Thais Bemoan Their 'Cheuy Cheuy' Culture

Artists, scholars say greed, indifference are sweeping aside tradition

Clambering onto the stage before a virtually empty auditorium, Dome Sukwong wears a look of quiet resignation - the look of a fighter who knows he's up against impossible odds.

"Thanks for turning out in such numbers," says Mr. Dome, smiling at the irony of his own words. About 30 spectators have come for a film festival celebrating the work of Ratana Pestonji, one of Thailand's best-known film makers from the 1960s.

A few hundred feet from where he is making his lonely "last stand" on behalf of Mr. Pestonji's films, swarms of shoppers mill excitedly around four shiny new cars displayed at a downtown shopping complex.

The contrast is striking. After a decade of helter-skelter development, and eroded by a flood of imported goods and profit-motivated economic growth, Thailand's traditional culture is being swept aside. It is being replaced by a new "culture" centered on business, money, and status. Nowhere are the pressures of change more visible than in the capital, Bangkok.

While Thai cinema is relegated to the netherworld of subculture, American films dominate. At one Bangkok theater, demand for tickets to the film "Independence Day" was so great that 2 out of 3 screens here were showing the American blockbuster.

Against such odds, Dome can only shrug his shoulders in despair. "Most of the new urban middle class show little interest in Thai films," he says. "They're more interested in the latest offerings from Hollywood."

Frustration at the disinterest in Thai arts and culture is echoed across the artistic spectrum. Siowchan Ramphrai, a Thai journalist, laments the lack of support for home-grown writers. "Why isn't the government paying more attention to promoting good literature and other life-enriching pursuits like culture and the arts?" she complains. "Of course, the politicians' main focus ... is on the economy. Are they not aware that our indigenous culture is being transformed...?"

To some, the transformation of Thai society threatens the very fabric of the nation. Foremost among the advocates of a return to more traditional values is Sulak Sivaraksa, a leading Thai intellectual and founder of the Bangkok-based Asian Cultural Forum. "The Thai elite worship the new demonic consumerism, but of course it is not unique to this country," says the social critic, who recalls being refused entry into a major hotel because he was wearing a traditional Thai outfit. "They didn't let me in because I was wearing sandals. But in Thailand it was once normal for people to wear sandals."

It's not just the elite who are being affected. Value changes resulting from new lifestyles and new expectations are most striking among the young. Take Nisakorn Boonlert, a first year student at Bangkok's St. Theresa's International Business School. Freshly arrived from the provinces, she quickly learned the priorities of Bangkok's business culture. "I want to get through this business college as fast as possible so I can start earning money," she says.

"She's typical of the new generation," complains her uncle. "Her parents know all the steps of the traditional dances, but she doesn't know any."

Ms. Nisakorn is part of what some analysts have dubbed the "cheuy cheuy" generation, referring to a Thai expression that signifies a kind of passive indifference. Heirs to an era of optimism, akin to the boom of the 1960s in the West, Thailand's cheuy cheuy generation sees a future with few challenges punctuated by parties and shopping sprees.

As the old traditions fade, they are being replaced by a new ethic. Commercial success and wealth are now virtually the sole yardsticks against which power and status are measured.

"Nowadays money is everything. It's almost as if we shouldn't greet people by saying 'How are you?' We should say 'Hello, what kind of car are you driving?' Or 'What kind of mobile phone do you use?' " notes a Thai journalist working for a leading women's magazine here.

SUCH changes are ringing alarm bells among government officials. Founded 17 years ago, the office of the Thai National Culture Commission desperately wants to turn the tide. "We're trying to make people think about their culture and remind them of the old values," explains an official. He is referring to the commission's TV and billboard ad campaigns exhorting Thais to not forget traditional ways.

More worrying to some is that the new culture of money and business is seeping into the spiritual core of Thai nationhood: Buddhism. "We are heading toward materialism and leaving ethics and spiritual development behind," wrote Phra Dhamma Pidok, a leading intellectual monk, in a local paper.

At Wat Dhammakaya, a sprawling temple complex just outside Bangkok, the emphasis is on tailoring Buddhism to the mores of a modern urban elite. Accepting only monks who are university educated, Dhammakaya wants to speak to its 100,000 or so followers in ways they will appreciate.

The temple often uses modern marketing techniques to put its message across. "Don't overlook the chance of a lifetime," exhorts one of Dhammakaya's glossy brochures inviting devotees to donate "at least $400" for a personalized Buddha image.

The temple's business-orientated approach has drawn criticism from more traditional Buddhist thinkers.

"Dhammakaya has been created to satisfy the needs of capitalists," complains Pra Maha Prayutto, a leading Thai monk who won a UNESCO Peace Education Prize in 1994. "It's religious consumerism," adds Suwanna Satha-Anand, a scholar at Thammasat University in Bangkok.

Elsewhere, the decline in traditional religious values has shocked many Thais. A spate of recent sex scandals have cast a shadow over the monkhood, once one of the nation's most revered institutions. Monks have been brought into courts accused of raping girls and having sexual affairs with female followers.

To many, such incidents reflect a disturbing decline in the core morality of the monkhood and are symptoms of changes taking place within society as a whole.

"Increasing wealth in our society has made it more difficult for monks to resist temptation and lead a modest life," comments Chantana Hinkaew, a graduate student in Bangkok. Such are the pressures of Thailand's new business age that young men who traditionally entered the monkhood for a period of three months during the rainy season now often find time for only a few days or perhaps a week at the monastery.

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