28 June, Bangkok, Thai Culture and Politics
I caught the MRT underground train to the end of the line to meet with my Thai friend. She is an art therapist working with cancer patients. It was great to see her again and she took me to the museum of Siam. Bangkok is a mix of long boulevards with images of the Royal family peppering the landscape, or narrow busy, noisy streets with street vendors, monks, tourists, locals weaving their way through life.
The museum is fairly new and we were able to come in before it closed. Siam was a unique kingdom bordering other kingdoms of rule by monarchy. There were wars one of which I learned was with the Burmese and I was able to see these huge cannon balls that were propelled towards the enemy. I have to say I reflected on patriarchy and the ways of men in dealing with relationships and the focus on power and acquisition. This seems to be universal around the world. The proximity to Burma, China, India, Vietnam, Laos and the mix of trade and belief systems created quite an exotic mix of foods, beliefs, cultural blends in this region. The Thai’s have a differing look which is resultant from multi-ethnic movement. The museum reflected the poorer simpler past with the modern day utilizing a young girl calling her mother on a mobile asking for money (sound familiar) and the poor historical tradition of raising children in poverty, dealing with sickness, husbands traveling to work and a life of hardship. This made me think more about the appeal of industralisation and the attractiveness of having money and possessions. The simple life was not seen as a happier life. Also I learned about the Siamese kingdom and King Rama IV and my friend discussed the movie the King and I and his connection with the English school teacher which she said was not clear about if it was true or to what degree there was a relationship. What she could tell me was that the King was interested in educating himself and sending his sons to become educated and modernizing Siam to keep up with the modern world. There were photo’s of Thai’s as English gentleman and the embracing of technologies such as radio’s, motor cars, the first mail boxes (resembling british mail system), television and the movement towards the modern culture. Other parts of the museum showed the original wooden long boats, the shadow puppets as story telling and the focus on beauty through artifacts and pottery. Buddhists were revered and going to temples the place to reflect, to become educated and formulated a spiritual dimension to society. I saw remarkable moving models of rice making and my friend commented her family had land and she would like to return to learning how to work the land.
My friend is quite enlightened and is not so interested in the material way of life but greater meaning. Working with cancer patients brings her back to what is important and she doesn’t see joy in an ipod. She finds it hard to meet people with conversation above and beyond material possessions. She is highly intelligent and has lived in Britain and also desires to travel as I am, particularly to India. She said I inspired her.
We did attempt to go to the markets on the river but they set up at 8pm and we decided to go for dinner. My friend showed me the primary school she went to. The taxi driver was quite animated and friendly, he drove or wove through the traffic and I marvel at how they pick a line around any obstacles, quickly toot people pulling stock and find the place. We went for dinner and watched the suspended bridge which is quite a magnificent bridge with cascades of cabling, fan like holding the bridge up, apparently there are two in Bangkok.
I asked my friend about society and social class. Apparently there are 3 distinct classes and they live parallel lives that overlap through service. The street vendors work on the street, eat on the street, have their own style of music they listen to. The middle class which I am told is the predominant class of office workers. They catch the MRT and sky train, they eat at some restaurants and again, listen to another type of music and watch movies. The upper class don’t mix at all with the other classes unless service is undertaken. They communicate in their circles and listen to their own music. My experience of Rotarian’s here were that they had their own drivers and they mixed with the upper class in opulent surroundings, money was very important. I remember suggesting to my Rotarian Councillor I make her dinner, that was ignored probably she lost respect for me. I didn’t mind, as in my culture it is a sign of friendship, so they were not aware that service is also friendship. I see this as new wealth and they are coming to terms with what wealth means and there will be a period of superiority but in the end we are all equal in reality and there is co-dependency. I also asked my friend if the poor believed in karma, and indeed they do. The Buddhist influence here may cultivate this however the capitalist ethic is strong also. Money is the key and the focus is there. Not unlike Hong Kong I feel. I also enquired into social tensions I asked if there was resentment from the poor and she said yes. It was a master/servant ethos and the groups don’t mix although she said we are happy. The topic of the red shirts and yellow shirts came up and she said that had divided there society but in a way that united the classes, yet divided friends and groups.
I was interested about the conflict as a conflict resolution practitioner. I haven’t followed the conflict closely in Australia but was mortified when I saw the shootings. In an interview a journalist recorded a military person asking if they should shoot westerners, the answer was no. I thought about the mentality to obey without any thought of conscience. Anyway going back to this artificial division. My first thought was the use of colour to outline differences. The red shirts apparently were funded by Taksin, I heard 1,000 baht per day. They were from the north east, predominantly poor farmers. My other friend lived in the area and said they would march down the streets, they were armed, and the streets blocked off. She is living in a wealthy part of Bangkok. The yellow shirts supported the Royal family, the red were opposed. The mantra was democracy that a government had replaced the other without an election, although my understanding was that there were negotiations and some concessions made. My Thai friend stated the conflict devastated business in Bangkok and some prominent buildings were burned. The division continues my friend said an old friend of her grandmother with a stall across the road from her uncle identified as a red shirt, her uncle is a yellow shirt and the woman will no longer speak to him. There are some strongly held beliefs that create the division. I thought about how powerful are symbols of division, the same people can easily be divided. In Korea – north and south divided, in Germany east and west, in Cambodia proletariat/bourgeoisie, communist/capitalist, rebels/government, terrorists/state armies and the list goes on. We all divide on a range of attributes, the challenge is to see where we are alike and find common ground, it requires an intention to take responsibility for conflict and find pathways to peace. The planting of seeds of an ‘enemy’ is what creates sides or positions, the challenge is to remind people of what unites them and to address the issues that divide, but not hate the people. I laughingly said to my friend to wear orange (mix of red/yellow) but she said people are very strong in their beliefs they believe the other is ‘wrong’ completely, so there is not much room for understanding or problem solving. They have much learning ahead of them. Her uncle, a former military man, sat me down and asked my take on the situation. I said lack of education in the north (people easily manipulated) and corruption in all levels of society. I explained to him the importance of democracy rule of the people by the people, I said it is not well understood in the west. I also explained inequality is problematic where there are elite groups controlling the majority. Democracy gives a voice, it is based on nonviolence. My Thai friend told me corruption is deep in social interactions, even teachers are bribed with sweets by parents to make sure their kids are looked after. So the ethos of Buddhism immediately sprang to mind. That would be the way forward to deeply embed the spirituality not just have statues and shrines all over the country but actually practice compassion, practice kindness, practice forgiveness, practice non attachment to material possessions, practice right mindfulness but this clashes with power, money and control. My friend said young men were supposed to become monks for a year but these days they may stay a week, it is losing relevance in a materialistic society that values external wealth over internal wealth. These two ways of living are completely opposite and the fear of poverty is within the current memory (lived/past). I read some 18.5 million living in poverty out of 30 million (I think), so the majority live in poverty, Bangkok is not a good representation of the reality on the ground although the different social stratas are visible. The pollution is intense and the use of automobiles a nightmare with traffic. It is hard to imagine how the government services so many people and I reflect on the impending environmental collapse and how people will cope in cities, those poor people in the countryside will be in the best situation to survive. I encouraged my friend to learn how to live sustainably as the world is about to go through major visible changes.