Thailand's Social Division
Thailand is socially stratified.
At the top are the powerful elite, with royalty at the pinnacle. They are entitled by heredity and finances.
The next level is composed of those whose power and status are derived from accomplishments, including acquisition of control of corporations, land, or sections of the military. They automatically find positions to maximize their status.
A new level has expanded in the last ¾ of a century which is similar to the middle class in other countries. People in this class have limited political power, but they have apparent security and ability to leverage their situations to their advantage. The middle class in Thailand is divided into two ranks. The upper middle class are owners, executives, professionals, and local leaders. The lower middle class are salaried employees, securely self-employed, or bi-vocational (farming during certain seasons and also working for salaries or commissions part time, for example).
Less secure are those who are dependent on factors over which they have no control. That includes farmers whose situation depends on weather, variable crop prices, and ability to acquire additional products (such as fish or mushrooms). Day laborers in construction or factory workers and “piece workers” (such as those who are paid by the piece for sewing) are also on the brink of inadequacy. At the bottom of the social column are those totally dependent on others.
Four factors mitigate these social divisions: clan loyalty, special categories, government programs, and luck or self-destruction.
A large percentage of those who would be destitute are “taken-in” by relatives. Almost all primary families (parents and children) and extended families (2 or 3 generations living in proximity and sharing whatever is necessary) have one or more who have a salaried income. It is considered essential for adult children to provide a house for older parents. Most extended families have acquired debts, especially for vehicles or houses, which they are paying off, so their standard of living is raised somewhat precariously.
Clergy and military tend to be special categories, but they, too, are highly stratified. The strata have prescribed titles.
Government programs including nearly universal health care and education through twelfth grade also mitigate and alleviate some of the variables that used to trouble previous generations. Although government subsidies are small, elderly and disabled people receive direct assistance, as do infants to age 6.
Exceptions to the predictable functioning of society are infrequent but noticeable. Luck is given the credit for one’s winning the lottery or being wiped out by a flood. Getting into trouble through gambling or drug dealing, on the other hand, would be one’s own fault.
COVID-19 is now beginning to have an impact on Thai social structure. It’s just beginning to show up as more than a temporary anomaly which can be put up with in the short run. The pandemic is more than a catalyst and less than the cause of a realignment of social control.
As COVID-19 and its disruptions enter the second year the government is beginning to tremble. A second round of financial stimulus pay-outs is underway, without sufficient funds to do this. It’s with a shaky hand that the government is making these pay-outs and is on the way to issuing bonds to back them up. The country is enduring a major outbreak of COVID cases, with a few days of almost a thousand new cases a day. Up to now the government has prioritized protecting the country’s health by closing the borders, but it is a sign that this can’t go on much longer that everything is being relaxed even while the epidemic is spreading.
Something like a sixth of the population counts on domestic and international tourism and transportation to provide financial income. The ripples are spreading. By this time almost every economic area has turned downward, some of them sharply. Markets are impacted, some closed entirely, most only temporarily. Schools are operating “spasmodically” with classes online being really dysfunctional according to teachers trying to keep students engaged. I’m guessing that instead of 180 days in class, most grade school students were there not more than 100 days in the past year. The impact on people who provide lunches, drive school “busses” and serve as part-time teachers is collateral. When street and highway traffic is sharply reduced gas stations feel the effect immediately. Factories that employed workers in close proximity were closed a long time. Those employees often “went back home” to eat out of the family’s pot. All these things are short term effects.
At the same time something much longer-term is brewing.
The middle class is shifting and a gap between town and country is widening.
It’s been obvious for at least 4 decades that tourism cannot be sustained as a financial bedrock. The downturn we have now is never going to completely recover. Jobs are gone for which college students have prepared themselves. Young people with business degrees are scurrying around to find work as motorcycle delivery drivers and stock-boys in supermarkets. As many as one million jobs with salaries have disappeared. The generation that was expecting to escape hand-to-mouth hard manual labor is frightened.
Unlike laid-off factory workers, members of this aspiring middle class are not going to go back to remote villages and “put their hands to the plow” again. As long as they have transportation they will keep in touch with their extended families and make whatever reduced contribution they can to those who are counting on them. But their loathing of the barely-sufficient lifestyles that their grandparents thought was normal will not go away. What they will loathe in addition, is the economic system that is now working against them.
This disaffected group is a whole layer of society. When they seethe all the layers above them are bound to quiver. Nothing will ever be quite the same. We are not yet seeing a “new normal” but rather the disruption of the old normal.
A Crisis of Succession
WHO WILL LEAD TRUMP’S MOVEMENT NEXT?
It is an axiom that the inevitable problem for charismatic leadership is a crisis of succession. I suggest that Donald Trump became a charismatic leader of a movement of diverse parts which came to include the majority of the Republican Party.
It seems, in the immediate aftermath of his historic second impeachment, as support crumbles and he fumbles his way into political exile, that “the movement” is essentially leaderless. The GOP cannot pretend (and does not want to pretend) to be leading the white nationalist groups that Trump coalesced. The GOP itself will retreat a few steps and regroup under someone.
Meanwhile, in addition to a basic division between “right and left”, “red and blue”, “progressives and conservatives”, “the movement” is fragmenting. Evangelical Christians are pulling away from Trump, sensing they made a mistake, hard as that is to admit. Big businesses are lining up to disengage their “brands” from Trump’s. Republican Party leaders are just waiting for Inauguration Day to get over-with to move on. The Proud Boys aren’t going to be able to hail Trump anymore.
Great blocs of Trump loyalists back home are taking deep breaths and coming to terms with life without Trump. Oh, there are still a lot of supporters who hope for a miracle, something to save the movement and Trump himself. They refuse to admit the riot was an insurrection and that anyone in “the movement” had anything to do with it. Trump is taking that line. But their ranks are thinning as they get used to the new reality.
Even those who made it back home from the Capitol are mostly explaining how they saw nothing riotous, no breaking glass and murdering a policeman. Finding they need distance from all that is not the outcome from their trip to Washington they expected.
Continuing the campaign to Make America Great Again is going to be harder. It’s not going to be easy to repeat their “walk to the Capitol … and show strength.” The police are not going to be as cooperative as they have been. There are thousands of troops in battle readiness to oppose the plans for keeping the campaign alive by another march on Inauguration Day or even protests in “all 50 state capitals”.
The movement is leaderless. Not all movements brought to their peak by a charismatic leader recover from a crisis of succession.
[The picture of Trump leaving the White House on January 12 is from a “Breaking News” article by Joe Walsh in Forbes.]
USA Spiritual Transformation
Spiritual transformation is now an emerging necessity for those whose operative spirituality includes American Civil Religion. Events of the last few weeks and those still going on provide the conditions for transformation.
According to Kenneth I Pargament, spiritual transformation is “primarily … a fundamental change in the place of the sacred or the character of the sacred as an object of significance in life….” Spiritual transformation emerges from and responds to “internal or external trauma and transition.”
I expect no argument to the notion that this is a time in America of trauma and transition. But we need to consider what the “sacred” is in American Civil Religion.
In any discourse, the sacred is that which defines what is good and indispensable as well as that which empowers those essentials in human experience. The sacred is manifested in events. The sacred is symbolized in monumental structures so its ideals may be retained and renewed in celebrations. The sacred impels response. It inspires movement toward that which is good, i.e. that of the sacred which can be accomplished.
There are several levels of sacred things with a sacred unifier uppermost. They are, by definition, superior to mundane things such as politics, health, economics, and safety. Sacred things give those mundane things direction and clarity and maximize their potentiality.
Democracy is a strong candidate for being called American Civil Religion’s unifying sacred, its most sacred concept and ideal. Arguably, it is democracy that provides the necessary condition for politics, health, economics, and security to be optimized. Those mundane abstractions are fabricated as government operations, medical functions, banks and commerce, human development institutions, and safety-net programs. Those undertakings are at their best when they are developed with democracy as an organizing principle.
Over time, however, symbols emerge which stand for the sacred. Often these symbols expand to such an extent that the unifying sacred is unimaginable without them. The symbols then are sacred, too. Religion is about meaning. American Civil Religion functions to designate how America’s symbols are to be understood and venerated. American Civil Religion tells Americans what the American flag stands for; patriotic organizations are influential priests in this. American Civil Religion tells what civic monuments mean. It tells us what the Capitol means, which is more than offices and chambers inside an impressive building. American Civil Religion tells us what level of reverence should be paid to the Capitol and what actions desecrate it.
On January 6, when the mob invaded the US Capitol building they did more than break down doors and windows and loot offices; they desecrated the citadel and prime symbol of American Democracy. They did a number of things that contributed to the desecration, including interrupting a joint session of the US Congress, replacing US flags with Trump flags, erecting a scaffold with a noose to threaten the President Elect with death, as well as recitals (chants and gestures) that voiced opposition to the operation of democracy as it has been described in the US Constitution and procedures for more than two centuries.
This violent action, the well-laid plans that preceded it, the speeches that incited the riot, and the mayhem and bloodshed that resulted, have dismayed and shocked most Americans (and people around the world who respected the USA).
Americans have interpreted the events and assigned blame in contrasting ways. The desecration of the Capitol, combined with the actions of the President, has been described as insurrection. This description must be correct insofar as the attempt was to change the outcome of the election and the smooth transition of power. Even as the invasion of the building was going on blame was being shifted away from the pro-Trump patriots to Antifa (Anti-Fascist) conspirators posing as Trump supporters to slander peaceful protestors to the stolen election who love Trump and would never break the law.
Americans who have developed a high regard for American Civil Religion have been traumatized by this attack on the most important monument to its most sacred concept. The insurrection failed on January 6, but the attempt was an attack on democracy even though it is argued that democracy was already being undermined by all sorts of things; neo-liberalism and white supremacy are two that have been mentioned frequently. No matter whether one considers the actions of January 6 as a despicable insurrection or bold and desperate patriotic action that unfortunately failed, the event and the way it developed was traumatic.
Trauma is the result of an impact that threatens ones sustained physical or mental functioning. That is also true when the matter is in the religious domain. In that the trauma on January 6 was about an important symbol that was considered essential, adjustment one’s dedication and loyalty are going to be necessary. Many Americans were traumatized by what took place. This shook the confidence of some of those who placed trust in President Trump to stay in office and preserve America. It shook others to see how dysfunctional the government of the nation’s capital became when an insurrection occurred. It shook some to realize how deep and dangerous the divisions of opinion are about what makes America great and what the consequences of this division might be.
No matter if one is convinced that without Trump America will be destroyed for America is a way of life we won’t have without him, or if one is certain that America is as great as its protections for the most vulnerable and without social engineering America will be a failure, this election and transition have been traumatic. Trauma is one of the triggers for spiritual transformation.
It’s been less than a week since the attempted insurrection and there is a dark cloud looming over the inauguration of the next President and Vice President next week. Evidence about what happened on January 6 is being reported hour by hour. It’s too early to say how things will shift, but loyalties and devotions have been impacted. It’s been a transformational moment for American Civil Religion, the proprietor of America’s National Narrative.
[Previous blogs about American Civil Religion include: www.kendobson.asia/blog/american-civil-religion.
Reference: Pargament, Kenneth I. 2001. The Psychology of Religion and Coping: Theory, Research, Practice. New York: The Guilford Press.]
BOOK REVIEW: FEET ON THE MOUNTAIN
Dick has provided a valuable resource for those who already are or will be interested in what happened between 1950 and 2000 to bring ethnic minority groups into full participation in Thailand’s national development and then citizenship. Feet on the Mountain is a memoir, not an autobiography or history, but it has elements of both of those. Dick tells what he became involved with, and in that way augments narrations from an eye-witness perspective about a number of controversial topics. They include Air America’s method of operation, how the King and Queen of Thailand went about their work, the success of the crop substitution program to replace opium production with other cash crops – especially coffee and fruit, the Thai “War on Drugs,” and the impact of modernization through road construction and Thai-ization through education. At the same time Dick preserves the names of key Karen pastors and village leaders who might not make it into other accounts.
In the process of writing missionary memoirs one tendency, which Dick certainly avoids, is to minimalize the role of non-Christian agents. Official government accounts also tend to downplay Christian contributions to national processes. Dick gives full credit to those with and for whom he worked. His main employer was the mission boards of the American Baptist Churches USA (aka “Northern Baptists”). Dick and Marlene were missionaries. Then for 20 years out of 55 in Thailand, Dick was seconded to the United Nations. This brought him into government, international, and Thai Royal circles in a unique way. I know of no other post-World War II missionary couple with such extensive royal connections.
For those of us concerned about historical data, Dick provides a trove of statistics and descriptions. He talks about the Center for the Uplift of Hill Tribes; Baw Gaow, Babaekee, Musakee, and Mae Sariang; agricultural mission work; and the troubled transition from isolation to inclusion for the people of the hill villages. His impelling description of the Thai Tribal Narcotics Detoxification and Rehabilitation Project (and the Center) is first-hand and important.
It is impressive how literal Dick’s “feet on the mountain” were. A substantial amount of his 450 pages is taken with descriptions of his many days-long hikes with Boy Scouts, with missionaries, with a prince, with Karen Christians, and one memorable time by himself (not counting the forest demon who tried to kill him).
Consequential to all these tales is the conclusion that missionaries will not be hiking through the mountains of North Thailand like that anymore because all those places are now accessible by roads. Dick’s generation of missionaries produced children who continue in service in Thailand. But this next generation’s stories might better be called “Wheels on the Mountains.”
[Richard S. Mann. Feet on the Mountain. Pittsburgh: Dorrance, 2020. Forward by Denis D Gray, former chief of bureau, Associated Press. 450 pages including pictures and charts. List price $30. Dorrance is a publishing service (formerly called a vanity press).]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.