December, month number 12 bearing the name 10, is possibly the best name for a month of deception, dissemblance and dishonesty. Most of it is presumably benign. Santa Claus, for example. Hidden Christmas presents we drop misleading hints about. Some other displays of good will are meant to signify unselfishness: bell ringing for charity, baskets for the poor, Christmas carol singing for those who are shut-in or locked-up.. These things fill the month and then we add things we simply cannot avoid, such as lunches, office parties, and trips to visit nearly forgotten relatives. There’s an element of prevarication in most of what we do in December. Gift giving in hopes of getting an enthusiastic response is probably our most honest action.
It’s all good fun.
Motives are almost always too complex to be easily analyzed. But the entire season is obfuscated. The darkest month of the year is spattered with glittering spectacles that do not bear intense investigation. We’ve attacked most of it, anyway, with our complaints about Christmas Muzak in shopping malls, fake Christmas trees, and even cone shaped light displays without any trees at all. We loathe the commercialization of the season and still spend more than we planned. Is it just primal gloom that we must try to put to flight with our strings of electric fire? Saturnalia was obliterated so we reinvented it.
There is a reason for the season and we have named it “Jesus”. Christ is the reason we are doing all this, but best not think too much about what exactly we are doing, much less why. The attachments and add-ons do not bear scrutiny. The customs of December are so mutated, in fact, that Christmas has been prohibited from time to time, only to come back re-clad in attractive garments to gladden hearts. St. Francis, it is said, to dispel the dark dangers of the late Middle Ages, assembled a Christmas tableaux that was so fetching it became a tradition. That fostered a whole Alpine woodcarving industry. One thing led to another until Christmas didn’t seem like a good idea any more. So the Puritans, famous for burning witches and beheading royalty, purified Christmas by banning it. But then came the wily Dutch with Sinterklaas, and Luther with his candle-lit evergreen trees.
Charles Dickens wrote the most famous Christmas story in English after King James authorized the second chapter of Luke. It was, in my view, a metaphor. The season, Dickens tells us, is beclouded with dark memories and portents that turn it into “humbug” where Scrooge is beset with obligations that enrage him. Hidden in shadows are other, brighter memories and possibilities. Happily, they are the ones that emerge to reclaim the day. Dickens was preaching. Industrial England, beclouded in soot and smoke, had the same choice as had confronted Ebenezer Scrooge, to shrivel in his chilly confines or to join the singing.
And behind it all is still more mystery.
Who were those people mentioned by Matthew and Luke, assembled by St. Francis to give three-dimensional presence to otherwise vague characters? What do we know of them, Mary and Joseph and the babe, lying in a manger? Shepherds, angels, wise men from the East bearing gifts? We know of them what we have chosen to know. We have provided narrative for missing words to satisfy our need for light to dispel darkness. And, lo, the darkness is not that hard to disperse. Words can do it. There is THE STORY and there are more stories. They multiply.
Mary, who are you? THE STORY says she is a handmaiden of the Lord. She is the mother of Jesus, and first-line witness to his birth events. And a century or so later she needed to be a virgin for in the stories of other incarnate deities were they not born of virgins? A verse in Isaiah would do, where “young woman” could be “virgin” if needed. And are not mothers of gods immaculate? How immaculate does the mother of God need to be? Then, should she not be our Mother, too? “Holy Mary … pray for us ….”
There is much darkness, so we will light a candle. We people dwelling in darkness are needy. We need, among our many needs, a season to be reminded to be grateful for starlight and candlelight.
[Appreciation to Gene Bourquin for the picture of him outside Maya Mall in Chiang Mai.]
Gerry Dyck completed a half-century project last year which made a significant contribution to preservation of the folk arts of North Thailand and Lanna culture. In October 2016 Gerry delivered almost 1500 musical segments to be made available through Rajabhat, Chiang Mai, and Payap Universities. The audio clips had been recorded on reel-to-reel magnetic tape over a four-year period from 1967-1971. But, thanks to modern technology, the entire collection of more than 150 computer discs now fits onto a 38 gig data storage device the size of Gerry’s finger. This database is in the hands of the 3 Chiang Mai institutions, thanks to Ajan Songkran Somchandra สงกรานด์ สมจันทร์ of Rajabhat Chiang Mai University.
Gerry’s projects in Chiang Mai in 1967-71 were two-fold.
He and his wife Edy Fagerbourg Dyck were missionary co-workers sent by the United Presbyterian Church to the Thailand Theological Seminary of the Church of Christ in Thailand. Gerry was to help with the seminary’s Department of Church Music. The department prepared high school graduates to be church and church-school choir directors and music teachers. But Gerry made an effort to expand church music beyond Western (i.e. “international”) hymnody, to include indigenous Northern Thai instruments. Objections were formidable from both those who thought the future of church music was with guitars, and those for whom Thai instruments evoked a past haunted by ghosts and the occult. A high point in Gerry’s effort came when the 1969 Christmas concert was presented using Thai instruments. [I have saved the folder of pictures Gerry sent me from that concert. Alas, the cassette tape has disintegrated.] I believe, over all, Gerry’s efforts to convince Thai churches to be open to their own local forms of music were more successful than most projects to persuade churches to incorporate indigenous art and architecture. (See, for example: www.kendobson.asia/blog/cultural-christianity.) Over the years the stigma has gone and Northern Thai instrumental groups can help lead worship without protest.
The second area of Gerry’s endeavors had to do with ethnomusicology, the study of ethnic music, in this case traditional music of Chiang Mai and Lampun Provinces. Gerry attempted to record as many traditional performers and groups as he could. He often focused on trying to record the entire repertoire of particular musicians, or finding as many performers as he could who knew how to make or play certain instruments. It is that which led him to what became his best known effort, revival of dying pin pia music พิณเปิ๊ยะ. Gerry tracked down every player of the pia he could find, most of them very elderly. He oversaw reconstruction of instruments from parts found in antique shops and described the music and instruments in detail. It was the threatened demise of the pia that attracted attention and set in motion a chain reaction leading to renewed interest in the unique music of Lanna Thai culture. This heritage has now expanded through music departments and groups doing recordings as part of the Northern Thai cultural renewal movement. Meanwhile, Gerry collected instruments and documented how they were made, especially drums. His collections of instruments have now been turned over to Thai music departments in the USA where they enable students and teachers to conserve Northern Thai music in another way.
From 1971 to 2006 Gerry’s extensive collection of recordings remained largely unused and unavailable, in the days before the IT explosion through YouTube, Facebook and the like. A break came in 2006 when Gerry located a set of films and sound tapes he and Dr. David Morton of UCLA had made in 1969. They had been inadequately filed in UCLA archives, but when they were found and reformatted they renewed interest in the pin pia and Northern Thai music. This inspired Gerry to get on with his penultimate ethno-musical project, production of his notes and memoirs. The result was self-publication of a book entitled Musical Journeys in Northern Thailand, including 200 pages (of a total 333 pages) describing the 4 years of musical investigations with extensive field notes and hundreds of photographs. Gerry and Songkran’s relationship began with the distribution of the first edition of Musical Journeys. I understand that Aj Songkran has edited these notes and translated them, forming a body of research that is now being used as Lanna cultural historians rediscover their heritage. The work of uncovering and disseminating Northern Thai music is being carried on by the younger generation, including Aj. Songkran who published History of Lanna Music ประวัติดนตรีลานนา in 2016.
The final contribution to ethnic music studies that Gerry has made is to digitally re-master his entire collection, his book, and the recovered films.
The job is done.
I’m not in a very thankful mood this year.
Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November in the United States is a patriotic holiday. The narrative goes that the first Americans – that is, Massachusetts Pilgrims – survived their first year with agricultural advice from natives. The Pilgrims celebrated their harvest with a festive meal to which they invited their helpful neighbors. Some 200 years later, at the beginning of the great American agriculture boom and a time of acute social fractures, a harvest festival that coincidentally celebrated national fraternity and good will was thought to be a timely idea. So Thanksgiving Day was declared.
Who doesn’t like a holiday, especially one that tends to extend a weekend to four days?
But I think I’ll pass on Thanksgiving again this year. Here’s why:
1.America is closer to civil war than at any time since 1865.
2.American patriotism is linked to American militarism.
3.American values are being trashed in behalf of political ambition.
4.The American Thanksgiving narrative is a fiction.
5.The second reason for Thanksgiving (family reunions) doesn’t apply to me here outside of America with only Thai family nearby.
6.Nostalgia food here in Chiang Mai is generally disappointing and very over-priced.
I don’t want to debate these matters. I don’t want to dampen anybody’s celebration. I’m going to be gloomy about America, tucked into the end of our valley without making a fuss. I’m under no illusions that we are free from danger here. My withdrawal from the turkey dinner table is not about escaping.
Here, we have just cremated the national unifier and are now without one. Militarism has again been re-installed into the constitution with Army generals running the government. Disputing national narratives can get you imprisoned for decades – far longer than, say, murdering your spouse. Social structure is crumbling as people turn to salary-values over community-values. Religion is systematically appropriated to validate national matters but never allowed to hold anyone accountable.
This is a place where the weather is pretty good but everything else is fairly tenuous. I don’t expect things to fall into chaos either here or in the USA. But the big players on both sides of the ocean talk about building stronger cultural compositions while they are pulling pieces out of their Jenga structures at such a reckless rate I just don’t feel like turkey and pumpkin pie this year.
[Thanks to Andrew Dobson for the picture of Buzz Ullrich playing Jenga.]
Every year the “heart” of the chedi (stupa) of Wat Chom Jaeng is taken for an excursion around the village. People vie for the chance to have the sacred object pass by or pause at their house. The return to the temple precincts is usually a major community event culminating in a festive procession involving units from neighboring villages. The heart is then reinstalled into the chedi.
When the new chedi at Wat Ta Pong was completed, the last formal ceremony was the installation of a heart in its upper region. The heart, I was told by the abbot, was a donation from the Supreme Patriarch of the Buddhist Sangha hierarchy in Bangkok. I understand the item looked like a crystal about the size of a child’s thumb, encased in a transparent, sealed glass case, very much like the one in Wat Chom Jaeng. As far as I know this heart is not going to be taken on any excursions.
That it not to say the heart of the chedi will not go on its own. It is widely believed that the heart of the chedi can depart to visit sacred places. I was eating lunch with a group of 6 women a few months ago when this subject came up. All 6 of them told me in no uncertain terms they believed this happened, and 5 of them insisted they had seen it with their own eyes. What they described was balls of light emerging from a temple in the vicinity of its chedi and then zooming away to pause here and there, including other temples.
An abbot confirmed this notion. “When I was a young novice I saw this happen. The ball of light rose from a temple in the distance. It was very beautiful. 5 or 6 of us saw it. The light rose out of the temple and split into three lights that soared in different directions. Sometimes they would disappear or dive down out of sight and then reappear.” The abbot repeated that the lights connected with sacred places.
Internet websites dedicated to paranormal phenomena describe balls of light sightings from all over the world. Some of them seem to be so predictable that groups gather to watch. In Thailand the most famous are balls of light that rise out of the Mekong River at Nongkhai, attributed to a Naga that resides in the river. Skeptics suspect a more human manufacture, but the skepticism has only increased the number of spectators.
Before we rush to conclude that the connection between these balls of light and a crystal from His Holiness the Supreme Patriarch is the imagination of simple folk, pause to consider three matters: (1) Buddhism in Thailand is composed of several realms of discourse, each based on its own set of propositions. (2) The issue of whether there is or is not a verifiable connection between evidence-based assumptions and significance of religious articles is tenuous as well as unnecessary. (3) Buddhist truth (Dharma) is philosophical, while the rest of Thai Buddhism is metaphorical or optional.
With regard to hearts of chedis being seen as balls of light, at least part of the concept is accepted as supernatural. One characteristic of the supernatural is that it is lightly held in some way. It may be an open question about whether the phenomenon exists or happened; uncertainty is implied. Even when people are sure of what they saw or experienced, its meaning may be uncertain; and since religion is always about meaning, it may have nothing to do with religion. Even if it is insisted the phenomenon has to do with religion it may be uncertain that it connects to any physical object, no matter how sacred that object may be held to be. Sacred objects, be they stones, statues, or relics, reveal their nature to those who are paying appropriate attention. In no case, however, is the significance of a metaphorical symbol impacted in the slightest by supernatural attributions or by denial of them. (This is a point which critics of religion ignore.)
It is instructive that people call the event at Wat Chom Jaeng “prapaynee song phra that” which could be literally rendered “the custom of accompanying the divine foot” or “foot-step”. Phra that is a designation for not only a mystic footprint of the Lord Buddha but also for a chedi. Every chedi represents the world mountain, an axial shaft between heaven and hell (associated with the mysteries of birth and death). The Lord Buddha stepped off the top of the world mountain to depart between reincarnations, as may be inferred from legends of the previous lives of the Lord Buddha. A Thai Buddhist temple that has been granted the honor of constructing such a chedi usually adds “phra that” to its name (e.g. Wat Phra That Doi Sutape).
Several things can be noticed about these random observations of the chedi and its heart:
1.A chedi is a reliquary containing bones of a person or a relic of the Lord Buddha.
2.A chedi is a monument, meant to be a permanent marker of a sacred place.
3.A chedi is a tradition based on earliest Buddhist structures.
4.A chedi is a metaphor symbolizing the world mountain as a stepping stone to eternity.
5.If a chedi is completed by installing a heart, it is a mystic (occult) action that links it to all chedis and to the Lord Buddha.
6.It is widely held that one derives blessing and makes merit by walking reverently around a chedi.
7.Similar blessings accrue when the heart of the chedi is taken on an excursion.
8.Most chedis have never been said to emit balls of light, so this is not an essential characteristic of a chedi, but it indicates that people believe that the sacred structure has an independent existence that may be more than symbolic.
A chedi is a sacred object. How any particular chedi is sacred is a mythic, mystic mystery.
Imagine you had attended the dedication of a facility about 6 years ago. It was a happy occasion bringing together a collection of grateful parents and their children, a few village officials, some church leaders, and a delegation of donors from overseas. There had been a tour of facilities including playground, offices, classrooms and recreation area. Extension plans had been unveiled and then a ceremony that featured a speech in which the donors were thanked in behalf of the board of the facility made up of resident foreigners and a village alum (safely named Alum for this essay since Alum was an alumnus of the university where we both work; the reason for “safety” and anonymity is the topic of this essay). Alum represented the church and had connections in the provincial capital. Alum grew up in that village and had been ordained and had a doctoral degree. Alum was entrusted to get the land transferred to the board of the foundation and get the facility registered with the education ministry of the government.
Imagine that the facility functioned for the intervening years and is still functioning as it was designed to function.
Imagine that when it came time to re-register the facility a few months ago it was discovered that Alum was listed as the sole owner of the land and buildings and also listed as the owner of the facility. Alum had included only one name on all the dotted lines. When this was pointed out, Alum was asked to correct the documents and transfer everything to the foundation as was the original understanding.
Imagine Alum refused.
Imagine, instead, Alum initiated legal action against the former church official who blew the whistle. The lot of a whistle blower in Thailand is perilous. Under Thai law it is illegal to do anything that directly or indirectly implicates someone in a way that might malign their character and imply shame. No matter that the facts can be proven with evidence and witnesses. No matter that documents have been misrepresented or even forged.
Imagine Alum has a long history of acquiring property under suspicious and false pretences. Alum has acquired a valuable art collection that way. But Alum is still a clergy member of the church in good standing and even holds a position in a church institution. Church officials are disinclined to take action because it would be frightfully expensive to bring charges against Alum. Church officials, being Thai church officials, very, very much want to avoid conflict and even more want to avoid public controversy. The national church once fired its top executive officer for voicing criticism of the national government. For the church in Thailand maintaining a low profile is one of its highest priorities. It is better not to talk openly about scandalous matters. Maybe they can be ironed out. Maybe the facility will just go on doing its job. It is, after all, rather far away up in the hills.
Remember this is an imaginary case. Any inference that this refers to anyone in particular is unfortunate and beyond the intent of this essay. Right?
The purpose of this essay, to be clear about it, is to remind readers that even though the hidden costs of permissive injustice potentially exceed the immediate costs of processing cases as they arise, there is a deep-seated cultural reason why this happens.
There is a large gas station sitting in the middle of a church school campus because the church refused to confront the important person who built the station. There is a church, one of the largest in Thailand, that lost a chunk of its property to a doctor who was allowed to build a clinic on it decades ago. A large number of investors lost life savings when a church agency defaulted on its investment plan rather than endure the public outrage and loss of face that would have resulted from trying to recover the funds. The list is long.
These are not simply cases of weak-will and timidity. These are deeply cultural instances wherein whole institutions prefer to take the passive course of inaction rather than inflict shame on others and risk the unpredictable consequences that might follow. Unpredictable as the reaction of an aggrieved person might be to be cited or charged, relief of society at large when such a case is settled is certain. The whole social order is aligned against conflict and is predisposed to forgive and let lie if at all possible. It is assumed to be possible. Overwhelming social pressure is in favor of it, even though the delicious gossip must be handled as if the story is imaginary and the principals have no names.
If, by chance, someone is openly charged and named, in almost all cases the reason is to eradicate that individual who has fallen from favor or to deflect blame from powerful figures who would be implicated if there were not scapegoats to take the blame. Litigation can be persisted in, when someone feels unjustly aggrieved; but the effort is to keep those cases quiet and quickly resolved. Overall, the dynamics that society expects is freedom from social conflict and personal intimidation rather than rule of law. Those who must be protected are those of higher status than those being abused. In cases in which the contest is between social equals, society demands resolution without resistance.
A seafood processing conglomerate was secretly investigated and slavery of employees was exposed. The reporter was charged with defamation of character by the owners of the conglomerate. Government effort was directed at restoring the reputation of the seafood industry rather than emancipation of the slaves. An important politician was discovered to have plagiarized the content of his graduate thesis. The professor who tried to block his graduation was charged with defamation of character even though university recognized that the thesis had been copied almost word for word from an un-cited source. A boy was beaten a couple of years ago, but the perpetrator remains ambiguous to protect the sanctity of the institution and to prevent the charge of assault against one of the cultural pillars of society.
Defaming someone’s character or depriving them of livelihood are culturally unforgiveable. Justice for victims is a completely separate issue.
One of the most common errors made by expatriates living in Thailand is to misunderstand this delicate dynamic. The principle is culture-wide, and no one is exempt.
The Presbyterian Church and its missionaries to Thailand are not particularly keen on saints. The only way they can be tolerated is by implying that Paul’s references to them includes all the church members of the community to whom Paul was writing, a very flawed group. Over the centuries many churches of Christianity have refined the word saints to mean those whom the church identified as exemplary and worthy of emulation because of their faith and accomplishments. Saints are those who are assuredly in heaven beholding the beatific glory of God first-hand. Large branches of the church concluded that these predecessors can also be called upon to carry our petitions to God, which is a very useful benefit. Presbyterians draw the line back somewhere about the time of St. Andrew.
When I arrived in Thailand in 1965, fresh out of seminary and zealous in the cause of ecumenical reunion which seemed to be swiftly underway, I believed that it was a good idea to renew positive regard for saints here in this land where ancestors are treated venerably. I also tried to incorporate connections to local Thai culture along with references to the world-wide church. One of the projects I undertook was to introduce a worship service on All Saints Day, which comes on November 1 in our branches of the church. That happens to fall on the day after Reformation Day, counted as the birthday of the Reformation begun by Martin Luther. All Saints Day also comes the day before All Souls Day, which includes everyone else who has contributed to the world as we have it but about whom we cannot be certain of their present heavenly residence.
The service we had first in the new chapel of the old seminary building on November 1, 1967 included lighting candles of various colors for Christ, the 12 apostles and 4 Gospel writers, Paul and some Old Testament greats, a couple of patriarchs and matriarchs, and then a line of reformers and missionaries that brought the faith to Chiang Mai. Students and teachers were also invited to light little candles in memory and gratitude for a particular person who was influential in their own journey to faith and into full-time Christian service. By the time this was done the dark chapel was quite well illuminated.
When I returned to Thailand in 1979 after a ten year absence I found that, although the movement toward ecumenical reunion of Protestants and Roman Catholics had hit speed bumps, some liturgical innovations had been preserved. That included the candle-lighting service on All Saints Day. (The black and white picture accompanying this reminiscence is from 1980.)
Later seminary generations were led in worship at the cemetery in Nong Hoi sub-district where many early Chiang Mai Presbyterian missionaries are buried, including Dr. and Mrs. Daniel McGilvary, considered the founder of the Protestant church in North Thailand as well as the founder of the seminary. (The Rev. William Yoder, Dean Emeritus of the McGilvary College of Divinity of Payap University, is pictured at the cemetery with seminary students at McGilvary’s grave in 2016 on All Saints Day).
At this time of year we give thanks “for all the saints who from their labors rest….”
The final rites for His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX of Thailand on October 26 exceeded superlatives. This may have been the grandest funeral service in modern history. This essay ruminates on the meaning of the event from the perspective of theological anthropology.
The funeral was a CATHARSIS. There is no doubt that King Bhumibol was loved and revered by the vast majority of Thai people and by uncountable numbers of people of other nationalities. The funeral was meant to include everybody in some way or other. Somewhere between a quarter of a million to a million people got as close as they could to the Sanam Luang in front of the Grand Palace in Bangkok to watch the processions, hear the sounds, and see what they could. Symbolic replicas of that were scattered around 802 sites all over the country, with another hundred shrines in smaller locations. My estimate is that at least 1 in 7 Thai people came to one of these locations where parallel observances were held. People at home were given “ring-side” seats and encouraged to virtually participate. The purpose was emotional release and closure. King Bhumibol the Great was finally and irretrievably gone.
The funeral was an ENACTMENT. Embedded in the significance of the King’s majesty is the religious concept of a divine-human encounter. The massive and impressive crematorium structure is a representation of Mount Meru, the axial world mountain in the middle of the mythical Himavanta Forest (“Himmaphan” in the Thai version) that connects the many levels of creation. Humanity resides in the middle level below heaven and above hell, sustained by beings and forces we rarely encounter. We exist outside that forest with its mythical inhabitants and creatures. However, epiphanies do occur whereby people are privileged to benefit from the proximity and grace of certain liminal individuals who transcend the borders between realms of existence. This transcendence is metaphorical until a sacred event eradicates the boundary. Death is potentially such an event. Commentators on live telecasts repeated the belief that the King is returning to “heaven” from whence he came at birth. The royal urn that used to be used literally, but is now the King’s symbolic casket, is, of course, representative of a womb, which is a symbol incorporated in most traditional funeral rites in this part of the world. The vehicle that carried his body symbolically from the palace to the cremation grounds is in the form of a mythic boat and the procession is a re-enactment of the perilous journey across the cosmic sea. In the case of a super-social person (like the King), the nation, the regime, and all who are connected to it are also transformed by association and by virtue of metaphysical reality. Mythic narratives and symbols communicate the paradox that eternity is embodied in this enactment of a grand finale. The consuming cremation fire is actually a liberation from the limitations of mortality. It completes a cyclical round of existence.
The funeral was LESSONS. The presence of royalty and potentates from 30 countries, the scale of the cremation site and of the vehicles and structures, and the extension of the events into parallel sessions in every corner of the nation and around the world were meant to teach. One lesson is civic pride. “Thai people are significant.” Another lesson is continuity. This funeral is clad in tradition that goes back to golden roots in Ayuthaya, into India, and on back into the mythic past. These myths were prominent in the night-long performances on the cremation grounds. Continuity was also impressed by the central figure and ritual actions of King Rama IX’s son, the new King Rama X. The third lesson is unity. King Bhumibol was a unifier through his “tireless efforts” (amply mentioned in paintings adorning the funeral structures, in thousands of exhibitions in public places, and hundreds of video clips shown on TV and the internet). Thai people are united because of the King, and it has never been more apparent than at grand ceremonies to mark stages in his life and reign. The fourth lesson is appreciation. People should continue to appreciate this King and all he represents and should keep his legacy and memory “alive in our hearts.” The king was appreciated. Nothing other could have coalesced such a massive, cooperative effort. This appreciation shall be sustained as a chapter in the national narrative.
Note: This is the 358th weekly essay on our series. As we begin our sixth year as of November 1, I want to thank Adam Dedman for managing the website these past 5 years. I also appreciate our mostly anonymous readers who average 300 different persons (or about 2000 “clicks”) a week, without whom I would not have had the heart to sustain this writing. During year 6 the focus will be on personal reminiscences, reflections on current events in Thailand and the world, investigations of Thai village culture and religion, and post-postmodernism.
Hell descended on Indonesia in October 1965.
On 17 August 1965, the day I first arrived in Thailand, President Sukarno told Indonesia, in his Independence Day address, that he intended to align Indonesia with the People’s Republic of China. Sukarno’s effort to form a non-aligned bloc of nations with Nasser of the United Arab Republic, was to be abandoned. Sukarno had already withdrawn Indonesia from the United Nations and flouted the USA and its allies while shifting the Indonesian military into hands of Communist leaders. This appeared to be the domino that would fall and fulfill John Foster Dulles’s prediction to the US National Security Council on March 31, 1953, that if one South East Asian nation would fall they would all fall, one by one, like a line of dominoes. President Dwight Eisenhower reiterated the “Domino Theory” in August 1953, suggesting that it would be possible to stop the fall, but if Indonesia fell it would be much harder. Already, the USA was trying to support France to keep this from happening in Vietnam. The “Domino Theory” was behind the US stepping into Vietnam when France lost its colony in 1954.
So, August 17 was a critical day in Indonesia. Disaster was soon to descend.
On October 1, 1965 Sukarno’s top military leaders were “kidnapped”, according to news reports. In fact, they were found on October 3 to have been killed, and their corpses were buried on October 5 in a public ceremony presided over by Major General Suharto. A bloody story was circulated that the generals had been killed in an abortive Communist coup attempt. Although the coup of October 1 seemed to have failed, the funeral on the 5th consolidated the public and gave focus to massive outrage. Suharto took control. All Communists were to be rounded up. At the time, the Communist parties in Indonesia were the third largest in the world Both military and Muslim civilian groups rounded up countless thousands of “Communists” and possible comrades.
On October 18, 2017 the Independent published a report of recently de-classified CIA documents that testify to both CIA support financing and armaments for the anti-communist actions that followed, and also to the extent to which everything escalated out of control. Furthermore, the reports fully implicate Suharto as the one who orchestrated the killing of the generals on October 1 and who fabricated the story of the kidnapping by communists. By December 1965 the USA knew of mass killings and of camps of detainees numbering in tens of thousands, far beyond the capacity of local provincial government groups to sustain. [See the Independent article here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/indonesia-anti-communist-massacres-1960s-us-knew-cia-desclassifed-embassy-files-jakarta-a8006186.html
The Indonesian domino did not fall as Eisenhower and Dulles has feared it might. Far worse things happened.
We, here in Thailand, were close enough to know something about all this.
One of the fortunate first refugees to leave Indonesia was the Rev. Dr. Pouw Boon Kiat and his wife. They initially relocated to Chiang Mai, Thailand where Dr. Pouw was given a position teaching New Testament at the Thailand Theological Seminary. At that time the seminary faculty was the most international it has ever been, before or since, with faculty members from Indonesia, India, Japan, England, Germany, Netherlands, Thailand and the USA. Pouw left Indonesia early because of rising anti-Chinese threats.
Behind the anti-communist rhetoric it was essentially racism that energized the reaction in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966 leaving as many as a million dead. This racist retaliation, at the local level, hardly had anything to do with national politics. It had everything to do with fear of the Chinese in dispersion in positions and influence in markets and banks. It had to do with the inability of the nation to integrate and accommodate diversity. The rampage lasted for several months, fueled by tribalism and jealousy.
We heard about this sooner than the world at large. There were accounts coming out about camps of 10,000 prisoners, almost all ethnic Chinese or suspicious minorities, who had nothing to eat because their captors had nothing to feed them. They were penned in to starve.
One of the sets of anecdotes that emerged later told how some did not starve due to the actions of local people. In particular, Christians, who make up a solid 10% of the Indonesian population, provided food through the fences of the camps. When the situation settled down the camps were abandoned. A couple of years later conservative Muslim groups influenced the government to pass an anti-conversion law that made it illegal for people to change religion. In order to implement this law a census was taken in which people had to declare their religion. An Indonesian informant whose ethnic Chinese parents had survived this bloodbath, told me on October 21, 2017 that communists, rather than expose themselves to arrest by declaring they had “no religion” said that they were Christian. Furthermore, several thousand people who had been sustained by Christians in the bad times declared themselves to be Christian, and to the great surprise of local churches came for baptism. For a while there were mass baptisms of up to 300 at a time. Outside Christian observers called this a “miraculous movement of the Holy Spirit”. Others compared it to the same thing that had happened in Korea when it was the Christians who opposed the early twentieth century “enslavement” of Korea by Japanese nationalists expanding their empire. My interpretation is that when Christians take action to defend and sustain their neighbors there will usually be a “miraculous movement of the Holy Spirit.”
Meanwhile, hell was descending on other areas of this part of the world. It came mostly from the US Air Force in the attempt to stop the domino of South Vietnam from falling. Fire fell all over Vietnam, but also on Laos and Cambodia. When South Vietnam fell anyway, there was a tsunami of refugees flooding out of South Vietnam by boat. Those who could not leave were “re-educated” and mostly remained in Vietnam to start over. As this was going on, Communist insurgency groups grew bolder in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. Burma, however, embarked on “a Burmese path to socialism.” Thailand undertook a diplomatic strategy to neutralize what was left of the Maoist threat. Cambodia endured the Khmer Rouge, which was put down by the Vietnamese Army, now rid of America. The Cold War was moving away from the region so not everybody noticed the irony that the Khmer Rouge Communists were subdued by the Vietnamese Communists. Burma settled into civil war and never became anything close to socialist, not to mention Communist. Thailand’s amnesties worked to end insurgency movements in the North and Northeast and along the Malay border, as the Thai fighters grew to realize that Communism would be just another form of repressive regime.
Still, I believe that the Domino Theory was devastated in 1965 to those who were paying attention. Apparently, according to what we have just recently learned, the US Central Intelligence Agency was paying attention and did not want the theory to be undone. It was, after all, the rationale for US military presence throughout Asia and the Pacific.
The Association of Christian Universities and Colleges in Asia (ACUCA) will hold its annual conference this week. Payap University in Chiang Mai is host. About 100 presidents, rectors and provosts and their representatives are expected from Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, India, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. I am looking forward to meeting a few of the leaders I once served briefly as ACUCA General Secretary. The theme is the intersection of higher education, culture and religion. It is being conducted, coincidentally, in the context of the elaborate last days of preparation for the cremation of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, which is the most extravagant Thai cultural event of this century (so far).
I expect the ACUCA conference to stay safely away from consideration of cultural challenges to freedom of expression, cultural experimentation by marginal ethnicities, and academic defiance. We do not anticipate the secret police to send observers to record our speakers, as they did at a conference a few weeks ago conducted at a university on the other side of the city. We would be shocked if any of our speakers were arrested, as was an eminent scholar earlier this week for remarks he made in a conference 2 years ago that invited academics to be willing to investigate and question the veracity of a legend from 500 years ago about a battle between two kings on elephants. I do not find any mention in the conference program of how wary Christians must be in Indonesia where any hint of criticism of the dominant culture can be interpreted as a blasphemous insult to Islam. Even in South Korea certain topics are taboo.
Harassment by cultural “police” is not out of the question even for a polite academic conference like the one we are planning. One of the keynote presentations is about how the Christian Communications Institute (CCI) of Payap University adapts Thai folk drama to convey Christian moral messages. CCI’s innovation being show-cased at the conference is how ลิเก (Thai folk melodrama) has been used for 30 years to re-narrate the story of the Prodigal Son. CCI has presented this model at international conferences, world evangelistic assemblies, and on tours throughout Asia, Europe, North America and Australia. Uniform applause has not always been the response, however. After the first trip to the USA in the early 1980s, an incensed Thai observer in the USA wrote to the Thai Royal Palace that this Christian group was distorting and misrepresenting beloved Thai cultural heritage. Because the charge had been sent to the Palace, it had to be investigated. Dr. Amnuay Tapingkae, president of Payap University, and members of the CCI staff hurried to Bangkok where a Princess, known for her love of traditional culture, presided at a meeting and declared that folk drama was an art that traditionally incorporated local and contemporary references, and the forms used by the CCI were neither insulting nor distorted.
One never knows when culture and religion will erupt into controversy and confrontation. In best cases, those eruptions can be converted into occasions for dialogue. That is what higher education is supposed to do well. But in times of conflict and threat, people may clamor for protection. These days, students may be intolerant of challenges and try to demand that their universities surround them with safety. The boundary between intellectual stimulation and intimidation may seem to disappear.
When higher education is hijacked for use as a cultural tool, it ceases to be, in any sense, “higher”. It has lost its purpose and no longer performs its basic service of holding culture accountable to core values and principles. “Culture” may be abstract, but its advocates have faces and names, and often have offices, ministries, functionaries, lawyers and connections with enforcement power. These people can be held accountable.
The topic of the ACUCA conference this coming weekend is not as far from the current battlefronts as the conference brochure may imply. If there is to be a third world war, it will begin by building walls between cultures and daring anyone to assault the walls. Cultural protectionism begins by ramping up fear and hate. University administrators may not want political issues to intrude on the smooth production of effective members of the labor pool, but if higher education refuses to hold culture accountable, who will?
Spectacular events are something that every religion tries to have from time to time. Pramote and I got up early on Friday to participate in one near our home. The early hour was one reason for asking, “Why are we doing this?”
Several villages combined efforts to hold a merit-making event to mark the end of the Buddhist rainy season retreat. Buddhist Lent ended on the day of the full moon this week. During the retreat people made a special effort to observe the Buddhist precepts, and some spent a day and night or two each week at the temple learning chants, listening to sermons and instruction, and practicing somewhat austere disciplines. Monks are required to stay in their monasteries unless they get permission to leave for some particular purpose. Life centers on the temple-monastery. The traditional reason is that the Lord Buddha had compassion on village folks who had planted rice at the beginning of the rainy season, and so he instructed his disciples to refrain from traipsing around over the rice fields trampling on the seedlings. But when the rainy season ends, the monks can be out and about again.
This is the occasion for another kind of merit-making. Once again the monks will be making the rounds collecting food. The reason for monks doing this is to make it easier for the laity to earn merit by donating food without having to travel to the temples. The picture of monks getting rice ladled into a pot held in a sling carried on the monk’s shoulder is an icon of Buddhism and a summary of many aspects of faith. People kneel (if they are able) to receive a blessing after making their donation. Kneeling is a sign of reverence to what the monk stands for. The monk is the most immediate link between one’s daily existence and the sacred goal of enlightenment and release into an ego-less state free of suffering, toward which one is (hopefully) moving. Monks facilitate the person’s devotion to the Lord Buddha by enabling this pious act. One of the final exchanges in any morning service is for the laity to ask the monks for permission to present them a meal. Unlike many chants that precede it, this chant is in vernacular Thai. But the simplest form of this offering is at one’s front gate or on a city walkway.
There are several more spectacular ways of doing this. Our event at Wat Doi Saphan-u on Friday morning was designed to give people a chance to multiply merit by placing offerings in the pots (i.e. in the bahtr ) of 99 monks. This mass offering was called Tham Bun Tak Bahtr Tee Wo Rohana (ทำบุญตักบาทรเทโวโรหฌะ).
According to the math by which merit is calculated, the amount of merit increases in proportion to the effort needed to do the act. 99 is a very auspicious number, and the intention to do something 99 times is approximately 99 times better than doing it once. It did not decrease the merit when only 89 monks actually came. The effort had already been made to provide offerings for 99 monks. Intention counts.
The offerings were food items placed in the monks’ bowls, but we had been instructed to bring “dry” food which would last and which could be distributed or converted into cash. Each monk collected a large sack-full of items such as packs of noodles, packets of rice, boxes of milk, bottles of water and the occasional bunch of bananas. The monks made merit by relinquishing this abundance for the use of the poor and disadvantaged, or for the greater good of the community at large. Everybody made merit, even, presumably, photographers.
The setting was impressive, at the foot of the hundred steps leading up to colossal images of the Lord Buddha facing in the 4 cardinal directions. That setting might have played a small role in attracting a crowd for this annual event. But the event was all about making merit. Without merit-making it is hard to imagine what would hold northern Thai Buddhism together and enable a hand-full of little villages to produce such a spectacle.
Note: This is the second essay in a series that will extend through 2018 on “Temple Secrets” about little known aspects or events in Northern Thai village temples. The introductory essay is “Alive”. www.kendobson.asia/blog/alive The next essay in this series will be in November.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.