Equality is an empty word written in the constitution. What we say and do each and every day defines who we are: we Thais are not equal.
Government Spokesperson Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana called it:
“A familiar relationship between boss and underling.”
“An affectionate and playful family thing.”
He is absolutely correct.
Thanakorn also called it “normal for a former soldier.” In this, he’s not entirely correct. It’s normal, not just for a former soldier, but for the Thai culture.
On 30 September, when video footage of General Prayut Chan-o-cha smacking the head of a security officer went viral, social media went nuts, calling it “inappropriate.”
Social media is wrong. It is very appropriate, a tradition that reinforces outdated social hierarchy and reflects time-honored inequality.
General Prayut is a “poo-yai” (elder, a social superior). The security officer is a “poo-noi” (younger, a social inferior) or a “dek” (literally a child, also means someone of inferior status).
In Thai culture, a poo-yai smacking the head of a poo-noi is affection. However, a poo-noi smacking the head of a poo-yai would lead to a collective shock.
Traditional society would gasp breathlessly over the inappropriateness of the sinful action that karma would be left with no choice other than damning the uppity poo-noi to an eternity of burning in hell.
The smack on the head is but a social etiquette to keep the mass of poo-noi in line and to remind us of our inferiority.
To smack is to rule. To meekly receive the smack is to submit.
The smack on the head also speaks volumes of a social relationship in which the poo-noi cannot talk back, argue, or debate. Questions are also disallowed unless they are questions that ask for orders or guidance.
We Thais have been indoctrinated into this social relationship since we were schoolchildren and live with each and every day until we become ash to ash, dust to dust.
In Thailand, there’s a group of people who are our superior. They are untouchable and infallible. It’s a matter of duty, honor, and loyalty that the rest of us submit, obey, and conform to our superiors.