Thais and Authority
Thais have a peculiar relationship with authority figures… At least, it seems that way to people from most Western countries and the Antipodes. We often feel very uncomfortable at the way they don’t seem to question authority figures.
The situation is probably true of peoples from many other countries, but I have experience of Thailand. Thais are brought up to respect, even fear, people with more money, a better job, a higher education, higher social status or greater age than them. This means that they don’t trust them, except for older family members, which makes it quite difficult for people in uniform, including monks and the police, to gain their trust. Rather, they have to earn it through a long association, which rarely happens in practice.
Teachers are probably the only exception. Teachers hold a social position of very high standing, despite the fact that they are not paid well.I can’t think of any country that pays teachers really well, but I don’t know anywhere where they are so respected either.
It is illegal to criticise monks or the royal family, but they do not enjoy the nationwide respect of teachers. Don’t get me wrong, the old king was widely called ‘Father’ – much like the Pope – but it is yet to be seen whether his son will enjoy the same deference.
Monks are widely liked, but the papers carry stories of corrupt and deviant monks every week, like they did about Catholic priests a few years ago here.
The police are not trusted at all except by their friends and family, if by anyone and the same goes for the upper echelons of the army. Foot soldiers are conscripts, so most families have a member doing service. They are more pitied than despised.
Doctors and especially nurses enjoy good standing, but there is a feeling that too many doctors are of Chinese descent. Nobody likes politicians, but then that is normal in every country, eh?
Government officials are deferred to while dealing with them, but despised once the task has been completed. Business owners are respected, but distrusted, and bank managers are held in awe. My wife used to make me get changed, shave and comb my hair to go to the bank – a bit like it was forty or fifty years ago in the UK.
Fear plays a big part in why Thais are not honest about their feelings for people in authority, and corruption is the main reason for the disrespect.
Having said all that, Thai society is changing. Even the universal waai, for which Thailand is famous, is on the wane. The waai is a mark of respect, an acknowledgement of the Holy spark that is in all of us – in a similar way to a soldier salutes the uniform not its wearer.
Foreigners are still respected in general, but I think that that is because of the money… as I said earlier, Thais are brought up (in school, if not at home) to respect people with money. However, Thai society is changing quickly and I only expect that rate of change to accelerate in the absence of the stabilizing influence of the old king.
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Podcast: Thais and Authority