Editorial: November 2006
Shortly after the coup, I had a phone conversation with my aunt in Bangkok on our various – and pretty general, by then – opinions about giving the junta a chance, how Thaksin really did have to go, and how Thailand must have a more transparent government. She ended our conversation with, “Pim, Thaksin is one of our nation’s greatest teachers.” For a moment, I was floored. Then, thankfully, she clarified, “Look at the lessons we have been taught about corruption, greed, abuse of power and morality.”
It got me thinking: will we, and future generations, learn from Thaksin’s plethora of mistakes and mis-intentions?
During my ten years in the Thai educational system, I don’t recall having learnt in my history lessons of one political intrigue, ruler or even war which showed Thailand in a bad light. (Actually, the syllabus doesn’t offer dedicated history classes. Social studies, as this class is called, combines Buddhist studies with geography and history.) According to these austere text books, our leaders were all just fab, our policies merited, and our wars just. Thailand’s history evolves around two institutions, Buddhism and the Royal Family, almost to the exclusion to anything else. And as both are sacrosanct, Thai history is therefore inherently biased.
Most written accounts of Thai history have been supplied by French, Dutch and British merchants and missionaries as well as by Burmese and Chinese envoys. As they often go against the grain of government educational policies, they tend to be ignored. Considering that there were no written records before the seventeenth century (except for Buddhist peons and Royal Chronicles) it is ironic that history textbooks begin in Sukhotai with King Rangkamhaeng and his dubiously and gloriously nationalistic stone inscription in 1283.
By contrast, when I did my A-levels in Switzerland, my eyes and my mind were, like stout Cortez, open in wild surmise. First of all I learnt the word ‘source’; unlike in Thailand, one doesn’t simply rely on one textbook for history. I discovered all kinds of juicy and fascinating facts about world history. I know of Catherine the Great’s sexual quirks (riveting stuff!), of Charles the First’s nasty intrigues (which got his head chopped off), of the Medici’s web of murderous greed and of Rasputin’s mental disorders. I read Catherine’s raunchy diaries and underground Parisian pamphlets leading up to the French revolution, I studied 18th century satirical political etchings by William Hogarth, and also viewed those in the sphere of influence from the perspective of their neighbouring countries.
Through these insights, I saw their strengths as well as their weaknesses, and learnt of both their achievements and their failures, all of which I thought about, debated, and ultimately learnt from. But it wasn’t all dead dudes of yore; we also learnt about Kennedy’s hair-raising blunder at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, Lech Walesa’s unionist rise to power and Vietnam’s recent tragedy.
Modern Thai history — where bloodshed and dictatorship abounded a mere thirty years ago — is virtually unknown to the younger generation and certainly not taught at school, where Thai history arbitrarily ends 100 years before each current school year (does this mean that in 2041 Thai students will be left with a cliff hanger after the bombing of Pearl Harbour on December the 7th, and not learn of its consequences?) Unless policies change, this means that Black October won’t be taught in schools until 2073 and my great grandchildren, when they are in high school in 2106, may, hopefully, read this editorial as they are doing their futuristic Google research for their course, ‘Dictatorship and Democracy in the Thaksin era – 2001-2006’. Let’s hope not and take our lessons from teacher Thaksin.
Citylife this month:
At a whopping 106 pages, November’s is the biggest issue of Citylife ever. Hoorah! This means more articles for you to read. We kick off with James Austin Farrell’s look into the issue of dowries, as he tries to justify why he shouldn’t have to pay one – ladies be warned. Po Garden puts the Thai justice system into a percolating pot to analyze its vagrancies and flaws, raising many very pressing issues, and Cindy Tilney and I go botanical with her look at the much heralded (and criticized) Royal Flora expo and my trip to the Taweechol Botanical Gardens, while Lisa Warshaw takes you behind the scenes of Can Do Bar, Chiang Mai’s first bar run by and for sex workers.
Happy cool season.
Pim Kemasingk Editor