“The Contagion of Liberty”: History, Politics and Dissent in Thailand

Aside

Well, long time no post. Guess it’s been about 8 months since the last one. Anyways, in the midst of our current political struggles I’ve had a lot of things on my mind. I am not an expert on Thai anything at this point, I’m still a student of most things Thai, but that being said, I feel there are some important intersections between my experience as a history teacher here and the recent political situation.

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I’ve now been teaching history for two years at a well-known, and to some well-respected, university in Bangkok. The university will remain nameless at this point for a number of reasons. That being said, I was quite excited to take this position early on. History is what I had spent many years doing in the U.S. and what I wanted to do here in Thailand. I had done a year teaching English just to get settled while I tried to figure out how and where I might teach history here (in English), and no offense to professional English teachers here, but I really had no interest in spinning my wheels in that environment. Criticisms of the poorly educated, sexpat farang that make up much of the English teachers here are readily available elsewhere, so I will not spend time on that here.

The position I began in was as a history lecturer for a general education World Civilization course. Granted, this is not a university that offers any social science degrees, but I assumed that history would still be something that was taught seriously. I would be teaching as part of a team to design syllabi, readings, exams, etc. This seemed ok at the time. In U.S. universities we wouldn’t really consider it team teaching, but we would have historians with the same regional expertise working together to a certain degree (Latin Americanists, Africanists, Europeanists, etc.).

But as I quickly learned, this was a quite different situation. The core team members, Thai ajarn that had been teaching this course for many years, had next to no background in the social sciences. Most were glorified administrative staff whose English was good enough that someone thought they could be promoted to be teachers. The “team” was really not a team, but a bunch of ajarn subservient to the course coordinator who directed the course. Because this is a required course that many students have to take, foreign teachers from the English department are often brought in to teach a few sections, but once again, normally with no background in, or understanding of, history as a discipline. The readings that had been compiled for this course were outdated, Eurocentric, often racist, and sometimes just completely at odds with modern historical understandings. There was no understanding of history as a tool to teach critical thinking amongst students, or as a means to make better sense of their present. “Some Interesting, but not really Important, Shit that Happened in the Past” would have been a better title of the course.

As the problems became more and more apparent, I tried to voice some suggestions about how me might make this class more stimulating, modern, and historically sound. But I quickly discovered that the “team” had no interest in making any changes. What they expected was to repeat the same lesson, with the same materials, every semester. The idea of updating, fact checking, or having any debate about the content of the course was foreign and unwanted. This way the ajarn could stick to their same sleep-inducing power points every semester, and could, in fact, avoid even reading the course materials themselves as their lessons came directly from third party tutorials that inundate this university, and many others in Thailand.

After a year and a half of this situation, I wrote a detailed report of the problems and submitted it to my departmental administration and the other team members. This was during the most recent backlash over the Hitler mural at Chulalongkorn University, the Nazi themed Sports Days that occur every year in Thailand, and the swastika t-shirts and apparel  that can be seen quite often around Thailand. I connected this to the fact that my team members taught World War II with a reading that didn’t even discuss the anti-Semitism and racism of Nazi ideology, nor concentration camps. Well, of course the other ajarn were upset that I hitler-superhero-muralhad called out their ignorance (not a very Thai thing to do, I know), and my superiors were fed up and obtuse about my complaining. Their solution was to offer me my own course, that I would design and teach by myself, and to leave World Civ as the poorly taught course that it was. The only reason not to fire me was that I have a quality degree background and it looks good to the university to have me on the faculty. This, and the fact that my bosses seem to realize that I know what I am talking about, even if they don’t understand what that is. My initial reaction was to quit and look for a job somewhere else, as working in an actual social science department in Thailand is my eventual goal. But after talking with some of my Thai coworkers that are actually real teachers, I was convinced to try out the new course, at least for a year. Because I have seen the potential in many of the students at this university, and have developed some good relationships with past students, I decided to stay . . . for a minute.

I’ll probably write about my experience teaching this new course in the future, but for now I can say that while frustrating, it’s going ok. Frustrating in the sense that your average Thai student has little knowledge of important historical events, or any thought to problematize things like race, gender, culture, nationalism, etc., and has been given little impetus by the Thai educational system to question or think critically about anything around them. Frustrating as a black person that these students love black Hollywood actors or hip hop music, but have little understanding of the struggles that black people have faced to get to this point. As I am teaching in Thailand, even more frustrating is the fact that these students have little understanding of the struggles of Asian/Thai Americans, colonialism in Asia, or the disastrous and interconnected histories of their brothers and sisters next door in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. But, these faults are of the system, and not Thai students, and when taught in the correct way, I find that Thai students are very inquisitive, empathetic and open to new understandings of the world.

So, what does all of this have to do with our recent political problems? Well, I will try not to expose my own political leanings, suffice to say I am not a red or yellow shirt supporter. I want the fairest, freest, and most democratic Thailand possible. Unlike most foreign residents in Thailand whose comments on the situation are basically “I hope Thais can work all this out for themselves,” I am probably going to live the rest of my life and raise a family in Thailand, so these problems are my own. What other farang that choose to live here offer to Thailand’s future I don’t know, but my own inadequate price of admission is to help Thai youth understand their own and others histories, and as such become a better informed electorate.

And here we come back to the title of this post, “the Contagion of Liberty.” I heard this in a documentary I was showing my students on the Haitian Revolution. It was in reference to the fear that white slave societies in Europe and the Americas had of the slave revolution that occurred in Haiti. The fear that ideas of freedom, liberty, consciousness would spread and infect other enslaved peoples, or people of color that were outside of current Enlightenment ideals of justice and equality. For me, this seems to be the state of education in Thailand. The reason why history is taught in such a conservative and nationalistic fashion. To keep dissenting views, critical thinking, and free minds at bay. guarding-the-disloyalWhen people are not accustomed to thinking for themselves, or questioning those who are “superior” because of wealth or social status, they become easy sheep to be led one way or another, red or yellow, corrupt or corrupt (not a typo). How many Thai historians and social scientists have had to leave this country they love because their views went against the norm? Many. Who does that leave to teach our Thai youth? A few good ajarn against an army of ignorance. The good fight, I suppose, but difficult. But as for the impacts of all this on Thailand, my own view is that historical, cultural, social and political ignorance has been fostered by successive governments, amongst its own people, in order to keep them subservient to meaningless and mundane things, as well as forgetful of those that have fought against this in their own past, so that today there is little recognition or understanding of what a word/concept like “democracy,” in all its manifestations, really means.

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The Audacity of Farang, Pt. 2

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Yawn . . . I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but honestly, didn’t really have the energy to do it. I guess I don’t really have it in me to be one of those everyday bloggers. Probably my day-to-day is not that interesting to anyone other than myself. Not even myself, sometimes. But, as the tourist season has descended on Thailand, I’ve become increasingly annoyed to the point I needed to say a few things.

A few people seem to have read some of this blog, and I’ve been happy to know that I’ve been of assistance to a couple of people making the transition to life in Bangkok. But some months back I also received some critiques/comments that were predictable and uninspiring to respond to, but illuminating of some of the larger problems of the expat and tourist mentality here. And even more broadly, problems of our humanity.

I will not post those comments, because I have no interest in using this blog as a place to argue over the “normality” of prostitution or other wrongs in Thailand. There are plenty of blogs and websites where farang can, and do, blather on convincing themselves of the acceptability of the life they live here and their treatment of Thai women and Thai culture. I will give no forum to that. Call me a Stalinist, call me unfair, or ignore this blog. Wait. PLEASE IGNORE THIS BLOG. I know that my views are not those of the majority of expats in Thailand. If this blog makes you uncomfortable or feeling like you need to justify your life here and your treatment of Thai women, than move along. I have a hard enough time avoiding the scumbags in my real life, and I have no interest in debating them here.

That being said, this type of foreign trash makes an all too common argument that goes something like, “Thais had prostitution long before any farang came, most prostitution is conducted by Thai men, poor families push their daughters into becoming prostitutes, poor Thais don’t care what their daughters (or sons) are doing as long as it’s bringing in money, prostitution is just part of ‘Thai culture,’ “etc. Can’t change it, so might as well get your kicks. If you came to the United States in 1800, I suppose you would say, “I’m against slavery, but it’s part of the culture here, so . . . I guess I could use a few niggers to help me out.” The normalization of the exploitation of Thai women is disgusting, but unfortunately all too common amongst the foreigners here. You may be blind to what you are doing, but many Thai are not. Did foreigners bring prostitution to Thailand? No. Do foreigners enable and feed off of prostitution? Do they help to support  a system that perpetuates prostitution? Yes, yes, yes. Are there some strong, sensible, financed, well educated, intelligent women that choose sex-work as a profession in our world? Sure. Is that the case with 99.9% of the sex workers in Thailand? No. No Thai family wants their daughter working in a strip club or coyote bar. No Thai woman with a decent education and/or job possibilities would choose to be a hooker. And those are two problems put on the Thai government, not you farang. A decent education and jobs. Many farang complain about how corrupt, inefficient, and undemocratic the Thai government is, true no doubt, but would you really want to see a government that provided for its people? That created an education system where real teachers assured Thai students were made aware of the exploitative history of the West and particularly of Western white supremacist regimes in SEA? Where young Thai students were taught about global movements for social justice and gender equality? Nah, I don’t think you want that. Might stop girls from working in bars to be used by Western AND Thai trash. Might cause girls from Isaan and throughout Thailand to say I’m black and proud. Might cause more young Thai males to direct their violence at you rather than each other. Fighting over liberation, not libations. You sure you farang do-gooders really support an independent and strong Thailand? I think not.

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I will not go into the details of my own life here, but I didn’t come to Thailand for girls, to party, or for a life-changing makeover. Sure, my experience in Thailand has, and does have an impact on how I see things, and living in a new culture away from the States has of course opened me up in new ways. But at the same time I am much the same person. I was not a fat, ugly, ignorant, or morally void person back in the States. I was not a failure in relationships with Western women that needed to find a place where women in desperate need might overlook my physical and/or mental deficiencies. I am still a person that dedicates much of their life and work to understanding and fighting oppression based on race, ethnicity, gender, or class. And despite black presidents and female prime ministers, people of color, from Boston to Benghazi, from Beirut to Bangkok, are still inordinately struggling with the legacies of white supremacy, colonialism, gender inequality, and the exploitation of the working classes.

Thailand is a wonderful country.Thai history and culture are fascinating. Thais can be some of the kindest, most open, and generous people. But there are also bad Thais that are ultra-materialistic, could care less about their brothers and sisters living in poverty, and care nothing about the exploitation and sexualization of their young women. But too many farang that come here have the idea that these things are just part of “Thai culture.” They were like that before “we” came and it will be like that forever. Well, it may be like that forever. But not because it is a part of Thai culture, per se, but because it is a problem of our human experience. An experience that is still being shaped by the continuing struggle for racial and gender equality, for political democratization.

Oh, and by the way, Thais are people of color. Yes, they have their own history of whitening, but not in the same way western white folks mean. White farang have benefitted from this for sure, but don’t get it twisted, in the color scheme you invented, even the most-palest skinned Thai girl is an “other “in your world. Good for a sex holiday or a wife-prop to make you think you have any use remaining in this country. But we know. From American slum to Thai slum, we know.

Whether you are blind to the fact or not, farang in Thailand, you are choosing a side. One day you will be judged by god, karma, the universe, a firing squad, or whatever it is you believe in.

Until then, keep your idiocy away from me and fuck off.

With that off my chest, I will eat yam plaa dook fuu, listen to the new MBV, and try to remember there are good people in the world.