musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Dancing in the Streets

After observing the misguided and destructive antics of both the Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt political groups here in Thailand for the past two years, I often tell people that I think “no shirts” is a far better option. Apparently some revelers during the recent Songkran water festival put that idea to practice, touching off a firestorm of controversy in the process.

Yes, the biggest news event this past week was the three Thai teenage girls who were seen on Silom Road, briefly dancing topless during a spirited afternoon of Songkran celebrating. In these digital times, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that videos of the girls soon turned up online, sparkling howls of outrage, and more than a bit of admiration. Of course there was a predictable chorus of condemnation from the “respectable” sectors of Thai government and the mainstream media. The Ministry of Culture decided that a famous painting by Sompop Budtarad, depicting a group of Thai goddesses celebrating Songkran sans shirts, needed to be removed from their official website, as this work of art was obviously corrupting the youth of Thailand. Most of the columnists in the Bangkok Post weighed in on the issue, either saying that the topless performance was yet another indication of the decline of Thai society and the no-morals youth of today, or absurdly linking the girls’ stunt as an example of sexual exploitation and pedophilia. Huh? These people really do need to get out of their cubicles more often.

I’m puzzled by this bizarre reactionary attitude towards a bit of nudity. With such extreme levels of outrage, I thought I was back in the USA, the land of fundamentalist Christians — those tribes of hypocritical Jesus freaks who believe they have some sort of monopoly on morality and “family values” — rather than here in the tolerant environs of predominantly Buddhist Thailand. Of course I’m making the assumption that most of the negative reaction is coming from Buddhists, when in fact there are more than a few brain-washed Thai Christians living in the kingdom, ones who are obviously offended by bare skin. And yet these same moralists don’t seem bothered by the hordes of festival participants who were publically intoxicated, or driving vehicles under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.  

Personally, I thought the whole topless thing was a bit silly, nothing more than festival-inspired teenage kicks. Caught up in the heat — and the wetness — of the moment, these girls decided to let loose. And from talking to Thai friends, the disrobing on Silom was only one of several such incidents observed during this year’s Songkran. Local law enforcement dudes, however, decided such behavior was not to be condoned and acted swiftly, miraculously rounding up the culprits (two of them came in “voluntarily”) and parading them (with faces discretely shaded by hoods; hey, at least they know how to cover up something!) in front of the media’s cameras less than forty-eight hours later. What the girls did, claim the authorities, was an affront to traditional Thai values and culture, making it clear there would be zero tolerance on this issue. Each girl had to pay a fine.

A couple of letters to the editor in the Bangkok Post in recent days put things in perspective quite well. A gentleman named Roger Shuttleworth wrote:

“The furor over the airing of six pubescent little boobies … was laughable to say the least. Shocking? Barely. Distasteful? Perhaps. Damaging to Thailand’s image? I don’t think so! Shameful? Hardly. This was just a bit of innocent, ill-thought-out exhibitionism. Shameful is a government that can’t resolve the issues (bombings, killings, terrorism) in the South. Shameful are the politicians who are motivated by greed and graft. Shameful are the police who act randomly and extort at every opportunity. Shameful are the hi-so Thais who allow their children to race cars and ruin lives.”

Another letter writer, Richard Harvey, chimed in with:

“I wish to extend my heartfelt congratulations to the long-suffering Thai authorities. They take a lot of flak, but they have finally proven they have what it takes to get the job done. True, they cannot do anything about the terrorism in the South, or the drug trade, or the gem scams, or rich kids tearing through the streets of Bangkok like bats out of hell in their daddies’ cars, or other traffic violators, or enforcement of fire-safety laws, or the hordes of vendors encroaching on public areas. However, they lost no time in tracking down those three topless Songkran girls and teaching them the proper respect due to the law. I, for one, will sleep soundly at night knowing that I am no longer in danger of nubile young maidens exposing me to their naughty parts. Thank you, Thai authorities, for a job well done.”

Okay, that’s laying on the sarcasm a bit thick, but as noted, there are many more worrisome issues facing Thailand nowadays, yet based on the over-the-top reaction, you would think this festive bit of public exhibitionism was the most troubling issue in the country. Frankly, I would welcome MORE public nudity and dancing in the streets of Bangkok, and MORE attention paid to public safety (the hordes of speeding motorcycles on the sidewalks are my personal pet peeve) in the city, as well as the many pressing environmental, political, educational, and social problems that continue to beset the kingdom.

I’d also love to see less myopic reprimands and lectures by the Christian-funded NGOs and other delusional religious fanatics — Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims included — who have warped ideas of what is morally acceptable. Whenever incidents like this get “covered” in the media, it tends to bring the religious nuts out of the prayer group closet, babbling incessantly about the decline of morality in society.  Why is it that anything remotely pertaining to sex or nudity sends these sheltered puritans into spasms of outrage and revulsion? Sorry, but I’d much rather see youngsters dancing naked in the streets than see them racing motorcycles, shooting guns, robbing people, vandalizing buildings … or having some nut trying to convert them to a psychologically debilitating religion.

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