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.
The emancipation of Thai slaves in 1905 was initially a very unpopular edict, especially among the slaves themselves in Lanna, the northern region of Thailand and adjoining principalities. This inconvenient fact is never explained in textbooks and is being gradually obliterated from the national narrative for a number of reasons.
1. The standard narrative exalts the King of Thailand for doing away with slavery as it was being eliminated by his contemporaries in Europe and the Americas. The ending of slavery was a glittering example of his benevolent enlightenment and modernization.
2. It is unpopular after several decades to remember that the inclusion of the Lanna Kingdom into the Empire of Siam involved extensive cultural suppression and shifts of power into the hands of the Bangkok elite.
3. The most potent resistance to the centralization of authority came from exalted Buddhist religious leaders. This remains marginally true today in the North, and even more so in the Isan (Northeastern ethnic) region.
The official account of the freeing of slaves in Siam makes several points. (A) In the beginning of the reign of HM King Chulalongkorn in 1868 “more than 1/3 of the population were slaves” due to the fact that “it was so because there was the endless continuity of offspring slaves. They all were slaves for the rest lives. Traditionally children of slaves also became slaves.” (B) In 1900 it was decreed that slaves had to be given pay or credited for their labor at a fixed rate, the children of slaves were freed at age 21, and the value of a slave was fixed (a boy was worth about 10 baht and a girl was 8), but the enslavement was actually based on the amount of money owed to a creditor and repayment was established at the rate of not less than 1 baht a month. (C) In 1905, Royal Edict 124 “Slave Act” declared the end of the sale and resale of slaves.
Reality was a bit more complicated.
There were basically three kinds of slaves in 18th and 19th century Siam, and throughout the region. One kind was those who had been conquered in war. They were forcibly relocated to reduce their ability to continue opposing the victors. They also had certain valuable skills that were appropriated. At one time, for example, the village of Hang Dong, immediately Southwest of Chiang Mai, was a place where slaves from North Burma were resettled. They were considered valuable because they were paper-makers. They were exempted from corvee labor pools and other taxation, since they were “slaves”. In other words, their slave status was beneficial, and was resented by previous residents who were displaced and less privileged. This separate status from centuries ago still has influence in local politics today.
The second kind of slaves were called money slaves, actually คนเงิน ”money-people” and not that “slaves”. They were debtors who had defaulted on their debts and were working off their indebtedness. They had used their own person as collateral. Although they could be indebted to wealthy patrons, it was temples in the north that were the biggest money-lenders. Therefore, temples had the largest number of these slaves.
Historian Hans Penth puts this type of slavery into perspective. “Monasteries and their accumulated treasure served as banks: a person could borrow money from a monastery. Upon default he or she became a so-called money-slave … of the monastery until the debt was cleared. Being a monastery slave was better than a tax shelter: the person was exempt from taxes and also from corvee labor.” (Penth, Hans. A Brief History of Lan Na. Chiang Mai, silkworm Books, 2008. P. 118.) Being a slave offered significant protection and generally no greater travail than other serfs endured.
A third kind of slavery, Penth reports, is “honorary slavery,” “those who freely attached themselves to a certain monastery or holy place and pledged to take care of a certain part or a certain building or Buddha image, which was considered an honor. Important monasteries would have more than a hundred of these honorary slaves.” (Penth, p. 118).
All these kinds of slavery gradually ended, but not gladly. “Many of these changes were bitterly resented and even opposed, not only in Lan Na. The time-honored bondman or serf system (in the West usually called a slave system though these slaves were generally well treated, in particular in Lan Na) was an accepted social and religious institution. … With the gradual abolishment of the system the creditor felt that now he had to pay wages to a person who actually owed him money. Also for hundreds of years it had been a very meritorious act to forsake the service of one’s bondman and to present him to a Buddha image in a monastery, so he could serve the image. This great source of making merit was now closed.” (Penth, pp. 137, 138).
The King’s enlightened benevolence and role as “beloved father of the nation” has to be seen also in the context of his political struggle to consolidate power in order to present a formidable resistance to British and French colonizers. His internal adversaries were powerful clans and vassal princes whose authority and power were derived from serfdom and economic slavery. What the King was doing was to undermine the economic foundation of the system that supported opposition to centralization of power. His attack was twofold. In addition to the elimination of using persons as collateral to secure loans, the King decreed the right of ownership of land throughout the empire to the people who actually farmed the land. Area princes were no longer land-lords and masters with life-and-death authority over the people under his (or sometimes her) sovereignty. This infringement of rights was offset by two major changes in the way Siam ran. People could no longer use their persons as collateral to acquire loans, but they could use their land as collateral. The former landlords could no longer derive income from the labor of the serfs, but they could become honored employees of the King as a whole new bureaucracy was developed to oversee the country and expand its agriculture and manufacturing, as well as centralized banking.
When this shift became fully in effect, a large amount of the dissatisfaction with the end of slavery was reduced. By the 1930s, the only major resentment was on the part of religious institutions. After centuries people could no longer make great merit by turning over slaves or by becoming a slave attached to a Buddha image or temple precinct. What’s more, the entire Sangha hierarchy was being subjugated to central control under the King. Leading monks have resisted this, and continue to be the single most powerful bloc to unrestrained power by the military-royalist alliance.
On January 16 the Thailand Protestant Churches Coordinating Committee (TPCCC) issued a letter requesting every Christian church and institution in Thailand to send a letter to the committee by January 31 in which they state their opposition (or support) for the Civil Partnership provision of the proposed new constitution for Thailand. The committee will collect these letters and duplicate them to be presented to the office of the Prime Minister “and others”. The letter listed as co-signers in behalf of the TPCCC: The Church of Christ in Thailand, The Christian Fellowship of Thailand, The Baptist Foundation of Thailand, and the Foundation of the Seventh Day Adventist Mission in Thailand. It was addressed to all congregations, organizations and members of those church groups as well as those under the Roman Catholic Bishop’s Council of Thailand.
For those unfamiliar with the issue and the groups being referred to I add the following notes:
With all due respect, I suggest that the Thailand Protestant Churches Coordinating Committee reconsider their request that churches send letters of protest (or support) with regard to the Civil Partnership provision of the proposed draft constitution. The following are my reasons for suggesting the proposal is flawed:
1. Churches in Thailand have not had an opportunity to study civil partnerships from a Christian perspective because no thorough material has ever been published in Thai and no occasions have been provided for informed dialogue on this topic. It is unfair to ask churches to reply to any matter they have not studied.
2. This is a matter which many sectors of world Christianity have spent decades studying, even if churches in Thailand have not. It is clear that it cannot be responded to without extensive study. That study has led to heated debate, but a majority of churches who helped establish the Church of Christ in Thailand have concluded that civil partnerships and marriage are right and moral. There is now a large group of Christian denominations in favor of this form of marriage and family.
3. It is not easy to see any way in which the enactment of civil partnerships would have a legal impact on Christian churches in Thailand. Therefore, it must be that the churches on the TPCCC believe the issue is moral and that Christian churches should exercise a moral influence. However, the committee’s letter requests those who are highly motivated to express an opinion, not about a point of moral importance, but about a legal issue about which everyone already had a chance to express themselves when public hearings were going on.
For these reasons, I respectfully suggest that the TPCCC refrain from creating a compilation of letters to be sent to the government. If it is time for the churches to take a stand about marriage equality and family life, then it is time to establish the opportunities and materials needed to study and debate this as other churches have done. If it is too soon for churches in Thailand to do that, then it is too soon for the churches to let a few voices speak for the whole church to the government.
Nothing, I believe, in the twentieth century, promoted Christian unity as widely as the annual observance of a week of prayers for Christian unity, given power and encouragement by the movement away from divisiveness growing out of the Second Vatican Council and the establishment of the World Council of Churches.
The annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity first began through the efforts of the cofounder of Graymoor Franciscan Friars, Paul Wattson, in 1908. During the same period Protestant leaders also proposed a festival of prayer for unity, and the two movements were combined into the present Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Joint activities between the Roman Catholics and the Faith and Order Conference of the World Council of Churches led to decisions to hold a week (8 days) of prayers for Christian unity beginning on the day of the Feast of the Confession of St Peter and ending on the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul. Resources have been produced for the octave since 1968. In 2019 the week is from Friday January 18 to Friday January 25.
My introduction to this week of prayers was in January 1966 when students from Chiang Mai University and their Jesuit mentors from Seven Fountains Student Center came to the Thailand Theological Seminary for a joint service. I understood it was the Catholics’ turn to conduct the service and for the Protestants to be hosts. For a few years the plan was to have the service alternate between these two institutions.
As the next year approached, the Second Vatican Council was beginning to make an impact and ecumenism was much in vogue. I proposed that we might take this observance up a notch in 1967 by conducting a co-celebration of Holy Eucharist, a liturgy for which there was no established format and barely any precedent. The Rev. Dr. Kosuke Koyama and I were appointed to represent our seminary in making the suggestion to Father Andre Gomaine, SJ, of Seven Fountains. He listened nervously as Ko made the proposal enthusiastically and then said he would discuss it with the bishop. A few days later Fr Gomaine reported that, much to his surprise, the bishop had approved the idea. “I told the bishop that the Protestants want to have con-celebration of Eucharast as part of the service of prayers for Christian unity. The bishop was taking a shower and I was talking to him over the wall of the shower stall. The bishop agreed. I asked him if he had understood, and he said he had understood just fine but there should be no publicity about the event. Just do it.” Father Gomaine apparently felt trapped, but he worked with us in mapping out the liturgy. We divided the liturgy so that the parts emphasized by Protestants were done by Protestants and the parts most sacred for Catholics would be done by Catholics. Simply, the preacher was Ajan Prakai Nontawasee, a teacher in our seminary and soon to be the first woman to head a theological seminary in Asia and the first female Vice Moderator of the Church of Christ in Thailand. The consecration prayers (which I found out were called anamnesis and epiclesis) were done by one of the Jesuit priests, Father Siegmund Laschenski (if I remember correctly). Holy Communion was celebrated at two tables side by side, symbolizing our lamentable separation, we said. We later found out this was a historic and not uncontroversial thing we had done. The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano had a front page note that asked simply, “What have the Jesuits in Chiang Mai done?” That, Fr. Gomaine told us, was a serious reprimand, but nothing came of it.
As 1968 approached it was the Protestants’ turn to host the event. This time we proposed to have the Roman Catholics insert a short original cantata into the liturgy which would be conducted in two locations. The first was to be in Sacred Heart Cathedral recently finished as a gift from the King of Belgium. Gerald Dyck of the Thailand Theological Seminary’s Department of Church Music wanted to compose a cantata in the style of JS Bach, with solos, arias and choruses. He asked me to write verses for the choruses. It was accompanied, as Gerry remembers it, by a string quartet. Singers and musicians from both the cathedral community and from First Thai Church practiced and performed. The cantata was suitably focused on Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Christ, and the response, “You are the rock on which I will build my church.” Gerry took the cantata to Bangkok where he put together a larger ensemble (at a rehearsal of which the photo above was taken, from Gerry’s memoirs).
From 1969 on, the joint services were organized by the two large Chiang Mai congregations rather than the student centers. Services are held in Bangkok to the present time.
Predictions are largely projections of our hopes and fears, a friend of mine has reminded me. He’s right that they are largely projections, but I believe my predictions for 2019 are also observations based on evidence and experience interpreting trends I know something about. For what they are worth, here are my SIX GRIM PREDICTIONS FOR 2019.
1. The coronation of the King of Thailand on May 4-6, together with national elections and the ratification of a new constitution will consolidate the power of the military-royal alliance. It will give the King the most power a king has had in Thailand in nearly a century, since the end of the absolute monarchy. Some scholars say this is a virtual restoration of the sort of power once vested in the monarchy backed by an army under his personal control.
2. The US government will enter a time of crisis recalling the debacles of Nixon-Watergate, Warren G. Harding-Teapot Dome bribery scandal, and Andrew Johnson’s 1868 impeachment trial decided by a single vote by the junior senator from Johnson’s home state of Tennessee. Donald Trump is losing support he needs to stay on top. His plan in becoming President was to amass a personal fortune, and the GOP’s plan in boosting him was to erase as much government interference in big business as possible. They were counting on rapid action (especially Supreme Court appointments) before the great majority gets its counter-action coordinated. Time is running out on Trump and his dwindling backers. Trump is speeding up the clock by his bizarre antics and his public attacks on his critics, even those within his own inner circle.
3. It is really just abortion that holds the Christian Right together as a nationalistic force in the USA. Without abortion the coalition between right-wing Protestants and Roman Catholics would dissolve. Behind all the rhetoric and flag-waving is the plan to make abortions a crime. But behind that is the millennia-long struggle to repress sex. Abortion, by itself alone, is a contest between those compelled by the emotional notion that innocent children are being slaughtered, and the analytical argument that aborted embryos and fetuses are not yet children in any rational sense. Emotion always wins in contests of this sort. But when the matter expands to include the whole array of sexual freedom, action swings back and forth. Abortion has been politicized, but the longer-term outcome depends on the pendulum more than the politicians. 2019 will feature a major re-eruption of abortion battles but the swing on the broader question is away from the radical right in Europe and America.
4. China will not overtake the USA as the world’s major money merchant … this year. However, the USA has misplayed its hand too many times to recover. When China gains control, the blow to the US standard of living will be astounding. Of the great income producers (mining, manufacturing, and marketing), marketing is the easiest. Of the things to market, as the merchants of Venice discovered, money is the easiest – and banks are the money markets. My grim prediction for 2019 is that the USA will pass a tipping point from which it will not recover. This may not be the onset of another economic depression, but it could be a big policy blunder such as letting the national debt escalate to the point that borrowers of US dollars disappear and creditors begin to collect US gold, or failure (again) to hold financial magnates accountable at some critical juncture.
5. As for Christianity, 2019 will bring still more shift from the northern to the southern hemisphere. Euro-American hegemony of world-wide Christianity is at an end. The Pope is from South America, African Anglicans can compel the Anglican-Episcopal alliance to do what it wants, at least on some issues. Christianity has chosen sex and gender as its special target and has backed cultural repression of LGBT people, as well as outright persecution and prosecution. The few Christian groups and denominations that have resisted have been fractured, and are failing to stem waves of disenchantment with organized religion north of the equator. In 2019 the United Methodist Church will have its turn. It will be the year they make the choice of which side to take. In fact, a General Conference has been called for February 23-36 in St Louis to consider “human sexuality” and coincidentally whether to tolerate threats from Methodists from the southern hemisphere.
6. Higher education is in jeopardy. Its value measured in terms of “cost v. worth” is questionable. Already, valuable alternatives are developing as employment opportunities for graduates shrink. Here in Thailand the vast majority of college and university graduates do not retain positions more than five years related to their undergraduate fields of study. The exceptions may be health sciences and engineering. And even those who do work at jobs for which their degrees prepared them, have positions for which they could have been trained more quickly and cheaply than by university education. The more higher education becomes about training skilled workers for service positions so they can be factors of production, the less higher education will be thought to be necessary. In the USA a rebellion is developing against the modern indentured servitude that immense, career-long student debt imposes on students who now find jobs in their field are low-paying or unavailable. For decades the goal of higher education was the production of a valuable national human resource pool of independent thinkers. Today, not only is independent thinking considered unnecessary, it has been rendered largely impossible by post-modernism wherein the voice of the individual is indistinguishable from the voice of the group. In Thailand the problem is exacerbated by the unmitigated over-supply of university “seats” available due to unremitting construction of universities and falling birthrates (6.2 children per mother in the 1960s down to 1.5 in 2017). Last year there were 300,000 seats available for which just 230,000 students applied. The number of students at private universities in Thailand is down by 70% nation-wide. This decade, 2016-2026, will see accelerated decline of the perceived importance of higher education compared to expanded options, just as the half century, 1966-2016, saw a devaluation of education so that a bachelor’s degree acquires for graduates what a high school diploma used to provide. 2019 will see several closures or mergers of high-profile institutions of higher education.
I commit these 6 grim predictions to print so they can be reviewed this time next year. I rest my prophetic reputation on them.
Deck the halls with boughs of holly,
' Tis the season to be jolly,
Don we now our gay apparel,
Troll the ancient Yule-tide carol….
“’Tis the season to be jolly,” the familiar Yule-tide carol reminds us. It’s been a tough year, but on Christmas Day the Thai Cabinet gave us a present. So far, the gift consists of hope and a promise (made to us, remember, by politicians before an election, hem, hem). According to a bulletin flashed to the world around suppertime Christmas night:
The Thai cabinet has agreed to a proposal by the Department of Justice in which the salient parts affirm certain rights for persons of diverse sexuality, including the right to establish families, rights to personal property (finances), right to adopt a child, inheritance, and right to register as life partners. This is considered a step toward full marriage equality, a sort of cautious approach. Now the proposal is sent to the National Legislative Assembly for consideration.
The Bangkok Post explained a few hours later that the “Civil Partnership Act” will be in a queue behind more than 50 other bills to be considered before the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) adjourns on February 15, if national elections are actually to be held 7 days later as is still the plan. Whenever the Civil Partnership Act is passed by the NLA and published in the Royal Gazette, it will be the law of the land 120 days later.
Before we launch our gay celebration we should note that this is a compromise measure. Civil partnerships are a new category of law. Marriages have been worked out in countless court cases, so the rights and responsibilities of married couples and the families of which they are a part are now settled. It will take several trials for ever-cautious officials to adjust to “civil partners” as parents, land-owners, tax payers and citizens. We are supposed to have almost the same rights as married couples with regard to children; the proposed act provides for civil partners to be able to adopt children, and all the laws with regard to adoption are already established. That is a major issue and a great relief. Another relief, previously expected to be litigious, is that the bill will give civil partners the same rights as married people with regard to assets and estates.
As the Bangkok Post understands it, the proposal differs from law pertaining to married people in that civil partners will still be treated as (separate) individuals with regard to personal income tax, and some forms of state welfare. For example, if one of the partners is a government employee, welfare benefits [hospital insurance, retirement benefits, and coverage for parents] will not extend to the partner. The bill also stipulates that these partnerships must include at least one Thai national, and the individuals must be at least 20 years of age.
I believe several factors facilitated this advance here in Thailand. First, LGBTK issues have not been politically targeted in a culture war between opposing factions. Second, all kinds of gay people have long been a vaguely identifiable “presence.” Third, religious groups who object to legitimization of LGBTK rights are a nearly voiceless minority. Fourth, it is seen, at the moment, as a political advantage for the government in power to be generous. Fifth, LGBTK advocates in Thailand have chosen to coax the authoritarian regime to act (rather than to mobilize the population).
I predict that, cautious though the new act may be, the right to be parents and to have legal status will eventually have a widespread liberating effect. When this becomes law it will help a lot.
It’s been a year in which we have not had much to celebrate. Now it seems we will soon be adorned with new status. So as our favorite gay holiday, New Year’s Eve, approaches let’s proudly don our gay apparel (suggestions above from previous years) and sing,
“H A P P Y N E W Y E A R”
When government troops attacked the town where rebels had their headquarters, an unwed couple escaped to the young man’s ancestral village up in the hills. The trip was rough and as they arrived at nightfall the young mother went into labor. An old woman in the village cut the umbilical cord with a shaft of razor sharp bamboo and wrapped the baby boy in a clean cloth and put the mother and the baby to bed next to a hot fire.
Now, in the middle of the night three older boys keeping watch over a pile of newly harvested rice out on the hillside were awakened as they slept curled up next to their water buffalo. They trembled in terror at the sight of a radiant being hovering over their threshing floor, for these lads were deathly afraid of ghosts and they had a few dirty secrets so they were certainly unready to have their karma calculated that night. But the divine being said, “Don’t be afraid. Go down to the village and find the couple in Grandmother’s hut. Their baby will bring immense joy to you.” And just then, as they told it, the earth and sky were full of music giving praise to God. So with the kind of euphoria that an escape from death can bring, the boys went and found it was just as the angel had said.
In those days three itinerant monks were making their way through the hills, camping at night in abandoned temples or cremation grounds. People in the village took rice out to the travelers and had their fortunes told. The couple brought their new born child to be blessed. The oldest monk tied white cotton strings around the baby’s wrists to secure its spirit and chanted a blessing. Then the youngest monk spoke secretly to the young father. “Be warned,” he said. “Troops are coming this way.”
Even though the month of sequestration by a hot fire was not over, that night the young family left the village and crossed the river into the next country where they sought refuge.
This recurring story may be taking a slightly different form near you.
M E R R Y C H R I S T M A S
“What does Christmas mean to you?” I was asked to talk about this at a Christmas gathering last week. I decided to tell about the Christmas when the meaning changed most for me.
It was the week before Christmas 1965, my first Christmas in Thailand as a Presbyterian missionary. The Rev. Pisnu Arkkapin and I were appointed to be the faculty Christmas tour leaders for ten first year students of the Thailand Theological Seminary. Although the group was young and green, they were practiced and ready to do a one act play based on the story of Jesus healing the man born blind, and they were ready to sing carols.
Our first stop was a rural village in Lampang Province where a Christian physician had hopes of planting a church, a daughter of the mother church in Lampang. The plan was for our students to present their Christmas program on the elevated front porch of a small country house. There was no electricity yet, so lighting was by pressurized gas lamps (called “Lords of the Storm” as I remember). When it grew dark, villagers began to gather in the yard. Students engaged the children in games and singing. And then came the play. It got well under way. I was “back stage” in the living area of the house making myself useful and out of sight when rocks landed on the roof. Tiles broke over my head and created a disturbance. The culprits had been drinking home-made whiskey, we were told, and objected to Christians coming to their village. Their temporary interruption of the play was the main memory any of us had about our visit to Lampang.
The next night we were aboard a third-class local train for the long trip to Bangkok. The train was crowded. Even so, we had a roped-off few seats in the back end of the dining car. After the food service ended and customers were gone the students began to sing Christmas carols. Soon the car filled with smoke from burning chili peppers. Anyone who has experienced it (as just about everyone with any experience of Thai cooking has) recognizes the smell immediately and knows that escape is the best option and coughing is inevitable. Ajan Pisnu told me that the cooks were displeased with our singing, or had been put up to it by someone. The idea of Christians spreading Christmas around was unwelcome.
The night after that was Christmas Eve. Our venue was the oldest Thai (Presbyterian) Church in the country, Samray Church on the banks of the Chaopraya River in Bangkok. Christmas festivities were planned to begin at sunset with a big dinner, a church service, and then a program of singing and plays. By now I was beginning to gather that those two activities were essential for a Thai Christmas celebration as far as the young people were concerned. Christmas for youth groups would be sadly lacking if the groups could not sing and put on a play. In fact, three or four Samray Church youth groups sang and then set off to serenade. These serenading groups were called “Angel Choirs.” It was near midnight before our turn came. In addition to the dwindling number of Christians, the church yard was still crowded with people who came for the free food and entertainment provided once a year. Hardly anybody paid attention to our drama. It was the least important aspect of the evening for most of the crowd who were waiting for a fire-works display at midnight and Christmas presents. Then we, too, set off to serenade seminary benefactors scattered around Bangkok. In every case we arrived hours after we were scheduled to have been there. People were gracious, and not disappointed when our serenade was cut to one carol and “We wish you a Merry Christmas.” At only one place were we set upon by dogs, but Ajan Pisnu assured me neighbors had not put them up to it.
So I came to Christmas morning with a radical new perspective about what Christmas means. Aside from all the memories I had grown up with, I now realized that here in Thailand, where Christians are barely 1% of the population, Christmas is inserted into a non-Christian setting. Every Christmas activity in this environment is an evangelistic undertaking. Every excursion by “angelic” youth choirs is also an intrusion into a potentially apathetic or hostile zone. In the background is always the sense that Christmas is radical.
Half a century later, Christmas has been essentially domesticated. No drunken youths throw stones at groups singing Christmas carols in shopping malls. Burning chili peppers really would be just incidental to food preparation. The morning I typed this, a Buddhist abbot asked if he could bring a group of children to our house on Christmas morning. But in this environment Christmas is still more radical than I ever dreamed back home in central Illinois in the middle of the USA as the Eisenhower era was ending.
The picture accompanying this blog essay is from the “essentially domesticated” Christmas celebration at Payap University in 2015, exactly 50 years after the incidents I am recalling.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.