History is primarily a chronicle of wars and invasions, most often among neighbors, so every inch of every border has been fiercely fought over, for that’s how any population maintains its autonomy, integrity and identity. Plus, you need land to prosper so, often, you grab your neighbor’s when he’s weak. Everyone has done this. Everyone.
Peace, then, can only be achieved when you’re strong enough to defend your borders, and if you’re no longer willing to do this, then you’re already lost, conquered, and not necessarily by an external enemy.
Take Thailand. It has fought against China, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and the Malay state of Kedah, all of its neighbors, in short. After swallowing up Laos in the 18th century, it lost it to France in the 19th, and in 1941, Thailand surrendered to juggernaut Japan after only five hours of, uh, fighting. At least it wasn’t less than 45 minutes, which was how long it took the Sultanate of Zanzibar to raise the white flag to Great Britain. To be fair, the Sultan saw no reason to continue after the Brits had shelled his palace, instantly killing 500 troops and wrecking his beloved harem.
All countries have been built on war and conquest, and the bigger a nation, the more wars it has fought, so an empire, by definition, is a war machine, with many fighting until the homeland itself is incinerated. One is so possessed, however, it has eviscerated itself by waging endless war on behalf of a supposed vassal, and for this dog wagging tail, is threatening to blow up the entire world.
Pointing out such basics, I’m sometimes challenged by world-class nitwits who’ll say something like, “Well, China never invaded anybody. All the myriad tribes that make up present day China just couldn’t resist the allure of superior Han culture, so they became Chinese voluntarily. They demanded to be Chinese!” This echoes the colonel in Full Metal Jacket, “We are here to help the Vietnamese, because inside every gook, there is an American trying to get out!”
But surely, after seven decades of (war-filled) Pax Americana, everybody does want to be American, as witnessed by the pervasiveness of American culture worldwide, but this is merely cosmetic, I insist, to be scraped off in a blink. Traveling, Americans tend to gravitate towards the most Americanized pockets of whatever country, so they’re inclined to see foreigners only as touchingly degraded versions of themselves, and not as autonomous beings in an entirely separate universe.
Last week, I was in Chanthaburi, Thailand, population 28,000. In the middle of town, there’s a Robinson Mall, with a huge sign, almost entirely in English, advertising Tops Market, Super Sports, Power Buy, B2S, SFC Cinema, KFC, Swensens, Yayoi and MK Restaurants. With the exceptions of KFC and the Japanese Yayoi, however, the rest were Thai chains, and of the four movies shown, two were Thai, and two were American: Malila: the Farewell Flower, Thibaan the Series, Black Panther and Lady Bird. Wandering around, I spotted a bearded white guy on an ad, “DANCE / LOSE WEIGHT / CONTEST SEASON.” Wearing a red tank top, he had a green hula hoop, like a twirling halo, around his impressive love handles. Throughout the mall, most of the other models were also white, I can’t deny.
Beyond the mall, English was nearly nonexistent, however, and often bizarre, as in a roadside sign for a “MiniConcert” by “BOY PEACEMAKER.” Holding a cowboy hat, a cartoon cow had a speech bubble, “Hi.!” Bits of English lent hipness to caps and T-shirts. A 45-ish woman wore one with Sesame Street Muppets and, “REPRESENTING THE STREET.”
Showing up on clothing and even couple of trucks, the American flag was a popular decoration, and on Route 3, a dozen leather-clad guys pompously straddled Harleys.
All the Americanness, though, was extremely superficial, I repeat, for the social fabric of daily life, each second of it, remained deeply Thai. At no point did I feel like I was in nearby Vietnam, much less America, for its pace of life, tones of speech, modes of address and many other details, large and tiny, were all distinctively Thai, as they should be.
Take the wai, the Thai greeting of having hands pressed together, prayer-like, and bowing slightly. Most foreigners, especially tourists passing through, feel rather ridiculous doing this, so can’t be bothered, but that’s why we’re not Thais. They are.
Next to a public porch swing, there was a plugged-in boom box, so the amorous couple could play their cassettes.
Sampling a few lurid streets in Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket or Chiang Mai, foreigners come home with tales of live sex on stage and ladyboys, but Thailand is no more of a brothel than the Netherlands, although each Dutch city, not just Amsterdam, has its red-light district. Most Thais are conservative, rural people, and during my visit to Namtok Phlio National Park, all the female swimmers were well-covered, except one, a young blonde whose barely there bottom revealed most of her cheeks.
Since 1912, Thailand has had 21 coups d’état and 29 prime ministers, so that’s a lot of turbulence, but it has not suffered any foreign occupation, civil war or mass imposition of an alien psychosis, such as Communism. Its twin pillars have been the monarchy and a brand of Buddhism that includes the worship of Phra Phrom, a version of the four-faced Hindu god, Brahma. Inside India, there are almost no shrines to this deity, but they are all over Thailand, with the one outside Bangkok’s Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel making world news when a bomb near it exploded in 2015, killing 20 and injuring 125. No one has been charged.
Inside several Chanthaburi shops, I spotted two hanging pieces of paper, with writing, lay out in curious patterns, and a vertical alligator. These weren’t cutesy decorations, but deadly serious talismans, there to ward off evil and reel in good fortune.
Anyone who has visited a Thai restaurant anywhere is likely to have seen a framed photo of King Bhumibol. Ruling for 70 years, he died with a fortune of $30 billion, the most of any royal worldwide. In Bangkok, Chonburi, Rayong and Chanthaburi, I saw his likeness everywhere. Since it’s illegal to criticize the king in Thailand, of course you’ll only see adulation, but still, no one is coerced into displaying ten images of Bhumibol on a wall, such as I saw in a small store.
My Thai beer buddy, Somchai, said that Bhumibol was deeply concerned about agriculture. He investigated different types of rice, introduced new methods of growing it and visited farmers regularly to hear their concerns. The king even invented the chaipattana aerator. A low-cost buoy with propellers that oxygenates bodies of water, it’s in use all over Thailand. Thai agriculture was revolutionized by Bhumibol, Somchai stressed. Packing and exporting longans, my friend and his wife own two cars and have two daughters in college. Thailand’s per capita income is fourth highest in Southeast Asia, behind only Singapore, Malaysia and oil-rich Brunei.
Bhumibol’s detractors can point to his association with a series of military strongmen and implicit endorsement of coups against elected leaders. Anti-democratic mobs wear yellow shirts to show their loyalty to the king.
Born in Cambridge, MA, Bhumibol spent most of his youth in Switzerland. At 18, he became king only after his older brother had died, from a bullet that may have been fired by Bhumibol himself, accidentally. This incident resulted in the wrongful convictions, then executions, of two hapless pages and a senator, plus the permanent expulsion of a prominent leftist, Pridi Banomyong, from Thai politics. With a love for Bach, jazz, ballet, fast cars, yachting and Paris, the thoroughly Westernized Bhumibol was reluctant to leave Europe, so it took him nearly four years to return to Bangkok to cremate his brother and be crowned, in elaborate ceremonies fraught with occult meanings.
Ignoring the taboo of never looking down on a king’s head, American journalists at the coronation climbed on trees to get better shots, and one caused great offense when he loudly snapped his fingers, during a moment of silence, to get Bhumibol’s attention. As a photography aficionado, perhaps the Divine Feet, Supremacy, Divine, Highest Indra, Great, Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power, Overlord of the Land, Overlord Rama, Overlord of Mankind from Chakri, Siamese Ruler, the Overlord, Supreme Holy Shelter understood and forgave these simian antics.
In East Asia, you just don’t touch an adult’s head or buttocks, but if a Japanese or Korean plays in the Major Leagues, then he’ll just have to accept being gayly patted by his teammates episodically. Perhaps the ultimate insult to Thai heads was delivered by the French, when they occupied Chanthaburi from 1893 to 1905. The mirthful Gauls built a jail with a chicken coup over it, and Chicken Shit Prison can still be seen today, just down the street from a 7-Eleven.
Chanthaburi’s most beautiful building is a shrine to King Taksin (1734-82). Born to a Chinese father and Thai mother, he led an army to kick out the Burmese, restored the Thai nation and declared himself king. During a 15-year reign, Taksin fed the poor, dug canals, encouraged Chinese immigration, built up seaports, fostered international trades, snuffed out rebellions, invaded Laos, then finally went mad by declaring himself an incipient Buddha. By meditating and fasting, Taksin believed he could soon fly and turn his blood white. He gave religious lectures to monks, demanded that they worshipped him and flogged those who refused. Capriciously, Taksin jailed or tortured hundreds of other innocents.
Finally, a palace coup eliminated Taksin, and he was either decapitated or placed in a velvet sack and clubbed to death, since royal blood, red or white, should never touch the ground. A third version claims some poor replacement was bagged, so Taksin simply hightailed it to the Himalayas and dwelt in some stinking cave until he kicked the slop bucket at the overripe age of 80.
Around Chanthaburi, I also saw Taksin worshipped in homes and businesses, so Thai still revere this long-dead king for his many contributions to the Thai nation, just as they do with Bhumibol, for their accomplishments far outweigh their flaws.
In late 2014, an 81-year-old historian, Surak Sivarak, was charged with insulting a 16th century king, Naresuan, when he suggested that the long-cherished story of Naresuan’s victory over a Burmese king in an elephant duel is likely nonsense. I’m surprised Sivarak wasn’t put on trial for defaming the elephant, Chao Praya Prabhongsawadee, as well. Thanks to the mercy of Thailand’s new king, the infamously crop top-wearing Vajiralongkorn, all charges were dropped in January of 2018, however.
Naresuan is the subject of a series of six over-the-top films, released in theaters over a nine-year period. The elephant duel alone has its own film.
Thais don’t want anybody to chip at their heroes, in short. What a contrast this is to the USA, whose inhabitants are conditioned to doubt, sneer at or tear down all their great men, except one, Martin Luther King. The very concept has become risible. Quite tellingly, one of my commenters has this as her tagline, “Behind every great man is me rolling my eyes and doing the jerkoff motion.”