Historical Immaterialism

As if our non-elected Prime Minister didn’t already have little enough faith in democracy, Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal has gone and got himself elected as president of Chulalongkorn University Student Council.

Chula, that bastion of elitism, conformity and 100-year-old privilege in pink; the university where students wear uniforms to sign petitions against uniforms, and where new graduates give Nazi salutes in front of murals of Hitler (just for the laugh, of course); Chula, of all places, has elected a free-thinking anti-authoritarian, anti-militarist iconoclast.

Named after the 5th king of the Chakri dynasty, the anniversary of whose death is celebrated every October 23rd as a public holiday, Chulalongkorn University marks the date by ushering its students into the now-plaque-less Royal Plaza to prostrate themselves before the royal statue.  (‘Prostrate’ is the nice word, of course; alternatives such as ‘kowtow’, ‘grovel’ or ‘incur unnecessary cleaning costs’ are inappropriate in this context.)

Unfortunately, as arch-rationalist Netiwit points out, the same King Chulalongkorn abolished prostration in 1873 explicitly in order to promote greater equality in Thai society.  And no one has been able to find any official pronouncement reversing this edict, though almost everyone, from PM Prayut down, blithely ignores the words of the late King.

Gen Prayut is upset that Netiwit seems intent on destroying ‘good traditions’ in Thai society, like prostration.  These are the nations ‘charms’, he says.  Netiwit’s behaviour is a ‘disgrace’ and is the opposite of what should be done, like preserving the ‘good history’ of the country.

(This from a man so well-versed in Thai history that he still believes that the Thai ‘race’ originated in the Altai Mountains in Mongolia, a patriotic delusion that was abandoned decades ago by the Ministry of Education, who otherwise seem quite addicted to patriotic delusions.)

But forgive me for being more simple-minded than the PM for once, but ‘good history’?  Isn’t history just history?

My school history textbooks were full of the wonderful things that Britain had done for the world, like, er, like, ah yes, not being invaded since the Battle of Hastings, 1066 and All That, and, er, inventing the English language and Shakespeare and all that literature stuff, and having an empire, sorry, Empire, and beating the French.  Again and again.  And the Germans.

That’s British history.  But so is inventing the concentration camp (Boer War, 1900-02), and dropping poison gas on villages (on the orders of Churchill, in the war against the Bolsheviks, Northern Russia, 1919), and the use of pliers for castrating detainees (Mau Mau rebellion, 1950s).

Apparently the PM expects the educational system of the country to teach a history of cherry-picked ‘traditions’, both true and false, but always ‘charming’.  In this way, Thais can be proud of their country, revelling in its traditions while remaining ignorant of much of its history.  And they will not be a disgrace, like Netiwit, who is perverse enough to know what King Rama V actually said.

The equestrian statue of King Chulalongkorn is a step away from where the plaque commemorating the end of the absolute monarchy disappeared.  The plaque represents a tradition that PM Prayut clearly doesn’t think is ‘good’, whereas its disappearance is something we should not be interested in, for fear of attracting the attitude-adjusting attentions of the security forces.

Netiwit’s election provoked a reaction not only from the Prime Minister.  Two foul-mouthed individuals on a motorcycle turned up at the Political Science Faculty of Chula on the lookout for him and one suspects it wasn’t to offer congratulations.  Is this another tradition of Thai history that the PM would like to see preserved?

And while we’re on ‘charming traditions’, look no further than Pom Mahakan.  The houses there are certified ‘traditional’ and for once are genuinely historical.  And, like street food (soon to corralled into ersatz, sanitized tourist spots), many tourists see the Pom Mahakan community as part of the ‘traditional charm’ of Bangkok.  But Gen Prayut clearly has a different definition of what is ‘charming’, what is ‘traditional’ and even what constitutes ‘history’.

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”  I wonder if that is taught in Thai schools.