April 30, 2009

Siburapha: Thai literature as social activism

[Update: I've now posted the original Thai-language version of "Those Kind of People": คนพวกนั้น. I also blogged briefly about it here.]

Not too many years ago, it wasn't uncommon for Thais critical of the social order to find themselves faced with the choice between exile and a life in prison. Writers were a particular target for many years. Many Thai authors beloved today spent years in jail or died in exile, or both.

So Sethaputra (สอ เสถบุตร), the renowned lexicographer, wrote his first dictionary while a political prisoner on Tarutao Island. Progressive thinker Chit Phumisak (จิตร ภูมิศักดิ์) spent six years in prison only to be acquitted, and eventually shot to death in the Northeastern jungles at the age of 36.

Kulap Saipradit (กุหลาบ สายประดิษฐ์) is perhaps the most prominent example. Best known by his pen name Siburapha (ศรีบูรพา), also spelled Sriburapha, he was a writer and journalist by profession, composing his first novel before the age of 20. He would go on to write more than fifteen novels in all, as well as several non-fiction books, a number of Thai translations of foreign literary works, and dozens of original short stories.

All of his major works were republished with funding from UNESCO in celebration of the centenary anniversary of his birth in 2005. He is also the namesake of the Sriburapha Award, which recognizes excellence in journalism, writing, and the arts.

The writing style of Siburapha evolved over the course of his career as he became more involved in human rights activism, and the fight against social injustice in Thailand. In 1951, he set up the Peace Foundation of Thailand. The next year, during a trip to the Northeast of Thailand to distribute goods to the needy, he was one of many "agitators" arrested by the dictatorial government of Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram. Convicted of treason, he spent four years behind bars before being released in 1957.

In 1958, while Siburapha was in China attending a writers' conference, General Sarit overthrew the Thai government in one of the country's many military coups. Those in Siburapha's group who returned to Thailand were all arrested, so he elected to remain in China. He spent the last 16 years of his life there in exile.

For those who prefer his earlier, safer romantic works, it is perhaps easy to dismiss Siburapha's later works as heavy-handed, or lacking literary merit. But to do so is to miss the point. His later works are part of the first generation of the "Literature for Life" movement, which had a second wind in the social unrest of the late 60s and 70s.

And so I present the English translation of "Those Kind of People" ("คนพวกนั้น"), a short story by Siburapha, first published in 1950 in the magazine สยามสมัย (Siam Samai). It became popular again among student activists a quarter of a century later.

Today I can't help but read it with my eyes open to how much it continues to reflect Thai society. Though things have improved considerably, in particular with the introduction of affordable health care for the poor, the quality-of-life gap between the higher and lower strata of Thai society remains gaping wide.

"Those Kind of People" tells the story of a girl from an aristocratic family who disagrees with her parents' attitude towards the lives of the lower-class masses, and towards their own privilege. A piece of advice from the girl's father encapsulates the attitude well:
'You shouldn't go worrying too much about those kind of people,' he said, referring to the people who lived outside Bangkok, the poor, and all those people who were not of the same class as Chao Khun himself. 'They've always lived like that. They're used to it, and they don't really need more than what they already have.'
I do hope that you will read the complete short story. It's almost hard to believe it was written six decades ago. It is published here, however, without permission.

Muthiah Alagappa (1995). Political legitimacy in Southeast Asia. Stanford University Press.
David Smyth and Manas Chitakasem (1998). The Sergeant's Garland and other stories. Oxford University Press.
Siburapha. Retrieved April 30, 2009.

April 23, 2009

Word of the Day: ค่อนข้าง /khɔ̂n 'khâaŋ/

Word of the Day for Thursday, April 23, 2009:

ค่อนข้าง /khɔ̂n 'khâaŋ/ rather, relatively, fairly

This phrase can be used both positively and negatively, e.g. ค่อนข้างดี "rather good" vs. ค่อนข้างแย่ "rather terrible." It lightens the weight of your statement in either direction.

In some cases it's comparable to the suffix -ish, as in ค่อนข้างเปรี้ยว "sourish". However, keep in mind that in English, -ish is often used to damn with faint praise, which doesn't really match the Thai meaning of ค่อนข้าง. So in English I might say "yeah, the movie was funny-ish," which is an idiomatic way of saying it wasn't very funny at all. On the flipside, ค่อนข้างตลก would be understood as funny but not hysterical, which closer matches the sentiment of English "pretty funny" or "fairly funny."

You can use it with pretty much anything that acts like an adjective. ค่อนข้างสูง "rather tall", ค่อนข้างอ้วน "rather fat", ค่อนข้างหิว "rather hungry". Even ค่อนข้างแดง "rather red", if, say, you went to the beach and asked a friend to describe how your back after a nap on your stomach.

April 17, 2009

Thai 101 Giveaway: The Judgment / คำพิพากษา

The April giveaway is an equal opportunity giveaway: two copies of The Judgment/คำพิพากษา, by Chart Korbjitti/ชาติ กอบจิตติ, one in English, and one in Thai. As with two previous giveaways, The Judgment is a S.E.A. Write Award winner, receiving the honor in 1982. The English is translated by Phongdeit Jiangphatthana-kit and Marcel Barang.

The book was made into a film in 2004 with the title Ai-Fak/ไอ้ฟัก.

To enter the drawing, send an email to rdockum [at] gmail [dot] com. Include "Thai 101 Giveaway" in the subject (but you won't be disqualified if you don't). Please tell me your language preference, Thai or English. If you are okay with either one, then let me know that, too.

You have until the end of the month, April 30, to enter. I'll announce the winners at the beginning of May.

If you're selected, I'll email you to request your mailing address. If you've won something in the past, you're still eligible. The giveaway is open to anyone in the world. Postage is on me.

As I announced, these are books I bought at this year's book fair. The Thai is a brand new copy of the 42nd printing, published 2008; the English was printed 2001, and while new, it has minor shelf wear and yellowing around the page edges.

April 13, 2009

Word of the Day: สถานการณ์ฉุกเฉิน /sa'tʰǎa.ná'kaan chùk 'chə̌ən/

Word of the Day for Saturday, April 11, 2009:

สถานการณ์ฉุกเฉิน /sa'tʰǎa.ná'kaan chùk 'chə̌ən/ n. state of emergency (by formal declaration)

Yesterday marked a record for Thailand: the first time in Thai history that a etate of emergency was declared on two consecutive days. Through a little research, though, I learned that Thailand has been in a formal state of emergency in at least one province since 1958.

The recent culprit is the South Thailand insurgency, where the situation was downgraded in 2005 from martial law to state of emergency in 2005, and the SOE has been extended without faily every three months since then. We're up for another extension of the Southern SOE next week.

The important elements here are สถานการณ์ "situation" and ฉุกเฉิน "emergency". Alternately, ภาวะฉุกเฉิน is used with the same meaning, but is not the official term. Occasionally สภาวะฉุกเฉิน will turn up, too. Both of these literally mean "state of emergency".

Bonus vocab:
  • เหตุฉุกเฉิน "emergency" (literally, "emergent event")
  • ประตูฉุกเฉิน "emergency exit" (lit. "emergency door")
  • สัญญาณฉุกเฉิน "emergency alarm"
  • ห้องฉุกเฉิน "emergency room; ER"
  • เบรกฉุกเฉิน "emergency brake; e-brake" (more commonly, เบรกมือ "hand brake")
  • ในกรณีฉุกเฉิน "in case of emergency..."

April 10, 2009

A yellow perspective on red shirts

Politics are crazy in Thailand, as usual. I avoid getting into it all, at least in the public forum. In my day-to-day life, I work near Victory Monument, which has recently become a site for demonstrations.

Today the Bangkok locals on Twitter were abuzz with news and comments after taxis blockaded all roads into the roundabout at Victory Monument. The so-called "Red Shirts" (UDD) gathered en masse. I tweeted what I could see from my balcony. Breaking Tweets featured the story.

It was interesting to see opinions from both sides in real time. One twitterer, clearly not a Red Shirt sympathizer, linked to a phony Red Shirt membership application. It's intentionally offensive to the Thaksin loyal, but it gives a clear picture of how some view the protesters: as uneducated rabblerousers.

Amused, I hastily translated it into English and tweeted it.

Here is the original letter, linked variously on the web, but I read it on this blog on the Manager website (click to embiggen):

April 7, 2009

Toranong Srichua on Thai film censorship

Here's a quote that really struck me, from veteran Thai filmmaker Toranong Srichua, director of the forthcoming controversial disaster epic Tsunami 2022:

ในวงการหนังบ้านเราต้องห้ามตัวละครมีเซ็กซ์ ห้ามตัวละครพูดเรื่องการเมือง ห้ามตัวละครพูดเรื่องศาสนา ห้ามตัวละครพูดเรื่องสถาบัน ห้ามตัวละครค้ายาเสพติด คุณห้ามๆ อย่างนี้ไง ตัวละครถึงเป็นผี เป็นตัวตลก ซึ่งมันเป็นตัวละครที่ไม่มีอยู่ในโลก แต่มันวิ่งอยู่ในวงการหนังไทยได้

"In the Thai film industry, characters are forbidden to have sex, forbidden to discuss politics, forbidden to discuss religion, forbidden to discuss the monarchy, forbidden to sell drugs. Because you forbid all these things, all the characters are ghosts and clowns. Neither exist in the real world, and yet they run wild in Thai films."

The translation is mine. Quoted from an interview in the April 2009 issue of Bioscope; previously posted on Poakpong.com.

Word of the Day: เลิกจ้าง /'lə̂ək 'jâaŋ/

Word of the Day for Tuesday, April 7, 2009:

เลิกจ้าง /'lə̂ək 'jâaŋ/ v. to lay off, dismiss (from one's employ)

This is a phrase that is becoming more and more prominent these days. If someone (or some group, as is sadly common) was laid off, you would say they ถูกเลิกจ้าง -- ถูก makes the phrase passive.

You can find numerous examples of เลิกจ้าง in an article from today's Matichon, for example. It reports that unemployed workers will begin demonstrating at Victory Monument today from 9:00am, in protest of recent mass layoffs. According to the report, 23,712 Thai factory workers have lost their jobs in the first quarter of 2009, and a further 2 million are expected to be laid off before the year is out.

The phrase เลิกจ้าง is used in contrast with ไล่ออก(จากงาน) "to fire, terminate" or ถูกไล่ออก(จากงาน) "to be fired, get fired", literally to be "chased out", which similarly to English typically means that the worker has done something to cause themselves to be fired, whether through misconduct, laziness, or otherwise. And both are different from ลาออก(จากงาน) "to quit, to resign", which means of course that the employee leaves of his own volition.

Note that without ออก, however, ลา also means to take temporary work leave: ลาป่วย "take sick leave", ลาคลอด "take maternity leave", ลาหยุด "take time off, take a leave of absence", and even ลาบวช "take ordination leave". Thai employers typically allow workers time off if they ordain to the priesthood.

April 3, 2009

Word of the Day: ถ่วง /'thùaŋ/

Word of the Day for Friday, April 3, 2009:

ถ่วง /'thùaŋ/ v. to weigh down, to be weighted down; to cause to sink; to slow down

From today's Matichon comes this example of ถ่วง:

(word-by-word breakdown)

Taken literally, this means:
"Politics weigh Thailand down, (causing it to) recover slowly"

An idiomatic English headline (with a bit more context) might read:
"Political turmoil slows Thailand's economic recovery"

Bonus vocab:
ถ่วงเวลา "stall for time".
ถ่วงเรื่อง "to stall a matter, put a matter on hold".
ความโน้มถ่วง "gravity" (also แรงโน้มถ่วง "gravitational force").
ศูนย์ถ่วง "center of gravity".

April 1, 2009

Royal Institute announces simplifications to Thai alphabet

Thailand's Royal Institute (ราชบัณฑิตยสถาน), the government agency charged with promoting the proper use of Standard Thai, announced this morning the first major changes to the basic Thai writing system since the aborted spelling reforms of the Phibunsongkhram administration during World War II.

In a move that mirrors those changes, starting today, ten consonants will become officially obsolete, in addition to the two already no longer used, ฃ ขวด and ฅ คน. The newly retired letters are: ฆ ระฆัง, ฌ เฌอ, ญ หญิง, ฎ ชฎา, ฏ ปฏัก, ฐ ฐาน, ฑ มณโฑ, ฒ ผู้เฒ่า, ณ เณร, and ฬ จุฬา. This brings the total number of defunct consonants to twelve, paring the Thai alphabet down from 44 to 32, which is considered an auspicious number in Thai culture.

The choices, they explained in a press conference this morning, are based on a careful study of letter and word frequency in Thai. Only the least commonly used consonants are being retired, in an effort to boost literacy, without sacrificing the breadth of expression that makes Thai the elegant and diverse language it is.

The consonants ฆ ฌ ญ ฎ ฏ ฐ ฑ ฒ ณ and ฬ are to be replaced with their sound-alike counterparts ค ช ย ด ต ถ ท น and ล. For example, under the reform the word ญาติ will now be spelled ยาติ, ปฏิรูป will become ปติรูป, and so forth.

This announcement was made jointly with the Ministry of Education and the Tourism Authority of Thailand, as part of a new push to reinvigorate the flagging tourism industry. It is believed that the simplifications to the writing system will boost foreign interest in Thailand and the Thai language, which is frequently cited as one of the most difficult languages to learn, in large part due to the complicated script.

All Ministry of Education textbooks are required to be updated within the end of calendar year 2010, and the government is expected to offer tax concessions and other incentives to publishers to help defray the large costs of updating their publications over the next several years. The public sector deadline is longer, set at the end of calendar year 2015.

Whether this initiative will be successful remains to be seen, but clearly this is a huge step for Thailand.

[Source: Complete transcript of the Royal Institute press conference]