Imagine you had attended the dedication of a facility about 6 years ago. It was a happy occasion bringing together a collection of grateful parents and their children, a few village officials, some church leaders, and a delegation of donors from overseas. There had been a tour of facilities including playground, offices, classrooms and recreation area. Extension plans had been unveiled and then a ceremony that featured a speech in which the donors were thanked in behalf of the board of the facility made up of resident foreigners and a village alum (safely named Alum for this essay since Alum was an alumnus of the university where we both work; the reason for “safety” and anonymity is the topic of this essay). Alum represented the church and had connections in the provincial capital. Alum grew up in that village and had been ordained and had a doctoral degree. Alum was entrusted to get the land transferred to the board of the foundation and get the facility registered with the education ministry of the government.
Imagine that the facility functioned for the intervening years and is still functioning as it was designed to function.
Imagine that when it came time to re-register the facility a few months ago it was discovered that Alum was listed as the sole owner of the land and buildings and also listed as the owner of the facility. Alum had included only one name on all the dotted lines. When this was pointed out, Alum was asked to correct the documents and transfer everything to the foundation as was the original understanding.
Imagine Alum refused.
Imagine, instead, Alum initiated legal action against the former church official who blew the whistle. The lot of a whistle blower in Thailand is perilous. Under Thai law it is illegal to do anything that directly or indirectly implicates someone in a way that might malign their character and imply shame. No matter that the facts can be proven with evidence and witnesses. No matter that documents have been misrepresented or even forged.
Imagine Alum has a long history of acquiring property under suspicious and false pretences. Alum has acquired a valuable art collection that way. But Alum is still a clergy member of the church in good standing and even holds a position in a church institution. Church officials are disinclined to take action because it would be frightfully expensive to bring charges against Alum. Church officials, being Thai church officials, very, very much want to avoid conflict and even more want to avoid public controversy. The national church once fired its top executive officer for voicing criticism of the national government. For the church in Thailand maintaining a low profile is one of its highest priorities. It is better not to talk openly about scandalous matters. Maybe they can be ironed out. Maybe the facility will just go on doing its job. It is, after all, rather far away up in the hills.
Remember this is an imaginary case. Any inference that this refers to anyone in particular is unfortunate and beyond the intent of this essay. Right?
The purpose of this essay, to be clear about it, is to remind readers that even though the hidden costs of permissive injustice potentially exceed the immediate costs of processing cases as they arise, there is a deep-seated cultural reason why this happens.
There is a large gas station sitting in the middle of a church school campus because the church refused to confront the important person who built the station. There is a church, one of the largest in Thailand, that lost a chunk of its property to a doctor who was allowed to build a clinic on it decades ago. A large number of investors lost life savings when a church agency defaulted on its investment plan rather than endure the public outrage and loss of face that would have resulted from trying to recover the funds. The list is long.
These are not simply cases of weak-will and timidity. These are deeply cultural instances wherein whole institutions prefer to take the passive course of inaction rather than inflict shame on others and risk the unpredictable consequences that might follow. Unpredictable as the reaction of an aggrieved person might be to be cited or charged, relief of society at large when such a case is settled is certain. The whole social order is aligned against conflict and is predisposed to forgive and let lie if at all possible. It is assumed to be possible. Overwhelming social pressure is in favor of it, even though the delicious gossip must be handled as if the story is imaginary and the principals have no names.
If, by chance, someone is openly charged and named, in almost all cases the reason is to eradicate that individual who has fallen from favor or to deflect blame from powerful figures who would be implicated if there were not scapegoats to take the blame. Litigation can be persisted in, when someone feels unjustly aggrieved; but the effort is to keep those cases quiet and quickly resolved. Overall, the dynamics that society expects is freedom from social conflict and personal intimidation rather than rule of law. Those who must be protected are those of higher status than those being abused. In cases in which the contest is between social equals, society demands resolution without resistance.
A seafood processing conglomerate was secretly investigated and slavery of employees was exposed. The reporter was charged with defamation of character by the owners of the conglomerate. Government effort was directed at restoring the reputation of the seafood industry rather than emancipation of the slaves. An important politician was discovered to have plagiarized the content of his graduate thesis. The professor who tried to block his graduation was charged with defamation of character even though university recognized that the thesis had been copied almost word for word from an un-cited source. A boy was beaten a couple of years ago, but the perpetrator remains ambiguous to protect the sanctity of the institution and to prevent the charge of assault against one of the cultural pillars of society.
Defaming someone’s character or depriving them of livelihood are culturally unforgiveable. Justice for victims is a completely separate issue.
One of the most common errors made by expatriates living in Thailand is to misunderstand this delicate dynamic. The principle is culture-wide, and no one is exempt.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.