80. Being Outside Looking In

Being Outside, Looking In: Thailand’s been an interesting study in the new breed of love-hate relationship the rest of the world has with the United States. American pop culture and junk foods are as ubiquitous as ever but there’s something different about Thailand’s embrace. It feels uneasy, perhaps because it clashes with the fierce national pride of the Thai people. Thailand is the premier economy of SE Asia, with bustling, hip, modern, expensive Bangkok at its heart. Especially in this metropolis, evidence of an underlying distaste for American values abounds. The mazelike textile markets in Bangkok are choked with stalls selling anti-Bush and anti-war t-shirts, making Thailand feel like the epicenter of the world’s revulsion towards our government. We can empathize, but it’s still jarring. We also feel it every time we open a newspaper. Take this excerpt from the recent Bangkok Post review of Spider-Man 3:

“In this third movie, Spidey flaunts his ballooning ego, playboy strut and the big-headed swagger of a teenage celebrity inebriated by the screams of young female fans. Perhaps like the U.S. itself, Spider-Man has stopped being a role model and spiraled down the abyss of his own fame…”

That didn’t stop them from giving the movie three out of four stars, however, nor has it stopped Spider-Man 3 from setting box office records in every Asian country that’s screened it. The Bangkok Post is an excellent English daily newspaper and we’ve read it nearly every day we’ve been in Thailand. Because of it, we’ve been able to follow the local slant on two high profile, ongoing riffs between Thailand and Corporate America that may have already come and gone in U.S. news – Thailand vs. YouTube and Thailand vs. Some American Pharmaceutical Companies.

The first dispute is easy to explain. YouTube, owned by Google, is a web site that lets any individual post videos for the world to see. At the beginning of May, some user of unknown nationality posted videos on YouTube that made fun of Thailand’s king. The Thai government, fiercely protective of the king and his family (as are the Thai people themselves), promptly requested that Google remove the offensive videos. Google declined, suggesting that the government and offended parties should lighten up, which they most certainly did not. The Thai government then ordered that all internet providers in the country block access to YouTube, which they did because the law against defaming the royal family allows for that kind of authority. In Thailand, insulting the king is a serious criminal offense – Last week, a Swiss man who was convicted of vandalizing images of the king and queen was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Google, realizing that it has lost the audience of one of the most internet savvy countries in SE Asia, eventually relented and deleted the videos of the Thai king. To date, however, the YouTube ban remains in effect, the national debate on censorship vs. national pride rages on and most tragic of all, we’re not able to post videos of Amy chasing mosquitoes around our hotel room with an electrified bug-kill racquet. Quality.

The second dispute is far more complicated because it involves the legality of U.S. drug patents overseas. In short, Thailand’s government has challenged the rights of pharmaceutical companies to charge high premiums for HIV/AIDS drugs sold in this country. The backlash from the U.S. drug companies has been nasty, including the hiring of a public relations firm that took out dubious full-page advertisements in Thai newspapers and created web pages with titles like “thai-lies.com.” In a country where 75% of the population wears yellow shirts every Monday in a demonstration of national unity (the king was born on a Monday) and where everyone in a movie theatre stands for the playing of the national anthem before the start of the film, this kind of thing creates an awful lot of ruckus.

Regardless of which party – the coup-installed military government of Thailand or American corporations – you find on moral high ground, the impact on our daily experience is the same. This is still an awkward time to travel as an American. And although we still refuse to pretend ourselves Canadian, we are greatly enjoying the game “Real or Fake?” where we try to spot the Americans who are. They’re few in number, but we know who they are.


  1. kate says:

    This was a good post. Fascinating stuff.

  2. sloanschang says: