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Beautiful Patterns, Common Threads


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The debate over Westernization in Thailand is an interesting one, especially because of the fact that Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that was never colonized by a European or American power. The Thai are proud of this fact, and are fiercely protective of their autonomy.

One place you can see this is in the present-day debate about whether or not Thailand should accept loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Thailand has suffered greatly from the Asian economic crisis: many people are unemployed, farmers are having a very difficult time keeping their farms running (especially with a severe drought hitting the area last year), and many people in the cities who are still working are having a hard time paying for the basic necessities as the Thai baht has lost much of its value. The government is working to get IMF loans to try to help deal with these problems. Yet, many people are suspicious of receiving "help" from sources outside the country, feeling instead that the country should work its way out of its troubles by itself. Here is a letter to the editor from the Bangkok Post (an English-language paper) that reflects that point of view:

"As for the letter from Dominic Whiting of the EU (the European Union) on Dec 22 criticising your denunciation of the IMF and the EU, the best way to settle this matter is to learn how the EU plans to spend the money it has pledged in grants and loans for rural people.

Will the money be spent to encourage the sorts of self-sufficient family farms so persistently recommended by the perceptive Thai King? Or will the money be spent to hook people on export crops whose prices will be controlled by colleagues of the people providing the money?

We have to be suspicious when we learn that a major use of this money will be to allow rural people to "effectively market their products". Why encourage marketing at all? Why not encourage local barter economies with minimal use of money?

Certainly that provides more security for rural people than dependency on long-distance transport systems controlled by mega-rich foreigners.

Thailand for the Thais!"

The letter is signed by Keith Lampe of Chiang Mai, who's obviously not Thai, but if certainly reflects the views of several Thai people I spoke to. The debate goes on.

I had an interesting discussion with a professor at Silapakorn University in Bangkok, who presented another perspective on the effects of Western culture on Thailand. He feels strongly that many of the things brought into Thailand by kings and government officials and business people who wanted to copy things Western are highly offensive to Thai tastes. Two things in particular came to his mind: some European-style buildings with Thai-style roofs at the Grand Palace, which he finds disgustingly gaudy; and the marching of the Guard, copied from the British. "Best leave well enough alone," he said.

Where does language come into all of this? To many, the introduction of English as a major language into Thailand is a sign of an ECONOMIC colonialism that could even be harsher than the political colonialism the region suffered under for hundreds of years. It's certainly illuminating that Thailand, as the only nation in the region not colonized, is the richest country other than Malaysia and Singapore. Any connection? Yet, the history of Thailand shows an ability, and even a reliance, on incorporating other influences. Thai has many loan words from Chinese (from where the Tai originally came), Mon (the people they first encountered in the area) and other languages. I'd bet they'll find a way to bring in English, too, without losing TOO much of their identity.


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