What ‘Bike for Mom’ reveals about ideas of motherhood in Thailand.
For most ordinary people, a birthday celebration is typically enjoyed by eating cake, making a wish, and, of course, singing that well-known song.
Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. You look like a [insert pejorative here], and you act like one too.
The beauty of these lyrics is that they may always be adapted to ridicule some particular quirk of the birthday girl or boy. When choosing the best jibe however, one must always be mindful that some birthday parties have much more scope for humour than others. Failure to comply with this simple rule could, in extreme cases, ruin your life.
In the case of this month’s, ‘Bike for Mom’ event in Thailand, it was sadly not permitted to make even the most frivolous joke about the birthday girl, because she happens to be protected by the most draconian defamation laws on Earth; Thailand’s lese majeste decree.
Marking her 83rd year and led by Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, the event took place a few days after Queen Sirikit’s birthday on 12 August, also a national holiday and Mother’s Day in Thailand.
But, try publishing a wisecrack about Sirikit’s conspicuous absence from her own party, or disparaging the cyclists’ silly blue t-shirts live on air – or, if you’re feeling extra-daring, make a joke about Sirikit’s longstanding estrangement from husband King Bhumibol on social media – and you will likely find yourself sparring with Article 112 of the Criminal Code in a closed-door military court, facing anything from three to 15 years imprisonment.
Recently, some lese majeste convictions have vaulted as high as 60 years.
Not a pleasant fate, I suspect, especially when one recalls that there are officially no beds left in Thailand’s prisons; just good old concrete floor and a few fetid picnic mats thrown in for good measure.
Not to worry, though, because for those who like their birthday parties with a bit of humour, there is at least one small but important consolation; the mere fact that Bike for Mom was, inherently funny. Both visually and conceptually, the 43- kilometre bike ride around Bangkok appears to have been a massive, elaborate, practical joke.
First, you have the fiercest and most powerful men in Thailand – the country’s interim PM General Prayuth et al – riding merrily around on dainty bicycles, eager to tell us all just how much they love their, um, mummies. Second, you have the Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn himself, sporting a plastic crash helmet and a spandex jersey, seemingly oblivious to the immense clash of sacred and profane that he embodied.
And finally, you have Thailand’s bleating, infantile media, fawning over a parade of crooks who only one year ago threw out an elected government at gunpoint, and gave us ‘sexy’ army girls, an uplifting pop song, and free haircuts in return. If all that ain’t funny, or at least profoundly incongruous, then I don’t know what is.
For all the humour, though, Bike for Mom was a joke which can never be joked about (at least not publically) – much like the emperor’s new clothes. This was the real harm of Bike for Mom.
I realise that not everyone is so easily swayed. Readers who already hold anti-monarchist or republican views, like myself, need not be persuaded of the proposition; Bike for Mom simply looked and sounded ridiculous.
But there are, of course, always those who are poised to say things like: “So what?” “What’s the big deal?” “I don’t see what the problem is if the Prince wants to have a bike ride for his Mom.” “Don’t you think it’s good for a nation to come together like this?” “It’s just a harmless birthday party.” “And don’t you realise that the royals are above politics anyway?!” So on and so on ad nauseam.
But the sheer pomposity of Bike for Mom, combined with the likelihood that any unwelcome criticism of the event is probably illegal, ought to be enough to infuriate any reasonable and dignified person. Who has ever heard of a birthday party – a party! – that needs to be protected from defamatory speech?
Truth be told, we cannot say for sure whether criticism of Bike for Mom would constitute a direct violation of Article 112 – but for obvious reasons, we need not rush to test out this hypothesis. Better to curse in private and behind closed doors, just like many Thais seem to do.
Aside from the free speech dimension, however, there is something even more detestable about Bike for Mom and Thailand’s Mother’s Day celebrations in general, that ought to touch a nerve in all of us.
For very good and obvious reasons, all cultures appreciate mothers. Many are fond of the metaphor in which ‘the nation’ is mother, such as the phrase ‘Ibu Pertiwi’ in Indonesia, which roughly translates to, ‘the motherland.’ And, we are all familiar with the phrase ‘mother earth,’ which implores us all to respect the life-giving wellspring of nature, in the same way that we respect the woman from whom we were brought forth into existence.
Such metaphors are not only fairly universal, but fairly benign. But how many existing cultures can you name that have managed to entwine the concept of motherhood with that of a semi-divine Queen, thus making her the ‘mother’ of all her subjects?
From a cursory survey, it seems to me that North Korea is the only country that even comes close to Thailand for the fanatical sacralising of its leaders, closely followed by Iran (home of the ‘Supreme Leader‘), and the rest of the monarchical-theocratic states in the Gulf.
Somehow, Thailand – a society that is so much more progressive in so many ways – remains one of the most illiberal when it comes to what you can and can’t say about its ‘dear leaders’.
However, my greatest objection to Bike for Mom and Thailand’s cultural conception of Mother’s Day – with its explicit and unquestionable linkages to royal power – is that it demeans the love and toil of millions of ordinary Thai mothers all of whom didn’t have the good fortune of marrying into the richest royal family on Earth.
Moreover, it hijacks the very concept of motherhood, appropriating it and contorting it into something that it simply is not, and never should be.
I wonder, for instance, whether any of the revellers who celebrated ‘Bike for Mom’ last Sunday have ever asked themselves:
Why must my love for my own mother be celebrated vicariously, via a person who I have never met and probably will never meet; a person to whom I bear no biological relation, and about whom only good things can be said, on pain of a 15-year prison sentence?
A person of that description bears absolutely no resemblance to a mother. To celebrate a monarch as part of a universal ‘Mother’s Day’ – and by that I mean any queen, not just Sirikit – is obvious nonsense and an affront to all real mothers.
As another Mother’s Day goes by, Thais ought to look further afield, and see if other cultures manage to celebrate motherhood without the aid of a semi-divine Queen, a terrifying defamation law, and a bike race. If it turns out that other cultures can do that just fine, then Thais ought to reassess in what ways they benefit – if any – from being different.
Perhaps they will discover that it is not that Thailand has a ‘different’ concept of motherhood – in the appeasing, politically correct, moral relativist sense – it is rather that Thailand has a worse concept of motherhood; a false concept of motherhood; and an exploitive concept of motherhood.
In her excellent 1984 work, Thailand: The Soteriological State in the 1970s, Christine Gray describes the reigns of King Rama IV and Rama V as being caught in an antimony bind between tradition and modernity, foisted upon it by the double threat of British and French colonialism:
If the king did not perform lavish ceremonies of state, he could not maintain his position as Righteous Ruler [dhammaraja] throughout the kingdom. If he did, he would be accused [by Europeans] of being an oriental despot or a “wastral” [and thus effectively invite his own destruction].
I see Bike for Mom through a similar lens; if the monarchy wishes to remain sacred and revered, and if it wishes to keep its privileged status under Article 112, then it must be mindful not to let too much of the profane seep in and adulterate its image.
At the same time, the monarchy simply has to bring itself back down-to-earth every now and again – through charity, good works, ceremonies – if only to convince the masses that the institution isn’t just a racket in disguise. Failure to balance these two countervailing imperatives could, in extreme cases, result in a public relations disaster for the monarchy, or maybe something even worse.
Given these precarious circumstances, something tells me Prince Vajiralongkorn’s decision to parade himself in public, wearing a plastic crash helmet and a spandex suit, was not the most sensible of publicity stunts. Nor, by any measure, the most regal.
Thomas Oettinger is a pseudonym. The author is an American journalist who specialises in freedom of speech issues and Southeast Asia.