Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Kritsana Son Nong: The Politics and Practice of Manners in Modern Thailand (1950S-1970s)

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Kritsana Son Nong: The Politics and Practice of Manners in Modern Thailand (1950S-1970s)

Article excerpt

Formed in the aftermath of the May 2014 military coup, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) set out to implement far-reaching political and social reform in Thailand. In the midst of a stream of policy initiatives, the NCPO quickly turned its attention to questions of national and cultural identity. 'The Twelve Values for Thai People', purportedly devised by the coup leader, Prime Minister and Chief of the NCPO General Prayut Chan-o-cha, was a prominent feature of a reformed nationwide curriculum. (1) The policy stated that all Thai school students would be expected to rote-learn the Twelve Values and to collectively chant them each day after the National Anthem ceremony.

Responding to this new policy, the Secretary of the Department of Cultural Promotion announced the publication of a cartoon book on good manners and Thai values. Interestingly, this was to be based upon Marayat ngam, an award-winning etiquette manual originally published in 1966 by Pagawadee Uttamoth. (2) In a newspaper interview, the Secretary reasoned that this new manners book was necessary:

   Abiding by Thai values and Thai uniqueness is nothing to be ashamed
   of. It is a good practice that should be commended. At the same
   time, it will make society condemn those who violate the
   traditional framework which more often than not deprecates Thai
   values [...] if we allow Thai people to become accustomed to wrong
   practices, they will never be phatthana to be khondi, so we must
   work together. (3)

This statement is not atypical. In fact, it represents a view shared by many who believe in the uniqueness of Thai values. From this perspective, Thai manners are the distinctive outward expression of moral authority and political legitimacy, and they figure positively against the negative ground of the behavioural norms of non-Thai others. Leaving it to his audience to imagine the nature and origin of these non-Thai values and practices, the Secretary argues that they pose a serious threat to Thai values, and thus may act as obstacles for Thai people on the path to becoming phatthana (developed) and khondi (good people).

Why have manners been given such prominence? Why does the post-coup regime believe that a manners book written nearly sixty years earlier will provide appropriate guidance for young people growing up in twenty-first century Thailand? And, what is at stake in selecting this particular text and not another from the same--or a different--period?

Kritsana son nong: Naenam marayat thi ngam haeng araya samai, (4) for example, was a popular etiquette manual from the same period as Marayat ngam. The text first appeared as a serialised column in 1953 in the woman's magazine Kunlasattri (Genteel lady). (5) It was first published as a book in the early 1960s and was reprinted several times until the mid-1970s. (6)

This book is interesting for a number of reasons. To begin with, the author of Kritsana son nong, writing under the pseudonym Kritsana Thewarak, did not disguise the fact that the book was based on an American text, Manners made easy. (7) In so doing, Kritsana recognised possible conflicts arising from the adoption of Western manners. Rather than avoiding these by labelling the book as Western, American or International, in the vein of other, later non-Thai etiquette manuals written for a Thai audience, the author of Kritsana son nong chose literary mechanisms to address and deal with such conflicts. Furthermore, in its title, subtitle and contents, Kritsana son nong openly addressed the issue of samai (period) and drew attention to competition and conflict between liberal conceptions of aspiration, progress and siwilai that characterised araya samai (the civilised period) and traditional notions based upon heredity. (8) Last, but not least, whilst Manners made easy was written for young people of both genders, Kritsana son nong specifically addressed young women. …

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