What price the truth? In Thailand, eating a sandwich or reading a book can get you arrested. As George Orwell once said, in Southeast Asia, it’s all about the connotation
In Bangkok, a student was arrested last Sunday at a high-end shopping centre for reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Across town, a 72-year-old woman was detained for wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Respect My Vote”. Eight people were also arrested and held overnight for passing out free sandwiches.
Although none of them did or said anything else particularly subversive, their crime, essentially, was contradicting the official junta line that the country is now a much happier place.
After the May 22 coup in Thailand, and the draconian responses to dissent that followed, one form of voicing opposition became public reading circles.
With groups of five or more illegal under martial law, opponents to the coup read Nineteen Eighty-Four and other books in groups of four. When such displays of reading became banned, protesters passed out “freedom” sandwiches or flashed a three-finger salute from The Hunger Games. Each was quickly banned in turn. A T-shirt bearing a slogan as benign as “Peace Please” can quite easily get you arrested.
The choice of Nineteen Eighty-Four is especially significant. It is, of course, the great dystopian novel published in 1949 that is still used to refer to authoritarian political systems. When government attempts to rewrite history, crack down on opposition and control how people think become so autocratic as to border on the absurd, we refer to them as Orwellian.
George Orwell (born Eric Arthur Blair) spent five years as a police official in Burma, as Myanmar was then known, and spoke fluent Burmese. Orwell was caught in a British colonial structure more intent on enriching itself than improving the lives of the local population. He was also an outsider disillusioned with the empire but tasked with imposing a relatively rigid European sense of law on a Southeast Asian mindset comfortable with ambiguity but uncomfortable with criticism. This context helped form the seeds for Nineteen Eighty-Four.
In such an environment, the connotations of language are significant, and Orwellian terms such as “Big Brother”, “thoughtcrime” and “doublethink” have a distinctly Southeast Asian ring to them. In the book, the Ministry of Peace is in charge of war, the Ministry of Truth is involved in propaganda, etc. Contradictory language is used to change perception.
Some recent language by the Thai junta – such as helping political dissidents “meditate” in military camps – are cases in point. English-language newspapers in Thailand have been asked not to refer to the military rulers as “junta” because of the negative connotation. They prefer “leadership”, or “interim government”. In their own releases, they replace “coup” with “change” or “benevolent intervention”.
Shakespeare’s Juliet claims that “a rose … by any other name would smell as sweet”. The Thai word for plumeria (lan-thom), on the other hand, resembles a word for pain and sadness (ra-thom). Thus, the flower is indelibly associated with heartbreak and is never planted in home gardens. A plumeria by another name would be a decidedly happier flower.
The Thai word for monitor lizard is also a vulgar epithet; the connotation means that the word is now rarely used to refer to the lizard and the Latin species name had to be introduced into the vernacular as a safer alternative.
Such examples of linguistic sensitivity across the region are numerous.
Myanmar’s former junta, the Orwellian-sounding State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC, became the more benign-sounding State Peace and Development Council in English. Thailand’s junta, the National Peace and Order Maintaining Council, within a few days became the National Council for Peace and Order. The parallels in the two military dictatorships are, linguistically and in their responses to criticism at least, quite stark. Although Myanmar is now a multiparty democracy, the use of language is never innocuous.
When UNESCO referred to the Myanmar minority in Rakhine state as “Rohingya” last month, they were forced into an embarrassing public apology. Myanmar doesn’t recognise the ethnic group and calls them illegal Bengali immigrants, although many have been living along the coast for generations.
Statelessness and a nomadic lifestyle make it hard to prove their origins, but most are certainly not welcome in Bangladesh and recognise no home but Myanmar. For a UN body to refer to them the way they refer to themselves was considered “deeply offensive” by local and national officials.
When a Telenor representative admitted that the Thai junta had demanded they shut down Facebook for users in Thailand on May 28, the telecommunications giant was likewise forced into an embarrassing public apology. Messing with Facebook had been a deeply unpopular move, and the junta had hoped to blame a “technical error”, even if most people already had their suspicions.
Speaking the brazen truth was a major breach of convention, and the junta is now scouring the telecommunications giant’s books in punitive search of any irregularities.
Truth in language must be applied cautiously in a region especially sensitive to linguistic and gestural nuance. Where a rose by another name might smell decidedly differently.