Public Sociology

Photo by: Chuttersnap (Unsplash)

 

Putin’s People – or Are They?

Russia’s dictator takes power, money, and even human life. Will he pay the price when things go wrong?

Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, numerous outside voices have addressed themselves to the Russian people. They have asked them to go out onto the streets, to protest, to defy Vladimir Putin’s regime, and to stop the war.

Some have blamed Russians for the war, for a lack of morals and a slave mentality. After all, some polls have reported rising support for Russia’s leader, and after all, he was elected by those same citizens.

They are Putin’s people, aren’t they? Well, some are and some aren’t. Like all dictators, he would like us to think so, to believe that the leader and his citizens are fused as one. That is the image he seeks to present, but that does not mean that the Russia visible to outsiders is the real Russia.

Assessing support for the war is a tricky thing in an authoritarian regime. It is tricky because authoritarian states do not belong to their people, they belong to the rulers. And the people are well aware of it.

While polls do show growing support both for Putin and his war, they give no information on how support is defined. Starting from February 27, Public Sociology Laboratory, an independent collective of Russian researchers now based in various countries and studying post-Soviet politics, has been collecting in-depth interviews with Russians with a wide variety of positions on the war: from enthusiastic support to open protest.

The interviews were collected through so-called snowballing: informants were mostly reached through social networks and personal recommendations to create greater trust. The preliminary findings are fascinating — an analysis of more than 130 interviews shows that the “party of war” constitutes only a segment, and probably not a significant one, of those supporting the conflict. For most pro-war individuals we spoke to, their support, open or implicit, is composed of more than one element.

Between two poles — the “party of war” and the “party of peace” — there are many whose attitudes balance between support and opposition. Some of these say they have “no position” at all. However, those people do have something in common — they oppose any war, are upset by the conflict and the casualties, are sorry that the Ukrainian lives and cities are being destroyed. They don’t understand the reasons for the invasion, and instead repeat the opinions they have heard from others. They report confusion in the face of an “information war” fought by all the parties involved, and “propaganda” coming from both sides.

The “party of war” says it “knows” what the war is about and supports it. The “party of peace” is horrified by the war and sees no justification for the violence. Many of those who oppose the war did not join the anti-war protests because they were scared about the consequences — those accused of hooliganism can be jailed for up to eight years, and those accused of “disseminating of false information” or “discreditation of the Russian army” — up to 15. This is why protests cannot be treated as a measure of war support in Russia.

The key difference of the third group, between the two poles, is they feel powerless to judge. They delegate that right to the state, saying that in all likelihood there was a reason for Russia to attack, even if they cannot understand it. They believe that people and government live parallel and disconnected lives, and that ordinary people have no means to influence decisions made by the president. A young and well-off woman from Moscow explained:

“I’m not interested in politics [because] . . . I believe we know only 5% of what is happening . . . We see it one step forward, and Putin or Zelenskyy see it 30 steps forward. And all those discussions, to talk about it, to be upset with it without actually knowing what is going on — what for? That’s why I don’t want to spend my energy on it, to watch those videos — how the war is going, how many people have died. I understand that 90% is just a fake . . . If I have an opportunity to influence the situation, if something depends on me — sure I will do everything to stop the war”.

Why does this happen? It is not indicative of a Russian slave mentality and an absence of morals. It is depoliticization, a necessary part of the authoritarian regime. In authoritarian states, the fact that people stay at home does not indicate approval for the state or a desire to be silent; the plain fact is that their opinions mean nothing to the state, and those groups capable of organizing contrary views are usually pretty weak.

The regime also implicitly gives its citizen an out. They are not really responsible for their presidents, nor are they responsible for the wars the latter initiate. They may vote for a president (although the president’s men helpfully vote on their behalf when they stay home, by rigging the election) but they never choose him. He is already chosen.

But at the same time, they became hostages in their own country: they can be alienated from their governors, but they don’t want to be alienated from the “we” of the Russian people. If politics is not about policy and who gets what, as in democracies, then it is about identifying “friends” and “enemies.” To stay friends with their country, people have to support their governors’ decisions, even – and especially – if they don’t understand their reasoning. Because, as one of my informants said, explaining her position, “we” – Russia – should be “right about something” with this war. “Because if not – how can we live on if we are not right in everything? Probably, we must be right about something.”

The strength of authoritarian rulers is rooted in the fact that the majority of people allow them too much power. But, from the people’s point of view, only the ruler is responsible for the nation’s acts of aggression.

War may be popular, or at least tolerable, when the outcome is victory. But when defeat beckons, when sanctions hit, when daily life becomes uglier and more difficult, and when more sons return to their mothers in zin? coffins, there will be no question of who is to blame.

 

Dr. Natalia Savelyeva is a Resident Fellow at the Future Russia Initiative with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). She is a sociologist who has studied at universities in Russia and the US, specializing in research on the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

 

By:   Natalia Savelyeva

Date : April 14, 2022

Source:  Center for European Policy Analysis

https://cepa.org/vladimir-putins-people-or-are-they/

 

Climate change and pastoralism contribute to the Sahel’s conflict and insecurity

Depleting resources and climate-induced drought in the Sahel are increasingly provoking confrontations between farmers and pastoralists. Oluwole Ojewale argues that multilateral institutions and national governments in the region should prioritise solutions that recalibrate security strategies to address climate stress more systematically.

The West African Sahel region is one of the most environmentally blighted regions in the world. Drought and an increasingly variable climate is decreasing agricultural yields, accelerating the loss of pasture land and reducing inland water bodies. With countries including Chad, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Niger and the northern fringes of Burkina Faso and Nigeria, the region’s climate-induced precariousness is exacerbated by poor socio-economic outcomes.

Decade-long droughts and desertification in the 1970s and 1980s informed the region’s reputation as “the hunger belt”. The last few decades have brought little respite. A composite of weak state capacity and regional responses to pastoral conflicts, combined with climate change and demographic pressure from a rising population, have made Sahelian West Africa a developmental concern for its people.

Pastoralism as business and a way of life

With an estimated population of around 20 million in West Africa, pastoralists raise livestock as an intrinsic socio-cultural practice as much as a primary economic activity. Their economic contribution to the region is relatively marginal; the livestock sector contributes around 1.7% to Nigeria’s national GDP and around 9% to the country’s agriculture sector. Across the Sahel, pastoralists contribute up to 15% of the region’s GDP.

Pastoralists are mainly composed of two groups: nomads, who have no fixed home and continuously migrate with their herds and families; and sedentary agro-pastoralists, who have fixed homesteads but seasonally move their herds for grazing. But transhumance farming practices, where livestock are moved seasonally between different pastures, while long a source of conflict between people using land, now threatens public safety and security across the Sahel. Multiple fatalities have been reported from conflicts between farmers and pastoralists in Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Benin and Mali. And the conflict is not one-sided. The 2019 massacre of pastoralists in Mali is far from an isolated incident.

These developments raise pertinent questions about the sustainability of pastoralism in the Sahel – a complicated issue when transhumance livestock farming in West Africa is considered more profitable than sedentary ranching. So can states balance such socio-economic practice with public safety and security?

Climate change makes the bad even worse

Temperatures in the Sahel are reported to be rising 1.5 times faster than anywhere in the world. In a region where three-quarters of the citizenry depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, around 80% of farmlands, which constitute an essential resource for pastoralism and crop farming, are being degraded by climate change. Contestations over dwindling pasture resources, water and grazing routes are consequently a primary source of insecurity. The United Nations has warned of a heightened risk of famine in Burkina Faso, northeastern Nigeria, Mali and Niger.

As the effects of climate change across the Sahel are varied, so too are the intensities and dimensions of the region’s conflicts. For instance, in Lake Chad Basin countries, climate change is considered an enabler of armed conflict in an already volatile region beset by terrorism. Climate-induced drought, coupled with the shrinking of the lake without commensurate replenishment strategies, have left farmers, herders and fishing communities struggling for survival. Such hardship is said to have contributed to the recruitment of young people into Boko Haram. In frontier areas straddling Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, there is an increasing policy and media discourse that soaring terrorist and jihadist violence is linked to climatic and environmental factors.

Sahelian countries’ national policies are increasingly considering climate change-related risks, ratifying Multilateral Agreements on the Environment (MEAs). These include the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol, the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. These countries are also members of the Great Green Wall initiative, which stretches from Senegal in the West to Djibouti in the continent’s East. However, climate commitments are hampered by a lack of coordination and finance. Measures to promote resilience and adaptation are continually limited by resource availability, fragmentation between different initiatives and a chronic dependence on international development partners for funding. In February 2019, countries set a plan to invest $400 billion in combatting climate change in the Sahel by 2030. This is yet to be backed with concrete action. Addressing climate-induced stress in the region therefore requires a fresh approach.

Policy solutions

Regional stakeholders must collectively prioritise the issue of pastoralism and transhumance in the face of demographic pressure and climate change, looking at broader economic and security implications of policy choices and governments’ inaction. In the absence of an immediate alternative to pastoralism, the ECOWAS Protocol on transhumance, after more than two decades of operation, must be revised, shifting the Protocol’s focus from control to coordination. Conflict between pastoralists and farmers across the region has evolved and so should the approach.

Secondly, generations-long informal systems of conflict resolution that formerly managed conflicts between farmers and pastoralists fairly and efficiently could be revived. Reducing the involvement of these informal institutions in governance issues at the local level has allowed conflicts to fester into a crisis across the region.

Also essential is the need for states in the Sahel to extensively review existing legal frameworks around land tenure systems. These could be fairer and more inclusive. Given the deeply political nature of access to land, current policies across the Sahel addressing land governance can be zero-sum games, with pastoralists largely on the fringes as outsiders.

There is a broader consensus that climate change has emerged as a major nexus between conflicts and pastoralism in the Sahel. The region’s national governments must prioritise and approach this challenge by recalibrating their various security strategies to respond to climate stress more systematically. They must also increase partnerships with the private sector to mobilise resources for climate-smart agricultural investment for adaptation.

Finally, for a coordinated regional response, ECOWAS must bolster support for national governments. This should involve communication of timely climate information to vulnerable populations, sustained awareness programmes, adaptation and mitigation strategies and technology transfer to help combat the effects of environmental change. ECOWAS must also activate immediate monitoring mechanisms for its 2021 Regional Climate Strategy in West Africa, aimed at strengthening the region’s resilience to the impacts of climate change, through support for the implementation of the commitments made by its Member States under the Paris Agreement.

 

Dr Oluwole Ojewale is the ENACT Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator for Central Africa at the Institute for Security Studies in Dakar, Senegal. His research interests span transnational organised crime, urban governance, security, conflict and resilience in Africa. He co-authored Urbanization and Crime in Nigeria (Palgrave, 2019). He tweets at @woleojewale.

 

By  :    Oluwole Ojewale 

Date : April 11, 2022

Source: LSE Blogs 

https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/africaatlse/2022/04/11/climate-change-and-pastoralism-are-part-of-the-sahels-conflict-and-insecurity/

 

Education could be transformational if politicians would get out of the way

Wynn and Ziff are assistant professors of sociology and co-directors of the Community Research Center at the University of Indianapolis. The are public voices fellows through The OpEd Project.

The onslaught of bills about what can be taught in schools would imply that education is a zero-sum game. Florida recently enacted the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill and an Education Week analysis found that “37 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism.” And, librarians in Pennsylvania reported a quiet but concerted effort to remove books from school library shelves. Prohibiting the discussion of topics only creates a vacuum of information and leads to a woefully underprepared citizenry. Rather than preparing students to tackle difficult issues in the world, bills like these harm them.

As sociologists and college educators who teach content that has been miscategorized and weaponized, we have been paying particular attention as these battles unfold across the country. After all, policies that address the substance of what we can teach directly impact our future students.

A new Brookings Institution report finds that these battles are being primarily fought by politicians seeking to stimulate their base rather than by concerned parents. In other words, Republicans in state legislatures are playing politics with children’s education. Classrooms are once again the battleground of the culture wars and kids’ futures are at stake.

When we walk into our college classrooms every day, we don’t see a battlefield for control over students’ minds. Instead, we see young people who are eager to learn.

In our social inequality, urban sociology and family sociology courses, we introduce undergraduate and graduate students to the U.S. government’s history of forcibly removing indigenous peoples from their land and giving it white settlers; to the federal government’s historical practice of refusing to secure loans in neighborhoods with Black populations; to the fact that as recently as 50 years ago banks often refused unmarried women bank accounts. Every semester we’re asked, “Why didn’t I learn this before?!” Students express dismay and disappointment that this material wasn’t taught to them growing up. They feel lied to.

Over the course of the semester, we watch students develop their sociological imaginations. A concept developed by sociologist C. Wright Mills, sociological imagination describes the idea that when large numbers of people experience social problems in patterned ways they are public issues, not personal troubles. Sociologists use their sociological imaginations to understand public issues.

Unlocking the sociological imagination requires understanding both history and how society is structured by social institutions. This learning process develops informational literacy, teaches students the skills to grapple with questions and information from multiple sources and viewpoints, and allows students to better understand the world around them.

We also see the power of students seeing themselves and each other in class content. For example, in one of our urban sociology courses, several Black male students shared in class discussions that they felt empowered through reading poetry about neighborhoods like the ones they grew up in and written by poets who looked like them.

In one of our sociology of families courses, while discussing scholarly work on transnational families, one Latina student shared that the reading helped her more fully understand her mother’s and grandmother’s immigration experiences.

In introduction to sociology and sociology of gender courses, students who have past experiences with abuse have written that they value the open space to read about and discuss sexual and physical abuse in our society in a non-stigmatized way.

We believe deeply in the transformative power of education. Rather than prioritize research or seek better-paying jobs in the private sector, we both pursued jobs at a teaching university because we find nothing more invigorating than seeing a spark of understanding or watching a student connect with a new idea.

But transformation rarely comes without some discomfort. Too often in the past, teachers and administrators avoided uncomfortable subjects – such as racism, sexism or our country’s undeniable history of chattel slavery. As a result, no one had the opportunity to grapple with topics that have continued effects on every American’s life, regardless of background. By giving students the opportunity to learn about events, policies, and laws that have advanced hatred, we reduce the likelihood that we will repeat them.

What’s more, learning about something and feeling uncomfortable is nothing like experiencing the actual effects of it. A student’s discomfort, or adults' discomfort, at discussing racism, sexism, or genocide is nothing compared to enduring it.

Certainly, the role of education in society is multi-faceted. Students go to school to learn information, be socialized into the values and norms of their society, learn how to interact and work with others, and learn the skills to maneuver through adult life. Educating students in historical facts, providing a curriculum that represents every group accurately, and teaching them the skills to navigate diverse conversations and social settings is invaluable to their personal future, as well as the collective future of our society.

As sociologists, we know that representation, both historical and contemporary, matters to all students and provides fundamental building blocks to their development of self, empathy and connection to others. It also helps students be prepared to thrive in their future careers and communities.

We beseech politicians to stop playing political games and trust teachers and school districts to provide age-appropriate, quality educational content that will allow for the possibility of transformation. Ideally, a classroom is a space where students can grapple with difficult issues and find joy.

 

By    :     Colleen E. Wynn & Elizabeth Ziff

Date :     April 18, 2022

Source :  Fulcrum 

https://socialjustice.isaportal.org/admin/pages/site/2/pages/43/edit/

 

Human capital growth: An engine for structural transformation

Growth in human capital reduces agricultural labour supply, while in turn the expansion of non-agricultural sectors drives human capital growth

Economic growth is inherently tied to structural transformation, which is the movement of labour from lower productivity sectors (usually agriculture) to comparatively more productive sectors like manufacturing and services (Herrendorf et al. 2014). Accordingly, economists often ask: What drives structural transformation? And what economic forces push labour to step out of farms into factories and then offices? There are two broad explanations that have typically been employed to understand the impetus of structural transformation:

Unbalanced productivity growth: Over time, countries become extremely good at producing agricultural goods and thus only need a small share of the workers to feed the population (Ngai and Pissarides 2007). 

Income effects (lowering the relative demand for agricultural goods): As countries become richer, individuals spend a lower share of their income to buy agricultural products, leading workers to relocate to non-agricultural sectors and services (Kongsamut et at 2001).  

In both cases, country-level phenomena reduce the relative need for workers in agriculture, thus leading to labour reallocation. This is what labour economists refer to as a shift in the relative demand for agricultural workers.

These two arguments however typically focus on aggregate labour statistics and overlook an integral side of the story – the human side. To generate an aggregate decline in agricultural employment, individuals must decide to change job, transition between sectors, and possibly migrate from rural to urban areas. Similarly, new cohorts born in rural areas may choose to search for work in the cities rather than replacing the retiring farmers. Behind the decline in aggregate agricultural employment there are humans actively choosing which sector to work in and their choices are determined not only by country-wide trends, but also by individual-specific factors. Some of these include their preferences to live or work in rural areas, the barriers to changing sectors, and – most importantly – their skill sets.

In recent work with Gabriella V. Santangelo (Porzio, Rossi and Santangelo 2021), we argue that considering this human side is crucial to understanding structural transformation. We show that due to higher human capital, younger generations are endowed with skills that are more valuable outside of agriculture leading them to be less willing to stay in farming. This is known as a shift in the relative supply of agricultural workers. 

We develop this argument in four steps: (i) we show that the entering cohorts played a key role in structural transformation; (ii) we then argue that these cohort differences in large part reflect differences in human capital, which make new generations more suitable to work outside of agriculture; (iii) we use a quantitative model to quantify the aggregate impact of a supply shift; and finally (iv) we ask what the main driver of human capital is and what policy conclusions we can draw.

New birth cohorts play a key role in structural transformation

Using individual-level data from 52 countries covering more than two-thirds of the world population, we unpack the process of labour reallocation out of agriculture by following birth-cohorts of male individuals over time and studying their occupational choices. Figure 1 illustrates the empirical exercise for two countries: Brazil and Indonesia. Consider Brazil, in Panel (a). We notice that young cohorts tend to have a smaller share working in agriculture, yet most of the overall structural transformation is due to workers, within each birth cohort, moving out of agricultural over time. Not all countries look like Brazil. Panel B shows Indonesia: in this case, within each birth cohort we see almost no decrease in the share of men working in agriculture, while younger cohorts do have a smaller share in agriculture, as in Brazil.

We compute a similar analysis for each country in our sample. Overall, most countries look like a combination of Brazil and Indonesia, with large decreases in agricultural employment both within and between cohorts. Through a simple decomposition we show that on average, new birth-cohorts account for approximately half of the aggregate labour reallocation out of agriculture across all countries. This result implies that there has been a large decline in the supply of agricultural labour as the younger generations are more likely to take opportunities outside of the agricultural sector. 

What makes young cohorts different? Their human capital

Having established that younger birth cohorts have a comparative advantage towards non-agricultural work, our next step is to bring evidence that this is due to them having higher human capital. To do so, we collect a new dataset of events that might have affected schooling and, more broadly, human capital accumulation of birth-cohorts while young. We then show that events that positively affected birth-cohorts while young lead them to be relatively more likely to work outside of agriculture several decades after. 

A fitting example is illustrated in Figure 2 (a) by Mozambique’s independence war from Portugal fought between 1964 and 1975. The war disrupted the educational system, as confirmed by the stagnating educational attainment for the cohorts starting primary school during the war. In adulthood, the same cohorts were more likely to work in agriculture (as shown by lower cohort effects in the figure). After independence, the Mozambique Liberation Front led extensive programmes for economic development including free healthcare and education, which are reflected in the faster schooling growth and lower future agricultural employment for cohorts born after 1970. 

Figure 2 (b) shows that the example of Mozambique can be applied to all our other countries. Cohorts that have been exposed during their youth to political events or schooling reforms that limit their investment in human capital are more likely during adulthood to work in agriculture. 

Figure 3 further focuses on schooling reforms through a classic event study design which compares the birth-cohorts born just before and just after a reform of the educational system – like an increase in compulsory education. The figure shows what we would expect, namely, cohorts that are more likely to stay in school due to the policy reform are also less likely to work in agriculture several decades after. Schooling liberates individuals from farms by equipping them with skills more valued in the non-agricultural sectors.

Understanding the aggregate effects: General equilibrium matters!

To better understand the implications of our empirical results, we develop a theoretical model. We consider an economy with two sectors – agriculture and non-agriculture – where workers belonging to different birth-cohorts choose which sector to join and how much human capital to accumulate. This framework captures the drivers of structural change traditionally emphasized in the literature – unbalanced productivity growth and income effects – which are reflected in a decline over time in the demand for agricultural labour. Most importantly, given that skills are more useful in non-agriculture, the growth in human capital across cohorts leads to a decline in supply of agricultural labour.

Through the lens of this model, our empirical results can be used to show that the decline in the supply of agricultural labour was substantial; keeping prices fixed, it accounts for 40% of the global labour reallocation out of agriculture. The model also highlights that taking equilibrium forces into account is important, since when workers leave agriculture, agricultural wages and prices tend to increase. Considering these adjustments, we conclude that human capital growth contributed 20% of the observed reallocation out of agriculture.

Is human capital growth causing structural transformation, or vice versa?

In our model younger cohorts can invest more in human capital either as a response to lower demand for agricultural workers or for some other exogenous reason, such as a lower cost of schooling or a change in mandatory education. In either case, they would have a lower propensity to work in agriculture. But this leaves us with an open question: in which direction does causality run in practice? Is the increase in schooling across cohorts simply a consequence of structural transformation? Or is the educational expansion an independent cause of labour reallocation away from agriculture? 

To address this question, we exploit a natural experiment given by the Green Revolution, previously studied in Gollin et al. (2021). Starting in the 1960s, the introduction of high-yielding varieties led to a dramatic increase in agricultural productivity growth. As shown in Figure 4 (a), countries specialised in the crops more exposed to these innovations saw a faster decline in agricultural employment, as higher productivity made labour less needed in agriculture. If human capital accumulation responds to a lower demand for agricultural labour, then we should expect the affected cohorts in more exposed countries to stay longer in school; this is indeed what we find (Figure 4b). However, this effect is not as large as the overall increase in schooling we observe in the data. We conclude that the endogenous response to the decline in agricultural labour demand accounts for only about half of the overall growth in human capital. In other words, it is both true that human capital deepening causes structural transformation, and vice versa. 

Some final thoughts

Our work shows that the increase in human capital during the 20th century contributed to structural transformation, by equipping new generations of workers with skills more useful outside of the agricultural sector. This finding has important implications for policy. To the extent that human capital growth can be promoted by increased access to schooling and educational reforms, these should be considered potential tools to accelerate the economy-wide transition out of agriculture. At the same time, a word of caution is necessary. Formal education raises the ability and aspirations of workers to join the modern sectors, and the extent to which the labour market can absorb this change in supply becomes paramount. A failure to provide adequate jobs to this growingly skilled labour force would result in skills mismatches, workers’ frustration, and an overall waste of human capital. 

 

References

Gollin, D, C W Hansen, A M Wingender (2021), “Two Blades of Grass: The Impact of the Green Revolution”, Journal of Political Economy 129(8): 2344–2384.

Herrendorf, B, R Rogerson, and A? Valentinyi (2014), “Growth and Structural Transformation”, Handbook of Economic Growth 2: 855–941. 

Kongsamut, P, S Rebelo, and D Xie (2001), “Beyond Balanced Growth,” Review of Economic Studies 68(4): 869–882. 

Ngai, L R and C A Pissarides (2007), “Structural Change in a Multisector Model of Growth”, American Economic Review 97(1): 429–443. 

Porzio, T, F Rossi, and G V Santangelo (2021), “The human side of structural transformation”, NBER Working Paper 29390.

 

By   :   Tommaso Porzio (Assistant Professor of Economics, Columbia Business School) 

            Federico Rossi (Assistant Professor of Economics, University of Warwick)

Date:  March 23, 2022 

Source: VoxDev

https://voxdev.org/topic/labour-markets-migration/human-capital-growth-engine-structural-transformation 

 

Redefining my Thai identity

When I was 10, a teacher told my class to draw a picture about Thai identity. Something that is just unique to Thai culture, tradition, and our land.

I remember it was tough. “Thai costume” seemed obvious. But my 10-year-old self already knew that our neighbouring countries also shared similar costume. At that time, I also did not appreciate Thai foods enough. So, I decided to draw a banana tree, thinking that it was so Thai.

As I was growing up, I did not think much about Thai identity or Thai-ness. But I remember knowing that Buddhism and the monarchy are highly respected. They were perceived as the driving force, the soul of the country, the reason we have survived as a nation. If you criticised them, you would be burnt in damnation, or be socially excluded, sanctioned. Or worst, face a criminal legal charge with an infamous lèse-majesté law. Back then, I had nothing against them because I was a “good” kid. To be precise, I was a relatively obedient kid who listened to adults or those in power, my parents, my aunts, teachers, and of course, the mainstream media.

In my 20s, I learned, not from the mainstream media, that during the Cold War, the fear that the communist spectres would destroy the monarchy and Buddhism led to many inhumane killings. On Oct 6, 1976, student protestors were slaughtered on the campus ground at Thammasart University, for “insulting the monarchy” and “trampling the soul of the nation”. Bodies were burnt on street. Hung on trees and beaten with a chair. In broad daylight. In front of the Emerald Buddha Temple and the Grand Palace.

Yes, I am not over that chapter of history. And how can anyone move on when Cold War’s legacies are still there, scattered all over South-East Asia?

Did I go back too far? [But does time mean anything if no one is held accountable?]

How about the Red Shirt crackdown in April-May, 2010? Streets of Bangkok soaked with blood and bodies of “bad people” who “burnt the nation” and “wanted to overthrow the monarchy”. Later, everything is swept under the rug sugar-coated with the Thai smiles. That rug was guarded with guns and law.

Some say that we should forgive and forget like good Thai-Buddhists would do. But before we even think about forget and forgive, I wonder, why good Thai-Buddhists chose and accepted barbaric killings at the first place? Since when did massacres and oppression become a path to the “righteousness”, as if there is no other way? Why do good Thai-Buddhists have such a low tolerance for different ideologies? I thought tolerance and compassion are adjacent to the heart of Thai-Buddhism. Am I wrong?

At some points, it seems like being Thai means I have to overlook the barbaric killings and the state impunity as if it is a way of life. Of course, like many Thais, I cannot forgive and forget. Let alone moving on. I cannot unlearn those traumatic facts. I cannot unsee those photographs. Every time someone said that Thai people are nice, I saw the beaten body hung from the tamarind tree. How can I forgive and forget, as I roam Bangkok streets, knowing that people were slaughtered here? When no one was held accountable for any of these cruel acts.

That official narrative of Thai-ness: I can no longer identify myself with it. But I have to admit that its toxic fruits are real and there. Since I grew up there, that toxin is a part of me too. Haunting me, deeply rooted in me, shaping the way I think, feel and behave, somehow. Even if I cannot embrace it. Even if I cannot shed it the way snakes shed their skin.

Because national identity is not something one can erase, no matter how disappointed or betrayed one feels.

So, I have to convince myself that the official narrative is not all Thai-ness is about. Deep down, underneath my rage and disappointment, I know that Thai identity means something to me. I know it means something to me when I experience racism outside Thailand. I know it means something to me because I miss Thailand, not just my family and friends. And I miss Thai foods so bad. Sometimes when I have not had Thai foods in a while, my body feels off, as if it doesn’t know how to function properly.

******

For me, Thai identity is not just a geographical body of land and borders (nor cuisine). As I was struggling to redefine it, I found pieces of my homeland I can still love and embrace in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films. From a tale created by seemingly-ordinary people across the country in Mysterious Object at Noon to an afternoon escape by a factory worker and her illegal Burmese lover who has flaking skin in Blissfully Yours. A love story between a male soldier and a country boy featuring magical-tiger folklore in Tropical Malady. Male soldiers with the mysterious sleeping sickness supposedly caused by dead kings in Cemetery of Splendour. Lastly, a terminally-ill man, who has killed “too many communists”, visited by his deceased wife and his son who has left home and turned into a red-eyed monkey ghost in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Uncle Boonmee also recalls his dream in which future authorities erase the people from the past.

These films are not only connected by illnesses and the tropical landscape. They also portray Thai lives in honest ways, signifying the people, their labour and local languages as well as everyday surroundings without romanticising their hardship nor employing a condescending tone. Unconventionally, they dig up unresolved/buried traumatic pasts, gently yet firmly expressing defiance of the official narratives.

Perhaps with the design of light, colours, framing, and ambient sounds, these films somehow were able to recreate memories, reminding me of this set of experiences and feelings of being born and raised there. These memories, mine and perhaps others’ as well, scatter all over the place. From the rain forest to the arid land. In trees/bushes/grasses. Mountains and hills. In animals roaming freely. The sounds of insects at dusk. On lonely country roads. Busy city streets. In food vendors, static and roving. Night markets.

In the ways music is played and languages are uttered. What [and how] people actually believe and hold on to. In the haunting red-eyed spectres of the past. In the interrupted/broken memories and the pains we carried, willingly or not. All these seemingly small things that weave Thai lives together.

Watching his films felt as if I was having an honest conversation with someone, sitting among the ruins, preparing for a coming storm. No more lies this time.

Somehow, this is warm and comforting, a moment of peace and consolation I can grab when the wave of traumas and ugly truth have crashed. And among all of these, the true meaning lies in the people who have struggled and fought to be alive and freed in that constrained geographical body. The fight has gained momentum in the last few years with the call I had not dared to dream of, they demand the monarchy to be reformed.

Today, if I were to draw something about Thai-ness. It wouldn’t be just one item. I would need a big canvas. On it I would paint a picture of a red-eyed spectre with a monitor ankle eating Pad-kra-pao in a night market somewhere, with rain forest and banana trees in the background. While the people are staring at a gigantic monument of a king, hoping their gaze will turn it into dust.

 

Srisuda Rojsatien is a PhD graduate student in Materials Science at Arizona State University, USA. Although she studies defects in solar cells, she couldn’t avert her eyes from Thai culture and politics.

 

By   :    Srisuda Rojsatien

Date:    April 11, 2022

Source: New Mandala

https://www.newmandala.org/redefining-my-thai-identity/