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Racism & Black Lives Matter In Thailand

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The Black Lives Matter (BLM) call to action has come to this Buddhist-majority society which is grappling with discrimination against dark-skinned Thais, while some foreign black people say they personally suffer racism here but not as brutally as in the US and elsewhere.

In Bangkok, "I've been denied entry to bars, asked to pay at restaurants before even getting the food, denied service in shops," Zipporah Gene said in an interview.

"I am British but of Nigerian and Egyptian heritage. My previous hometowns include London, Cairo, and Kingston, Jamaica," said Ms. Gene who has worked in Thailand for about a decade in media-related jobs.

Thais often call her 'kohn pew dam' which translates as 'person with black skin.'

"While it’s not necessarily derogatory, it focuses on my skin color -- a lot -- which I‘ve always found quite weird.

"I could always tell when it was derogatory because some people would scream it at my face, they’d have a hostile tone, or just spit after they’d say it. It’s been a while since I’ve had that."

Villagers are more polite and call her "pew dam suay" or "black skin pretty".

In recent years, the situation has greatly improved, Ms. Gene said, because Thai society has become more international.

"When I first arrived in 2010, I was called Obama, as in jest," African-American Bernard Basley, a retired TV director, said in an interview.

"Instead, I took it as a compliment and they stopped that particular practice.

"As I travel in the city’s more affluent areas, I can see the mental wheels turning, [Thais] trying to understand how I happen to be there. I think they just chalk it up to being American," Mr. Basley said reflecting on 10 years in Bangkok.

"As for the BLM statement, it's not really germane here. We don’t have police murdering people on a daily basis."

A new generation of Thais are also more aware of racial issues in this Southeast Asian country which includes ethnic Malay-Thais, Chinese-Thais, and Thais whose ancestors came from India, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas.

"For me, the most disturbing aspect is probably the arbitrary racially motivated arrests of Africans -- who are not all scammers or involved in illegal dealings -- that are specifically singled out," said Bangkok Post columnist Yvonne Bohwongprasert.

"If they do appear in Thai media, it is mostly as either a butt of a joke or about their arrests by Thai immigration for overstaying their visa or scamming offences," Ms. Yvonne wrote.

Many Thais equate darker skin with low-paid menial work, such as rice farmers toiling under harsh sunlight.

Lighter skin is widely perceived as a symbol of success enjoyed by indoor white-collar workers. They often shade their faces while walking in the street, shopping or commuting.

When Thais judge each other based on skin color, it includes class discrimination, not purely racism which is more likely to appear against foreigners -- including occasionally against white people.

"The anti-racist protests and riots in the United States across 70 cities as a result of the police killing of black man George Floyd on May 25 have got some in Thailand reflecting upon their own society," wrote Thai columnist Pravit Rojanaphruk.

Thai "black people, whenever they appear on Thai TV, slapstick comedy shows and soaps [soap operas], are almost always portrayed as uncultured or even primitive," Mr. Pravit said.

Those scripts -- sometimes including Thais wearing blackface and a big frizzy wig -- give audiences "the perceptions of black people being barbaric, naive and thus inferior."

In the future, "having an active, black American ambassador to Thailand can help. It can showcase black leadership in Thailand," Mr. Pravit suggested.

Public rallies are illegal in Thailand under the military-dominated elected government, so most BLM discussion is online and in local news media.

When Thais recently went online supporting the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, some Thais perceived that activity as hypocritical or imbalanced.

"Why speak out on injustice in the United States, but not in your own country?" wrote columnist Voranai Vanijaka.

Several years ago, complaints convinced supermarkets in Thailand to stop selling "Black Man" mops, brooms and scrub brushes which displayed a grinning black man dressed in a suit as its logo. The brand changed to "Be Man."

"Darkie" toothpaste was also popular, illustrated by a black man wearing a top hat. After criticism, it became "Darlie" and the logo rendered less distinct.

In 2013, Dunkin' Donuts publicly apologized and retracted printed advertisements portraying a Thai woman in blackface enjoying their new "charcoal donuts."

On Twitter, @Thai_Talk commentator "kaewmala," a Thai woman with more than 27,000 followers, said:

"At the most simplistic level, white equates good and beautiful, and black the opposite. This remains deeply ingrained in the Thai psyche."

Until it was outlawed in 1905, Thais owned Thais and others as slaves.

"More than 1/3 of the Thai population were slaves," the Thai government said in a published statement.

"There was the endless continuity of offspring slaves. They all were slaves for the rest of their lives. Traditionally children of slaves also became slaves."

***

Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978 and winner of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He co-authored three nonfiction books about Thailand including "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946," "60 Stories of Royal Lineage," and "'Hello My Big Big Honey!' Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," https://www.amazon.com/Hello-Big-Honey-Revealing-Interviews/dp/1717006418

Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the chapter "Ceremonies and Regalia" in a nonfiction book published in English and Thai titled "King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective."

Mr. Ehrlich's book "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask & President Akimbo" portrays a 22-year-old American female mental patient who is abducted by her abusive San Francisco psychiatrist and taken to Asia. https://www.amazon.com/Sheila-Carfenders-Doctor-President-Akimbo/dp/1973789353/

His new nonfiction book "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. ~ Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" displays excerpts and Amazon's link at:

https://asia-correspondent.tumblr.com

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