Interview with outspoken Bangkok journalist Voranai Vanijaka

Voranai Vanijaka is a fearless journalist who doesn't shirk from controversy and tells it like it is. We need more of him.

By | Tue 20 Nov 2012

Voranai Vanijaka, a Bangkok based journalist working for the likes of the Bangkok Post, has become well-known over the last five years or so for his sometimes controversial opinion pieces. His social commentary touches on subjects such as class snobbery, Plato’s noble lies (or the government’s), censorship, sex tourism and the many struggles facing every Thai as Thailand shifts through a period of enlightenment in its very own unique way. He writes in English, and was educated at the University of Texas, Austin and Southbank University, London.  He also teaches at Thammasart University.

Voranai Vanijaka

You’re quite well known for being perhaps one of the most outspoken critics in Thailand. Are there any subjects, bar the obvious, you won’t broach because of perceived dangers? Are there any subjects you just can’t resist returning to again and again?

The subjects I return to time and time again are historical evolution (‘cos you got to know the past to comprehend the present), education and the patronage cultural mindset (cos these are the two main issues that hold Thailand back) and Thaksin Shinawatra (‘cos it’s just so much fun).

Are we living in a kind of Wild East where writers or editors should be very aware of who they might upset?

They should be aware, but they should try to upset them anyway. I believe in shaking things up, not accepting things as they are.

You talked in an interview once before about people in general needing to be more self-reflective, more accountable for their actions/thought processes. I don’t want to ask you to generalize, but if a large group of children grow up not as self-aware as they should be, then why is that?

This is because it just makes life easier. To be self-aware is to face and admit your own flaws. In doing so, you can either accept your flaws and move on or change them for the better. The former is an existential nightmare; the latter is too much work. So it’s easier to only see the flaws in others and be obstinately self-righteous of oneself.

What does it mean to be more self-aware?

To recognize and admit that we are all geniuses and idiots, saints and scumbags, martyrs and morons – all rolled into one.

Many critics have criticized the Ministry of Culture’s many commandments on what it deems to be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ society, or culture? Is this kind of indoctrination harmful to society in your opinion? Why does it happen? Who comes up with certain ideas on why it’s bad to be gay or why teenage girls shouldn’t think about sex?

The portfolio is the least relevant, the least prestigious and the least lucrative of all the ministries. So it’s a combination of inward self vanity plus insecurity and outward simple-minded perceptions of the world that make them do the things that they do.

What some people call antiquated ideas, such as the above, seems to be a majority consensus. Or am I wrong? Is it difficult to be a radical thinker in Thailand? Is the education system still not a place to argue with your teacher?

I don’t know if it’s the majority consensus. The younger generation in general doesn’t think so, and many of the older ones are also progressive. But of course we are still stuck way back in the evolutionary chain in terms of liberal thinking, especially at government level.

It’s not difficult to be a radical thinker in Thailand, if you don’t take the radical approach to push your ideas. Finesse can at times get you farther than brute force, and leave a much smaller trail of destruction behind you, although it does take more time.

It’s not a place to argue, according to the teachers, but I say do it anyway, but do it with a measure of respect and a hint of smile.

It seems the local government in Chiang Mai at the moment, in their fast-track education of the people are taking an anti-materialism stance. Is it contradictory for rich people to be telling poor people not to want the things they have?

I appreciate an anti-materialism stance. But yes, it’s hypocritical for rich people who have so much to tell poor people who have so little not to want what they have. The reality is if you embrace capitalism, then by default, you go to bed with materialism. The rich just want less competition.

Some people have said that a student’s, or a citizen’s, lack of critical thinking is purposefully engineered, or maybe self-perpetuating? What do you think about that? Is something deliberate going on here?

As much a fan of conspiracy theories that I am, I don’t believe it’s purposefully engineered in the grand scheme of things. There’s no wizard behind the curtains in Oz, just a lot of decomposing skeletons.  It’s a matter of where on the evolutionary chain we are. The most advanced countries have had similar problems – some still do to a certain degree, some have advanced far ahead. Thailand is stuck behind in the evolutionary chain. The system is self-perpetuating, simply because it’s habitual, it’s easy, it’s what we know. How can we teach students critical thinking when teachers aren’t even capable of it? Why do we want critical thinking when it’s so difficult to control? Why do we want change if we see nothing wrong and everyday congratulating ourselves on how great we are? It goes back to first being self-aware – and who wants to be self-aware that they are, whether by accident or by design, simple-minded control freaks with the penchant for misplaced self-glorification? By the way, this is not a good example of using “finesse”.

People talk about Thai and farang like they are two different species, and seem to accept an East is East, West is West dictum. Why is that? Do you think it could change? Is Thainess, the apparent secularity of it, exploited so that people feel insular and have certain opinions?

We are of the same species; the only difference is one goes to massage parlors and one goes to go go bars, but for the same reason. East may be east. West may be west. But humans are humans. Thainess, like Englishness or Americanness or Chineseness, is of course exploited so that people feel insular and have certain opinions – after all, what country doesn’t employ the nationalistic ‘’we are so special’’ tactic to feel good about themselves, to direct hate against others and to keep the population on a leash with “group think”? A question often asked: Can foreigners understand Thainess? The answer is don’t be daft, even Thais don’t understand Thainess. Again, it’s an issue of being self-aware.

Was there a transformation in your own life, a kind of metamorphosis, when you became more enlightened to say some of the inequities in the world? When did that happen?

When I was about 8 years old, attending an elementary school in Thailand. After school, the soi in front would be lined with street vendors. All the kids would flock to buy the goodies. There was always this one beggar, a grandma of indeterminable age, sitting by the fence, frail, thin and sickly. Every day I gave her some money. Looking back at the scene, I see an 8-year-old boy standing over a grandma of indeterminable age, while she looked up at him and “wai” with her hands on receiving the money. Ponder that image and you’ll see why it is troublesome. All the while most everyone else, teachers or students, adults or children barely ever notice her. That apathy is what is wrong with the world.

I interviewed Joei Weerasethakul after he won the Cannes award. He told me that there are things in Thailand, such as censorship issues, that bother him tremendously, but it is the fact that there is so much to criticize, apropos social conventions, that gives him so much will to be an artist. Is your job more enjoyable than it is frustrating?

Well, there is certain satisfaction to stand up and tell it like it is, against the odds and convention.

If you see a newspaper with an arrested man sitting in front of 5 smiling policeman – the man was found with amphetamine pills, what is your reaction, what might be your reaction to this scene?

If the picture also has a powerful drug kingpin with strong political, police and military connections – or who is himself an MP or a general – then I might get excited.

Voranai 3

Are we still living in a country and big people and small people. I mean, is class distinction this generally accepted?

Yes indeed, it is – on both sides of the political divide.

Do you think the Bangkok ‘intellectual’ crowd (I don’t know these people) would be comfortable eating sticky rice and larb amongst the rice paddies? Is there a kind of champagne socialism within the strata of the intellectual elite?

I don’t think there is such a thing as an intellectual crowd. But there are plenty of haughty, delusional, vain and shallow crowds who of course wont’ be comfortable in the rice paddies.

It might seem to an outsider that social criticism, or even social realism in the media, is perhaps not as common as it should be? Is it true, or is there a lot being said and going on that most English speaking people just don’t see?

If you guys can read Thai and follow social media you would see that social criticism, both the profoundly intelligent and the nauseatingly stupid, are alive and well in Thailand.

Most of the commentators I’ve met seem to have had a western education. We once interviewed, she’s now deceased, a teacher who said to get her students at Chulalongkorn to come up with more original ideas she had to make them speak English as in Thai they just repeated what they thought they should say? Is there a kind of prison language puts you in? Or is it just about getting out of your environment?

Nope, in fact I think Thai is a very rich language that makes social commentary appetizingly delicious. There are comedy troupes that do great social satires in their acts. Some of the Thai comic films by these guys have social commentary and satire that probably go over the heads of the so-called educated audience, but have me laughing and giving thumbs up. But like everything else, the evolution of mainstream social commentary in Thailand still lags behind those in more advanced countries. Such is the nature of things.

When can we expect to see a hard-hitting Ken Loach type of social realism in the cinemas in Thailand? If not this month, then why do you think it won’t happen?

If we understand that the future is full of endless possibilities, then it could happen, but no, not this month. Also, when the audience demands more than romance, comedy and kratoeys – if there’s money in it, people will find a way to get it done. Circumvent around; sneak through loop holes; or steamroll through any censorship, convention or conservatism. Look at Hollywood. Money talks, even if it might take some time for the dinosaurs to listen.

Have you ever been censored, had a warning for something you’ve written?

I’ve been warned a few times. I have co-hosted two TV talk shows where entire segments were pulled out “due to inappropriate content/comment”.  I blame/congratulate the recklessness of a Texas upbringing for not listening. It is then to no surprise that I’m not on TV anymore.