Weaponising Thainess with numbers

Weaponising Thainess with numbers

The feud over an online campaign calling for Thai numerals to be scrapped in official documents isn't just about pragmatism -- it is a clash between the two ideologies which underpin Thai society.

One one hand, there are the radical conservatives -- the Thai-centric, ultra-patriotic camp which believes Thailand, or the "Golden Axe", belong at the centre of the world. One the other hand there are the progressives who seek to challenge old beliefs.

The former takes pride in "Thainess" because they believe Thai culture and language reflects the nation's exceptional status. Some ultra-conservative individuals take it even further, with an MP candidate for the Thai Pak Dee Party going as far as describing it as the nation as a "beacon of civilisation, its culture as the "flesh and blood" of its citizens and society, which has a "unique cultural root". They routinely slam the latter as changchart ("nation hater"), or "rootless" historical revisionists who are detached from the past and and relish in challenging the status quo.

These radical conservatives have completely missed the point -- the proposal isn't about eliminating Thai numbers altogether, only in official documents for pragmatic reasons. They completely ignore the fact that at present, official documents often include both formats, which frequently leads to confusion.

Patriotism aside, one needs to remember that there is no such thing as an "authentic" culture -- and Thai culture is no exception. The idea of Thai culture, or Thainess, if you will, is derived from beliefs, heritage and social constructs which Thais borrowed from the region and ultimately reinvented as their own. In fact, this is the beauty of cultural fluidity -- different communities are able to borrow certain shared ideas and turn them into cultural products and lifestyles which reflect their distinct needs and identities.

Indeed, our ancestors were quite open minded and routinely borrowed numerals and scripts from other cultures when it suited them. In fact, King Ramkhamhaeng the Great adopted the Khmer script into what we know as the Thai alphabet and numbers. The Khmer script was in turn inspired by Indian scholars who fled the turmoil of their homeland to Cambodia and Thailand. The Arabic numerals, which are used in the West, meanwhile, originated in India. As one can see, no one can claim originality when it comes to languages and culture.

The radicals' superiority complex can be traced back to the idea of Thai exceptionalism, a myth which they hold close to their hearts. It assumes that Thailand, as the only nation in the region which escaped Western colonisation, albeit by giving up chunks of land on its periphery, deserves a higher status among its peers. Unlike its neighbours which were forced to adopt a different language when they lost their independence, Siam didn't have to. As such, using Thai numerals is a matter of pride to them, a reminder of the power dynamics during the colonial era.

Governments and politicians have made use of Thainess as well as the Thai script, to promote nationalism. Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, for instance, simplified the script to encourage more people to take up the language, as he attempted to boost nationalist sentiment during World War II. He issued ratthaniyom ("state edicts") to change the country's name from Siam to Thailand and set up rituals around national symbols -- anthem, flag, dress codes, even certain types of food -- in a bid to get more people to embrace Thainess. The policies, however, were annulled by the next government.

As Thailand and its people became more Westernised, the government under Chuan Leekpai urged officials to use the Thai calendar at official events in order to preserve the culture, after the private sector began using the Gregorian calendar.

In my humble opinion, Thainess, which is just another form of "soft power", has often been weaponised by authoritarian regimes to assert their dominance over their rivals. It goes without saying in the past decade, that attempts to promote Thainess have reached a fever pitch.

But culture is and never will be static, as old assumptions are challenged by new knowledge. Since the emergence of the now-defunct Future Forward Party, it has been quite obvious that more and more people are challenging traditions and orthodox views. As such, in the current debate, Thai numerals are more than just a script, but an inseparable part of an unchangeable tradition.

Their insular mindset will cost Thai society the opportunity to reinvent itself, which I would argue is actually a better representation of Thainess. It explains why we continue to condone many "Thai-style" practices, such as half-baked human rights and democracy. Without intermixing, Thai culture will only become more stiff and rigid.

Thana Boonlert

Bangkok Post columnist

Thana Boonlert is a writer for the Life section and a Bangkok Post columnist.

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