The Rajpal Abeynayake Column                     By Rajpal Abeynayake  

Thailand is getting somewhere fast
BANGKOK: Being in a country that venerates monks, it was weird hearing of the attacks on Buddhist clergy in the Sri Lankan parliament. Already the Taxi drivers are asking me if I come from a country in which Buddhist monks are routinely roughed-up. Just joking. No they don't know about it, but I dread the day they would because then they would probably rough me up.

To pontificate about Sri Lanka from this neck of the woods would be rather audacious. But suffice to say that with reference to the parliament roughing up, Buddhist monks will never be subject to any such indignity in this country. The King here is God and the monks come a close next in the social hierarchy.

Bangkok conjures up various images, not least among them being that it's a sin city. But these appendages do not do justice to the real face of Bangkok. Bangkok absorbs Westernization like a blotting paper. But apparently this country, which never came under the colonial-yoke, does not entertain any qualms about what we from a colonized milieu see as Westernization overdone.

One reason is that there are no Gunadasa Amarasekera's here – no offense meant at all to the author of Jathika Chinthanaya. But in Gunadasa Amarasekera's words, Bangkok will be incorrigibly thuppahi. It is a cultural hybrid that's very self effacing though. Bangkokians feel no embarrassment about swearing by Western clothes including power suits and jeans at all times of day for women. Apparently this has been so ever since a dictator here way back in the 30’s issued an edict that all women should wear slacks as that's the only path to progress.

But there was no reflex action against that kind of an edict that would have invited anarchy in Sri Lanka. The explanation is that Bangkok has no self-consciousness about Westernization because it was a country that was never colonized. Resistance therefore the way we know it or the way India knows it was never part of the ferment here. Westernization is seen as part of the natural development of the Thai ethos; its seen as technology transfer or a mere case of culture swapping.

Japan also does not have its collective conscience bothered by Westernization essentially because Japan similarly sees itself as a country which was not under the colonial yoke - this discounting the period of American occupation post WW2. So from Visa card advertisements to Mac Donald Coca Cola and the whole gamut of Western – particularly American – cultural godheads proliferating Bangkok's urban landscape, it is a bit queer to see Bangkok maintain its cultural identity.

But Bangkoikians feel too much credit has been lent to the West anyway for these things. They see the West as not having a lien on Western attire for instance; notwithstanding that they are following a 30’s dictator’s whim when they don the trouser even today. But you could say that they are more pragmatic about these maters here.

This is an "almost dragon'' country. The economy is approaching the levels of the successful South Asian dragons, which means that the mindset here is to go with the production and consumer ethos of the liberal and neo-liberal economies. Culture and thuppahism can be ignored.

But the argument of thuppahism cannot be lightly dismissed. Despite the fact that Bangkok has a notoriously tourist dependent culture, some of which is fuelled of course by the sex industry, the Thais insist they are less thuppahi than most economies including those post-colonial ones such as Sri Lanka and India. The evidence they say is out there to see. In Thailand they speak Thai exclusively - and if that's the case, can anyone seriously argue that Thailand is more Westernized and hybridized than some other Asian country such as Sri Lanka which still suffers from a colonial hangover of not being able to discard the Englishman's English even for purposes of commerce?

But it's also good to see that Thailand is no Singapore. There is the urge to defend the freedom of expression here. A programme lampooning Prime Minister Takshin Sinawathra was headed for trouble the moment it was launched here last week. The man who plays Sinawathra's son suffers from Down's Syndrome and therefore the government's apologists argued that it was in bad taste. The police allegedly harassed the producer of the show.

But the show goes on - and even if it's taken off at least the level of the fight here is vibrant. You couldn't imagine such spunk in Singapore. Thais would argue that they have real freedom and not the ersatz variety, which obtains in America for instance. They would say that there is no need in Thailand to conform to the dominant agenda of the mainstream. Here, they say, you can be eccentric, as you want to be. That's probably true but social tensions are inevitable as the country moves perilously close towards Dragon economy status. In a month or so Thailand will commission its first underground subway.

This is in addition to the highly efficient Skytrain system that connects vital points in the city. But even as Thailand keeps knocking on the door of Developed Nation status, there is rebellion brewing in the South of the country. The version here is that it's a part of the global clash of cultures –Muslim ferment resulting from Osama Bin Laden's emergence as the arch villain in the international scene.

But that's to ignore the fact that the Muslim disenchantment in the South has been around for ages. This is partly fuelled by dissatisfaction resulting from poverty in the South. It has more to do with baksheesh and Bhat than Bin Laden.

So this way Thailand is a country that has its plate full with its emerging status as an economic powerhouse with social irritants that accompany such progress. But definitely it's a country that's moving somewhere – not one that one suspects is getting nowhere fast as Sri Lanka is at least at the current time. The country has a Prime Minister to fit the bill.

If Thailand is hybrid/thhupahi Takshin must be the King of the Thuupahi. He doles out money - and believes in the lucre even as he is filthy rich. Book stores carry Thakshin recommended reading – all about corporate management. He is in a mighty hurry and so is Thailand.

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