What's in a name? A lot
Published on June 15, 2009
SINCE SONGKRAN, more people seem worried that Thailand's extreme socio-economic inequality lies behind the political mess of recent years. Some Democrats justified their new tax proposals as measures to counter inequality. Pramon Suthiwong of the Thai Chamber of Commerce spoke eloquently about the need to moderate the social gap for the sake of political peace. Bowornsak Uwanno pronounced the current conflicts as "about inequalities of economics and justice".
The big gap in income and wealth between rich and poor is the most noticed aspect of Thailand's inequality. But it is not the only one. Every time people talk to one another or talk about someone else, they arrange everyone in a hierarchy of superiority and inferiority.
The fact that these practices are so pervasive, so deeply ingrained, shows how much some in society value inequality and want to sustain it.
FEUDALISM OUT, BUT ARISTOCRACY STILL IN
Societies that value equity make a point of using forms of personal address that erase differences. The extreme examples are post-revolutionary societies. In revolutionary France, everyone was addressed as "citizen", and in communist societies, as "comrade".
This was perhaps trying too hard. But in most democratic societies, there are everyday forms of I, we, you, he, she, they that everyone can use to address anyone else without a thought of the social significance.
In Thailand this is much more difficult. Most pronouns have an in-built social weight. They don't just say "I", but "I who am bigger than you", or "you who are smaller than me". There are some value-free versions, but using them amounts to a rather showy choice. The value-laden versions are more conventional and easier to choose.
Then there are titles. The old feudal titles were officially abolished after the 1932 revolution. Since then there has been no formal aristocracy defined by title and name. But some bits of the old system have lingered, and others have been rescued or reinvented, so that titles and names still serve as a claim that some people are different, special, superior.
Curiously, while all the male titles of aristocracy were abolished, the female titles of Khunying and Thanphuying were allowed to remain. Each year, a few women are granted these titles.
In some cases, the grant seems to be in recognition not of the woman's achievements, but those of her husband. And some of these seem to be almost automatic. For instance, the prime minister's wife is usually elevated (as long as he can stay in office long enough), and also the wives of the top brass in the military hierarchy.
In a parliamentary democracy, the honour granted to the prime minister makes some sense. But why the military chiefs? And why more of them? Why are they chosen and not the wives of the top writers, top scientists, top sportsmen, top entertainers? This automatic elevation seems to say that the military chiefs still amount to an aristocracy.
Another set of titles that has survived into the democratic age are those of Mom Chao, Mom Ratchawong and Mom Luang, which denote distance from the royal line. Thailand may be the only country in the world where such a system remains in use.
In other monarchies, immediate relatives of royal families are still granted titles as prince or princess. In the UK, some more remote relatives are identified as dukes and duchesses. But is there any other country where those three generations removed from the royal line still identify themselves on a daily basis by a prefix to their name?
SOME MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS
Other sets of titles in everyday use are those of military and police ranks. This is true in most societies. But Thailand has one curiosity. People who have acquired an officer rank but then leave the service continue to hold the rank for the rest of their lives, and it is obligatory for the rank to be used in any public mention.
Thus the Thai press still religiously refers to "Police Lieutenant Colonel Thaksin Shinawatra" even though he resigned from the police 22 years ago. There is even a controversy over whether his rank should be withdrawn, even though it is not a distinguished rank. This practice amounts to a claim that a police or military rank is something rather special.
One form of titling that has expanded over the past generation is that associated with learning and education. Of course the usage of "Dr" by medical practitioners and holders of tertiary degrees is universal.
But Thailand has developed another level of public academic titling which is again rather unique. "Acharn" was once a title or form of address bestowed especially on learned monks, but also on other kinds of teachers, particularly in the arts.
While that custom remains, it is now overshadowed to identify anyone with an academic post in graduate institutions. This titling subsystem is not as powerful as the royal and military ones because there is no standard written form, and no obligation to use the title whenever the holder is mentioned in writing, such as in the press. The usage of "acharn" is still principally oral.
The fact that there are forms of address which position people as superior and inferior, and titling systems which allow some people to claim they are special, says a lot about society. Naming and addressing practices that elevate some also debase others.
Societies that truly believe in the fundamental equality of humanity and value human dignity try to minimise this sort of thing. Seventy years ago, there was an attempt to reform the Thai language by abolishing many of the practices, which seemed inappropriate for the modern democratic era.
Perhaps that reform was too dogmatic. Certainly it was resisted. Only a few of its innovations now survive.
Some people are beginning to understand the popular demand for a better economic deal. There is also a demand for more respect. That often comes in small everyday forms like the way people are named and addressed.