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Thailand’s New Nannies
Bangkok - Early last month, stately Thai Queen Sirikit Kitiyakara flipped on the news and saw a report about a festival marking the end of Buddhist lent in the northeastern province of Nong Khai.
Expecting to see stoic saffron-robed monks, incense and pictures of Buddha, she instead saw something rather different: a bunch of teenage hotties in tight, skimpy outfits gyrating for all those watching state-run television to see.
Shocked, the 74-year-old queen, who is nearly as beloved here as her husband the king, shot off a letter to newly appointed Culture Minister Khaisri Sri-aroon.
"Buddhists in general should always bear in mind what is good for the image of the country," Khaisri quoted the queen as saying this week. "Any shows or performances organized in association with any Buddhist festival should be held with respect for Lord Buddha and Buddhism."
Taken in context, the comment is fair enough. But Queen Sirikit is no ordinary straight-laced pensioner and a royal message here is often taken as a call to action. In response, the culture police quickly sprang into action, threatening legal action against any monks who organize shows involving sexy dancing on temple grounds. Moreover, the Culture Ministry is now mulling new laws to restrict women under 20 years old from dressing sexy and "moving erotically" while promoting any products or entertaining at public events.
This comes on top of moves by the Public Health ministry to ban all alcohol advertising, raise the liquor tax and bump up the drinking age from 18 to 20 in an effort to control rising consumption and curb vice.
While it's too early to say if any of these proposals will actually be enforced, it's clear that the new military-appointed government seems content to carry on with at least one of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s high-profile policies: his social order campaign could be moving into even higher gear.
When Thaksin came to power in 2001, Interior Minister Purachai Piumsombun launched a campaign to shutter bars early in the night and get nude dancers to put on their knickers. The result did nothing to end prostitution but it did result in a visibly more modest sex industry and closing hours that eventually settled at 1 am almost everywhere. Even such famous all-night haunts as the notorious Thermae Coffee Shop on Sukhumvit Road, a place that was usually empty until it got rolling at around 3 am, had to close up early in the face of the campaign.
Thaksin then launched a War on Drugs in 2003, which proved both popular with locals and successful at curbing the drug trade, but raised the ire of human rights groups. In a span of four months, more than 2,200 suspected drug dealers were shot dead in extrajudicial executions.
As a result drugs may now be more expensive and harder to find and nightspots do close earlier but most people have adjusted to the new rules. Bangkok remains determinedly sinful and that is unlikely to change. Thailand's youth also have taken to alcohol and sexy dancing like bread on butter and it's hard to imagine that authorities will be able to control either without excessive force. The closing time is more of a nuisance than anything, as drinkers can always find someplace to imbibe.
As for working girls, they are pushed out onto the street and simply carry on trolling for customers in the sex trade districts.
"Some people have total belief in laws as solutions to the problem of moral decay," said Surichai Wun-Gaeo, who heads the Center for Social Development Studies at Chulalongkorn University and is a member of the junta-appointed legislature.
"I fear that if they draw up a law that does not fit with what society wants then it could backfire," he said. "It can even erode the importance of laws in general, as laws without enforcement, or very selective enforcement, could undermine the whole legal system."
Besides getting tough on bars, Thaksin's government implemented other ineffective rules designed to reduce alcohol consumption. Television commercials for alcoholic beverages are banned from 5 am to 10 pm, and all alcohol sales are prohibited between 2 pm and 5 pm because kids get out of school at those hours.
Despite the measures, alcohol consumption in Thailand has grown in the past three years. Thais consumed 791 million liters of spirits last year, up from 759 million liters in 2003, according to the World Health Organization. Beer intake rose to 1.6 billion liters from 1.5 billion in the same period.
Now the liquor companies are facing more trouble from the moral crusaders. In early December, new measures are set to ban all alcohol advertisements. This is not just related to media outlets, although they are covered, but it would also mean no more Heineken Jazz Festival or Johnnie Walker Classic golf tournament. The ubiquitous beer gardens that spring up all over the country at this time of year would be gone and “beer girls”—often college students looking to pay the bills—would need to find a new line of work. Retail outlets could no longer sell those Tiger Beer T-shirts to backpackers on Khao San Road.
The debate has gotten so ludicrous that officials are now wondering if they should black out the shirts of English Premier League football teams like Everton, which bears the logo of Chang, Thailand's largest selling beer, on international broadcasts.
Liquor companies have protested loudly, but the new government looks intent on pushing forward. The anti-alcohol lobby has proved powerful, notably using massive street protests last year to block Thai Beverage Plc, which makes Chang, from listing on the Stock Exchange of Thailand. The company eventual listed on the Singapore Exchange, in what stock analysts lamented as a loss for the Thai capital market.
Yet despite all the huffing and puffing, vice remains readily available in Thailand. A stroll through the venerable Patpong red light district recently revealed several men and women aggressively hawking girls as young as 15 to anyone who looks remotely interested.
In one place specializing in massages, an owner said she was unconcerned about any new government measures as eight smiling girls in bright red silky dresses sat behind her in two rows like angels in a window display. "All my girls are over 20," she said with a laugh.
Bar after bar still featured legions of bikini-clad young women from northeastern Thailand thrusting their hips and offering other services to regulars and tourists alike. In an informal survey, many had no idea the government wanted to ban erotic dancing for girls under 20, and couldn't care less if they did.
Many also said that the youngest dancers were at least 18—old enough to vote.
In other areas, enforced morality seems to depend on the whims of the local police commander. In Nana Entertainment Plaza, a four-story mall of sorts devoted to go-go bars, the dancers remain more or less clothed, top and bottom. But in nearby Soi Cowboy, which is in a different police district, the post-coup atmosphere has been decidedly relaxed, with many of the dancers appearing nude, just as they did in the pre-Thaksin era. Police visible on the street outside the Soi Cowboy bars took no action to get entertainers to cover up.
In Patpong, clothing remains but closing hours are flexible again. One popular night spot that closed abruptly at 2 a.m. before the coup was still pumping out music well past 3 a.m. earlier this week, for example.
Whatever impact it may have had on night life for foreigners, Thaksin’s moral crusade was widely seen as having little to do with the tourist sex trade anyway. It was viewed as a sop to the conservative middle classes in Bangkok who worried that their daughters were being sullied by the attraction of night clubs aimed at Thai young people. In addition lurid stories of elite female college students renting themselves out as call girls in order to purchase designer shoes and handbags helped feed popular outrage at the time the moral crusade was launched.
Still, some don't see why an 18-year-old can't enjoy a beer after she votes, slips on a thong and wrap her legs around a pole. "Despite its good intentions, the Public Health Ministry's prohibition-like measure of raising the legal age to buy alcohol smacks of a 'nanny knows best' mindset that has no place in a modern, liberal society like ours," The Nation, an English-language daily, said in an editorial. "Treating citizens like small children who need to be protected from social ills and vices that all grown-ups should be assumed to be perfectly capable of dealing with on their own is a dangerous assumption."
But a government-knows-best attitude shouldn't come as a surprise from a new military-appointed government. For months, many of those agitating for the overthrow of the undeniably popular Thaksin essentially argued against Western-style democracy. They urged King Bhumibol Adulyadej, regarded as the father of the nation, to appoint a prime minister instead.
So a few months later, royalist factions in the military staged a coup with palace support and installed familiar figures from the country’s aging elite to run the country. Now that these palace power brokers have sorted out the political situation, it follows that they might also try to cleanse the society of Western evils in order to usher in an idyllic vision of a Buddhist nation instead of the raucous free for all that many foreigners associate with Thailand’s entertainment industry.
Now Thailand must ask itself: Is this the kind of country it really wants? For now they won't get a say, as an election is at least a year away.
"If the Buddhists are really true to themselves, they would see the need to reform from within," said Chulalongkorn's Professor Surichai. "It's easy and tempting to point the finger outside and blame other countries, but we need to go a step beyond that. Nobody can tell someone else what is right and wrong. We need to facilitate an honest public dialogue, and realize that there is no ready-made solution to solve issues of morality."
Copyright 2006, Asia Sentinel and Asian Sex Gazette