't enough, the "ThaiMiniCult" also has to explain us Thais what Songkran is actually about - and that is definitely not splashing water and dancing around topless (regardless that the moral crusade was undermined by a traditional painting depicting topless women on the ministry's website)!

Let's assume for a minute they would actually go ahead with a legal complaint: where would they file it? And since when has Thailand trademarked Songkran? Even if it would be a registered intangible cultural heritage - which the Thai authorities are working on hard lately - that wouldn't either. You cannot simply monopolize culture (something "ThaiMiniCult" regularly lays claim on domestically), even if you end up using it a marketing schtick - which the Thai officials are accusing Singapore of of doing exactly that, by the way.

Then there's the stated fear of Songkran being "distorted" from its original "Thai" roots. How are you going to forbid other countries to celebrate a festival that essentially the same? Mid-April marks the new year for many other countries in the region: Chaul Chnam Thmey in Cambodia, Thingyan in Burma, Pbee Mai Lao in Laos and even in Yunnan, China - they are all essentially celebrating the same festival with the same customs and traditions in the same way the Thais do.

And one more thing: nobody has thought of suing Thailand for its interpretation of Christmas  - and its utter failure to acknowledge the values and tradition of that holiday - yet. Let's hope they don't try to steal it.

Siam Voices 2013 review – Part 5: What else happened in Thailand…?

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 31, 2013 This is the final part of our Siam Voices 2013 year in review, as we look what else made headlines in Thailand in the past 12 months - including the strange, outrageous and ridiculous. You can read the previous parts here: Part 1: Politics - Part 2: Lèse Majesté & the media - Part 3: The Rohingya - Part 4: Education and reform calls

It has become somewhat of a tradition now at the end of every year in review that we highlight all those news stories that were for various reasons not covered in the blog and mostly talked (rather more ranted) about on my Twitter feed. So without further ado, here's the definitive incomplete look back at what else happened in Thailand, from the noteworthy to the quirky and from nonsensical to downright ridiculous.

Most unexpected pro-LGBT message of the year: During the Bangkok gubernatorial race earlier this year, the main challenger to the incumbent (and later re-elected) Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra, Pheu Thai Party's Pongsapat Pongcharoen published a campaign video with an unexpected pro-LGBT message promoting sexual diversity, mainly aimed at wooing the city's potential transgender voters. While he didn't mentioned more details how that would have been reflected in his policies, this we saw a legislative push to bring legal equality to same-sex marriages in Thailand, which would be the first country in Southeast Asia to do so. While a survey last year polled 60 per cent to be against same sex marriage, Thailand is generally known to be tolerant (but not entirely accepted) towards diverse genders and sexual orientations. A bill would have been submitted for a vote in the later months of the year, but due to the current political crisis and the dissolvement of the House, the legislation has been put on the backburner for now.

Media failures of the year: Those who are regularly following me know that I can be admittedly harsh on my colleagues in the Thai media. But apart from the small typos or mix-ups, there were three particular inexcusable cases of failures: one of them is when Daily News posted the full ID card (with photo) of a British gang-rape victim (which as taken down shortly after public backlash), and then there was Channel 3 showing the full murder of two women, but instead blurred the perpetrator's gun (as per regulation).

In both cases, the authorities also are partly to be blamed since it was them who released the pictures to the media, as they did in the case of a 12-year-old ethnic Karen girl that was kidnapped and tortured by a couple in Kamphaeng Phet province (who unsurprisingly jumped bail and are still at large) - in fact they actually stripped her almost naked to document her mutilated body after years of torture by the couple in front of the press. While they did not show her face, the media are the last line of defense for crime victims and should apply their own judgement, rather than to recite everything said by the police ad verbatim - the victims deserve better.

Media mix-up of the year:  Channel 5 for running a picture of actress Meryl Streep portraying the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher instead of the actual Iron Lady herself. However, they weren't the only ones who made such a blunder on that occasion as a Taiwanese TV station ran footage of Queen Elizabeth II during the news of Thatcher's passing. Also, (almost predictably) some people also confused actor Morgan Freeman for the late Nelson Mandela...!

The worst Thailand-related article of the year: "10 Things Americans Can Learn From Bangkok", Huffington Post, February 26, 2013. Where to start...? Nearly all 10 points in this click-bait list are either incorrect ("SkyRail", eh?), horribly wrong ("the red light districts are well regulated by police officers and social workers" - really?!) or sheer nonsensical ("packed with people for whom globalization is a watch word")! But the worst part is: it unwittingly makes a case PRO lèse majesté ("Respect Your Elders") and confuses it for quirky local folklore...!

Pseudo-science in Thai media: In June, The Nation ran a story about John Hagelin, a physicist and "1994 Ig Nobel Peace Prize winner" who proposed the Thai army to use "quantum physics and transcendental meditation let the part of brain that created negative behaviour to relax and thus cut crime and terrorist attacks" for $1 million. What they fail to mention (or to look up): 1) his theory about a correlation between "physics and consciousness" is regarded as nonsense by most physicists and 2) the Ig Nobel Prize is "a parody award presented at Harvard University" as a "veiled criticism of trivial research".

Most celestial Thai political candidate: Thoranee Ritteethamrong, Bangkok gubernatorial candidate No. 21, came in dressed as the Chinese goddess Guanyin at the candidate sign-up and held her campaign without any billboards, but with a mandate "from heaven". That got her at least 922 votes (or 0.035 per cent) on election day.

Most unjustified flip-out by a Thai official: There are couple of well-known public figures well-known for their temper (*cough*Prayuth*cough*), but this one takes the prize this year: Interior minister Jarupong Ruangsuwan blew his lid when an assistant village chief made headlines about his unusual birthday - February 30 - and didn't get it fixed for 53 years. Instead of showing empathy with him (after all he couldn't open up a bank account for example because of this bureaucratic mistake), Jarupong accused the low-ranked official to be a fame-seeker and should "die out of shame" he brought onto the Interior Ministry. Unfortunately, the assistant village chief resigned because of the minister's apparent lack of EQ, but at least gets to officially celebrate his birthday now on every February 1.

Worst impression on the new colleagues at the first day of the new job: After losing his position as deputy prime minister for national security and being transferred to the labor ministry in the last cabinet reshuffle, Chalerm Yubamrung was crying foul play behind this move and that didn't stop on his first day at his new job, when he reportedly "spent more than an hour complaining about his transfer" after introduced himself to his new subjects co-workers - team confidence building, it isn't.

Insensitive and oblivious moments in Thai advertisement: A Thai woman in blackface in a commercial for a whitening-drink (!) actually becoming pale-skinned? Dunkin Donuts promoting their new 'charcoal' doughnuts with a Thai woman in blackface? A cosmetics brand offering 'scholarships' for the 'fairest' student? What could go wrong? A whole lot, actually!

Best Thailand-related viral video of the year: "Never Go To Thailand" by Brian Camusat. If only the Tourism Authority of Thailand would have even nearly as much swagger as this video - but then again it wouldn't possess the irony to title it like this...!

Most unconvincing suicide case:

CHIANG RAI [PROVINCE] - An unidentified foreigner is believed to have committed suicide in a bizarre way, putting his head in a water-filled plastic bag and then sealing it with a copper wire around his neck, in a field near the Myanmar border, reports said.

"Foreigner commits bizarre 'suicide'", Bangkok Post, January 4, 2013

Yeah, right...!

Strangest robbery of the year:

A robber made off with 2,200 baht [$71] in cash from a convenience store in Phuket province on Tuesday, but minutes later returned a 10-baht coin [$0.32] before escaping a second time.

"Store robber returns 10 baht", Bangkok Post, June 18, 2013

Most ambitious promise by a Thai politician:

The Ministry of Transport is expected to improve the entire public transport system within two months as several issues, such as passengers being rejected by taxi drivers and illegal parking, remain unresolved.

"Public transport issues to be solved in 2 months", National News Bureau of Thailand, July 15, 2013

Remember when Thaksin enthusiastically pledged to "free Bangkok of traffic jams in 6 months" back in the 1990s...?

Strangest dare of the year: After persistent rumors of 'chemically tainted' packed rice (which have proven to be not true), the president of the Thai Rice Association announced whoever eats one of their products and dies because of it will get 20 million Baht...!

Best costume: Deputy-prime minister Plodprasop Suraswadi as the 13th century Lanna King Mangrai...!

(Un-)honorable mentions: Wirapol Chattigo, the defrocked monk formerly known as "Luang Phu Nenkham", embroiled in a sea of scandals starting with being filmed on a private jet plane sporting luxury items, followed by accusations of money-laundering and child molestation and reportedly at large abroad. Red Bull heir Vorayuth Yoovidhya, who is suspected to have killed a police officer in a hit-and-run case in 2012, failed to show up to hear charges in early September because he's on an "overseas trip" and still hasn't returned yet. Chalerm Yubamrung (yes, again), for saying it's okay for "police officer to ask for money during Chinese New Year" since that's "not a bribe" and for setting off a terror alert against the US consulate in Chiang Mai and then announcing the suspect "has left the country" unhindered - and all that based on a mere "sniff"...!

And now, the strangest story of the year, from the "Best intentions but poorly executed"-category

Thai officials say a man who was high on drugs was arrested after attempting to donate methamphetamine tablets to help flood victims at a relief center. (...) [The man] told the volunteers they could sell the drugs and use the money to support the troubled families. The volunteers were actually from a civil drug suppression task force.

"Thai man arrested for giving meth to flood center", Associated Press, October 15, 2013

Final words: I’d like to thank my co-writers and editors at Siam Voices and Asian Correspondent for their contributions and hard work this year. And a special thanks to YOU, the readers, for your support, feedback and retweets! We wish you a Happy New Year 2014 - let's just hope that there'll be more stories to write about for all the right reasons...

Siam Voices 2013 review – Part 4: Hey, teachers! Allow those kids to grow

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 30, 2013 In the penultimate part of the Siam Voices 2013 year in review, we look at an important but often neglected issue: education

As regular readers may know, we often have talked about Thailand's lagging education system, which has a lot of problems in a lot of areas. Whether it's ridiculous questions being asked in the annual O-Net testsquestionable standardization of these tests, poor PISA scoreshorrendous English-language training and thus proficiency, or virtually non-existent sexual education, most Thais are in agreement that something needs to be done about it if the country doesn't want to fall behind its neighbors competitively. Thailand's standard of education is already a concern for foreign companies operating in Thailand.

And again in 2013 the international education listings and surveys did not show any signs of improvement. The World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report 2012-2013 ranked Thailand's education dead last among ASEAN countries, Thailand's English proficiency is "low" according to a survey by Education First, although the trend is showing a slight improvement. The same goes for the OECD's PISA survey, in which Thailand makes some improvement in reading and science. Amidst such results, Education Minister Chaturon Chaisang (already the fourth during Yingluck's tenure), acknowledged that the country's education system is severely outdated and needs an overhaul.

Yet the Yingluck Shinawatra government's most notable education policy is the pricey "one tablet per child"-scheme, which needs some time (like most education policies) to see its results. The problem that has been plaguing this and past administrations is that Thailand spends a lot on its education with little improvement to show for it. Nevertheless, some issues were tackled this year, such as plans to reduce the study hours from over 1,000 to 600-800 a year, reduce  the home-workload or link teacher payment to the student performance.

But as many pointed out, there are far more deeper problems with the education system...

Thai students have an altogether different impression. In Thai schools, a drill sergeant’s dream of regimentation rooted in the military dictatorships of the past, discipline and enforced deference prevail.

At a public school in this industrial Bangkok suburb, teachers wield bamboo canes and reprimand students for long hair, ordering it sheared on the spot. Students are inspected for dirty fingernails, colored socks or any other violation of the school dress code. (…) a system that stresses unquestioned obedience.

In Thailand’s Schools, Vestiges of Military Rule“, by Thomas Fuller, New York Times, May 28, 2013

Indeed. That archaic attitude is being reflected in widespread rote learning and repetitious memorization methods, but also the fact that Thailand is one of the last few countries left in world which requires university students to wear uniforms. Also, school children have strict haircut guidelines that were relaxed this year.

But what this year also showed is that more resistance is forming against the old ways of learning and teaching. There's the Anti-SOTUS group that calls for an end to the harsh hazing rituals at universities. We also saw the Facebook campaign by "Frank" Nethiwit Chotpatpaisan against the "mechanic" education system and oppressive school rules, going as far as declare himself "sick of Thainess". In a final display of his principles this year, the opinionated and strong-willed 11th-grader rejected a nomination by the National Human Rights Commission, criticizing its callousness towards the 2010 crackdown and the report it produced.

Then there's the Thammasat University student provocateur nicknamed "Aum Neko", who protested against compulsory uniforms with racy and suggestive posters, much to the annoyance of fellow students and university officials. Aum Neko is no stranger to controversy (having casually posed on the lap of Thammasat’s founder Pridi Banomyong's statue last year) as a TV reporter rather pompously filed a lèse majesté complaint against the student for comments she made in an interview months earlier. Earlier this month, in the middle of the anti-government protests, Aum Neko got into trouble again for protesting against Thammasat's perceived siding with the protesters, as she attempted to take down the Thai national flag and replace it with a black banner. That led to even stronger reactions by fellow students and officials (one vice rector even wrote on his Facebook page that he would "trample" her). She is now facing expulsion from the university.

What all these stories from the past 12 months show is that Thailand's education (and not only that) still has yet to adapt to a changing social and cultural landscape and is in desperate need of a system that can accommodate the growing diversity of (free) thinking, opinions, access to knowledge and lifestyles. This will require the will to completely overhaul the education system (which also means dealing with the aging bureaucratic structures and curriculum) and the necessary time to grow to fruition - and that is more time than the average duration of governments in Thailand.

The Siam Voices 2013 year in review series concludes tomorrow! Read all parts here: Part 1: Politics - Part 2: Lèse Majesté & the media - Part 3: The Rohingya - Part 4: Education and reform calls - Part 5: What else happened?

Thailand: Uniform protest student accused of insulting monarchy

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 17, 2013 On Monday we reported on the Thammasat University student and her provocative poster campaign against student uniforms.

Now, the controversial student known as "Aum Neko" is facing more trouble:

A TV show host has accused the student known for her campaign against mandatory uniform wearing of insulting the monarchy.

Ms. Ponnipa Supatnukul, 41, the host of a talk show called "Best of Your Life" which is broadcast on a satellite TV channel, filed the complaint to the police in Nonthaburi Province, invoking Article 112 of the Criminal Codes which criminalises insults to the Royal Family. (...)

The student, who goes by her nickname Aum Neko, was interviewed in a talk show hosted by Ms. Pontipa 3 months ago, according to Ms. Pontipa. In the show, she said, she talked to Ms. Aum and 20 other Thammasat students about the impact of economic slowdown on students′ livelihood.

Ms. Pontipa claimed that Ms. Aum shocked everyone by "talking outside the topic" and "insulting the higher institution", a term referring to the monarchy. Ms. Aum's words were "so shocking we could not broadcast the show", Ms. Pontipa said, but she has nevertheless stored footage of the interview.

She claimed that she decided to pursue a legal action against Ms. Aum because she was incensed by the student′s continued defamation of the monarchy. Ms. Pontipa also alleged that Ms. Aum is encouraging other students to commit similar crimes.

"Lese Majeste Complaint Against Reformist Student", Khaosod English, September 16, 2013

The complainant made sure that the filing of her charge was well-documented as she let somebody film the process at the police station and posted it later on Facebook. She also had a few press members in tow.

Ms. Ponnipa also provided the officer with documents given by an unnamed Thammasat lecturer that includes personal details about "Aum Neko" including her actual gender by birth (she is a transgender woman), her actual name, birth date and personal ID number - which Ms. Ponnipa also willingly let the cameras film (a reason why I decided against embedding the video, as it was accompanied by an audible cackle by one of the bystanders).

While the nature of the offending comments allegedly made by the student has yet to be disclosed, Prachatai reports that the complainant pointed to a Facebook post by "Aum Neko" that apparently crossed the line for the TV host, as it criticized the pre-screening of Royal tribute movies at cinemas, where standing up is mandatory. In the same report, "Aum Neko" herself has expressed "shock and much anger" as she cannot believe that others would resort to "dirty means" in order to discredit her.

One really has to question the motives and the way Ms. Ponnipa filed her lèse majesté charge, since she was sitting on the alleged offensive remarks for months just to use them against her right now after the anti-uniform campaign gained more attention. Also, she repeatedly showed suggestive pictures of the accused, trying to make the point that such an offence can only be made by an (from her viewpoint) "immoral" person, while repeatedly positively mentioning the virtues of His Majesty and her perceived duty to protect it.

There have been lèse majesté complaints in the past of similar frivolous and spiteful nature: just last Friday a court acquitted a man of lèse majesté, after his own brother filed charges against him in what was a very apparent a long-standing sibling rivalry turned ugly. (It is worth noting that the alleged anti-monarchy comments in this case were made in private, which would have had catastrophic ramifications in case of a conviction). The man was imprisoned for a whole year and repeatedly denied bail while his case was pending.

Another example is the case of actor Pongpat Wachirabanjong's rousing pro-monarchy speech in 2010 (“If you hate our Father, if you don’t love our Father anymore, then you should get out of here!“), after which one person (mostly likely facetiously) accused him of improper language. Unsurprisingly, the case was dropped.

These and many more cases show one of several weak points of the Kingdom's draconian law that can be punished with up to 15 years in prison: since anybody can file a charge against anybody, the police have to investigate every complaint and nearly all cases end up in court. The probability of this law being used out of contempt against outspokenness is very high and ultimately can undermine the purpose of the law: to protect the country's monarchy.

Racy posters spark uniform debate at Thai university

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 16, 2013 The ongoing debate on student uniforms takes a racy turn, as one student's poster campaign challenges the necessity of uniforms at Thammasat University.

They're a common sight everywhere you go: young women in white blouses and black skirts or young men in white dress shirts and black dress pants, sometimes with belt buckles (in the case of the girls only held by a few binder clips) or pins sporting their university logos.

Thailand is one of the very few countries left in the world - next to neighboring Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam - that requires students to wear uniforms even at university level. While the wearing of uniforms is mandatory at every academic institution in the country, how strict the rules are enforced varies from place to place and is mostly up to the teaching personnel.

And every now and then there is some controversy about the outfits students are wearing, mostly about their interpretation. For example back in 2009, the directors of the nation's top tier universities Chulalongkorn and Thammasat in Bangkok complained about female students wearing uniforms that are "too sexy" and "inappropriate" - a publicly announced clampdown by both universities fell flat. Then in 2011, a similar short-lived uproar by education officials took place after a Japanese news website poll listed Thailand's student uniforms as "the sexiest in the world."

However, the questions about the necessity of uniforms at higher education level and its effects on student performance is rarely asked.

Several posters were plastered across notice boards in early September at Thammasat University's Rangsit campus on the northern outskirts of Bangkok. The four different motives have slogans such as "Isn't sex more exciting with student uniforms?", "Were you required to wear a uniform at your last midterms?", "When student uniforms are being challenged" and "Free humanity from the shackles" while depicting couples (both hetero and homosexual) having sex.

These were the creation of a transgender female liberal arts student at Thammasat University nicknamed "Aum Neko", who shows her opposition to the mandatory uniform rule after it emerged that students were not allowed to take part in an exam in a compulsory freshmen course as they were not wearing the required uniforms.

In the Bangkok Post, she explains the reasons for her protest and why she chose the provocative motives:

"Personally, I believe in liberalism. I believe that 'forcing' students to wear uniforms at university level is an insult to their intellect and humanity. You are using the power of uniforms to control, not only their bodies, but their behaviour and thoughts." About the provocative posters, in which she poses as one of the models, Aum Neko said that the main concept is to tie the uniform, which traditionally represents goodness and morality, together with sex, which represents wickedness, something that shouldn't be expressed.

"Uniform opinions", Bangkok Post, September 11, 2013

An extensive interview with Prachatai goes more in-depth about the motives and themes of her posters, explains why no fellow female students were taking part in the campaign and what she believes her university is supposed to stand for.

Unsurprisingly, the poster campaign has sparked debate on social and mainstream media on the necessity of student uniforms, but also about the 'inappropriateness' and shock value of the posters - with plenty of support and condemnation towards Aum. Thammasat University announced that it will conduct a disciplinary review of her actions (she caused another stir last year by casually posing on the lap of the statue of the university's founder Pridi Banomyong), as some social media users are calling for her expulsion. However, Thammasat will also set up a committee consisting of lecturers and students to "to investigate the issue and come up with solutions."

The story also raises the question whether or not the university is still maintaining it's liberal-democratic roots, as its students have historically been politically active in the past - but the internal debate on the lèse majesté law (which bizarrely featured journalism students protesting against the reformists) has put the institution at odds with itself.

While on the surface the debate over student uniforms may appear to be just a superficial issue, it is one of many aspects in Thailand's militaristic education system that reinforces uniformity and obedience, since for Thai conservatives these are still the most important characteristics of our education - while Thailand's society has changed and is more than ready to move on.

Thailand's materialistic monks pose worldly problems

Originally published at Siam Voices on June 21, 2013 The viral video depicting Thai Buddhist monks lavishing luxury goods while riding on a private jet is just the tip of the iceberg in an ever-growing list of the men in the orange robes behaving badly - or just like any other human with worldly problems.

Earlier this week, an YouTube video showing Buddhist monks sitting on a private jet plane sporting luxury bags, aviator sunglasses and listening to beats caused widespread attention, uproar and inevitable ridicule in Thailand and beyond. The depiction of the apparent lavish lifestyle runs against the strict and downright ascetic rules a Buddhist monk has follow once he decides to devote his life to the teachings of the Buddha.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sANFgwoJeic

However, Thai newspapers regularly carry reports of Buddhist monks behaving badly. And a quick look at the headlines in the two English-language dailies The Nation and Bangkok Post for just this year so far alone make for impressive/depressing reading, depending how you look at it:

There are two reports of drug and alcohol abuse (January 15May 28), two cases of physical assault or at least altercations (March 6April 3), three counts sexual abuse of minors, including underage novice monks (April 11June 18 and 19), at least one monk caught dining with a woman (February 8), a profanity-filled tirade by a monk on the SkyTrain captured on film (January 11) and countless allegations of improper use of donation money.

Thailand's national Buddhism agency, the National Office of Buddhism, already reprimanded around 300 monks for misconduct in 2012.

At the center of the current high-flying monks is Luang Phu Nenkham Chattigo - the one depicted in the video with the designer handbag - a 34-year-old, high-profile abbot from Si Saket province with good connections and a controversial past. He is regularly seen riding in Mercedes Benz or Rolls Royce limousines (like in this photograph taken in 2011 visiting refugees from the Thai-Cambodian border clashes - also note the numberplate with the auspicious numbers 9999), which are all legitimate donations as claimed by the monk and his followers. Also, he has allegedly been pictured lying next to a woman - on many levels an unthinkable breach of the celibate rule. His followers are dismissing this to be a malicious photoshop job. Oh, and you can also buy a statue of him for the auspicious sum of THB 99,999 (US$ 3,200) or a commemorative coin for THB 1,000 (US$ 32) - and then there's this...

Much of the temple's web presence consists of glowing homage to [Luang Phu Nenkham] who mixes Buddhist doctrine with claims of supernatural powers.

His personal site contends that he has walked upon water: He rose up and realized that his feet did not even touch the dust on the floor and stayed afloat when walking on the pond. And later in life, so goes the monk's lore, he meditated for three months inside a cave where a python would rest on his chest.

"Thailand reels at video of Buddhist monks' private jet journey", by Patrick Winn, GlobalPost, June 20, 2013

The problem with Thailand's Buddhism - a mixture of animism, superstition, Hinduism and the conservative Buddhist branch of Theravada of which officially almost 95 per cent of the population adheres to - is not solely Buddhist monks behaving badly (or just plain human as some would argue) or other contradictions many monks run afoul of.

There is, for example, the problem of increasing emphasis of materialism in daily religious practice by both the monks and the faithful:

The reformist monk Phayom Kallayano claims that Buddhism in Thailand is indeed 'facing a crisis'. The problem, according to Phayom, is that monks these days are allowing themselves to 'become slaves to material gains'. He notes that many monasteries want to lavish 'enormous sums' on building construction, 'in the hope of attracting public donations' from the new rich.

From: "(Post‐) Modernity, remaking tradition and the hybridisation of Thai Buddhism", by Jim Taylor, in: Anthropological Forum, Vol. 9 (1999), Issue 2, p 163–187

This practice, not unlike to the selling of indulgences in 16th century Christianity, against which German reformist Martin Luther was protesting in 1521 - was popularized by the Dhammakāya Movement and has been proven to be popular among the urban middle-class. The movement, regarded by many as a sect, is known to put on lavish mass-processions in the middle of Bangkok and also claimed last year the afterlife of the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Also, the claim by the aforementioned monks riding in luxury vehicles that these were donated show on one hand that some Buddhist monks indeed indulge in materialistic goods or at best could show the sheer naivety of some well-off well-wishers. In the latter case, such donations are simply unnecessary and pointless.

On the other hand is the apparent utilitarian approach to Buddhism by Thais, who participate in customs and rites uncritically, since it is simply part of daily life and a tradition that has been passed on without any questions.

As Mod darts from one donation box to the next she pauses to slip Bt100 (US$3.35) into a box placed before a statue of the elephant god Ganesha. When pressed on the significance of the Hindu deity in a Buddhist temple, she struggles to place him in a Buddhist context but agrees with her friends nevertheless that he is holy and we should not question such mystical things.

"The Crisis in Thai Buddhism", Asia Sentinel, February 1, 2013

Many more issues need in Thai Buddhism to be tackled - such as the role of monks in political conflicts, the utter disregard of female monks or the problematic attitude of monastic Sangha order itself - if it is to maintain moral credibility and not descend into irrelevance, otherwise the men in the orange robes will be increasingly seen as, to borrow a phrase from German poet Heinrich Heine, those who "publicly preach to fly economy, whereas they ride in their own jet!"

The fight against Thailand's archaic and militaristic education system

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 31, 2013 We have previously highlighted the dismal state of Thailand's education system and have explored the various reasons for its failures: from ridiculous questions being asked in the annual O-Net tests, questionable standardization of these tests, to poor PISA scoreshorrendous English-language training and thus proficiency or virtually non-existent sexual education - there're a lot of problem spots that doesn't bode well for the present but also for the (near-)future of the country economically, but also culturally.

Previous governments have only thrown more money at the problem and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, while promising on a press conference after her election victory in 2011 to shift the focus on "life-long learning", her administration's best known education policy has been so far handing out free tablet PCs. But the problems lie much deeper.

The New York Times recently ran a story pointing to the root cause of our aching education system:

Thai students have an altogether different impression. In Thai schools, a drill sergeant’s dream of regimentation rooted in the military dictatorships of the past, discipline and enforced deference prevail.

At a public school in this industrial Bangkok suburb, teachers wield bamboo canes and reprimand students for long hair, ordering it sheared on the spot. Students are inspected for dirty fingernails, colored socks or any other violation of the school dress code.

(...) a system that stresses unquestioned obedience.

"In Thailand’s Schools, Vestiges of Military Rule", by Thomas Fuller, New York Times, May 28, 2013

This unquestioned discipline also reflects in the learning methods: rote learning, repetitious memorization is still widespread in Thai classrooms.

Another apparent factor is the enforced uniformity of Thai students: apart from the uniforms - Thailand is one of very few countries worldwide that requires even university students to wear uniforms - Thai schoolchildren have strict guidelines of hair cuts (boys have to wear a crew cut, girls can't grow their hair longer than the neckline and dyeing is absolutely prohibited) from very early on.

But this archaic regulation (dating back to 1972 during the military dictatorship of Thanom Kittikachorn) is undergoing a change since earlier this year, as the Education Ministry is proposing to relax these rules following a recommendation by the National Human Rights Commission, (NHRC) as we have previously reported and commented:

Hair on Thai school children’s heads has become a national policy issue. The student hair debate has been simmering and finally came to a boil after a schoolboy filed a complaint with the NHRC in December 2011. The complaint said that the school regulation prohibiting all hairstyles except the crew cut for boys and ear-lobe-length bob for girls is in violation of children’s human rights and that the schools allowing selected students such as those engaged in classical art performances to wear long hair is discrimination against other students subject to the hair rule. (...)

Since the student’s complaint to the NHRC in 2011 made the news, academics, policy makers, government officials and leading thinkers have weighed in with both pros and cons. The larger public recently jumped into the fray following the NHRC ruling in November 2012 and the decision by the education ministry just before Children’s Day. (...)

Perhaps these people are oblivious to the new reality that Thailand is in the midst of change - more young Thais are now getting a taste of questioning and blind obedience can no longer be taken for granted. Today’s Thai youth are rushing headlong into the 21st century, only to be pulled back by the hair - so to speak - by arcane rules. However, at least some Thai grown-ups are beginning to appreciate the children’s frustration. But enough to set them free?

"Thailand: What has hair got to do with children’s rights?", by Kaewmala/Siam Voices, Asian Correspondent, January 13, 2013

The aforementioned New York Times article also highlights another campaign to modernize education:

Late last year, a freethinking Thai high school student, Nethiwit Chotpatpaisan, who goes by the nickname Frank, started a Facebook campaign calling for the abolition of the “mechanistic” education system. Together with like-minded friends, he started a group called the Thailand Educational Revolution Alliance. He rose to national prominence in January after speaking out on a prime-time television program.

“School is like a factory that manufactures identical people,” he said one recent morning at his school, Nawaminthrachinuthit Triam Udomsuksa Pattanakarn, (...) Frank described the teachers there as “dictators” who order students to “bow, bow, bow” and never to contradict them.

"In Thailand’s Schools, Vestiges of Military Rule", by Thomas Fuller, New York Times, May 28, 2013

Indeed there is now growing resistance to the status quo in the classrooms and, surprisingly enough, has found an unlikely ally in current Education Minister Phongthep Thepkanjana - at least to the New York Times reporter. But at least a few changes are being implemented: aside from the hair cuts, the number of school hours will be shaved off from 1,000-1,200 to 800 hours per year, in line with UNESCO recommendations.

But there needs to be a lot more to be done - like the lacking reading culture despite Bangkok being named World Book Capital 2013, the problem of corruption for school admissions while also planning to close down smaller schools or also the abusive culture of rite-of-passage rituals among first-year university students - all these and much more need a fundamental thorough overhaul not only to the curriculum, but also to the attitude towards teaching and preparing our children for the future to lead and not to follow.

Thai documentary on Preah Vihear border conflict banned

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 24, 2013 A Thai independent documentary about the disputed border region with Cambodia and the ancient Hindu temple Preah Vihear has been banned from screening in Thailand for "national security" reasons, according to the filmmaker.

The movie "Boundary" or "ฟ้าต่ำแผ่นดินสูง" (literally "Low heaven, high ground") by Nontawat Numbenchapol revolves around a young Thai soldier from the violent crackdown on the anti-government red shirt protests 2010 on his way back to his home village in Sisaket Province near the border and local life with the dispute looming in the background.

On Tuesday, the movie's Facebook page posted an update that the movie has been banned from screens nationwide and cites the authorities as saying:

ผลการตรวจพิจารณาภาพยนตร์ ของคณะอนุกรรมการพิจารณาภาพยนตร์และวีดีทัศน์ เรื่องฟ้าต่ำแผ่นดินสูง ไม่อนุญาตให้เผยแพร่ในราชอาณาจักรไทย ด้วยเนื้อหาที่ขัดต่อความมั่นคงของชาติ และความสัมพันธไมตรีระหว่างประเทศ และการนำเสนอข้อมูลบางเหตุการณ์ยังอยู่ในขั้นตอนการพิจารณาของศาล โดยไม่มีบทสรุปทางเอกสาร

“The Film and Video sub-committee [attached to the Ministry of Culture] do not permit the documentary film “Boundary” (Fah Tam Pandin Soong) to be screened in the Kingdom of Thailand. The film’s content is a threat to national security and international relations. The film presents some information on incidents that are still being deliberated by the Thai court and that have not yet been officially concluded.

Facebook update by Nontawat Numbenchapol, April 23, 2013 - translation by Nontawat, emphasis by me

The area around the ancient Hindu temple has been at the center of a long territorial dispute between Cambodia and Thailand since the ownership of the temple has been awarded to Cambodia by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1962. The conflict heated up again in recent years, escalating in armed clashes on the border in 2011. Forty people were killed, hundreds injured on both sides and thousands of locals have been displaced.

The 4.6 sq km area remains disputed territory with both countries drawing up different border lines. Last week, the two countries went to court again at the petition of Cambodia to the ICJ to reinterpret the vicinity of the original 1962 verdict. A judgement is expected in October 2013.

The movie has already been screened at small independent theaters and movie festivals in Thailand, and also at the Berlinale earlier this year - one of the major international movie festivals.

The Bangkok Post has listed some points in the film that might have caused issues with the censors:

The film also includes YouTube footage of Thai soldiers in action during a border skirmish in 2011, a survey of damage from Cambodian shellings, and a long monologue from a Cambodian soldier who criticises Thailand. (...)

One concern is a caption explaining that there were "nearly 100 deaths" during the red-shirt crackdown at Ratchaprasong on May 2010. The official figure is 89.

"Preah Vihear documentary banned", Bangkok Post, April 24, 2013

Nontawat defended his documentary, saying that...

จากย่อหน้าข้างต้นคือส่วนหนึ่งของเหตุผลที่ภาพยนตร์ฟ้าต่ำแผ่นดินสูง ไม่ได้รับอนุญาตให้เผยแพร่ในราชอาณาจักรไทย โดยข้อมูลทั้งหมดที่ผมได้จากการลงไปยังพื้นที่จริงจากมุมมองของประชาชนในพื้นที่จริงที่อาศัยอยู่บริเวณชายแดน ไทย - กัมพูชา ที่ได้รับผลกระทบโดยตรงจากข้อพิพาทกรณีเขาพระวิหาร ส่วนหนึ่งทางผู้สร้างต้องการให้ภาพยนตร์เรื่อง ฟ้าต่ำแผ่นดินสูง เป็นพื้นที่การแสดงออกให้ประชาชนในพื้นที่ที่ได้รับผลกระทบจริงๆได้แสดงมุมมอง ทัศนคติ และ ความคิดเห็นที่พวกเค้าไม่มีโอกาสได้สื่อและได้พูดออกมาสู่สาธารณชนได้รับรู้ ประชาชนควรมีสิทธิได้พูดในสิ่งที่คิด และภาพยนตร์ฟ้าต่ำแผ่นดินสูงเป็นการนำสารของประชาชนทุกฝ่ายมาสู่สาธารณชน และอยากให้ฟังความคิดเห็นที่ต่างกันและอยู่ร่วมกันได้ในสังคม และยังคงเชื่อว่าประชาชนไทยมีวิจารณญาณในการทำความเข้าใจในชุดข้อมูลนี้ด้วยตัวของพวกเขาเอง

The information I present in my film has been gathered from my first-hand experience in actual locations of the ongoing Thai-Cambodian border conflicts. It presents the viewpoints of the residents in the border areas who feel direct impact of the Preah Vihear spats. One of my intentions is to let the film be a space for the people in the troubled territories to voice their views, opinions and feelings that they haven’t had a chance to do so in the media report on the issue. I believe that the public deserve to hear these voices, and I believe that the people in the conflicts have a right to speak their minds. The film “Boundary” wishes to bring messages from involved parties to the public domain, in order that we’re able to listen to, as well as learn to tolerate, different opinions. I believe that the Thai public possess the intellect and judgment to interpret and understand the information proposed by the film.

Facebook update by Nontawat Numbenchapol, April 23, 2013 - translation by Nontawat, emphasis by me

What eventually led to the ban - be it the Preah Vihear angle or references to the 2010 red shirt protests the film begins with - has unsurprisingly not been further explained by the National Film Board and the Film and Video Screening Office, which has a track record of issuing rare but notable bans on small independent films critically dealing with social or political issues.

Among these were 2010's “Insect in the Backyard” by Tanwarin Sukkhapisit - a drama about a transsexual taking care of two teenagers who eventually turn to prostitution - that was not banned for strong depictions of sex, but rather the "immoral" and "unnecessary" display of child sex workers.

More recently, last year's "Shakespeare Must Die" also fell victim to the censors. The Thai adaptation of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" by Ing K. and Manit Sriwanichpoom is set in an alternative Thailand ruled by a "dear leader" and mob mentality - a thinly veiled allegory to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and to the various political color-coded street protesters. The film board banned the movie fearing it could "causes divisiveness among the people of the nation".

What all these bans have in common is that the censors assume that the content is too much to handle for the Thai audience and might be confused by the messages, images or motives, fictional or not. In the case of "Boundary", the censors deny on ludicrous grounds the viewers a chance to see the daily lives of those that are affected most by the border dispute around Preah Vihear.

Nontawat says he will appeal the ban.