The 10th Anniversary Chiang Mai Pride Parade last night (Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019) was a resounding success. A thousand people marched about a mile to a plaza in front of the historic Tapae Gate where another 300 of us waited and were joined by a few hundred wanderers. The mood was enthusiastic and the plans were flawless. Congratulations to the organizers and sponsoring organizations. (Thanks to photographers who posted pictures on Facebook, borrowed for this blog-report.)
What was accomplished, in my opinion shared with others, is a demonstration that things have changed for the better in the last decade.
On this date in 2009 the first Pride Parade came to an abrupt end before it began when truck-loads of red-shirted counter-demonstrators roared up to the launching site for the parade with loud threats and intimidation. They were accompanied by scores of police who trapped the marchers inside a religious compound behind a tall iron fence while other police tore down the stage at the parade’s intended destination two blocks away.
The idea, furthered by public officials (who had previously issued permits and promised cooperation) was that a display of nearly naked gay men besmirched the reputation of Chiang Mai as a cultural gem and bastion of conservative cultural values. No matter that nobody was even partially unclothed. Truth was the first to flee, followed by those fleetest afoot. In fact, Pride #1 was a victim of the political struggles of those times that had nothing much to do with LGBTK people, but with political factions trying to get “air time” on TV any way they could.
This year the parade organizers made sure ahead of time that the public officials had been conspicuously recognized for permitting the parade. Police were glad to provide traffic control, and politics were no longer likely to interfere. It was smiles all around.
After a long, fun walk from the very spot where the 2009 parade had been aborted, past the place where they had planned to end, then twice as far again (providing a lot of chances for people to join, which some did), the parade, led by a brass band, came to the plaza.
The program included three Las Vegas type performances by a troupe of bi, gay and transgender dancers from a local cabaret theater. Then short greetings were brought by representatives of LGBTK Chiang Mai (including moi). A poignant time in the evening was when the crowd lit peace candles following the theme, “end violence against people of diverse genders.” Trophies were awarded for great costumes as the event came to an end and the plaza was turned back over to the pigeons and tourists.
Well done, Sirisak, coordinator-in-charge!
Again I wonder what was accomplished. What do they do, these Pride events, now held in scores of cities worldwide?
This one was specific. Its message was, “We have come a long way. We can march unafraid.” And, “The future is in good hands,” as the Millennial Generation took over and ran the show last night. It was to sustain enthusiasm.
Other parades in other places proclaim, “We’re here and we’re queer! We’re loud and we’re proud!” with outrageous costumes to prove it. In this regard Chiang Mai Pride 2019 was subdued.
Most Pride events underscore gender diversity and blurred binary demarcations. They push collective consciousness to be more inclusive. This one did that, too.
A few are defiant, courageously confronting opposition that often greatly exceeds our memorable conflict in 2009, now laid to rest, as a short video last night proposed.
What all Pride parades and festivals have in common is the rebellious assertion, “We do not yet have full equality. Notice us and see that we are unashamed and unintimidated. You have to deal with us because we dwell among you.”
Friday, February 8, 2019 was one of the most astonishing days in Thailand’s modern political history, which has not been lacking in that regard. On that day, not one but two unprecedented events took place that electrified and then mystified the country, the whole country, not only those who pay attention to political nuances.
In the morning, the Thai Raksa Chart political party (meaning, I believe, “Thai Saving the Nation”) – heavily backed by populist billionaire Taksin Shinawatra, former Prime Minister of Thailand and his sister Yingluck, another former PM both elected with large majorities supported by farmers, laborers and “common folks” – announced that they were nominating Ubolrat (Princess Ubolratana Mahidol ) as their candidate for Prime Minister in the national election for members of parliament on March 24. Until that announcement, it was assumed that the current PM would be nominated, and with his military and royal connections he would win sufficient votes to form the new “democratic” government to follow the one he has led as PM for the last four years as head of a military junta that took over Yingluck’s office “to restore peace and order.” It would be more of the same, tied up with a new ribbon. But Ubolrat’s candidacy changed everything.
Suddenly she was the front-runner, and the Shinawatra clan was back on stage, even with its two former PMs in self-imposed exile to avoid imprisonment for “abuse of power” charges brought to strangle their political influence and possibly take over their billions. People understood this move against them was very political, rather than a matter of justice.
Ubolrat was an astounding surprise. People all over the country were talking about it by noon. It was a game changer. It meant, it seemed, that the political process would be opened up again after the imposed restrictions manipulated by the current PM and the junta. She would win, of course, but that would be just the beginning of exciting days ahead.
However, she was a surprising candidate because she is the oldest child of the late King of Thailand and the older sister of the current King. Royalty in Thailand are prevented, under the terms of the constitutional monarchy provisions, from being involved in politics. Ubolrat, responded early Friday afternoon to the current PM’s party saying that she was ineligible to run in the election, by pointing out that she had resigned her royal titles in 1979 when she married an American whom she had met in Massachusetts Institute of Technology when they were both students there. They had three children, one of whom perished in the tsunami in 2004 on the day after Christmas. She announced on Twitter that she was no longer a princess, but was a common citizen under the law.
Nobody thought for a minute that she would have entered the race for Prime Minister without her brother’s endorsement. Since he ascended the throne at the death of his father in October 2016 he has personalized and consolidated his power, taking over the royal treasury, gaining a palace military guard of more than 5000, and taking charge of vast royal properties which he is in the process of redeveloping. Ubolrat and the King are thought to be close. She would not have dared enter politics without his backing.
But hours later on the same day all TV programming stopped so that a palace announcement could be made which renounced Ubolrat’s plan on the basis that although she may have resigned her royal titles, she was in no sense a commoner. She was still a beloved member of the royal family. Moreover, she had been performing royal duties on the same basis as her brother and sisters since she had returned to Thailand in 2001. In the eyes of the country she is royal and the traditions of royalty in Thailand apply to her. All members of the royal family are above public criticism, and therefore her participation in political office would distort normal political debates and activities. So, her candidacy “is highly inappropriate,” the palace announcement said. That announcement was in the name of the King.
For the first time in modern memory a reigning Thai monarch had publically, officially rebuked a sibling. Rumors of previous fussing within the family have circulated, but they were rumors and this was unique.
There has not yet been a clear explanation as to why the King apparently rescinded his agreement with his sister, if there had been one. Perhaps there has been a change in military power at the top, with the new ruling generals not wanting the campaign against the Shinawatra clan to end? The vendetta would have ended if she became PM at the head of the clan’s political party.
In the next few days there was a scramble to regain composure. Thai Raksa Chart withdrew the nomination. Ubolrat explained her desire remains to help the country (but not as Prime Minister, after all). Top military leaders (without any of the junta leaders or the present PM) gathered for a conference with the King, who happens to be in Munich at this time, where he resides when he is not in Thailand. The Election Commission published its list of verified candidates for the coming election, without Ubolrat’s name on the list. Election posters are going up all over the place. Most of the military are busy with joint Thai-USA training exercises called Cobra Gold, which explains their busyness and troop movements as benign.
For a day Thailand’s political future looked exciting.
Sawai Chinawong reminded his friends this week that his painting “The Finding of Moses” was one of four Asian works of art on display in 2007 in the Museum of Biblical Art, housed in the American Bible Society building in New York City. This museum closed in June 2015 when the Bible Society moved to Philadelphia. Sawai’s reminder has prompted me to reminisce about 40 years of acquaintance with him.
Sawai is the most accomplished Thai Christian contemporary artist, and probably the most prolific in the 400 year history of Christians in Siam / Thailand. He is best known for (and in my opinion best at) rendering Biblical and theological concepts in classical Thai media.
The comments below are in reference to the pictures attached above.
1. “The Finding of Moses” is one of Sawai’s signature works, utilizing classical Thai temple fresco style to tell a religious story. He made scores of paintings in this style. [See a blog essay about Sawai’s biblical paintings: www.kendobson.asia/blog/jesus-is-thai. The painting of the nativity in that blog is found in Christ For All People: Celebrating a World of Christian Art, edited by Ron O’Grady, 2001 co-published by Pace Publishing, Orbis Books, Novalis, and WCC Publications, p. 43.]
2. Sawai at work a year ago: this is a photo from his Facebook pages, as are most of the pictures in this photo essay.
3. Sawai attended the Thailand Theological Seminary in the 1970s and 80s after he escaped from the cult of the “Moonies”. Before coming to the seminary he had finished a course of study in commercial art. Seminary was a place of safety and also intellectual liberation and stimulation for him. The seminary became part of Payap College during that time. His classmates are now prominent pastors and church leaders.
4. Sawai is standing beside one of his paintings on display during a Christian conference at the Phukham Hotel in Chiang Mai the week after Christmas, 2017. His pictures have been exhibited at many conferences and assemblies. One major exhibit, however, at a General Assembly of the Church of Christ in Thailand in the 1990s was cancelled when the organizers reverted to type and became afraid that the Crown Princess might, possibly, somehow frown on Christian appropriation of Thai art forms when she attended the opening of the assembly.
5. “Day and Night” is one of his Days of Creation series. It is unmistakably Thai, through the use of elaborate, elongated S shapes and other traditional design forms. Sawai also produced numerous complex abstract designs incorporating Christian symbols in brilliant acrylic colors.
6. For several years Sawai was employed as artist in residence by Payap University and had an office in the McGilvary College of Divinity. Toward the end of that time he designed a number of sculptures made of terra-cotta, recycled material, metal letters and tubing. In the center of the Mae Kao Campus is his dove of peace that students and faculty on the main campus see every day. It is right across the street from the university’s International Peace Park which contains another of Sawai’s works.
7. For more than a decade Sawai labored to produce biblical illustrations using Thai design techniques and symbolism. Most of the Gospel stories were rendered, along with popular stories from the Old Testament. The Rev. Marcy Punnett was a sponsor of several of these paintings (as were the Rev. William J. Yoder and I). Marcy’s idea was to collect them and donate his collection to the university, but when he died without having officially done that the ones he had stored in his house were stolen.
8. His “Madonna and Child” is a mosaic hanging in the Church of the Assumption in Israel. It is one of many that were purchased or commissioned for churches and religious institutions. Understandably, his paintings tend to be found overseas in collections where the theme is Christian art from around the world.
9. When the new seminary building was constructed [see blog: www.kendobson.asia/blog/thailand-theological-seminary] in 1990, Bill Yoder was both dean of the (then called) McGilvary Faculty of Theology of Payap University and the coordinator of construction. He commissioned Sawai to provide art and designs for the Hamlin Chapel and the main lobby. Sawai designed 3 floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows, and a band of symbolic fresco paintings, as well as interior and side windows. This established him as a professional artist and led to the main period of his artistic career. This picture of a recent ceremony honoring elders related to the seminary (Bill Yoder is 7th from the left in a white shirt) is the best I can find to show Sawai’s windows.
Sawai Chinnawong is, even now, considered one of the minor characters in Thai Christianity. He has been under-appreciated by one generation of leaders after another, but it is a demonstrable fact that history remembers its best artists better than most of the religious and political personalities who were their contemporaries. I predict that Sawai’s art is what will be remembered from these four decades while all the sermons and speeches of the same time will be quite forgotten. It will be Sawai’s art, in fact, that will be analyzed 200 years from now to see what the Thai church was about.
A MATH DISCOVERY
On the day before the Chinese New Year Eakalak Wassanapong was counting on his fingers while the rest of his class was using calculator apps on their cell phones to complete a set of math problems. Actually Eak had finished the assignment and was returning to his own problem that fascinated him since his grandfather had informed him that tomorrow was to be a very special day for Eak. He was going to be 12 years old on the very day the Chinese year of the Pig started. It was his first 12-year cycle anniversary. He had been born in the year of the Pig. He wanted to see what happened when he counted in cycles using 12 digits. He was imagining he had 12 fingers as he tapped the numbers, counting in his mind, “1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1.” That was both one whole cycle as well as the first number of a second cycle. He had been working on this for more than a week. He imagined there were 12 holes on a bamboo flute as he counted from the top to the bottom and back. His right thumb was on hole number one. He thought to himself that was not as remarkable as the fact that if he counted from 1 to 13 and back to 1 using those 12 holes to keep track, he had to make 11 cycles to get back to the place where his right thumb was over the hole again counted as number one. What’s more, if he counted to 14 and back, it also took 11 cycles to come to his thumb in number-one position. If he counted to 15 and back, it took 11 cycles as well. In fact, every number from 13 to 22 took 11 cycles to get back to his right thumb on the first hole counting as 1. There were 11 numbers between 13 and 22, and each one took 11 cycles to get back to number one under his right thumb as he imagined. Numbers 12 and 23 took only one cycle. Eak was amazed at this.
Eak was a bit excited. He had begun this investigation imagining his flute had 4 holes. The holes were numbered in his imagination as 1 2 3 and 4. If he began with his first finger on hole number one and counted to 4, his little finger was on hole 4, and then back to one where he’d started. That was one cycle. But if he counted to 5 using the 4 holes, he had to make 3 revolutions to get to the point where one was his first finger again. If he counted to 6 and back it also took 3 revolutions counting 1 2 3 4 5 6 5 4 3 2 1, going back and forth over the 4 holes, to get to the place where number 1 was his first finger on the first hole. Counting to 7 and back was one cycle. Counting to 8 and 9 took 3 cycles each. The pattern was 1 3 3, 1 3 3 over and over for a flute with 4 holes.
If the flute had 6 holes the pattern was 1 5 5 5 5: one cycle from one to six and back, and then it took 5 revolutions if he counted from 1 to 7 and back, and also 5 revolutions each to count to 8, and to 9.
During the month or so he had discovered that there was a pattern. If the flute had an even number of holes, 4, 6, 8, 12, and probably 14, 16, 18, the pattern was one cycle followed by an odd number of cycles that was one less than the number of holes. For 4 holes the pattern was 1, 3, 3 over and over. For 6 holes the pattern was 1, 5, 5, 5, 5 over and over.
Eak was now sure that the pattern for 24 would be 1 cycle of 1 to 24 and back to 1, followed by 22 cycles of 23 revolutions to get back to number 1 being on the first hole of the flute.
He had also discovered that when the number of holes was odd, the number of repetitions was not identical, but it was symmetrical and repetitious. If there were 5 holes in the flute, the pattern was 1 4 2 4. So, it took just 1 repetition of 1 to 5 and back to his thumb over the first hole as number 1. It took 4 repetitions counting 1 to 6 to get back to his thumb on the first hole as number 1. It took 2 repetitions to count from 1 to 7 and back and 4 repetitions to count from 1 to 8 and back on a five-hole flute. Then the pattern repeated, endlessly, 1, 4, 2, 4, over and over.
But when there were 10 imaginary holes, the pattern was asymmetrical. Decimal numbers were exceptional. The pattern was 1 9 9 3 9 9 3 9 9. Eak had a feeling that this fact was important, but he didn’t spent effort wondering how it made counting based on other numbers useful. In a couple of years he’d be astounded at the uses of the number 9.
Eak did not spend much time wondering what use this discovery might have. Even at age 12 he knew that the fact this pattern exists meant that it expressed something basic about the structure of reality. That was enough for this special New Year’s Day and birthday.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.