This morning at Legacy I saw a very strange sight, one that was both a very bizarre reminder of home and also a sobering warning about the relationship of politics and fashion in this part of Thailand. This morning one of the first year students (a particularly clever student, even if she is giggly like most of her cohorts) showed up to breakfast rocking a Fidel Castro-esque camouflage hat. She looked like a young woman in a Maoist unit, and I commented to her a bit jokingly about it, presuming that she was not making a deliberately political fashion statement but was rather (like her sombrero-wearing fellow students) looking to shield her eyes from sun glare for the morning’s farm work.
That said, the sight did spur me to think a little bit more about the nature of fashion here in Baan Mae Sa Luang. Many times as I have walked by the morning market I have seen people with camouflage clothing to sell, and such clothing is popular even among the civilians of the area (much less the uniformed members of Thailand’s military who can be seen at the stores and restaurants of this humble little village, some of whom I have personally interacted with as I was on my way to conduct some food-related business myself). I had initially assumed that the local taste in camouflage was related to that nearby military presence, but the sight of the young lady in the hat suggests there may be other possible reasons as well.
At this point I should say that I did not bring and have refrained from buying any such clothing myself. As the American military is widely thought to be in support of the efforts of Thailand’s military to thwart genuine grass-roots democracy in Thailand, and as I have zero interest in portraying myself as being sympathetic with repressive elements of Thailand’s political system, I have operated under the assumption that for a westerner like myself (particularly one with an open and avowed interest in military and political studies) to wear such clothing would be seen as a provocative move. Nonetheless, it is possible that the wearing of such clothing by people all over my village is also a provocative move of its own.
For though I doubt that the Legacy Student I saw was a budding Communist sympathizer herself, surely the fact that she could (and did) pick up such clothing (either at her own hometown in the northern part of this province, or in the market here in the village or in neighboring Mae Rim) means that Maoist-related gear is being sold in Northern Thailand, and that it is seen as a fashion statement of sorts. And that is potentially significant, as there are some major political implications of the fact that people feel it acceptable to sell and wear clothing associated with anti-American Communist revolutions. They are not implications that I find particularly pleasant either.
For the Northern part of Thailand is politically associated with a populist political party which has at least vague sympathies with socialism. I have commented at some length previously about the precarious state of Thai politics, and I do not wish to do so again. Nonetheless, the relationship between populist politics and Communist fashion is a very significant one, and it signifies at least some degree of self-awareness on the part of local merchants (and even possibly in the clever young lady herself). One cannot escape political choices, for even the choice of a hat to block out the sun can cast shadows on far deeper and darker matters. For people who would judge me by my own nationality alone, without closer examination, might gravely misconstrue my own worldview and views about social justice.