There is a famous and oft-quoted saying:
‘Those who neglect the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it.’
When it comes to government circles all you need do is replace the word ‘neglect’ with ‘remember’ and you have what passes for public pronouncements across the nation.
I have a theory that there is a small covered box in every major official’s office which contains a list of pronouncements which are to be regularly dusted off and issued to the press and public. Most of these concern public morals and reputation damage control.
Each week, or month, when the feng shui is suitably aligned with the moon, the official charged with issuing pronouncements dons a mask, slips on a pair of rubber gloves, opens the lid on the box and reaches inside. After flapping about with his hands he grasps a slip of paper and retrieves it.
After removing the rubber gloves and the mask, he then reads the aforementioned slip of paper, wakes his dozing secretary and instructs her to call a press conference. Once the assembled hacks have arrived, poised with notebook and pen or lugging about a microphone with a camera crew in tow, the official launches into the pronouncement du jour.
To illustrate my theory the following few paragraphs are stories taken from the English language press in Thailand from the early 1950s onwards. If you start to get a sense of déjà vu then you might begin to think my theory is not so far-fetched.
In 1953 film producers were told to stop making films featuring gangsters and illicit love-making, because such pictures diluted state-controlled efforts to promote ‘public morals’ and cultural interests. The Interior Ministry said ‘violent and indecent films influenced young people to become social degenerates.’ Anyone watched a Thai soap over the last fifty years? Seen any changes?
In July the same year, the Bangkok Post reported police had warned ‘brothel owners and prostitutes that they had a month to cease their sex work in the capital.’ Prostitutes were informed the National Culture Institute would help them find ‘more moral’ ways of earning a living. Bangkok had about 90 brothels throughout the city and the newspaper said police would start inspecting these in August to make sure the ban was being obeyed.
Yet, just two years later and the British newspaper the Daily Mirror headlined an article ‘All Bangkok is fantastically gay –and naughty too’. The paper was ranked among the top 10 in the world in terms of circulation. One sentence claimed ‘Taxi drivers who wait night and day outside the hotels make shocking suggestions without exercising the slightest discrimination.’ By the way, ‘gay’ then doesn’t have the same meaning it does today.
Perhaps in response to this article, the cabinet approved an Interior Ministry plan to take the ‘naughty’ out of Bangkok by setting up a confined camp where prostitutes could learn better ways of earning money. Prime Minister Pibul Songgram said he wanted it “For the sake of the youth, the culture and morals of the nation, and internal peace.” I don’t think Pattaya was quite meant to be the site of the experimental camp.
In 1955 the government officially went into the lottery business, establishing an organisation to operate ‘digit’ lotteries in all provinces. The government had tried to suppress the illegal rackets based on the last two and three digits of the state lottery, so they decided to go into the business as well in the hope of driving the illegal vendors out of business. Perhaps the reformed prostitutes were trained to be legal lottery sellers if they couldn’t get the hang of macrame.
Then, in August 1960 the government outlawed prostitution, the Interior Minister saying it was “against public morals”. He added, “Under the new law, a woman on the street calling ‘hello, hello, hello’ to a man is liable to arrest.” This is why the girls rarely use ‘hello’ three times in a row; it’s usually, “Hello, sexy man” or “Hello, handsome man” or “Hello, papa”, depending on the season and tourist numbers. It allows them to stay within the law.
The ban on prostitution came a couple of months after the Interior Minister said he would instruct his officials to prevent ‘scantily dressed’ girls from entertaining guests at public events. Hope he never went to a village wedding, funeral, or anniversary party and stayed to watch the night-time activities. The next year nightclub owners in Bangkok received a four-point warning about shows ‘designed to rouse sexual instincts’ by featuring ‘obscene dancing’. The prime minister had earlier ordered newspapers and magazines to stop publishing photos of scantily clad women as he wanted to uphold ‘moral standards’. If only they had a crystal ball and could have seen what some women can do with a ripe banana inside a go-go bar.
My friend Neil Hutchison (A Fool in Paradise) and myself both have reason to appreciate the following story. In 1956 Sarit Thanarat won a libel suit against a magazine which reported a sex scandal involving the soon-to-be dictator. The story was headlined, ‘Search for Girls to Entertain Sarit…soft body, smooth complexion, high breasts, shapely hips become victim of influence.’ The publisher and editor were convicted of libel and fined 500 baht each after confessing an unidentified person induced them to defame Sarit.
In 2005 a Thai national daily published a story which featured excerpts, taken out of context, from Neil’s book Money Number One and mine, Pattaya, Patpong on Steroids. The end result was the paper and whoever paid a Thai journalist to write the story were made to look foolish when the books were given the thumbs up by the four Thai ladies who host a popular morning television program called Pooying tung Pooying (Woman to Woman). And, as the saying goes, the beat goes on.