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.


  1. Another very interesting Thai writer is Nimittramongkhon Nawarat, who was in jail together with above mentioned So Sethaputra. Just recently all three of his (way to few) surviving works became available in English in the book The dreams of an idealist. Very interesting to read and gave a lot in insight into the times of Phibun's first ruling.

  2. Andy, thanks for pointing that book out, I wasn't aware of it. Yet another book I need to buy. :)

  3. Thanks so much for sharing this!

  4. Rikker, thank you so much for sharing his writing. I have so much to catch up on...