“Students denied right to dress according to gender identity; petition National Human Rights Commission” thundered a headline on an LGBT news website from the July 17, 2019 edition of Prachatai English. The article attracted the attention of all of us who are concerned about SOGI rights, but it grabbed me even more because the students are in the university where I have worked for decades.
In summary the article reported that the students from the Faculty of Pharmacy of Payap University have been helped by Sirisak Chaited a prominent LGBT activist (who graduated from Payap University) to appeal a decision by the deans of Payap which denied the petition of each of the students to wear clothing indicating a different sex from the one on their national identity cards and university documents. The reason given is that “presenting as transgender is not appropriate in their discipline.” The article then notes that previous cases like this have been brought to the National Human Rights Commission and resolved when NHRC representatives visited the universities. Sirisak, the article said, hopes for a similar outcome, namely a change in university policy. The news article then mentions that this sort of discrimination is widespread in faculties of education and health sciences.
I have background as an administrator of universities in Thailand, and I have sat in discussions about this very issue of uniforms. I would like to suggest that it is not entirely in the university’s hands. In fact, a large number of matters are no longer entirely up to academic instructors and university administrations.
Universities have to be concerned about what happens to graduates. If they are going to be hired to be nurses or teachers, lawyers or engineers, physicians or diplomats the first thing after graduation is that they have to pass professional examinations. Prior to that, professional associations certify the education they have received, including clinical practice and the like. For those associations, appearance and capability both count toward the sort of pride and professionalism the associations aspire to maintain. As stipulated by those associations, universities require a variety of uniforms for students in classrooms, in labs, as beginners on site for practice, and as advanced practitioners. Those costumes are gender-specific although that changes over time (both male and female surgical nurses now wear the same garb, for example). Uniforms presumably conform to professional standards. But gender only matters for certain categories of students. All music students would dress according to plan for a concert, but a trans student could decide between a tuxedo or a long black dress. A student nurse does not have that freedom. That’s where the Human Rights Commission comes in.
As commencement time approaches the issue comes up again. For students in all departments the commencement ceremony is a major event. Two factors impact whether trans students can wear clothing of their choice. If a member of the Thai Royal Family is presiding at the commencement the stakes are higher. When a member of royalty hands over the diploma as the student’s name is announced it implies a royal validation of the person and the person's achievement. Even when someone else is presenting the diplomas, the list of graduates for every academic degree is approved by the Office of the Higher Education Commission (OHEC) of the Ministry of Education, and the name on the diploma must be exactly the same as on the list approved. Those lists still say "Nai" "Nang" and "Nang Sao" (Mr., Mrs., and Miss). In fact, the name must be exactly the same on all documents, and must be the same as on the student’s National Identity Card.
I have attended commencements, however, where the title prefixes were dropped, and only the given name and surname were announced (e.g. the picture above). In those cases the students decided whether to wear skirts or trousers. Perhaps Payap will do that, too. Our percentage of transgender and ambiguous students is substantial.
What needs to happen is for OHEC to drop the use of gender indicators and just use personal names on their lists and diplomas. It would be made much easier, as Sirisak said, if the government were to make it clear that gender rights are extended to all citizens as government policy and national law. No university wants to have its graduates invalidated by some government agent because of a technicality. An official policy would clarify this and help everybody feel safer. It remains to be seen whether the newly formed Thai Parliament will address this issue.
It has before it the related issue of same-sex civil partnerships.
This is not all about letting students express themselves. The issue is about understanding that identifying one’s gender is a matter of discernment of what’s real and not merely a matter of choosing items of clothing. At root this is an issue of human rights and how Thailand will dare to be inclusive. External regulations, whether by institutions, associations, or political entities, are always matters of choice between letting individuals decide or deciding for them.
[Note regarding the picture above: Maa graduated from her university wearing female attire, as she had throughout her bachelor’s degree program. Through high school this had not been possible. She considers college as her transition into authenticity.]
ESSAY 2 ON SOCIAL ORDER
The “American Revolution” was fought over John Locke’s concept of the social contract that exists between the governor and the governed. Thomas Jefferson enunciated this most famously in the American Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Locke and then Rousseau argued that people assent to be governed, that is to relinquish a certain amount of freedom in order to secure particular benefits, among which is an orderly society in which people can achieve their aspiration to the best of their ability and circumstances. It is the right of people to choose their form of government, these Enlightenment-era philosophers argued. They opposed the current concept that “Kings rule by Divine Right.” That is, that kings are appointed to their role by God.
In non-European courts something akin to Divine Right was incorporated into the foundational concept. In Thailand, for example, there is a subtle but important lineage traced back through history to the mythic origins of the universe. The King is a minor divinity as of his coronation.
Locke and Jefferson argued that there is nothing divine or natural about one form of government over another, and they can be replaced by the will of the people. It was the will of the people of the thirteen British Colonies to replace monarchical government with that of a federation of democratic republics (although the extent of federation was yet another difficult matter to be ironed out).
His Majesty the King, Rama IX, reiterated (in one case specifically to educate his family) that Thailand is a constitutional monarchy in which the King is under the law along with everyone else. One of the less-prominently mentioned changes that have come following the ascendency of King Rama X is to revise the constitution and functions of the King to be unassailable, no longer theoretically reigning at the will of the people, but in response to the need for firm institutions.
One basic contentious issue is whether people can legitimately choose to have a totalitarian form of government wherein personal freedoms are largely eliminated. That is the extreme on the right, so to speak. Those who would argue that such a form cannot be legitimate contend that it is both illusory in its self-justification and inevitably catastrophic in its outcome. On the other hand, such a form arises when a sufficiently large percentage of a population encourages or at least allows it to happen. The need for this group to suppress opposition through intimidation and force is considered expedient by those who support the totalitarian regime, and is considered proof of the illegitimacy of the regime by those who oppose it. Opponents think they take the high ground by pointing out that when personal freedoms are eliminated, the right to express opinions and agitate for a new social contract are among the rights that are lost. That automatically cancels the social contract.
To be blunt, there is no contract when only one party is consulted. If a point comes where the voice of any party to the contract is silenced, the contract is null and void.
Many of us have noticed that we are still engaged in what Lincoln called a great civil war testing whether the USA or any nation can survive that was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal. The form of battle has evolved from armed slaughter to civil protests and from issues of physical enslavement to matters of equal access to the benefits of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But full achievement of lofty hopes is still beyond reach. In fact, we are still trying to establish how to carry on the battle. Are votes so totally manipulated as to be an impossible way for the people to reassert their voice? From time to time the results from elections and legislation are so frustrating that mass demonstrations are resorted to, and when those also fail armed violence is the next step.
The list of countries where these cycles of peace and violence are repeated includes almost every country in existence. The dynamic seems to be movement from decentralized social order into more rigid and centralized order, presumably in response to some threat. As central authority grows more powerful, balancing forces are weakened or delegitimized. Eventually “the people” decide to re-describe “who we are” and re-draw the political borders and how to defend them. All of this is assumed in the prevailing social contract.
An individual’s emotional preference does not essentially count, nor does one’s active protest dissolve the contract. But the collective will of the people to be governed counts for everything in a democracy (of whatever type), although not at all in an oligarchy (whether monarchical, militaristic, or economic). In Jefferson’s time in colonial America, at the time of the Thai Democracy Revolution against the monarchy in 1932, at the time of the Communist Revolution in Russia in 1917, and throughout the Freedom Movement of India against Great Britain, to name but 4, the issue has always been the right of the people to re-describe themselves and to choose how to limit their absolute freedom in order to secure a necessary amount of order.
Blessed are you when your government is not too big and not too little, but just right.
[The first essay in this series was published on June 5 entitled “Social Bond”. The next essay in about a month will be on “Social Ethics” and how society uses moral order to control people.]
50 years ago this week the now-famous Stonewall riots were erupting in New York City after police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay venue in the Greenwich Village. 50 years is a long time. It has been long enough to move me from “oblivious” to “activist”.
I may have been traveling from Thailand to New York City at the time, going through Cairo and Rome. That may be why I did not hear a word about the riots. There is no explanation, however, about why we did not hear about them when we arrived in NYC and stayed in Morningside Heights for 3 days at the end of June to visit mission headquarters at 475 Riverside Drive. I was oblivious.
1968-9 was a time of violent protests following the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy: Watts, Washington DC, Chicago, Paris, Chicago again, Berkeley, Columbus University. Those were massive insurrections against the establishment. Stonewall was small. Stonewall was also by and about being gay, while the “real issue” was civil rights for African-Americans.
Still, I have been pondering why I missed noticing the one violent event that set in motion a movement that changed my life. I think I have a handle on my personal trajectory of discovery.
1965 – I tried to find the best resources on homosexuality, and they all declared that it was a complex matter of choices. Diversion was the best response to those urges.
1967 – I realized in a blinding moment I was powerless over the urges, which “would destroy my career, my reputation, and my future” if I did not take the “only effective deterrent action” and get married.
1973 – The Presbyterian Church and medical societies began to publish studies that altered the view that homosexuality is a mental illness.
1990 – I found solid scientific confirmation of the view that being gay is not a matter of choice. At the same time none of the therapies had worked, not “prayer and fasting,” counseling, a 12-step program, nor any of several others.
2000 – I was put on a new track, not heteronormative, but not radical. It didn’t work. I entered a relationship with a gay man. That worked.
2003 – I “came out” as Kinsey 5, bi-gay, but decided I was too old and too far from the USA to fight for my job as a missionary-pastor without the Presbyterian Church yet willing to stand with me. So I began a new career as a university administrator. My opportunities for activities in the church evaporated.
2009 – My spouse and I got married in Iowa. We moved to our new home in a village in North Thailand, declared our house a safe-space for gay people to escape if needed. I began to write for a gay magazine and became active with LGBT advocacy groups.
2012 – I published a book of anecdotes and stories about gay experiences of Thai people. Pramote and I are part of the only identified gay group in our valley.
In my life I have been an enthusiastic Christian leader, a US civil rights activist, and an LGBT advocate. Two of the three at any one time are the most I have managed.
Meanwhile, since Stonewall there has been a huge change in the wider world. We can say that until Stonewall there was widespread agreement that being gay and lesbian was wrong. All over the world it was thought to be wrong and decriminalization was barely begun. How it was wrong and what to do about it were unclear.
About half-way through the half-century, opinion began to shift on the part of officials and authorities. Churches as well as governments began to come to grips with the reality that LGBT people are a valid, sustained, and significant minority. Opposition to this began to be energized.
Throughout the past 25 years LGBT presence and legitimacy has become the battleground in a world-wide culture war. That war has many fronts, but a lightning-rod drawing first fire on most fronts is something to do with us who are LGBTQIK+ … our right to be married, our right to be equal, or our right to be.
Still, that should not blind us to the fact that we have made progress. The world is immensely different since the time men rushed out of the courtroom where Oscar Wilde was being tried, to vomit in the street. Our humanity and our universal presence are widely recognized. The Pope insisted yesterday that we are people (that’s Papal progress for you). I won’t be pessimistic despite what’s going on in Russia, Kenya, or Indonesia. Killing has started again, but the opposition is losing more battles than they are winning. Their resorting to violence is a sign of their desperation, more than anything.
Pride month is ending. Some of the biggest pride events in history have taken place. More than a dozen cities had Pride Parades for the first time. India took stunning steps this year. Taiwan has legalized a form of gay marriage, the first in Asia. None of these things would have happened without Stonewall.
"What Makes Thai Buddhism So Strong," is the often over-looked participation of temple communities in community-wide celebrations and events. The most powerful ones are the deepest secrets of village temple culture. From a theological anthropologist's perspective they are secrets in that they cannot be fully explained except in mythic and symbolic terms, some of which are outside Buddhist doctrine.
The most persuasive examples of the strength of Thai Buddhist Religion here in Chiang Mai are ceremonial occasions that draw people from virtually every household in a temple community as well as a large number of people from elsewhere. Support for those events is dependable and consistent. At the same time, the rationale for the events is paradoxical, with accommodation for traditional suspicions and beliefs that have little to do with Buddhist doctrine and narrative, but have incorporated Buddhist priests and involve key Buddhist symbols and structures.
After decades of observing this, I have come to six tentative conclusions:
1.Thai Buddhists are instructed by narratives about incidents in the life of the Lord Buddha, which are re-enacted in Buddhist ceremonies in ways that edify and empower temple communities.
2.The most profound and best attended ceremonies also resonate with references to archetypes in the temple community’s collective unconscious.
3.In Thai Buddhist religious practices there is an embracing of life’s mysteries and realities along with a renunciation of them. This paradox is both mystifying and satisfying.
4.Funerals are the most frequent events to call forth community involvement, to mitigate the loss, and restore cosmic order.
5.Temples are both community gathering places, as well as axial columns in which representations of the Lord Buddha function in ways indicative of independence and dominance. That is, some structures are somehow alive and signify the Lord Buddha’s imminence.
6.The motivation to participate in events is that participation is expected and valuable, and merit is earned for oneself and can be transferred to express filial devotion.
[On July 4, 2019 from 9:30 to 11 a.m. I will provide a PAYAP PRESENTS illustrated lecture on this topic under the auspices of Payap University’s Institute of Religion Culture and Peace, in the International College building on Payap’s main Mae Kao Campus (right behind the chapel). The program is free of charge and open to the public, and you are invited to attend. Following that, a 16 page article entitled “Why Thai Buddhism Is So Strong” will be available on this website. You may request an e-copy now to be sent in July.]
We can choose what to believe about ourselves.
There come moments when we defy the boundaries in which we are cocooned. No matter how encumbered by gravity or circumstances, on occasion we soar. It does not matter as much that our flights will not last, as that they prove we are capable of astonishment. From our first weightless instant we are not defined by what we are bound to do almost all the time, but by the infinite capability we have to be astounding. The mundane does not give us meaning any more.
We can choose how to consider him.
Almost all the time he appears earthbound, poised, balanced and potential. He has amazing grace, but that is not the mode we remember. We know him little, not what are his dreams and what besides gravity he has had to overcome. But we know he can leap and for an instant fly.
We can choose to anticipate his plunge and splash or we can focus on his ecstasy.
He must have confidence that comes from knowing he can handle what comes next, but for an instant he is suffused with joy.
These are my people.
I am one of them.
James (I will call him) arrived in Thailand looking for a job and a place to live. Being a young college graduate “native speaker of English” with a willingness to integrate into an environment strange to him, he applied for a teaching position in several schools. He took the most attractive offer after wisely visiting the school and meeting his new bosses. As with any new career the learning curve was steep at first. Within a few months James reckoned he’d stay another year. Besides he’d met Oi, a colleague who taught in the same school and whose family lived nearby. During year 3, James and Oi decided on marriage. It consisted in a string-tying ceremony and wedding dinner and had no church service, which mildly perplexed James. It was just about then that James’s identity confusion began. It came into focus for him with a set of doubts about what and who he was NOT. He was not a native speaker of Thai, he was not a native of the place he was living, he was not a citizen of Thailand but an “alien” with a visa and passport, he was not sure he wanted to spend the rest of his life teaching English to children, he was not ready to be a father. On the other hand he was a husband and lover, accepted as a member of an extended family it was going to take time to get to know, a fast language learner, a successful and satisfied employee of a school with a good reputation, and he had his family’s admiration and blessing from back home. Resolution of the question of where James belonged came after year four when James realized he now belonged in two places. This understanding was greatly enhanced by the arrival of little Gai who, despite her small size, completely changed James’s life.
Refugees, migrant workers, asylum seekers, military, students, retirees, missionaries, cross-cultural married couples, adoptees, international business and industry personnel, foreign service staff, medical migrants, displaced persons, scholars, drifters, back-packers, tourists, researchers, merchants and sales personnel … what they may have in common is travel involving living apart from where they were born. A perplexing common experience is bewilderment about belonging. This can be compounded if the people around them are confused or anguished about the newcomers.
This essay reflects on ways people know they are part of a social group. I suggest it is good to remember these principles as we participate in discussions, sometimes heated unnecessarily, about who has a right to be among us, and where we have a right to be. This short series of blog-essays begins with a list of explanations about ways that social bonding happens. Note, the following definitions are not only about residency, but about membership in various types of social groups. Two more blog-essays are projected to follow, one a month.
Social membership is indicated by definition, description and designation.
Aspects of social bonding:
Physical presence – One indication that “These are my people; I am one of them,” is being physically present (e.g. resident or in attendance). Regularity and persistence reinforce this designation.
Physical presence is one of several indicators of membership in a social construction. It tends to be less deniable as time goes on. People are incorporated by longevity.
My residence in Ban Den Village tends to prove I am one of the people of this village.
A fellow from Europe built a house for his Thai family here in the village, but he is here only 2 or 3 months at a time. His identity is ambiguous for he is neither a resident nor a tourist. This does not seem to bother anyone. We all know him and have a category for him.
Emotional affinity – A sense of strong attachment and identification with a group is sometimes sufficient proof of one’s attachment and inclusion in the group. Similarly, a lack of emotional connection, especially if there is a lack of respect for the group’s values and traditions, is proof to the contrary.
One does not have to have unconditional love for everything and everyone in order to feel strongly connected. Significantly, more is needed than just psychological attraction to validate one’s belonging. Yet, without that, there is doubt about the authenticity and sustainability of one’s membership.
Our granddaughter feels so strongly attached to Thai people and culture that she would like to describe herself as Thai. She was born and grew to young adulthood in Thailand. Her passport asserts she is a United States citizen. It does not begin to tell the whole truth.
More than one ex-pat living here in Thailand fails this test of full affiliation. Profiling and stereotyping habits of speech are clues that bonding has not happened. What keeps such people here with people they neither respect nor trust must be other factors, among which are often convenience and economic privilege.
When I returned to my college alma mater it didn’t take long to realize I was a visitor rather than a member of that college society. The old buildings and pathways were familiar but the people were all new. A couple of my classmates had retained their ties to the college through visits, donations, and membership on boards, but my emotional affinity was severed. What I have left is nostalgia.
Shared endeavors – Participation in a group’s undertaking, particularly by sharing the group’s core activities regularly, is often adequate to constitute one’s link to the group.
There is no ritual to become a Northern Thai Buddhist; rather a person is a part of the temple fellowship by participating in temple events as other people are doing.
Alumni associations supposedly composed of all graduates of an academic institution are spurious unless there is actual response from alumni. The same principle applies to unincorporated villages and neighborhood associations. However, just being resident, conforming to minimal community standards (e.g. keeping weeds under control), and leaving other people alone may be sufficient to fulfill the definition of membership.
In our village there is an “onion growers’ association” comprised of only some of the onion farmers. The rest do not attend meetings or apply for benefits, so they are not members.
Genetic relationship – A major and undeniable indicator “that these are my people” is being part of the family and its associations, especially when the connection is genetic (by “blood” and DNA). Hardly anybody can be denied affiliation if the group is composed of people born into it. Therefore, being attached otherwise (as by adoption or marriage) generally involves specific rites or processes.
In fact, if people are selected for membership rather than inherit a right to it, the group generally has to specify that requirement, as Christian churches do. On the other hand, in certain religious traditions genetic issues take precedence over almost all others. It can be said, “Being born into a family (and the larger social constructs in which the family is included) prove one’s right to belong, by definition.”
Thai society is socially stratified and geographically segregated, but specified membership in groups is generally an imported concept. Examples are local Chinese Chambers of Commerce, Rotary Clubs, and the like. Attempts to form other types of associations, fraternities, and unions do not often succeed over long term in Thailand, unless there are over-riding benefits (as in the case of credit unions, military officer clubs, and golf clubs).
Sworn loyalty – The most common entryway into membership in a closed group is by making a pledge of affiliation. These oaths are formal.
Swearing loyalty and associated promises (often monetary) are control mechanisms used by groups to limit access of new members based on the group’s own perceived best interests (rather than the desires of the applicant).
In cases of citizenship, one generally needs to acquire a working knowledge of key patriotic symbols to display dedication and sincerity. It is expected that this loyalty will be strong enough that the new citizen will willingly make sacrifices equivalent to native citizens when called upon to do so.
One of the most “useful” filters of membership in “exclusive societies” is elevated membership fees. Throughout most of my time in Thailand, access to elite schools required a substantial donation along with the application form, followed by high tuition and other fees. This optimized the likelihood that children of the social elite would grow up with children similarly endowed. Exclusive clubs obstruct access by also charging exorbitant membership fees. Obviously, money is an alternative to other less concrete promises.
Legal designation – To preclude any question of validity, groups with constituted memberships and vested authority can, by various acts, designate who has rights and responsibilities of membership. Membership thus designated cannot be subsequently deprived except by the constituted group acting with the same authority. Even individual members must ordinarily take particular action to withdraw from membership.
Citizenship in a country (or a component part of a country such as a municipality), for example, is designated by law. Such laws are basically restrictive; keeping people out and limiting their prerogatives is the essential purpose. Other persons than citizens within the boundaries of a country are also subject to legal designation (i.e. as “travelers” / “non-immigrants” etc.).
One of the contentious issues of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is a general trend toward overruling local consensus by regional and national action. At the extreme, ethnic-cleansing and genocide are the result. Currently the USA is engaged in another round of authoritarian controls and restrictions of access. It is one of the bases of President Trump’s popularity with his political support group that he is building a wall, impounding alien children at the border, deporting “illegals” rather than facilitating their acquiring citizenship, and enacting surveillance never before endured except in time of declared war.
In Thailand the process of acquiring citizenship is daunting and often expensive, although recent recognition of residency over more than one generation, or pertinent genetic relationship to a Thai citizen have made it easier to acquire citizenship documents. When it was noticed that the boys trapped in the flooded cave a year ago were not Thai citizens, these provisions were called on to speed up their acquisition of citizenship and travel documents.
Community consensus – The most abstract but potent factor indicating a social bond is general agreement within the community about individuals’ affiliation.
An alien resident may be a vital part of a community if there is general agreement about that. On the other hand, some individuals remain “outsiders” despite fulfilling other requirements.
A key episode in the film “The Ugly American” shows South East Asian villagers protectively surrounding an American with whom they had bonded when a communist unit tried to abduct him. The power of community acceptance is not to be discounted, nor is it to be taken for granted. It is just as likely that aliens will be reported and abandoned when it is to the advantage of members of the community to do so. This happens routinely when tyrannical regimes attain power.
When a village treasurer “misappropriated” (i.e. stole) funds, the village consensus turned against the family, insisting they move away. To make the point, the village turned off water and electricity to their house. In other cultures, of course, such abuse of trust would be subject to legal prosecution.
Blessed are you if you have many ways of belonging where you are, and none conspire against you.
The “Game of Thrones” 8-season series produced stunningly by HBO, based on George RR Martin’s books (until the final season or two, which were scripted by the HBO producers when Martin didn’t keep up with his writing), was one of the most successful productions in TV history, and the way the story ended was one of the most controversial, eliciting a campaign with a million signatures to demand that HBO do the ending episodes over again.
Professional critics have pointed to the poor writing and rushed wrap-up as the main problems leading to viewer dissatisfaction. There were gaps in the narrative that were unfilled-in. Things happened that weren’t adequately explained. Characters that viewers cared about were abandoned.
The amazing thing for me, far away here in South East Asia, is how this entertainment industry issue assumed the stature of an important world event on a par with Trump’s impeachment, India’s election of a right-wing government, Theresa May’s resignation as Prime Minister of Great Britain, and the US-China trade war. Assuming that this TV story was at least potentially as important as the commentary about it inferred, I have tried to list the most significant criticisms of the way Game of Thrones ended:
Although I have strong views about abortion (see www.kendobson.asia/blog/abortion), this set of comments is about logical argumentation. It is probably too much to hope for consistency in a debate that is divided between whether to use logic or emotion to talk about abortion. But I think arguments in recent weeks have now gone beyond silly into the area of the seriously absurd, and here are some examples I have collected.
Every fertilized egg is a human life and to intentionally terminate its development is equivalent to murder and should be treated as such under the law. The most recent, controversial, and radical law to this effect was enacted in mid-May by Alabama, where they also declared that thousands of fertilized eggs stored in fertility centers to assist impotent couples are not to be covered by this “protection” because they are not in a woman’s uterus. The law is absurd. It cannot be both ways. Either every fertilized egg is a human life or it is not yet, and some other criteria must apply. Feminists and their allies recognize this inconsistency is to put the onus on women and to leave men free of culpability.
A detectable heartbeat is the signal for protections to begin. There are now some 20 US states that have enacted statutes to this effect. The law is absurd on two bases. First, there is no solid medical grounds to determine exactly when that heartbeat begins. Most of the laws go on to stipulate that the final date for a legal abortion would be six weeks after conception, which is before women know they are pregnant and are considering abortions. Obstetric experts say that a fetus is too undeveloped at six weeks to have a heart, and the sound is merely a flutter detectable only with highly developed equipment. A heart of any sort is never formed before eight weeks after conception. That is still before most women would begin to suspect they might be pregnant. “Detectable heartbeat” legislation is an attempt to prevent abortions.
The way to prevent abortions is to prevent pregnancies. The reasoning is simplistic: no pregnancy => no abortion. But the states and organizations who insist on this are also working to prevent accessibility to the very things that are proven to reduce the call for abortions, free access to birth control and holistic sexual health and education services. Colorado, for example, reduced abortions by 42% when those services were provided.
Abortion is sin. This makes abortion a theological matter. Numerous churches insist on this ex cathedra and additional ones teach that it is up to individuals to know it is a sin. Abortion is contrary to the unborn-child’s right to life, which (it goes without saying) has priority over the mother’s right to life. Until recently this has not been the case. Leaders in many of these same churches were active advocates of the law that legalized access to abortion and stipulated it was a matter to be left up to a pregnant woman and her physician. That law was ratified in the famous US Supreme Court Decision “Row v. Wade”. As the current Pope has pointed out, the theological issue rides on the question, “When does a person become ‘ensouled’?” For centuries this question was important in order to be able to say whether a still-born child, an un-baptized infant, or a miscarried fetus had souls. Even in Roman Catholic parishes these “un-souled” did not need funeral rites. The consensus was that the soul came with the first breath. “Soul” is a contentious biblical term that is intimately connected with “breath of life”. “Recent technology” has provided in utero images of fetuses that have swung the consensus to a belief that the tiny being seen in the ultra-sound scan can be nothing other than a tiny baby. Soul is not the issue. Common sense is convincing. But it is not theological. It sets aside theology, as “common sense” convictions always do.
A male perpetrator of rape has rights of paternity. Absurdly, this is actually part of the legislation being enacted in some states. It has the appearance of legal consistency, horrible and unconscionable as it is. Since, the argument goes, a male inseminator is a contributor to the fertilization and genetic composition of the fetus he is equivalent to the father. This gives this despicable male right to a role in the life of both the child-to-be and its mother-to-be, even though he has raped the woman, destroyed part of her life, and is subject to legal prosecution as a criminal for having done that. Recent court decisions (being challenged at the moment) have agreed that the male has the right to disagree with any termination of the pregnancy, in states that still permit abortions. I submit that this is the level of absurdity to which this whole topic has sunk.
TAIWAN AGREES TO SAME-SEX MARRIAGES
On Friday, May 17, 2019 Taiwan made history and international headlines by becoming the first country in Asia to take legislative action to establish durable partnerships for same-sex couples and have them recorded as marriages by departments of the government. Going into the legislative session it was anything but sure. The Executive Yuan had drafted a proposal with more than two dozen articles in an attempt to conform to the Council of Grand Justices’ (Supreme Court) mandate two years ago to either draft a law stipulating in what way same-sex couples could be married or on May 24, 2019 the law governing hetero-couples would automatically apply to all couples. [See our blog essay of May 31, 2017: www.kendobson.asia/blog/taiwan-wins.] Last year conservative political groups and Christian organizations proposed ways to stop this from happening, by putting it to a national referendum, not binding on the Legislative Yuan and not in conflict with the legal ruling. The people overwhelmingly rejected the idea of same sex marriages by a 2/3 majority in November 2018. That put the majority party in a bind. But with the deadline looming the executive branch of government drafted a modified plan for recognizing same sex marriages without certain rights to claim children through adoption or surrogacy. Those gaps can be fixed later, LGBT supporters told one another. Two conservative plans were also tabled for the vote on May 17. As the day wore on one after another of the articles proposed by the Executive Yuan were passed by the Legislative Yuan, including Article 4 specifically ordering governmental entities to begin “marriage registration.” More than 200 couples have applied to be married on the first day the law comes into effect. By 4 p.m. the law as a whole passed.
This makes Taiwan the first in Asia to agree to same-sex marriages.
There was celebration in the streets of Taipei as the votes were reported, where 25,000 people gathered in the cold rain to show support for the legislation being voted on inside. [Thanks to the BBC for the splendid picture, above.] International news organizations interrupted their speculation about whether the USA would start a war with Iran and how Brexit was being mishandled to tell the news.
The idea that Taiwan is a leader in progressive human rights is being noticed by people of Chinese ethnicity, especially in Hong Kong where a large minority would like to join the movement toward marriage equality, in Singapore where they want to look progressive but can’t manage to act accordingly, and China (the PRC) where they would like to keep the news about anything like this from spreading.
For this weekend, we’ll be content to say this is an important victory for human rights and a great event to have happened on IDAHOT, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. Later we’ll consider how religious pressure failed to actually have an effect in this one country, and what that might mean for other countries where small religious minorities try to wield a whip in the name of morality and retarded culture. But in the end we will have to agree that each country in Asia is its own case. The outcome in Taiwan will probably not have much effect on South Korea, Vietnam or Thailand where same-sex rights are being espoused. [See: www.kendobson.asia/blog/taiwan-or-thailand.] Religion will dominate the discussion in the Philippines and Indonesia. [See: www.kendobson.asia/blog/indonesia-moving-backwards.] Brunei scores as the worst case in Asia, even with the Sultan’s comment that they will not yet start stoning gays to death.
Note: Check out Forum Asia's succinct summary of Taiwan's struggle for same sex marriage in this short 8 minute video: "Stories of Change - LGBTI Movement in Taiwan"
The coronation of HM King Vajiralongkorn [in full: His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, Rama X] held a large portion of the Thai population fascinated last weekend, May 4-6, two and a half years after he became the tenth king of the Chakri Dynasty upon the death of his father. Extensive news coverage and tens of thousands of pictures appearing on-line have recorded what happened. [See picture 1] But I think most of the news media failed to address the deeper question, “What did the coronation accomplish?”
This essay will attempt to answer that question in three steps: (1) The mega-narrative in support of royalty, (2) specific actions in the coronation that reiterated that narrative, (3) the rationale for such an extravagant production.
THE MEGA-NARRATIVE: the Thai perspective
The world we live in was created by eons of physical and chemical processes, of course. But to discern the MEANING of the world and our place in it we resort to symbolic narratives we have inherited from ancient India. Over long centuries, sages meditated on these narratives and developed sub-narratives. One important such story that has much to say about social order is the story of Rama, the rightful king of Ayutaya, and his beloved Sita, and how their relationship was challenged by demonic Totsakan. In order to retrieve Sita, whom Totsakan had abducted, Rama had to enlist the gods and the powers of nature centered on the world mountain in the Himmapan Forest high among the mountains of eternal snow.
All rulers who would have their kingdoms prosper should follow the principles that Rama exemplified, but certain kingdoms are blessed to be heirs of the Kingdom of Ayutaya and its Divine Lord Rama, seventh avatar of Lord Vishnu. This heritage includes a treasure of sacred lore and rites.
In time the wisdom of the sages was expanded, never more importantly than by another Prince of India who was (according to Hindu narrators) another avatar of Vishnu and Rama, Gautama who became the Buddha, the Enlightened One.
It took about a thousand years from the time of the Buddha for migrating people to move among earlier natives and settle into city states in fertile valleys of mainland South East Asia. During that time the legacy and lore of Rama and Sita were passed from the Empire of King Asoka of India to the lands of Lanka and Java, and from there to the Khmer lords who built Angkor Wat and the Khmer Empire. Throughout these years Buddhist teaching and practices expanded and gradually replaced the sacrificial ceremonies of the Hindus, but the intricate links between the royal households and the Kingdom of Lord Rama were cherished. Direct blood links were unnecessary, but as long as the heritage was preserved through sacred cultic rites the succession was legitimate.
The time came when the Khmer kingdom weakened and the legacy passed to the lords of Ayuthaya, another city named for the one ruled by King Rama. Ayuthaya had previously been an important vassal of the Khmer Empire built on an island between branches of the Chao Phraya River (in the rice plains of present-day Thailand). Ayuthaya also superseded the Buddhist kingdom of Sukhothai, located still further upstream from Ayuthaya, considered the first full-fledged kingdom of the Thai (Tai) people. For nearly 400 years the kings of Ayuthaya kept the religion of the Lord Buddha strong, and also the culture of the Khmer court. Kings of Ayuthaya maintained the literary heritage, arts, and esoteric mysteries extending all the way back to Lord Rama, and beyond that to the mythic world mountain, the center of creation.
In 1767 Ayuthaya was sacked by the Burman armies of Ava. Rather than continuing to hold onto Ayuthaya and its vassal city-states, however, the Burmese turned their attention to an expected invasion from China, and then were taken over in two phases by the British. So, in a very short time, the defeated people of Siam reorganized and built a new capitol city (first in Thonburi and then across the river in Bangkok, on Rattanakosin Island) as the successor to Ayuthaya and Angkor.
Insofar as possible, all the wisdom, language, rites, and royal protocols of Ayuthaya and Angkor were maintained, despite the disastrous loss of written records when the libraries of Ayuthaya burned. The most important of the old court customs had to do with the birth, coronation, and death of the kings, in order to preserve the chain of royal succession back to the dawn of creation.
CORONATIONS PRESERVE THE HERITAGE
The birth of an heir to the throne of Thailand is potentially a connection to the divine Rama and his divine ancestors. It is, in fact, the coronation of the king that ratifies that connection and validates the king’s legitimacy. Although King Vajiralongkorn became King immediately upon the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, on October 13, 2016, in mythic terms his reign was tentative until his coronation. One set of rites enacted that connection.
On the first morning of three days of coronation events, the King took a bath. This purification ritual signified his participation in the divinity inherited from Rama and Vishnu. First, clad in a white bathing robe with one shoulder bare, the King was abluted to wash away his imperfections that might be an obstacle. [picture 2] He was also anointed with water collected from throughout the kingdom as well as (most significantly) from the sacred rivers of India which flow mythically from Mount Himmapan. [picture 3] Then he was fit to acquire the symbols of office.
In Europe a crown signifies royal status, although sometimes those are augmented by other regalia. In Thailand the regalia includes a robe made of gold thread with the King’s monogram braided throughout, a 16 pound crown [picture 4] that now has diamonds after the King’s ancestor (Rama IV) realized European crowns held jewels, and a sword said to have been rescued from lake Tonle Sap after the fall of Angkor. [picture 5] Other items of regalia have symbolic significance, including golden slippers recalling Hanuman’s worship of Rama by holding the king’s foot, a yak-hair whisk to swipe away evil, a fan and scepter, and (separately) a medallion of office to add to medals already received. These were handed to him by Brahman priests, preserving a tradition that extends back to Persian priests in the Court of Ayuthaya. Their first presentation was a gold plaque inscribed with the King’s astrological reading. The King received each of these items while seated on a throne reserved for ceremonies of this level of significance under a nine-tiered umbrella (for the first time, since only consecrated kings have that right).
Immediately, the King made his first declaration, “I shall continue, preserve, and build upon the royal legacy and shall reign with righteousness for the benefit and happiness of the people forever." [picture 6] This will be remembered and repeated as a sacred promise about his duties.
Buddhist ceremonies followed, scattered over all three days, including the King’s second declaration in office, to be the protector of Buddhism in Thailand, made in the Chapel of the Emerald Buddha. [picture 7] The chapel and the chapel compound, which are part of the Grand Palace, actually symbolize both the Buddhist legacy and its mythic precursors. The King listened to the Buddhist Supreme Patriarch chant a sermon outlining 11 precepts for a righteous king to follow.
The first day ended with a ceremonious move into the Royal Suite of the Grand Palace, which he will occupy with his new (fourth) wife of three days, whom he married and proclaimed Queen. [picture 8] Throughout the coronation this marriage reflects the final chapters of the Ramayana story, wherein Rama and Sita are reunited to rule Ayutaya. A king may reign in Thailand without being married (Rama VI married late), but the symbolism of the Rama narrative is incomplete without a queen. [picture 9]
The second day began with visits by all members of the royal family, [picture 10] although the King’s Mother, Dowager Queen Sirikit was unable to attend and the King’s youngest sister is also seriously ill as is his first wife [see picture 24] (although both of them made brief appearances). Later in the day the public at large was treated to a grand spectacle in which HM the King was carried on a palanquin to various temples and past important places in the heart of Rattanakosin Island. [pictures 11, 12, 13] Symbolically, this was to impress on the population that they had a new sovereign. The procession included military units garbed in uniforms of various eras of the Chakri Dynasty. In the background cannons were firing throughout the celebrations. [picture 14]
The main coronation event of the third day was an appearance on a balcony of the Grand Palace [picture 15] to be seen and heard by a massed assembly of the people. [picture 16] Audiences were held in which delegations presented gifts and assurances of loyalty, including leaders of all the non-Buddhist religions in the country. [picture 17]
WHAT THE CORONATION ACCOMPLISHED
1.The coronation completed the traditional consecration of the King. A key event was his being presented with a 9-tiered umbrella by his Brahman priests. Only consecrated kings are allowed a 9-tiered umbrella. [picture 18]
2.The ablution with water from all 76 provinces of Thailand, administered by a Buddhist monk [picture 19] and poured by the King himself in a pavilion from which women were excluded, together with anointing with water from the sacred rivers of India whose headwaters are high in the Himalayas where the mythic Himmapan Forest and seven seas originated, was the sacramental way of elevating the King to the symbolic status of a demigod.
3.The coronation events reasserted the power of unity between the three primary institutions that support Thai culture: the monarchy, the Buddhist religion, and the Thai state (including all the civil, political and military apparatus). [picture 20] It is an important trope that all Thai people are loyal to those three institutions, without which Thai culture would cease to exist. In fact, it is occasions like this that reinforce the concept and make it as real as it is.
4.Similarly, the elaborate coronation events, extensively televised and with public participation, were meant to demonstrate the loyalty of Thai people, and especially their love of the Royal Family and devotion to the King. [picture 21] It goes without saying that this is also meant to counter rumors of public disaffection. In fact, the massive show of people attending the spectacles of the coronation showed a more complete picture of the King whose absences from Thailand have been extensive, and created a wave of appreciation for him.
5.The coronation, requiring the painstaking work of countless experts, coordinated to the last detail, signified that the Palace is still the guardian of Thailand’s sacred cultural traditions. It strongly implies that the Palace knows best when it comes to issues related to royalty and cultic state practices, as well as the controversial lèse-majesté laws prohibiting criticism of Thai Royalty. [picture 22]
6.The nationwide effort to support the coronation, including especially the heightened need for security and demands put on all civil organizations, gave the government the opportunity to show its effectiveness, and coincidentally justified effort which had effects on such diverse functions as the national election (delay of publishing election results) and traffic (streets closed in the heart of Bangkok). [picture 23]
7. Actually, the less official aspects of the coronation as conveyed on the media, including the social media in which members of the Royal Family participated, clarified the status of each and every member of the Royal Family. [picture 24] I believe observers were relieved to see rumors of conflict dispelled.
8.The coronation, displayed Thailand as a major unique culture. In comparison to other nations, including those with monarchs, Thailand’s way of doing such spectacular events and the rich culture behind it is unrivaled. [picture 25] The question, “Why spend so much money on an event like this?” is never raised by most Thai people. Such splendor is a matter of great pride. The publicity value alone, from the government’s point of view, is priceless.
9.To this list of accomplishments, it must be added that the coronation reiterated that the Royal Family is the paragon of the social elite in Thailand. It was very important, and not widely seen, that the social and political elite were rewarded with a whole range of favors during this three-day schedule of events.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.