As a new tourism advert shows, strategic displays of Thai culture remain a powerful means of selling the country — and the monarchy and ruling military, writes Matthew Phillips.
A new advert, produced by the Tourist Authority of Thailand and running in the international media seeks to inform the viewer that ‘Thailand looks forward to welcoming you in 2017.’ Nothing strange there. Except look a little closer and there is something odd. Otherwise set in darkness, Bangkok is depicted in the advert as bathed in candlelight, and in each and every image, crowds of Thai people are all wearing nothing but black or white, without explanation.
It is now four months since King Bhumibol passed away, and since then Thailand has been in a state of official mourning. For 30 days following the death, the wearing of black was mandatory, but today many are still following the rule. Those who work in any part of the bureaucracy must follow the dress code for a full year, while outside such workplaces there is still considerable expectation to demonstrate grief.
To be sure, the death of King Bhumibol brought genuine sadness to many Thais. He had reigned for 70 years, and in that time he had become widely regarded as the ‘father of the nation’. Few Thais today have lived at a time when Bhumibol was not their king, and his loss brought real sorrow. On the day after his death, when his body was moved from Siriraj hospital to the Grand Palace, hundreds of thousands lined the streets to see him pass. Sitting on hot tarmac for hours, many passed out as they waited to pay their respects. Later the same week, equally large numbers turned out to sing for the dead king in a public display of affection. Since then, the area around the Grand Palace remains a hive of activity as crowds come to grieve publicly on a nightly basis.
Then, on New Years Eve, special events were held across the country to mark the coming of 2017. This included an 89-second silence and prayers for the late king. Crowds of people dressed in black, and sometimes white (the traditional clothes of mourning) amassed at a range of locations. It is these images that have been used in the Tourist Authority advert. However, transplanted from their original context, the images here do not speak of mourning, but celebration. With no mention of the king at all, the advert claims that, ‘the nation demonstrated its solidarity in their celebration of Thainess’.
Lost in translation?
The Tourist Authority was set up during the military dictatorship of Sarit Thanarat, in the late 1950s, and since then it has worked hard to sell Thai culture to foreign visitors. Back then, it was mainly Americans who came to Thailand, and most of them came with money to spend. As a result, tourism quickly became seen as a potentially valuable sector of the economy, and white foreigners [farang] were catered for as VIP guests at a raft of official state ceremonies and rituals. Events such as the Ploughing Ceremony, or the Royal Barge Procession, became major attractions, and tourists were catered for with large grandstands, refreshments, and special spaces to take photos. Some events were even sponsored by Kodak.
This early attempt to capture high-end foreign visitors meant that the Tourist Authority became highly adept at translating Thai culture for farang consumers. They did this by borrowing from the list of orientalist stereotypes that had been used to describe the Thais since the colonial period, but which became newly popularised during the early Cold War. The assumption that Thais were ‘happy’, ‘hospitable’, ‘peaceful’, and ‘self-sufficient’, all borrowed from American portrayals of the country, also became standardised depictions used in Tourist Authority literature.
At the same time, in its Thai language publication, articles would often voice concern that the Thai people did not live up to this particular set of imperially-minded stereotypes. The people who lived on the ‘floating market’ were deemed not yet civilised enough, and Thai villages were often regarded as inappropriate places to show international guests. Increasingly, the Tourist Authority sought to control the farang experience, ensuring that, wherever possible, the Thailand they experienced conformed to expectations. Thai culture was therefore presented as a homogenous entity, and the Thai people were cast as a traditional (yet civilised) people, united behind one common cultural life.
It was a message that was particularly attractive in the context of the Cold War. During the time, Americans came to Thailand with the desire to meet an as yet ‘unspoiled’ land, but they also came with energy and idealism. The Cold War might mean that security would trump democracy in the short term, but this had to be rationalised through the promise that the alliance would lead to a brighter, democratic future in the end. Authoritarianism might be the reality, but over the long term, once the fight against communism was over and living standards had improved, such instincts would give way to new political ideas borrowed from a more American mould.
For now, however, the cultural life of the Thais remained tied to traditional cultural traits. Happy and hospitable, perhaps, but scratch the surface and such depictions revealed an implicit set of ideological assumptions. Subservient, conservative, and largely uninterested in the expansion of both capitalism and communism, were all character traits attached to the peasantry, and which just so happened to forgive the lack of democratic progress.
As the decades wore on, the Tourist Authority continued to fall back on such stereotypes. Thailand, of course, remained a ‘Free’ country, but being ‘Free’ was routinely presented as an experience associated with cultural practice rather than political activity. As the Cold War drew to a close, and as tourism became less obviously ideological, the commodification of everyday Thai life remained tied to assertions about the character of the Thai people. Even during the decade of political crisis that followed the 2006 coup, tourist promotion presented a parallel version of the country, in which the myth of cultural unity was maintained, and in which the happiness of the Thai people was presumed to remain intact.
Since the 2014 coup, the imposition of ‘happiness’ has been a priority for the Thai government. For over a decade, Bangkok’s streets had been dominated by scenes of social fragmentation. Crowds of protesters, each time in their own distinct colour of shirt, provided dramatic images of a country divided. The first step toward reconciling these conflicts was to ban such protest, but scenes of unity have been harder to capture. Until now.
Capitalising on grief
As the TAT advert makes clear, strategic displays of Thai culture remain a powerful means of selling the country. However simplistic and counter-factual, a population united by a common cultural identity, celebrating their unique sense of ‘Thainess’, carries the right message to farang looking for a break from the contradictions of modern life back home. Yet, advertising the nation in such a way also identifies something greater.
By omitting the actual context of these scenes, the advert signals the extent to which cultural practice in Thailand occurs on multiple stages simultaneously. Knowingly or not, the vast crowds that congregate to pray for King Bhumibol are participating in a grand, multi-platform spectacle, in which each individual offers his or her physical body for carefully calculated re-presentation both by the Thai state and other interested parties.
Both Christine Gray and Peter Jackson have identified how images are used to establish, or reaffirm, hegemony in Thailand. For those in attendance, the vast crowds may well indicate the great affection of the Thai people toward the late king. They may also index his great virtue, both in life and now in death. However, replicated internally on TV and cinema screens, these images also provide powerful markers of cultural and religious unity (khwam samakhi) that can be utilised to indicate support for a range of institutions, including the present government, or even the new king.
Since the death of King Bhumibol, there is no doubt that many individual Thais have been personally touched. It is also clear that many have taken solace in joining crowds to share in their grief. But, there is no question that the event has provided succour to those who want to present the Thai as united through a common cultural life. After decades in which history appeared to be driving Thailand relentlessly toward a more democratic society, the presumed timelessness of the Thai character once again runs the risk of uprooting the present from the recent past. In 2017, Thailand welcomes you.
Dr Matthew Phillips is based in the Department of History & Welsh History at Aberystwyth University.