On Monday, November 11, Thailand and the Commonwealth nations coincidentally marked occasions important to each region, but in ways that were very different, including the coincidental timing itself.
Unlike in much of Europe and the Americas, Thailand’s festivals are generally not pegged to specific dates on the Western calendar, but to traditional cycles, usually lunar. Loi Krathong, roughly translated as “floating of the baskets,” falls during the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai calendar, which this year happened to be November 11 – the date on which the Commonwealth of Nations marks Remembrance Day. Some non-Commonwealth countries also recognize that date, under different names; the US calls it Veterans Day.
During Loi Krathong, which although observed throughout the land is not a public holiday and is not particularly religious, Thais make or, more often, buy little baskets made of leaves, which they decorate with flowers, candles and other trappings and place them in waterways such as streams or canals, or in the sea, to float away. According to some traditions, one’s transgressions also float away with the krathong; according to others, they carry prayers for a better future.
Loi Krathong is one of the most picturesque and popular festivals in Thailand. As for Remembrance Day, it is doubtful most Thais know what it is. There is no equivalent date on their calendar; to the extent that Thailand “remembers” past conflicts at all, it does so with monuments, the most famous of which is the Victory Monument in central Bangkok. But it is famous because of its location and value as a photogenic tourist attraction, not the merits, if any, of the “victory” it honors (a brief clash with the French over bits of disputed territory in Laos and Cambodia in the early 1940s).
Armistice Day, of course, originally commemorated the conclusion of a bloody conflict in Europe called, either naively or disingenuously, the “war to end all wars.” Very few Thais probably know that a tiny number of their compatriots actually fought in World War I, and about a dozen actually died in the blood-soaked mud of France, having been sent there by King Rama VI in a possibly ill-advised attempt to put what was then Siam on the Western map.
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When yet another World War, one that actually included Asia and would necessitate the expansion of Armistice Day into Remembrance Day, Thailand’s involvement was confined to an occupation by (some say collaboration with) the Empire of Japan. Europe was practically irrelevant to Thailand during that period, other than irritants like the above-mentioned clash with the French in Indochina. There were no confrontations with the Germans, no Holocaust, at least not in the sense that word is used in the West. Atrocities certainly abounded, but always at Japanese hands, not German, and more often against Allied captives (as on the Burma Railway project) than against the Thais themselves.
Every once in a while there is a flurry of outrage because someone spotted a Hitler action figure, a swastika T-shirt, of some other “disrespectful” homage to the Nazis in a Thai shop or vendor’s stall. This is typical of the ignorance among many Europeans and North Americans of the fact that Europe’s wars mean little or nothing to the Thais. To them, Hitler is a clownish figure appropriately adaptable into a clownish doll; to them, Europeans blowing themselves to bits on battlefields on the other side of the planet is just par for the course.
To them, war is not something to be commemorated with festivals and marching bands. Throughout modern Thai history, the military has played an almost entirely internal political role, very rarely getting into external conflicts.
Thailand takes great pride in the fact it is the only country in Southeast Asia never to have been colonized by a European power; it achieved that by practicing the “art of the deal,” Thai style. The Thais recognized very quickly that the French, British and Dutch colonizers had little genuine interest in ruling a bunch of Asian savages, certainly not in political proselytization in the modern sense of “spreading democracy,” but only wanted to acquire a chunk of Asia’s wealth, its spices, its exotic fruits, its minerals. Fine, said the Thais; let’s make a deal.
And therein lies the story of Loi Krathong. The little banana-leaf boats set afloat on the canals and streams across Thailand this past Monday were about celebrating and looking forward to the future, not mourning a dismal past.