Writer: Anton Regenberg
Tu felix Siam ... My time at the Goethe-Institut Bangkok
Only once during my 35 years of working for the Goethe-Institut, the HR department has allowed me to choose between two cities: São Paulo or Bangkok. A choice that was not difficult for me. And so, I became for a comparatively long period (1969 – 1978) the director of the Goethe-Institut in Bangkok, and later also the regional representative for Southeast Asia. I moved from a rather noisy country – the United Arab Republic of General Gamal Abdel Nasser, which would later be called Egypt again – to a relatively quiet country, where the domestic staff scurried silently across teak floors, where students approached their ajahn in a stooped posture and on their knees, where traditions and privileges were based on a system of values that was foreign to me. It took me a while before I started challenging certain stereotypes of the ever smiling Thai: the farmer who patiently tilled his fields, living by the motto “There is rice in the fields, fish in the water”, or a youth that uncritically accepted the trinity of nation, religion and King – stereotypes that distorted my impressions of the realities of everyday life, the growing dissatisfaction and inflation in the country. In the first nine months of 1973 alone, more than 800 strikes took place in Thailand, the price of rice had doubled, and unemployment numbers had risen fast.
These problems were also discussed in my conversation classes, which were attended by high school and university students, employees, diplomats-to-be, artists and workers. Most of them took the bus to Banglampoo, where the Goethe-Institut was located in Phra Athit Road, sometimes enduring travel times of up to two hours. They brought the conversation topics with them, straight from the bus: Why all this killer traffic in Bangkok? Paved roads instead of klongs? High-rise buildings instead of wooden houses? We talked about innate or inherited behaviour, about Darwin versus Marx, urban and rural exodus, about opium trade, corruption, prostitution and sex tourism. Lexical fields were explored, experiences exchanged, insights gained. Of course, comparisons were drawn as well, analogies made between the East and the West, between Buddhism and Christianity, between the homo faber of the West and the homo sapiens of the East. The Western-materialistic value system was questioned by many participants, key terms such as mai pen arai, kraengchai, sanuk and sabaichai were examined for their social functions. Were they still the right measure, after centuries of using them to keep the Thais’ social life in a kind of social balance? The relatively well-functioning coexistence of civil and military administration was already then an astonishing special type of democracy, Thai style. How much longer could these traditions be built upon, should they be further pursued? For me, it was the time of a long learning process… Four years later. In the days between 6 and 15 October 1973 Thailand’s youth set a remarkable example of maturity. Unforgotten is the immaculately organised departure of the 100,000 students from the Thammasat University campus on 13 October. Quite a few students wore paper hats to protect them against the sun, made from old papers of our library. Thus, Die Zeit, Die FAZ, Die Süddeutsche, Der Spiegel unexpectedly came to academic honours. Unforgotten is the courage with which the “yellow tigers“, mostly engineering students wearing saffron-coloured headbands, faced the next morning the rifle barrels of the elite unit of 600 soldiers and 50 tanks. Apart from rocks, sticks and a couple of Molotov cocktails, they had little to counter the armoured forces. But the King was on their side, he had the military leaders chased out of the country and appointed the moderate rector of Thammasat University to be the new prime minister.
Thailand’s democratic spring lasted three years, it let blossoming dreams bear fruit. Suddenly there it was, the young Thai literature I had asked for so many times. “The Politician and Other Stories“ by the farmer-writer Khamsing Srinawk, dedicated “To my Mother, who could not read”, tongue-in-cheek stories about the life of people in the countryside, sometimes as bitter as gall and without concessions to sentimentality or folklore. We visited Khamsing at his farm. There were short stories by Suwanee Sukontha, who would later respectfully be known as the Thai Françoise Sagan. Pensri Kiengsiri told humorous and detailed stories about her childhood in the South of Thailand, she also writes scripts for short films und telenovelas, dedicated poetry and protest songs. Critical-realistic films raised awareness of issues such as prostitution in the city (The Angel), or the moving story of the headmaster of a rural school (Kru Baan Nok), who becomes the victim of a corrupt society. Translations of Gorki and Brecht were published, the theatre group Crescent Moon from Chiang Mai performed Brecht‘s didactic play “The exception and the rule", updated with Thai scenes (Likay), in temples in villages across the country. Bruce Gaston composed a Thai opera, Chuchok, Wolfram Mehring staged it, it was performed in Singapore and Hong Kong, and invited to the third Berlin Metamusikfestival in the summer 1978. There was a sense of new beginnings, dedication, and hope propagated by the youth. They made use of the freedom that they had fought for, completely committed to the cause, they interrupted their university studies and careers to inform, teach and enlighten the people in the countryside and in the factories – only to learn that, here too, “first comes the grub, then morality“. The population, dependent on breadwinners, was too aware of the true balance of power in the country. Intimidated by threats and violence, bought by cunning and money, they denied the young people their allegiance. Meanwhile at the Goethe-Institut, enrolments in German courses continued to rise. While eight additional classes were set up on the weekends, while students and politicians studied the German constitution and German electoral law, while Hans-Günther Mommer rehearsed with the Pro Musica orchestra (under the leadership of M.L.Usni Pramoj) in the exhibition hall, children painted the white-washed wall of the institute. Twenty panels, each of them 1.5 metres wide, were painted and transformed into small works of art. 60 children were at work, and the TV channel 9 included “Let's paint the wall” in its evening programme. There were still very few children’s books in Thailand. We invited a German author and illustrator of children’s books, we organised workshops. Our “Meet People” events were a place of encounter, of giving and receiving, and covered a broad variety of topics, ranging from meet-ups with artists (Thais love to laugh, cartoonists are popular) to encounters with M. C. Chatri Chalerm Yugala, the Thai prince and filmmaker, who would go on to be invited to attend the Berlin film festival by Wim Wenders, or with Phra Chamroon Magsaysay, abbot of the Tham Krabok abbey in the Saraburi province, who was committed to offer drug users a way out of the vicious cycle of abuse, withdrawal, and relapse. Together with the German-Thai Society in Bonn (Deutsch-Thailändische Gesellschaft, DTG) we organised for the first time an exhibition of paintings and prints by Thai artists that was on display in six German cities and offered insights into Thailand’s modern art. We invited the young teacher Khun Prateep Unsongtham, who set up a school for “unregistered children“ (children without an officially certified birth certificate) in the Klong Toey slum. We offered her ideological and material support by providing blackboards, chalk, writing paper and crayons. Günter Grass would eventually visit Klong Toey; Terre des Hommes would supply the children with soy milk for a year.
But Thailand‘s crisis-prone democracy came to a (temporary?) end in October 1976 in a bloody massacre at Thammasat University, the very place where the overthrow of the military dictatorship had started three years earlier. The tyrannical trio had secretly returned to Thailand. The restorative forces had managed to drive a wedge between the students of the University and the engineering institutes. The courageous “yellow tigers” had turned into bloodthirsty “red buffalos”. The images of the beaten-up students hanging on wire slings from trees on Sanam Luang square kept haunting me for weeks in my dreams. Red against yellow? Wait, doesn‘t that look familiar? I asked myself when in spring 2010 horrible pictures were once again broadcast on TV. The conflict had been smouldering since 2006, they said. In December 2008, thousands of “yellow shirts” had occupied the international airport Don Muang and the brand-new Suwannaphum airport for days.
The protest was still peaceful. The incumbent prime minister, who was threatened with prison sentences for corruption and abuse of office, had (as before) left the country. His main supporters were the farmers from the poor north and northeast, who had again been bribed with promises, cunning and money. In April 2010 tens of thousands of “red shirts“ took to the streets, they blocked Bangkok’s shopping mall, built barricades and set fires. People were killed and injured, before the military succeeded in ending the uprising after days of violence. I couldn’t believe it when I heard that Khru Prateep Ungsongtham had also taken part in the protest campaign. She had finally decided to (temporarily?) dissolve the demonstrations in order to prevent an even bigger disaster. In August 1978 Khun Prateep had received the Ramon Magsaysay Award that came with a prize money of 30,000 US dollars, and later the Rockefeller Award for her outstanding One-Baht-a-day- school programme. In November 1998, when the Duang Prateep Foundation celebrated its 20th anniversary in the presence of Her Royal Highness Princess Galyani Vadhana, I happened to visit Klong Toey with the chairman of the foundation, Dr Sumet Jumsai. I had congratulated Prateep on her successes. What had happened in the following years in this Felix Siam, which had experiences 18 coups d’état since 1932, the year when the parliamentary democracy was first introduced? And how great was the hope that this act of uprising was going to be the last one?