Serving up cruelty, a taste of 'Thainess'
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Serving up cruelty, a taste of 'Thainess'

The debate on the meaning of "Thainess" always fills me with patriotism and stomach ache. After last week's bombings, the army chief warned us to look out for people who wore hats, glasses and carried backpacks, because "Thais don't do that". The general meant well -- that we should watch out for suspicious agents of terror -- but the way he framed it was a crass, militaristic way of monopolising the definition of something that is shifting, malleable, even undefinable.

What makes you Thai? The textbook says it's your loyalty to the three pillars of nation, religion, monarchy -- and now I should add: Thai cuisine. Lord save me from food poisoning because in cinemas today, the film that has generated a hailstorm of ridicule -- and a source of national stomach ache -- is prig kaeng, or Senses of Siam, a pseudo-slick, outdated propaganda of "Thainess" through the attempt to promote "authentic Thai cuisine". Prig kaeng, which literally means curry paste, is hands-down the worst reviewed film of the year (or of many years). The hot point is the film's antiquated, falsely arrogant attitude on what constitutes "Thai cuisine" and a blatant claim that several dishes were originally "Thai", so oblivious to the culinary trafficking of ingredients and recipes that made up our food, or any food. The greatness of Thai cuisine -- or the aristocratic Thai cuisine extolled like a sacred object in the film -- will annihilate all other great kitchens of the world! But dear chef, pad thai isn't even that Thai.

Again after the Aug 12 attacks, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said the perpetrators were Thai but "their hearts" were not. When they're caught -- I hope they will be caught -- rip their hearts out and we'll see. If they're still alive, we feed them the fine food from that film so they'll learn the true taste of being Thai.

This constant reminder of Thainess is amusing, then frustrating, then depressing. Once in a while we hear the long-debunked Altai Mountains genesis story; only a few bright dudes still believe that we in this country descended from the snow-capped ranges in Mongolia populated by extinct mountain goats and dancing dervishes (they obviously forget the Malay-dominated South and the Lao-inflected Northeast, for starters). Once in a while, though with more frequency lately, we still hear the severing rebuke "Go live in another country" against those who think differently, as if the sovereign of geography belongs only to those who never raise their voices.

In a world driven by diversity, this Thainess mantra is the conservatives' insistence on holding on to their cultural stranglehold, the domain of homogeneity, obedience and compliance, enforced through imagined attributes and symbolism. The Thais-don't-do-that remark may seem trifling, but it speaks volumes coming from the army chief: it shows the top-down, narrow-minded patriarchal worldview that seems to be the governing mindset of the past few years -- the inward-looking psychology as a defence mechanism against the outer, wider world. And it's important to note the Thainess in the question isn't even about race or origin: it's about who's ready to subscribe to the official prescription and swallow the pill of oblivion in exchange for "stability". In this case, middle-class Chinese-Thai in the affluent parts of Bangkok are more "Thai" than, say, Malay-Muslims in the far South or rural northeasterners, who both speak rapid-fire dialect, sour melodies to the standard ear, and who may harbour impossible dreams that Bangkok will never fulfil.

Awash in theories and speculation, the Mother's Day blasts are still mired in obscurity. But experts' opinions point in the direction of the southern insurgency, and thus the PM's "their hearts are not Thai" stings: if it's really the separatist movement's doing, of course their hearts are not Thai and they never want to be for reasons both valid and cynical -- and yet the force-fed regime of Thainess over the decades is surely and cynically part of the problem in the first place.

What makes you Thai? When in doubt -- or when you can't cook aristocratic Thai food like in the film Sense of Siam, or when you wear hats and glasses in public place, or when you speak in a dialect -- just flash your Thai smile and profess your kindness. Those are supposedly very Thai. Well, unless those two world-renowned Thai symbols -- the smile and the kindness -- no longer work in our hothouse of do-or-die partisanship, where people can laugh at the misery of a hunger strike, as in the case of student activist Jatupat Bunpattararaksa, or where people laugh at someone being thrown in jail because he distributes leaflets, or where you count the dead bodies only of your own "side" and ignore the rest. A smile or a grimace? Oh well, the cruelty of being Thai.

Kong Rithdee is Life Editor, Bangkok Post.

Kong Rithdee

Bangkok Post columnist

Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.

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