“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.

democracy_Monumentrajamangala

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.

Why do I love Thailand?

Hmmm. This is a question I have been asking myself lately. When I came here a year and a half ago, I had no idea what I would be getting myself into. One of my best friends in California is Thai-American and he always told me I would enjoy it here, but other than liking Thai food and having this admittedly “orientalist” idea that I liked “Asian cultures,” I didn’t really know what to expect. Sure, I had been to Japan, and there is something to be said of a pan-Asian approach to life that places high value on at least a surface level of showing respect and manners, and this was definitely something that was comfortable to me. And something I found lacking in the U.S. But really, Thailand is as far from being Japan as Spain is from being Germany.

But as much as I thought I was really enjoying my life here, after my recent breakup with my girlfriend I had to reevaluate. My girl was Thai, and we had been together most of my first year and a half here. She was my best friend, lover, translator, tour guide, and anchor in my transition to life here. So after we split, I had to ask myself “how much did you love Thailand with her vs. how much do you love Thailand.” Added to this was the fact that, because I don’t like 99% of the farang here, and it can be difficult, or at least slow, to make friendships with normal Thai folks that are not the farang-chasing sort, after the breakup I was really on my own. On top of this I had some of my dearest friends asking me to come back to San Francisco, a place which offered so much love, friendship, and comfort. What to do?

The question of why I love Thailand became even more difficult for me to answer because there are so many things here that I don’t like, and that I have struggled to live with since early on. Errr. Put your brakes on. This will not be another of the million sites by foreigners that bash dealing with Thai bureaucracy, educational system, perceived xenophobia or lack of critical thought. You can find that on any other expat site by the other farang that continually complain about this and that aspect of Thai culture while living in this country like the worst of any 20th century colonialist. No, my problems with Thailand aren’t about Thais, they’re about the garbage foreigners that infest this country.

After the early exuberance of being in a new and exciting place, some of the shit I saw on the day-to-day started to really get to me. It’s hard, at least for a person such as myself, to see the rudeness, disrespect, exploitation, and just sheer lameness of the foreigners here. But a move away from central Bangkok to a predominantly Thai neighborhood, a concentration on my relationship with my Thai students and coworkers, and learning Thai, (as well as praying to Buddha every morning!) helped ease my anger. Or at least try to channel it in constructive ways. Actually one thing that has really helped is starting to do volunteer work with an NGO here helping disadvantaged Thai women. This is a Thai run organization, led by some great socially conscious folks, and the farang that volunteer here are of a better and more interesting sort than you usually find here.

Ok, ok. So why do I love it here. Well, the first thing that comes to mind is just a feeling like it suits me. I also felt this way about Cuba and Japan, but not to the overall degree that I do in Thailand. Generally speaking, Thai folks are kind, respectful, jokey, slow to anger. All things that fit my own personality very well. Particularly since I have had my own struggles with stress and letting things that upset me get to me, being amidst Thai people has helped me to take the edge off of that. Since day one people have made me feel at home, or at least comfortable fitting into such an exciting, but also sometimes lonely and confusing, new life. Especially if you try to speak Thai, are a mannered person, and try to avoid the most obvious of cultural blunders, Thai people are quite quick to show you warmth and laughter.

Also, Thai culture is a very spiritual one. As hypocritical as any other society that claims religion is important, sure, but that being said, there is a pervading sense of the importance of spirituality and/or the connection with the present and past life of the people and nature around us. As someone who has never been a religious person, but always interested in spirituality, I have found a new calmness and positivity through my own developing practice of Buddhism. I think that it is the particulars of Thai culture that brought me to this, not just the fact that Thailand is a Buddhist country. There is a way that spirituality weaves itself through mundane everyday life here that I appreciate.

Also, I love the possibilities of Thailand. I definitely don’t mean monetary! No doubt there are some major problems with the educational system in Thailand and the level to which students are taught to think critically about Thai society and the world, but if you get to know some of the young people here, you will see that they have both a deep connection to Thai culture and the past, but also a keen interest in the future. As an educator that actually cares about the future of these students and the country, I look at helping them develop the tools to move this country/society in the right direction as part of my responsibility for being afforded, in comparison to the majority of Thai, a quite decent life.

I also love the richness of Thai culture. Thailand and its history are an amazing mix of ethnicities, languages, regions, Buddhism/Hinduism/Animism, cuisines, arts and landscapes. And you can find the right environment that suits you, whether you want the modern metropolis of Bangkok or prefer life in a secluded village somewhere. It’s so easy to live a life where you can enjoy all the different types of environments that Thailand has to offer.

And of course I love the food. But anyone in their right mind that has been here knows Thai food is the greatest cuisine in the world.

I think this is still a partial answer to why I love Thailand, but oh well, it’s a start . . .