Thailand Offended by US Comedy Skit

About two weeks ago, the long-running US TV show "Saturday Night Live" aired a skit lampooning the language-learning software Rosetta Stone. In the parody, customers claim to use the software to learn Thai in order "to go to Thailand... for a thing." Others are shown hiding their faces or trying to learn Thai while the wife is asleep.

The inference is clear. These middle-aged white males have one "thing" in mind. These men are learning (surprisingly accurate) Thai phrases to engage with prostitutes, including the words for "ping pong ball."

Since the show is only widely seen in the United States you would think that this would just go away quickly and be forgotten. Not really: once it was on YouTube for the whole world to see, it eventually made its way to Thailand and into government circles.

Despite having only slightly more than 120,000 views, the sketch sparked outrage and heated debate online among Thais. The story was quickly picked up by mainstream media outlets. And then the Thai Culture Minister chimed in.

Culture Minister Sonthaya Khunploem said on Monday that the government's Culture Watch Centre is working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to have the video removed from YouTube. The government also plans to inform the United States Embassy that the spoof is tarnishing Thailand's image and will ask the embassy to explain the situation to the "Saturday Night Live" producers, Sonthaya said.

The YouTube video is still online and will likely only grow in popularity now that the guardians of "Thainess" have spoken out.

And by complaining to the US Embassy, the government reveals its fundamental misunderstanding of how governments work elsewhere. Unlike in Thailand, US officials cannot just step in and censor the media on a whim.

In general, Thailand tends to be very sensitive about negative perceptions of the country, especially if they are both true and pointed out by foreigners: Last summer's tweet by Lady Gaga upon her arrival in Thailand saying she wanted to buy a fake Rolex watch sparked similar outrage and complaints to the US Embassy.

It is understandable that Thailand wants to protect its image, given the value of its booming tourism industry. But the fact remains the sex industry is huge, lucrative and wide open  and you can buy fake Rolex watches easily. In general, the reaction of conservative cultural guardians is to ignore inconvenient truths for the sake of the Kingdom's image, while doing little to correct the underlying problems. And this sanctimony goes on while Thai television itself still promotes stereotypes about neighboring countries and even calls Thais from the rural northeast "water buffaloes."

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and freelance foreign correspondent based in Bangkok, Thailand. Used with permission of Asia Correspondent.