- Being ThaiA Narrow Identity in a Wide World
In January 2015 the Tourism Authority of Thailand launched its “Discover Thainess” campaign. In a country where travel and tourism support a significant fraction of the population, and directly contribute 8.6 per cent of GDP, the country’s good image is a tremendous asset.1 This campaign is designed to highlight the “unique” qualities of the kingdom at a time when its international reputation has been buffeted by domestic political upheavals. With two military coups in the past decade, and an economy that has fallen behind the impressive growth rates elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Thailand has looked to trade on its cultural endowments. Images of traditional dancers, colourful hill tribes and distinctive cuisine have led the push for visitors to “Discover Thainess”. This foreigner-focused marketing initiative matches an internal drive that encourages the Thai people to defend their heritage. These are both politically charged efforts. The cultural politics of “Thainess” has surged since General Prayuth Chan-ocha and his junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order, seized power.
Since their overthrow of the elected government on 22 May 2014, the military rulers have quickly returned to familiar patterns of dictatorship that rely on ideas about the defence of the monarchy, the unity of the nation, and the elimination of subversive threats. The public relations entities that support military rule enjoy access to a reservoir of notions and beliefs about national identity that can help support the unelected government. The primary source of these notions and beliefs is the concept of “Thainess” (kwam pehn thai).2 In its simplest, official expression, Thailand is the “land of the free” (meuang thai or prathed thai), an assertion that emerges from the country’s earlier efforts to remain uncolonized by European [End Page 331] powers.3 The idea that such Thainess is distinctive, and even exceptional, has earned wide currency, especially during the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has been on the throne since 1946.4 His connection to the Thai ideal also influences beliefs about status, hierarchy, obedience, loyalty and conflict. Pride in Thainess is lived out in food, language, etiquette and other cultural practices.5 Being Thai is to belong, in this interpretation, to a great and honourable civilization.6
With such lofty connotations, access to the privileges of Thainess is not straightforward. According to Thai anthropologist Pinkaew Laungaramsri, it is a “collective identity … constituted by shared commonality of language, religion and monarchy” as shaped by the need “to be loyal to [those] three principles/ pillars”.7 Being born Thai is a good start, although that does not always guarantee lifelong connection to the Thai ideal. Some fall out of favour; their Thainess can be questioned.8 Such judgements have a long history but have become more common in the past decade when political turbulence has created uncompromising social and cultural oppositions. The major fault line has emerged between those who supported the governments aligned with deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and who endorsed the elections that delivered those governments power, and other forces, strongly associated with the royal family and bureaucratic and military elites, that sought to limit Thaksin’s influence. This confrontation has frayed the unifying narrative that was carefully constructed over recent decades. That narrative has given the Thai people a narrower sense of their place in the world at a time of unprecedented digital enrichment and global connection.9 They have been told to defend Thainess during a moment when its universal appeal is perceived to be in danger.10
For General Prayuth and his subordinates, the cultural politics of running a twenty-first century military dictatorship are therefore not simple. They have presented the coup of May 2014 as an effort to “return happiness to people in the nation” (keun kwam suk hai phrachachon).11 From that perspective the maintenance of law and order is a top priority. Legitimacy follows, they hope, from campaigns to stamp out political violence, which had punctuated recent years of street-level confrontation. According to Sunai Phasuk, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, “[t]he Thai military in contemporary politics sees...