Published on December 24, 2007
Luang Por Khoon became a national figure in the early 1990s when several people claimed that his amulets had saved them from death and disaster. Earlier, he had made his reputation as an ascetic monk in the forest tradition, and invested his spiritual power in amulets distributed to soldiers and others facing daily dangers. Many other monks made such protective amulets. What made Luang Por Khoon different was the way he spoke and behaved. He used a broad northeastern dialect. He affected a crude country cheroot, which was a throwback to ancient history. Most of all, he addressed everyone with pronouns so old-fashioned and rustic they were considered rude. As politicians flocked to benefit from his popularity, he made no concession to status and social nicety. In oral legend, he even addressed royalty in the same way.
By the mid 1990s, Luang Por Khoon was indisputably Thailand's most well-known and popular monk, in part from the reputation of his amulets, but in part from his levelling egalitarianism which mocked the hierarchies of wealth, power, and social refinement.
Phumphuang Duangjan made her early name on the country-music tour circuit in the late 1970s. From there she was transformed into a popular star of unprecedented dimensions by the time of her untimely death in 1992. She was pretty and she had a great voice, but many other singers were not so different. What made Phumphuang special were the songs. She sang about her own transition from the village to the city, and about the risks and opportunities of the wider world. At a time when a million people were making the same transition every year, she made the attendant joys and heartbreaks into public property.
Thai boxers had made their mark in international competition from the 1950s. But the public significance of their careers changed totally with the spread of television. By the early 1980s, a Thai boxer contesting an international crown was the only thing that could strip the traffic off Bangkok streets. Khaosai Galaxy managed to prolong his fighting career beyond the usual meteoric pattern, and then stayed in the public eye as an actor and media personality. The clinching moment came in 1996 when Somluck Khamsing won gold at the Olympics. Eight years later, Thai fighters won a clutch of golds and Pawina Thongsuk spearheaded Thai women's unexpected reincarnation as weight-lifters. With scarcely an exception, these new sports stars came from the poorer regions and the poorer families, but the Olympic medal proved they were indisputably best in the world.
Many comedians started out in clubs and cafés, especially the venues which sprouted throughout urban Thailand as migration swelled in the 1980s. In the early 1990s, TV producers imported these comedians into the game-show format, edited out the riskier humour, and created the most popular and cost-efficient genre on the small screen. Several troupes became national household names. In the 2000s, Mum Jokmok separated himself from the pack, developing new roles in television and film, and becoming a constant presence in public media. Even while the humour has been filtered for public consumption, it still retains the trace of the café. Wordplay, repartee, clownish violence, cross-dressing, and innuendo constantly flaunt old definitions of proper behaviour.
Officialdom continues to distribute national honours to retired bureaucrats, millionaires shamed into generosity, generals' wives, and aged artists of worthy credentials but very limited visibility. But the public has created a very different pantheon.
With scarcely an exception, these new heroes and heroines come from nowhere. Indeed, that is part of what qualifies them for the role. They are honoured for what they do well - how they sing, preach, joke, or fight. But an important part of the public fascination is about money.
By the early 2000s, Luang Por Khoon's cashflow from donations and amulet sales reached several hundred million baht a year. His base at Wat Ban Rai has grown into a massive combination of temple and market. He funds several schools, hospitals, and other charitable activities.
The rise of the new sports stars has been a public drama played out on live TV. In the first act, cameras snoop on the family and friends watching the victory on a TV set powered by a car battery. In the second act, the victor is showered with donations by government and sponsors in a metaphorical version of the garlanding with strings of banknotes. In the third act, the victor displays the glistening new car, the grand home built for the family, and other possessions.
Part of the public attention on Phumphuang highlights her transformation from illiterate child labourer to wealthy star. News stories like to detail how generous she was in support of her family, retinue, and hangers-on. After her death, Phumphuang was transformed into a spirit which can bring similar wealth to others by revealing winning lottery numbers.
Underlying the creation of these heroes and heroines is a massive change in social mentalities. By celebrating these success stories, people are revealing their own aspirations for change, for wider opportunities, for the overthrow of old restraints. For a long time, these aspirations had little impact on Thai politics because of the old monopolies of military, bureaucracy, and commercial wealth. Not any more.
Thaksin promised to make people better off by stimulating the economy, by redistributing income, and by supporting local enterprise. But maybe there is another, more mystical side. People hope they can benefit from the power which made Thaksin himself rich, rather in the same way they invest their hopes in Luang Por Khoon's amulets or Phumphuang's spirit.
The populism that now pervades Thai politics is rooted in a massive social and cultural shift. The old methods and the old platitudes no longer work.