A Bangkok Post article this week reported that another 60 students of Christian University in Thailand are demanding return of their tuition in the wake of the university’s failure to work out an agreement with the national nursing council to allow the nursing student graduates to take the national examination to be registered nurses. The council has been demanding that the university either hire more staff teachers who can be clinical nurse supervisors, or reduce the number of students in the program so that the 1 to 6 ratio set by the council is achieved. Up to this year, however, the council has allowed CUT graduates to take the exam and be employed. When the council refused to allow this year’s graduates to take the exam, insisting they were unqualified due to the substandard courses they had taken, 2 of those disqualified students sued the university for refund of their tuition. The case is pending a decision. Meanwhile, the university has complied with the nursing council by notifying students that they will need to register for other courses or transfer to nursing programs in other institutions. The 60 students claim this is going to cost them a year, since the new academic year is already underway and transfers are impossible. They want their money back. I understand that the bachelor’s degree in nursing will not be accepting new students for two years while the university reorganizes. One of the reorganizing actions being undertaken by Board of Trustees of the university is a top to bottom review of the university’s structure and personnel. A new president is set to take office on Wednesday, replacing the current president who has been in that position for more than 30 years, longer than any other current head of an institution of higher education in the Association of Christian Colleges and Universities in Asia, and possibly longer than any other head in Thailand.
This crisis has been brewing for a long time. For years Christian University of Thailand was one of the premiere schools of nursing in the country. It was located inside Bangkok Christian Hospital and had one program and one purpose, to supply the hospital with nurses. After ten years, just before the Asian financial collapse in 1997, the board decided it was time to expand. From the beginning of Christian College it had been the dream to have the college become the second of four universities, following Payap University in the north. Land was secured just outside the metropolitan growth area, within which a hundred rai (about 40 acres) needed for a university according to the Ministry of Education, would be impossibly expensive. Farmland was purchased in Nakhon Pathom province and construction began. In addition to sufficient land, the Ministry of Education guidelines for qualifying as a university specified that the institution must have 4 faculties. So Christian College moved into the countryside and began to build additional programs with courses of study that might attract sufficient enrollment to become viable. It was a heady time to work at Christian College. Things were popping. [Pictures accompanying this essay are from that time.] The college became a full-fledged university in 2001 with the Crown Princess opening the university formally a year later. The most successful new ventures over the next 5 years or so were the programs in Business Administration, and a Master’s degree in nursing management. The university also tried 15 or 20 different majors including, Hotel and Tourism, Restaurant Management, English, Physical Therapy, Multi-media, Mass Communication, and a PhD program in administration. Some of them thrived, some survived, and some basically succumbed to competition from other institutions. But the bachelor’s degree in nursing was the university’s largest program and the university’s “bread and butter” or “curry pot” to use the president’s favorite phrase for it. Nearly a third of the student body were undergraduate nursing students, some years it was more than half.
At the time Christian College moved to Nakhon Pathom in 1998-9 it was the only private institution of higher education between Bangkok and the southern border more than a thousand kilometers away. Quickly, however, both public and private institutions moved in. The government itself opened the flood-gate for higher education expansion beginning with the decision to allow every one of the 40 teachers colleges to expand into full-fledged universities offering whatever programs they wanted. Overnight the number of government universities in Thailand nearly doubled. Almost all the private institutions of higher education were privately owned and for-profit. Of the non-profit institutions, I believe Assumption University is the largest, Payap University was the first, and there are less than a handful of others. Meanwhile, demographics were falling as birthrates in Thailand declined from an average of 4 children per couple who had children, to the present rate of less than 1.5. That birthrate means that today’s high school graduates are nearly half as many as there were when their parents were their age. This year the tipping point has come and the situation is becoming acute. To put it succinctly, there are twice as many places available nationwide for incoming freshmen university students as there are applicants. One dream after another for filling the classrooms has faded. It was expected that the ASEAN Accords would open doors for great influxes of students from neighboring countries, but ASEAN has disappeared. The doors for migration remain closed. Economic disparity keeps them closed. China was another great expectation that has had to negotiate the treacherous passage between language and cultural differences on the one side and recruitment obstacles on the other. One calamity that has not yet happened is the invasion of big-name universities into Thailand to set up satellite campuses and draw students to such as Oxford University in Thailand, or Harvard University – Bangkok Branch. Apparently, those institutions know better than to build where there are few students who can afford tuition and fees that are ten times higher than local costs, and where the students who can afford it want to just go to England or the USA.
Let’s cut to the chase. What now?
CUT will have to cut its financial losses. It is too soon to say how they plan to do that. The new administration takes over next week. We’ll see what they negotiate with those unhappy students and graduates. Worst case scenario is that the tuition refund demands will mount to tens of millions of dollars, beyond any possibility of payment. In that case CUT will be cut. The Foundation of the Church of Christ in Thailand will have to cut costs to make the pay-out and figure out what to do with its bankrupt campus. It will probably not come to that. But the long-term prospects for both church-owned universities, Payap and CUT, are grim. Both institutions are growing smaller fast.
What would happen here in Thailand if an international student wore a classical Thai dress to a prom, or a tourist from China was seen wearing an ethnic tribal costume she had bought in the Night Bazaar? Would the reaction be as “viral” as was the case when Kezia Daum of Salt Lake City, Utah wore a Chinese dress to her prom in April 2018 and was attacked on social media for exercising “cultural appropriation”? Some of her critics agreed (178,000 responded to this tiff on-line) that she was an example of “the embodiment of a system that empowers white people to take whatever they want, go wherever they want .…” Then the argument got nasty. But the majority was just baffled.
Cultural appropriation hit social media and mainline media like the Washington Post this spring when Bruno Mars won 3 Grammy awards for his singing in African American styles. He is the son of a Filipina mother and a father who is half Puerto Rican and half Askanazi Jew. The singer reportedly always gives credit and appreciation to his African American role models, but some critics are simply not happy with his “racial ambiguity” being used to “help him pass as Black” and “rape our cultural heritage.” Just a month ago (22 June 2018) African American outrage was again making headlines in the Philippine press and on Facebook.
There are two major issues that go back long before Kezia’s prom dress. (1) The issue of inappropriate use of sacred religious and cultural symbols out of context and in ways that are derogatory, sacrilegious, or blasphemous. (2) The issue of use of costume or conspicuous consumption to designate social status or rank.
The re-emergence of this at a time when people in western countries a couple of generations younger than me are increasingly keen about it, has got me thinking about whether Thai people are alarmed about cultural appropriation. I think Thailand definitely has boundaries that should not be crossed, although wearing a brocade Thai silk dress to a formal dance might not be one of them. [I admit to being an “outsider” on this matter, even though I have been hired by the Thai Culture Ministry in the past and know my way to the 14th floor of their office tower in Bangkok, and I covet my reputation as a theological anthropologist. The following is, therefore, tentative. Consider it an invitation for discussion.]
Boundaries not to be crossed as established by law:
Boundaries not to be crossed without risk of negative consequences:
Boundaries that have disappeared or been greatly reduced:
Boundaries that never were more than identity indicators:
What these lists show, I think, is that while there is cultural freedom there are rules and customs with regard to culture. They are designed to preserve the “three pillars” of Thai culture: religion, King and country. Religion is about the preservation of holy space where divine-human encounters occur. King, and by extension all royal family members and their ancestors, is about preservation of the space where divine-human encounters are expanded to include the whole culture and around which society is organized hierarchically. Country is about preserving the functioning of factors of livelihood for the benefit of all with the effect that everyone cooperates in those endeavors that are for the general well-being.
In other words, Thai people are not overly concerned about restricting access to unique aspects of Thai culture. The prevailing attitude is pride that such things as Thai silk, Thai food, and Thai boxing are popular around the world. Alarm signals ring only when it is suspected that Thai cultural identity is being threatened through an erosion of dedication to one of the three cultural pillars. The danger is that Thai people will no longer know who they are.
So far that is not felt to be a serious threat.
Popular western culture imported by such powerful conveyances as Hollywood movies, are hardly ever targeted by Thai culture monitors, unless the movies refer to Thailand directly. But Thai movies are scrutinized to insure that the public is being appropriately informed about Thai culture and values.
I believe, thanks to discussion about Kezia Daum and her Chinese cheongsam worn to a prom, that one big difference between Thailand and many other countries these days is that so far Thailand lacks a “victim culture” attitude. In the words of one interpreter of moral culture, One of the key components of victimhood culture is its projection of collective guilt, social offenses between individuals are no longer about the actual people involved, they are about “one social group harming another.” Thailand, in some ways, feels pushed around and bullied but the country is not yet widely affected by the concern that there is one social group trying to harm another.
However, there are danger signs.
The other day I was transporting a carload of Buddhist abbots. Their conversation was about how Islamists [sic, not Islamic fundamentalists] are trying to undermine Buddhism through slanderous accusations of widespread financial corruption. The idea that Buddhism is under attack is not far from the notion that good Buddhists are in danger of being victims. It is extremely significant, I take it, that this sense of victimization has not fully developed, yet.
More pervasive is the belief that there is a privileged elite social group who live mostly in Bangkok and who are trying (successfully and ruthlessly) to harm the agrarian social sector who live everywhere else. These two groups are being held apart, like two gangs on the school playground, by the military – so the military peace and order council says. To most observers, it seems that the military are highly partial to the privileged elite and also have no concern for the rest of the country. But neither group has managed, yet, to morph their grievances into a full-blown sense of victimization.
So, for the time being, the political-economic tension that has gripped Thailand for decades has not escalated into a culture war.
[Thanks for permission to use the pictures on this blog to granddaughter Siree McRady who feels completely Thai when she dresses to perform Thai dances in Tennessee, and when she used Thai cloth (with a bodice from India) to make her prom dress.]
The Jakarta headline today (July 14, 2018) reads GAY COUPLE CANED IN ACEH. The article begins: “Two Aceh residents, Nyakrab bin Bumin and Muhammad Rustam bin Ramazhan, were publicly caned in Aceh on Friday for being in a same-sex relationship. The gay couple’s caning was held in the yard of the Baiturrahim Ule Lheue Mosque, Banda Aceh, after Friday prayers.” In another article it was reported they had been found by a vigilante group in a “beauty parlor”. That was their sexual transgression. They were thus “found guilty of violating Aceh jimayat’s (Islamic criminal law) Article 63 (1),” said The Jakarta Post. The caning was attended by a thousand spectators who shouted encouragement to “cane them harder.” Following an international outcry after the caning of 2 homosexuals a year ago, it had been declared that there would be no more public canings but that was ignored.
Since the beginning of 2016, LGBT life in Indonesia has been rapidly deteriorating as Islamic fundamentalism moves into the driver’s seat to restore Indonesian national pride.
The longer story came to my attention just yesterday when I was handed a copy of a very carefully documented 65 page report by Professor Douglas Sanders, Professor Emeritus, Faculty of Law, University of British Columbia. His report is entitled Indonesia: Stormy Days for LGBT. It was written in December 2016 after a yearlong “unprecedented flood of homophobic statements from Indonesian cabinet ministers … that began early in 2016 … started, it seemed, with statements by the Minister of Technology, Research and Higher Education ….” The Minister was enraged that the University of Indonesia was allowing an unofficial Support Group and Resource Center on Sexuality Studies to have ties to the university.
A year and a half after Sanders’s report, the Aceh atrocity shows that things have not improved. Aceh is an autonomous province, and the only one that uses Sharia Law as civil law. Sanders documents how other areas are heading down the same path as Banda Aceh. Although the deterioration of the situation in Indonesia may not have been as fast as Sanders expected, it continues. Sanders describes how space for LGBT people is being narrowed. It is no longer possible to even talk openly about what it means to be “Gay-Lesbi” or to publish anything that might get into the hands of children “and turn them gay”. Advocacy is against the law almost everywhere now, with intimidation sanctioned by local officials as well as mobs. International conferences have been blocked or cut off in the middle of their sessions, and film festivals in embassies have been cancelled “in the interest of public safety.” Even closed support groups are being targeted.
In contrast to most other modern countries, Indonesia is preparing to require therapy for anyone who is found to be gay or lesbian. If they are found to have actually committed same-sex acts or to be living a gay lifestyle, the proposed punishments could be imprisonment or death.
What is most worrying is how Indonesia has been de-secularizing its Islamic status. It is frighteningly like Israel in that regard. Once models of nominally religious nations that were secular and modern, religious zealots have made surprising progress. Sanders says this is happening in Indonesia partly because the political structure is weak after Suharto's forced resignation as a failure to keep Indonesia economically strong in 1997-8. So now vigilante groups can get away with terrorizing LGBT targets as well as religious minorities. But the drift towards Islamic fundamentalism, and fear of loss of power and status from Western pressure, have pushed politicians to back down from defenses of religious minorities and human rights of women and LGBT. Conservative Islamic parties are bolder than ever and are making gains on every stand they take. Indonesia has also joined (or is leading) the attack on LGBT as the enemy of cultural morality, both universal moral standards as well as those of Indonesia. “All religions oppose LGBT,” is a repeated trope in Indonesia to prove they are in the moral majority worldwide.
Sanders mentions that what happens with regard to LGBT rights in the USA gets a lot of attention in Indonesia. The US Supreme Court decision in favor of marriage equality was big news in Indonesia and had an impact. If that progress in the USA continues to be reversed as is happening under the Trump administration and the Republican Congress, it will further encourage the conservatives in Indonesia and around the world.
Sanders does not talk about it in this paper, but the fact that Islamic suppression of LGBT and SOGI rights is on the rise in Indonesia will have a dampening effect on the rest of the region. We cannot imagine the Philippines, with the Roman Catholic Church not on our side, coming out as defenders of Pinoy LGBT people if the Muslim population grows even more hardened, as they will as long as Malay and Indo Muslims are going that way. Here in Thailand what Indonesia does is of little concern now that ASEAN is effectually extinct, but what the Islamic South and the influential Islamic communities in the now industrialized areas near Bangkok advocate will have to be listened to when it comes to things like expanding marriage laws in any way to include LGBT couples.
One of the stories behind the story of the 13 boys in the cave is how a very strenuous effort was made to control the story. I have been fascinated to watch this story behind the story unfold.
The story of the boys in the cave we can call the MAIN STORY. It had phases including: (1) 10 days of mystery, “Where are the boys?” (2) “They are alive!” Days of agony about whether they can be gotten out of the cave still alive. (3) Rescue operation: 4 boys on Sunday, 4 more on Monday, the final 4 and the coach on Tuesday.
The main story had a life of its own. There was, from hour to hour, no telling what would happen. It was a live drama with an unpredictable outcome. The whole picture, like articles in a Zen garden, could not all be seen from any one perspective. Some key perspectives had no observers, and therefore no narrators, at all. But there were many narrators with priorities, pressures, and principles that were not necessarily internally coherent or consistent with other narrators and actors (to use a script metaphor).
Governor Narongsak was the administrative head of Chiang Rai Province when the main story began. He became the chief administrator of the search and rescue effort going on in his jurisdiction. As it happened he had been scheduled for a sideways transfer to a smaller province. It is rumored this was in retaliation for his refusal to cooperate with higher officials in matters involving a lot of obscure actions and money. However, he was retained in charge of the search and rescue; therefore, he was also the most important narrator of the main story.
The other major narrators of the unfolding story, of course, were reporters for TV networks and newspaper syndicates. There were scores of them. As the days went on, the 13 boys in the flooded cave became one of the top stories of the day and then of the year. The story stole headlines from world leaders and from the World Cup, the most watched sports event of our generation. The boys in the cave were also a soccer squad and they became the most famous juvenile soccer team in history. The 13 boys became the top story and on the front page in every country on earth.
For most of the narrators who made this happen, the pressure was immense to get a narrative together to be ready when the red light came on and they were “live from Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai, Thailand.” Gold stars were awarded for a story fragment that could rate a headline that began “Breaking News”.
At the other end of the funnel were consumers of the stories. Mostly we had one consolidated question at a time. “Will the boys be found?” “Will they be gotten out alive?” But as the main story grabbed near universal attention, we became narrators, too. We talked about what was going on and we put our thoughts into words, pictures and emoticons on the Internet. Our chatter sometimes became so intense or so interesting that it had an impact on the content of the round-the-clock flood of stories coming from inside and outside the cave and filtered through the news-desks in front of big cave maps or that picture of the trapped boys.
Some actors were not narrators. The cave rescue volunteers from Derbyshire, the medical doctor who went to live with the boys on their sand shelf, the boys themselves, and most of the thousands of volunteers and military who just worked hard, manned the pumps, directed traffic and became part of the story. They were not trying to tell the story but to do their job.
For most of the two weeks the boys had been in the cave and the week they had been big news, Governor Narongsak was a helpful, mild-mannered announcer, as far as his role as narrator was concerned. Off camera he was an actor-director, ordering and authorizing mountains of pipes and thousands of people. He was also the gate-keeper to the cave. He let in the actors and it was his role as director that shaped the rescue mission into the most international operation in Thailand since the refugee crisis 40 years ago. He had to negotiate his nations defensiveness that it is shameful to let foreigners become saviors. He also deftly handled the rich and powerful who wanted 15 seconds of fame or a little prop for their tilting political reputations.
But on Saturday he took charge of the narrative. All the reporters and their camera crews were moved away from the cave. They left protesting and dragging their feet, but they moved to a new location out of the way of what was going on in and around the cave. Big screens were put up at key points, blocking views. Security was stepped up dramatically. News media were not allowed within 200 meters of some sites. Pages of regulations were distributed. Roads were blocked by manned police barricades.
The story that the story was being controlled then threatened to become the main story. Paparazzi-type strategies were undertaken by some desperate or hopeful international reporters. They were penalized for flying their drone and trying to eavesdrop on police radio conversations. Like flying ants after the first monsoon rain, conspiracy plots were imagined and dire motives flew into every narrative from the cave that day.
It was not a good day. A volunteer diver ran out of oxygen delivering tanks under water and died. Oxygen in the cavern where boys were staying was found to be down by a quarter of normal. Pumping operations were slower than needed. Governor Narongsak was welcomed to his new job in the neighboring province, but then showed up again as director of the operations, minus the title of Governor of Chiang Rai. Rain was returning and the weather was ominous. The main story was pessimistic and turning sour. Seeking scapegoats was coming next if the “worst case scenario” played out as expected.
Governor Narongsak shifted from being announcer to being director. In that way he could partially control the narrative. The Governor said each day’s plan was reviewed and revised according to advice from his team of experts. They had a plan and they were going to do the plan, and revise it if necessary. “I’ll tell you what we’re doing,” he said. But I watched him doing a Cecil B. DeMills directing job with the story. In the calm aftermath of the rescue of the Wild Boar football squad from the bowels of the gigantic sleeping woman (as is the name of the mountain and the legend that goes with it), I have some suggestions about why the Governor did that.
The fact is that narratives can do damage and story-tellers (be they reporters or studio commentators, religious pundits, or family members) may neither realize nor care about the destruction. Reporters were here from more than a dozen countries, each one hoping to get the scoop, the award winning picture, or the angle that captured attention. That was their priority. There were millions of amateurs on-line too (I being one of them) who had different reasons for punching our keyboards and copying and pasting whatever attracted us.
It occurs to me that it is important to consider why some narratives should be controlled and why others should not be. When stories are being blocked in order to protect powerful people from the consequences of their misconduct, that is abuse of power. When stories are being controlled in order to protect those who are endangered or vulnerable from further damage, despite pressure to give narrators freedom, that is courageous of the gate-keeper.
I am willing to give the Governor credit for trying to prevent as much destructive narrative as possible. Bit by bit, as the main story seems to have ended miraculously well, we are piecing together some of the information that the Governor was getting on his frequent strategy meetings with experts in as many relevant fields as they could think of.
He heard that the boys will need to be protected from medical trouble because a couple of them have pneumonia, they are malnourished, they have vulnerable vision due to weeks in darkness, and there is likelihood of post-traumatic stress disorder that would be made worse by letting reporters get to them.
It is unsure that any of the media-control had to do with what would happen if they could not bring out some of the boys alive. Horrifying images would haunt families for generations. There would be a frantic scramble to fix blame.
Coach Eak was already being set up to be vilified. One narrative still online tells the terrifying legends of the demons and giants represented in the mountains and cave and weaves in the story of Coach Eak sending the boys in, as he had done in the past, to toughen them up. There were calls in the press for him to be charged with malfeasance and endangering the children. That was a powerful lesson, actually. Parents rushed to defend him, swearing he was a good guy who was trapped with the boys. The narrative now is that Coach Eak is the reason the boys are alive because he helped them move farther and farther to safety, and when they became stranded he kept them alive by giving up his own food and then teaching them to meditate to quell their panic. This very skill is how they managed to negotiate the escape route.
When the former Navy Seal, Saman, died trying to assist in the rescue, he was doing just exactly what the boys would have to do if they were to come out before re-flooding began after any new rain. Saman’s story, naturally, was kept from the boys. The boy’s families heard of Saman’s death as a sober notice about why the boys weren’t just being brought out straightaway.
What is sure is that some of the blockades the Governor imposed did not really have as much to do with safety as with controlling the narrative to keep it in bounds. Governor Narongsak showed again he is an accomplished director, unlike some of his contemporaries who insist on being stars with the narrative wrapped around them. Nevertheless, Narongsak is now listed by the media who hated him a week ago as one of the heroes of the main story of the year. He is being honored and his fame far outshines what’s-his-name, the boss who transferred him to little Payao Province.
There is danger when the press is controlled. But there is also danger when stories run wild and so do the story gatherers.
We have not forgotten how Princess Diana died in a tunnel 20 years, 11 months and two weeks ago.
The world is watching. 13 boys are trapped in a cave after two weeks. Every major newspaper and TV network in the world has published stories about them. The New York Post featured the drama in full front-page pictures for several days. The Pope prayed for the boys from his balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square. HRH Princess Maha Sirindorn and her brother HM the King of Thailand have been helpful in mobilizing unusual levels of cooperation. World leaders have been distracted from their manipulation of world affairs, and vast numbers of sports fans have given attention from the World Cup football spectacle, to the Wild Pig football team in the cave.
Week one – The boys went missing after a bicycle outing on a bright sunny day. Their bikes were located not far from home inside a well-known cave. Heavy rain had suddenly flooded the cave. The world held its breath while cave rescue units from several nations arrived and the Thai military dedicated unlimited equipment and personnel to locating the boys.
Week two – They were found alive and safe but weak, on day 9 by a cave rescue team from Derby England 4.6 kilometers inside the cave where they had managed to take refuge from rising water. Huge pumps were airlifted in. Miles of pipes were carried by soldiers and connected to try to lower the water level enough to get the boys out. Oil drilling equipment is also trying to reach them from above, through more than a mile of rock. Meanwhile, the boys are being supplied with survival rations and medical care by a Thai Seal team.
Week three – Just beginning. Prospects: (a) The boys will be brought out one at a time through nearly impossible conditions. (b) The boys will be sustained in there until the water level goes down at the end of the monsoon rainy season in 3 or 4 months. (c) Deluges will flood the cavern where they have taken refuge.
Like most residents of Thailand, Pramote and I have been tuned in to almost round-the-clock coverage of the drama. I want to join many commentators making observations about lessons we can learn from our arm chairs.
1. For once, there is a real-life drama going on where cynical, derisive, political voices are restrained. What a relief!
2. Amazingly, many Thai bureaucracies have laid aside their protective barriers to just do what needs to be done. It is now proven that this level of cooperation is possible.
3. The measure of a country’s moral fiber is how it responds to the urgent needs of its littlest people.
4. If authorities had been allowed to think about it, they would never have allocated funds (now well into tens of millions of baht) to rescue 13 boys.
5. The relief when the boys were found alive was one of the most emotional moments of the decade. We are not emotionally and ethically beyond help if we can care so much about little boys we have never met.
6. This event coalesces every aspect of the Thai people’s faith apparatus. (This is complicated (and deserves a separate essay) but it includes all religious authorities voicing the same hope, thousands of people working tirelessly without relying solely on divine intervention, sustaining strong human spirit against daunting natural odds, and sharing narratives that otherwise would obscure future prospects.)
Finally, I want to hear that those brave, fragile boys have been brought back out of that hole by those skillful, unselfish heroes who are dedicated to making it happen.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.