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A warning on simplifying Songkran festival

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

Those of you who have talked to me probably know I came from Thailand and have lived in the U.S. for virtually two years. A few days ago, I saw a poster about the Thingyan Water Festival which is taking place at Parrish Beach on Monday, April 16. The phrase “water festival” sounded familiar to me, but I could not recall what it is. So, I Googled it and found out Thingyan Water Festival is similar to one of the most famous festivals in Thailand — Songkran. Historically, Songkran is a celebration of Thailand’s traditional new year. “Songkran” is a Sanskrit word; meaning “passage.” In this context, “passage” refers to the passage of one year to the next.

Officially spanning from April 13 to April 15 of every year, Songkran festival is decreed by the Thai government as a national holiday. People usually celebrate the festival for an entire week in two ways: returning home and splashing water. Because job opportunities disproportionately cluster in urban areas, many people in Thailand must live away from their hometown in order to secure their jobs. Hence, Songkran festival is one of the rare moments where every family member can gather and cherish the presence of one another. People also splash water to bestow good blessings upon one another: splashing water washes evil away and freshens one’s body to prepare them for the upcoming year. Thingyan Water Festival in Myanmar shares similar cultural aspects and historical origins to Songkran festival. Born and raised in Thailand, I am definitely accustomed to the tradition of Songkran festival.

I was therefore troubled by how I had learned about the festival. Understandably, “Thingyan” might not ring a bell to me because I have always called the celebration “Songkran.” However, the keyword “water festival,” along with the date, should have provided me with sufficient clues to understand what Thingyan Water Festival is. It did not. Water festival is not how I conceptualize Songkran.

To elaborate, Songkran encompasses many aspects beyond splashing water. As aforementioned, family members, especially those who do not live together, use Songkran as an opportunity to reconvene. Together, they do good deeds, such as praying at temples or cleaning the street, and devote that good karma to themselves as well as their ancestors. Members within the same community also greet, hang out with, and bless one another. Youngsters also pay respect to the elderly and receive blessings from them. In other words, Songkran encompasses so many aspects of Thai tradition, such as adherence to Buddhism, environmental-mindedness, strong family bond, and so on.

Water splashing is merely a symbol people use when they give blessings and therefore cannot encompass the whole picture of Songkran celebration. Why, then, do many countries use the phrase “water festival” to promote this celebration to foreigners?

My first assumption is that water festival is the best slogan for garnering travelers’ interests. Indeed, the word hypes up travelers. When travelers see the phrase “water festival,” they cannot help but wonder,  “What is a water festival?” “Water is just water. How can it be festive? What do Thai people do with the water?” Because most tourists travel to explore the unexplored, the catchy phrase “water festival” works wonder for attracting foreigners’ attention.  Seeing an army of people dressed in flashy clothes splashing water on one another is more unexpected than seeing people dressed in white praying at a temple. Both traditions of Songkran, exciting though it was, are not unexpected for me: I have seen the festival before.

To validate this claim, I searched the word “Songkran” with two different keywords: Songkran as written in Thai and English alphabets. The first entry redirects to websites written in Thai whereas the second entry redirects to websites written in English. The result:  the first entry yields pictures of people gently splashing water to one another or to Buddha statues appear as one of its top results. On the other hand, the second entry does not display similar entries unless you scroll to the very bottom. Rather, the images of people carrying water guns fervently as if they were fighting a war appear as the top results. With how the searching algorithm works, we can infer that foreigners find flashy, action-filled pictures more relevant to them. After all, the results people click the most frequently will appear as the top results. At this point, one may question what is wrong with people gravitating towards one aspect of a tradition over others: tourists are consumers; they can consume whatever they want. Such a mindset, in my opinion, defeats the purpose of tourism. When we read novels, we care not just what each character does but also what drives them to do so, because the latter enriches our understanding of the former. Likewise, tourists should care not just what Thai people do during Songkran: why they do so matters as well. It is rather unfortunate to see how many people trivialize the culture-rich Songkran festival into a period where people hurl water to strangers. Songkran is definitely more than that.

The second and more optimistic explanation is that people involved in Thai tourism industry use water splashing as a means to pique interest among foreign travelers. Attracting foreigners to visit Thailand receives the utmost priority and outweighs any “trivial” cultural misrepresentation. Once the latter visit Thailand, the former will promote another aspect of Thai culture as well. As a Thai citizen, I am hopeful tourism authorities in Thailand use the buzzword “water festival” merely to promote the overall industry. Unfortunately, this case is unlikely. Most blogs about Songkran water festival I have read so far talk about how fun it is to see everyone dancing wildly while getting soaked with water. The origin of Songkran, how Thai people spray water to reduce heat during April —  the hottest month in Thailand — and other crucial aspects of Songkran are usually not included.

How should we address this misrepresentation problem? Changing how the tourism industry uniquely portrays Songkran as a water festival is difficult because such marketing tactics are so effective. It hypes travelers up, boosts Thailand’s tourism industry, and promotes some aspects of Thai culture. That people associate the word Songkran with a water-splashing war is not problematic per se. That certain aspects of any tradition receive so much attention that they completely eclipse other meaningful narratives is. Next time when you travel, always wonder why people do what they do. There is more to any festival than meets the eyes.

 

Thailand, Trump, and Authoritarianism

in Columns/Opinions by

Last week, I overheard a conversation about Donald Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns. Two people were arguing if President Trump would ever release them. The argument proceeded as follows: because American politics nowadays are too polarized and divisive, President Trump’s tax return would not affect public perception. For Trump supporters, if Trump’s antics, behavior, and lack of political experience could not dissuade them, his tax return probably will not. In contrast, for people who oppose him, they will never vote for him even if Trump releases his tax returns, period.

 

The question is, why should we spare any thought to President Trump’s tax returns? Does the information about how Trump profits from his billionaire empire offer us any meaningful insight? Yes, it does. Be it his lucrative real estate properties in the United States, his golf courses in Scotland, or his Trump Grill in Trump Tower, the public deserves to know this information. Indeed, it is difficult to understand the importance of tax returns because no other president besides President Trump has ever refused to release theirs. Because the current situation in Thailand resembles that of the United States in several ways which I will explore later, this article will draw parallels between both countries to argue why citizens suffer if government authorities do not declare their assets.

To understand how the situation in Thailand resembles that of the U.S., it is crucial that one understands Thai politics first. Thailand is a Southeast Asian country fraught with corruption and political instability. The country experienced three military overthrows and 16 presidents in the past three decades. How does the military justify these coups? Eliminating corruption. Today, Thailand is governed by a military regime that seized power from the previous government in 2014 and has vowed to eradicate corruption from the country. The regime was led by General Prayut Chan-Ocha, who, like Trump, has minimal experience in politics. However, according to the 2016 Corruption Perception Index report by Transparency National, Thailand is ranked 77th out of 176 countries for corruption, climbing from 100th in 2015. This figure tells us that 100 countries enjoy more transparency than Thailand does. Also, we deduce two possibilities from this figure: corruption was either exacerbated so much within one year that the regime cannot tackle the issue, or the regime itself is corrupted.  

 

Now, we will draw the aforementioned parallel: both Thailand’s prime minister and Donald Trump ascended to power by denouncing the status quo. For Thailand, corruption is the culprit. For the United States, the dysfunctional economy is to be blamed. Moreover, recognize that Donald Trump has repeatedly derogated politicians with such words as “lyin” or “crooked,” promised to “drain the swamp,” and vowed to “make America great again.” During the campaign, he invoked his status as an outsider to appeal to his voters.

 

The second parallel is that leaders of both countries have actively discredited media, non-government organization, and independent agencies whenever these groups keep them in check. To elaborate, several months ago, a Facebook page called “CSI LA” published evidence that General Prawit Wongsuwan, the second-in-command of Thailand’s current military regime, had worn at least 25 extremely expensive watches, costing over $1 million in total. He owns so many expensive watches that the Daily Mail bestowed him the title “Rolex General.”

 

The problem is, Mr. Wongsuwan declared none of these assets before accepting his position. To fend off criticism, he invented several unreasonable explanations, claiming that his relatives and his friends let him borrow those expensive watches. Moreover, he requested that the media not publish “false” stories about his watches and claimed only the media care about this issue, implying ordinary people do not care about his wealth. Even if this excuse were true, Mr. Wongsuwan’s wealth indicates that he may have some conflict of interest with people outside of the government. Even worse, he might have abused his power to benefit himself.  It is virtually impossible for them to accrue such massive wealth within a short period of time because politicians earn $40,000 per year in Thailand. Once again, notice the similarity. Donald Trump has repeatedly undermined the credibility of news media by calling media “fake news,” “fake reports,” and so on. Whenever the media urge President Trump to release his tax returns, he shuts them down.

 

Why are these parallels problematic? Because they breed the idea that outside intervention solves every problem and thus detracts people from understanding how politics works. In reality, politicians do not run the country alone. They must cooperate with other government personnel and existing structures rather than disregard them totally in order to enact any meaningful change. The craze for one-man-fix-all solution teaches people to be passive with democracy. What should happen is that if people are discontent with how the government is functioning, they should protest and voice their opinions instead of waiting for some deus ex machina to fix their problem. Moreover, these parallels signal to us that government authorities are harming the media. In every democratic society, people’s trust in media prevents politicians from abusing their power for illegitimate purposes. Had American citizens not trusted Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, President Nixon would not have resigned and gotten away in the Watergate scandal. Therefore, because the media keep the government in check, we should protect them from false discredits by the government.

Right now the President of the United States, who supposedly serves as a beacon of democracy in the free world, is acting very similarly to an authoritarian regime in Thailand. The question we need to ask is how we should proceed. Despite the authoritarianism of the Thai government, we learn that journalism, social media, and the will to fight for transparency can inspire citizens to protest even against a military regime. The outcry against the regime and the demand that the regime return power to Thai citizens is happening at this very moment, all thanks to a few people behind a Facebook page. Also, we learn that when people notice blatant acts of corruption, many choose not to tolerate it. They demand explanations from those in power. With the stories of President Trump’s financial ties with Russia unfolding, we should demand some explanation as well.

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