By Thitipol Panyalimpanun
If you happened to live in Thailand during the ’90s, chances are you have heard at least one song written by Nitipong “Dee” Honark. The popular and prolific songwriter has produced over 100 hits in the past few decades and now sits as one of the ‘Thailand’s Got Talent’ judges. Beyond his musical abilities, Dee is also an outspoken patriot. Not only did he publicly vow to shave his head if the national football team lost to Myanmar (Burma) at the SEA Games, Dee also took time during the recent political conflicts to write songs about peace and love to harmonize Thai people.
Last week, the 55-year-old songwriter ignited a human rights debate after he commented on Thailand’s recent deportation of Uighurs to China. “Thai people have nothing to do with it, no plus or minus. It’s between China and the Uighurs. That the Chinese government may get brutal with the Uighurs, Muslim Turks, has nothing to do with us. We never have had problems with anyone. It’s their history, not ours,” he wrote on Facebook. Dee’s willingness to relieve Thailand from any wrongdoing brought in people from both sides of the argument, lauding and condemning him.
It might have surprised some fans of Dee’s songs, how a man so romantic and peace-loving became intolerant when it comes to people of other nationality – but his standpoint, shared by many Thai nationalists, is not at all surprising. Behind the smokescreen of love for country, ethnocentrism is flourishing in Thai society.
Like Dee, Thais were introduced to the concept of Thailand’s unique greatness from a very young age. From kindergarten to high school, every morning Thai students sing the national anthem, which has also been broadcast nationwide twice a day at 8am and 6pm since 1939 as part of the cultural mandates by Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram. Patriotic folklore and baseless war tales that contradict new academic research are still being taught as Thai history, according to a comparison by TCIJ. Also, “Being Thai” is currently one of the official key performance indicators used in Thai education. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who himself still believes in an unfounded theory that Thai ancestry came from the Altai Mountains, ordered the Education Ministry to come up with a new nation-fortifying subject.
Either by conformity or a successful system, the meanings of “Thai,” “Patriotic” and “Righteous” have over time become entwined, and national shortcomings and fallacies easily take refuge in such ambiguity that shields them against change. Nepotism, for instance, is expected as part of a Thai-styled business practice. Dictatorship is accepted as Thai-styled democracy. “For the nation” is an excuse widely used and seemingly legitimate in many decisions, from funding movies to staging coups d’etat. At times when Thai pride prevails logic, it makes sense too to ask France on Bastille Day to return Thai dissidents wanted for lese majeste prosecution.
In another strange case of Thai-styled compassion, TV reporter Thapanee Ietsrichai last April became the nation’s hero after she traveled to Indonesia and uncovered the trafficked, enslaved Thai fishing workers, which led to their rescue. A month later, Thapanee boarded an off shore migrant boat from Burma where she found hundreds of Rohingya stranded in terrible conditions. Her heartfelt reporting, suggesting that the government take them ashore, this time outraged many Thais who soon branded her a traitor for putting her own country in a tough spot. Isra News even investigated her shareholding record for vested interest in covering the news.
Not only did this fast-tracked rise and fall of Thapanee conclude as an absurdist melodrama, it also showed how the difference between Thai and non-Thai can dramatically change people’s opinion of two similar human rights problems.
It’s only normal for one to love one’s home country more than others, but too much of love can be intoxicating. In an all-time hit Dee wrote for ’90s rocker Thanet Warakulnukror, the chorus goes, “Soon you’ll understand what is more important than just love.” Perhaps we can start from there. Thailand, as with any country, is unique from others. But uniqueness can never qualify anything as good or bad, wise or stupid, righteous or evil. But rest assured, Thailand will forever be the best in its own Thai way, even as a happy, ignorant nation.
About the author:
Thitipol Panyalimpanun is a Thai writer from Bangkok who writes mainly about art, films and culture. He is now based in New York City, where he pursues a master’s degree in publishing at New York University. You can follow him on Twitter @ThitipolP.