Billboards, Statues, T-shirts: Revolving Ironies

Benedict Anderson

Benedict Anderson Irwin Matutina

Illustrations by Irwin Matutina.

Different billboards and statues in Thailand, Japan, and the Philippines reflect the peculiarities of these countries. The peripatetic Benedict Anderson shares his reflections and comparisons.

A few days ago, I took some foreign friends to tourist-ridden Kanchanaburi, and as usual when I visit this very ordinary place, I asked our driver to stop at the hospital on one side of the broad street that bisects the town. I wanted, as always, to pay my respects to the blackened little statue of Colonel Phraya Phahon in the hospital’s crowded parking lot. What surprised me this time was that two middle-aged women were on their knees, with deeply bowed heads, while making the offerings usually made to spirits or Buddha images. Phahonʼs pedestal was covered with many other quasi-religious objects. How could this have happened? Had the Colonel somehow become supernaturally beneficent? Is this why his image is attached to a chilly place of modern suffering, hope, despair, and uneasy thankfulness?

Colonel Phraya Phahon was certainly born and raised in Kanchanaburi province, thus a man in whom the people of the area could take pride. But he is indelibly famous as the leader of the military-civilian alliance that bloodlessly overthrew the Thai absolute monarchy in June 1932, and as the country’s first “commoner” Prime Minister from 1934-38. Under his benign rule, Siam acquired a constitution, a partially elective parliament, and a cluster of new laws engaging the population of the country as something new — citizens. No scandal surrounds his Prime Ministership, his honesty has never been impugned, and he never killed anyone. He did not outstay his welcome, retired, and died when he was only 52 years old. A political leader with these progressive and system-changing achievements would normally be a “national hero.” But, so far as I know, there is no monument to him in the capital, or anywhere else in the country. He survives iconically only in his home town.

His statue has its own purity. He was a short man in life, and remains so in his image. He wears a simple military uniform in the style of the 1930s, and his stance is calm and gentle, with no annoying ornaments and melodramatic poses. But he is not unique. Pridi Banomyong, the leader of the Phahonʼs civilian partners, who had many achievements of his own in various ministerial posts, has a lone statue on the premises of Bangkok’s Thammasat University, which he personally founded and directed during the late 1930s. Also calm, benign, and unpretentious. You could say he too has been demoted to a “local” status, admired only by Thammasatʼs students and some professors. Phahonʼs successor, Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, Prime Minister from 1938 to 1943, and 1948-57, has a solitary statue at the military base in provincial Lopburi, while the brutal General Phao, who turned the police into a serious rival with military in the 1950s, has his own quiet statue inside the National Police Headquarters in Bangkok. It is as if “national heroes“ or “great men and women” are difficult to find in sculpted form anywhere in the country. Moreover, one will rarely find any T-shirts inscribed with their names and faces.

A few years ago, I happened to be driven from Prajuab province in the middle South to the capital on the eve of a national election. The South is generally regarded as the stronghold of the Democrat Party, so I expected a massive billboard display along the entire route, glamorized faces of prominent leaders, promised new programs, etc. But to my surprise I saw almost nothing of the kind. There were huge numbers of billboards indeed, but they were monopolized by representations of three powerful socio-economic forces. The closer I got to the capital, the more the billboards were dominated by the real estate conglomerates. Endless photographs of for-sale luxurious mansions and condominiums, with glittering swimming pools, magnificent interiors, and grandiose gardens: but never a person. The buildings, brand new, are waiting for “you.” The second cluster was more conspicuous in the provinces. The billboards were advertisements for magic amulets featuring grim-faced abbots or benign representations of the Buddha, and mass produced in dozens of different monasteries/temples. Prices of different amulets were on careful display, along with accessible websites and cell phone numbers for the crowd of buyers. But generally speaking, the finally dominant billboards were reserved for pictures of the King, sometimes with the Queen, and less commonly with the most popular princess. If you were either ignorant or a bit crazy you might take these billboards as part of the electioneering process. However, I didn’t notice any royal or amulet T-shirts. On the trip to Kanchanaburi and back, I noticed that this billboard pattern hasn’t changed at all.

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It happens that every year I spend some time in Japan and in the Philippines, and I have tried to draw some comparisons, so as to decide whether the Thai pattern is something peculiarly unique, and if so, why. Last spring, I went with some old friends for a short holiday on the island of Shikoku, about which I knew little except that it once had a flourishing business in maritime piracy. Today there is even a nice Pirates Museum for local and foreign visitors. Looking for a few souvenirs along the southeastern coast I was amazed by the number of T-shirts on sale featuring elegantly the features of Ryoma.

Ryoma is famous because of his role in the violent campaign of the 1860s to overthrow the (“national“) Shogunate controlled for a quarter of a millennium by the Tokugawa lineage. He was fascinated by Western guns and typically went around wearing a belt with two of the legendary cowboy pistols produced in the USA. He was a prolific and gifted letter writer to his girlfriend and to his comrades, and these letters, published after his death, added to his fame. He was assassinated by the Shogunateʼs agents when still very young. Since the fall of the Shogunate is generally regarded as a key moment in Japanese history, and the beginning of the country’s fabulous economic and military modernization, you might think that this romantic figure would be celebrated in Tokyo by a colossal statue. A national hero, for sure, I thought to myself. But there was no such statue. Then I discovered that in Northwestern Shikoku there were no representations of Ryoma at all, especially no T-shirts. Ryoma had become, at some level, a “local hero,” even if a TV series on his life was a great hit.

In fact, Japan has all kinds of statues of prominent figures from the 1860s on, but they are socially and politically handled in the way that Pridi and Col. Phahon have been. What Japan does not have is something like the Pantheon in Paris, which celebrates, collectively, a cluster of “great Frenchmen” like Voltaire and Rousseau, Victor Hugo and Zola, Jean Moulin and Jean Monnet. (The US later followed suit, if clumsily, with the gigantic collective faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt at Mount Rushmore). Why not? I think the answer is fairly obvious. “National heroes” are blocked by the Emperorship. Formally, all these heroes have the status of servants of the Tennos. Only the latter can represent Japan. The whole imperial system is based on the untouchable superiority of the sovereign, even if Japan is now a modern democracy. Any attempt to create a national Pantheon, with its multiple, collective distinction, could be regarded as a kind of gentle lèse majesté. But the emperors do not appear on billboards.

The Philippine seems to me to be the exact opposite of Siam. The country is unique in Southeast Asia for having no history of a powerful, domestic, dynastic state. No Spanish king ever came within 10,000 miles of Manila. Only paintings (very bad) were paraded once a year in the colonial capital. Up until the Revolution started by Andres Bonifacio in 1896, public images were controlled by the all-powerful Catholic Church: hence the representation inside and outside churches of figures and scenes drawn from the Bible, and from Catholicism’s obsession with the Virgin Mary and various post-Bible saints. Soon after Emilio Aguinaldo was chosen to be the president of an anticipated independent Republic, monuments in memory of the martyr and brilliant novelist, poet and intellectual José Rizal began to be built. During the period of American colonization, the cultivation of secular saints (national heroes) began. In almost all Filipino towns today one will find statues dedicated to the “national heroes” of that revolutionary era. What is most striking is that these statues are not tied to locality — you can find statues of Rizal in places that the Father of the Nation never went. Other persons who sacrificed for the nation, if not as popular as Rizal, can be found in many townships. The key thing is that these monuments emerge from local decisions, and donations, not from the state. Every Filipino knows the names of Apolinario Mabini, Andres Bonifacio, Antonio Luna, Emilio Aguinaldo, and so on. Against this tide even the Catholic hierarchy had to bend, There is no “national” saint in the Philippines.

Yet there were difficulties. During the early years of the American colonial regime, plans were drawn up for a Philippine Pantheon. This small Pantheon still exists in Manila, but it is a shell of what its designers anticipated. Over the years, families quietly removed the bones of some national heroes to their home towns. (The niches are now mostly filled with the toys, tin cans, and kitchen utensils of the caretakers who use the Pantheon as a kind of flat.) But the key thing is that these provincializations came from below, not from the center of national political power. What one sees here is the collective logic of public imagery in republican institutions. As soon as one sees one hero, one is obliged to think immediately about others. Sukarno is unimaginable without Hatta, Gandhi without Nehru, U Nu without Aung San, Jefferson without Franklin, and vice versa.

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In the later 1930s a kind of Thai Pantheon was actually created. A new “Buddhist” temple was built (in Bangkok) which was initially given the unusual name of Democracy Temple. It had many unusual features, but the most significant was a ʻdouble chediʼ (one inside the other) where the outer, circular walls were lined with niches for the ashes of the countries preeminent commoner citizens, while the inner chedi contained some relic of the Buddha. Hence, the temple’s name was changed to Wat Phrasrimahatat (Lord Buddha’s Relic Temple). Most of the ashes ended up being the remains of military men and sometimes their spouses, with Field Marshal Phibunsongkhram and his celebrated wife La-iad. Conservative critics denounced the modern temple form as irreligious. No new ashes have entered these niches for a long time, with only one exception when Phoonsuk Banomyong, devoted and loyal wife of Pridi Banomyong, passed away recently. The wat is not designated as a great gem for tourists to admire, and its main function is merely being the funeral home for officers of the Thai military. Today, it is a melancholy residue of another time, and without a future.

I have been watching billboards of the Philippines for a long time. They look to be totally different from those in Siam. The most striking aspect of the former is the almost total absence of the still very powerful Catholic hierarchy. The devastating attack of Luther on the Churchʼs corruption has yet to be paralleled in Siam. The modern republican culture of the Philippines makes the brazen sale of pardons, amulets etc. really impossible at the national level. What makes the Philippine Churchʼs position really difficult is, however, not the absence of a modern Luther. The deep enemy is a totally secular consumerist capitalism. Philippine billboards offer ample spaces for real estate, as well as claims of beneficence by ephemeral local politicians (this bridge was arranged by Congressman X or Senator Y), almost all with semi-criminal faces, not to speak of equally ephemeral claims to the same effect by short term-limited presidents. But most of the billboards address consumers. In the 1990s, most of these billboards featured sexy half-naked girls imploring women to buy brand-name bras, shampoos, lipsticks, perfumes, panties, gowns, powders, marital beds, and so on. After 2000 came the energetic counter from the other sex — almost naked beautiful young men imploring men to buy minimalist underwear, deodorants, unbuttoned shirts, super-tight jeans, as well as shampoos, perfumes, haircuts, cigars, and so on. There is almost nothing in current Filipino political culture that would seriously try to block the trend. The billboards are fine with everyone, at least so long as the models are understood to be genuine mestizos with white-ish skins, American or Chinese faces, and so forth. They also have to be anonymous, i.e. not national-heroic. (The pity is only that Filipino T-shirts are just as blank, conformist and witless as their Thai counterparts).

Here one can detect the basic reason why Thai billboards do not reflect popular, “steamy” consumerist culture, even though no one thinks of Siam as a country of Puritans. It’s a matter of juxtaposition. The iconography of the amulet-industry is indicative. The core doctrine of classical Buddhism is that the sensory (including sensual) world is an illusion, the site of greed, sexual obsession, status-hunger, and other stupidities. This is why the advertisements almost always feature very old, cold-eyed, abbots who seem to be near death. Beautiful images of the gentle Buddha confirm the rewards awaiting those who understand “illusion.” The amulets themselves belong to the underground animist beliefs that underpin the classic tradition. For the right prices, oneʼs amulets promise a gamut of non-illusionary aims — business triumphs, promotions, successful exams, sexual prowess, good luck, safety from criminals, etc. The advertisements are tactful about what exactly amulets can achieve. A useful compromise has been achieved. Then imagine the shock of sudden appearance of advertisements featuring ʻkillerʼ handsome male torsos selling deodorants, and half-naked pretty girls selling Vuitton bags and Chanel perfumes. The same logical principle operates behind the barrage of decorous royalist ads. If one visits the National Museum in Bangkok, one will experience a technically skillful panorama of Siam’s history. What strikes the casual visitor is that almost no one is mentioned by name except for five or six monarchs. The existing chronicles, however, indicate how precarious were the lives of polygamous rulers, many of whom were dethroned, assassinated, or expelled by their own relatives. The visitor will find no mention of poets, chroniclers, generals, philosophers, Buddhist saints, immigrants, film stars, and so on. It is as if nothing worthy of note was achieved unless it was engineered from on high. But the Museum is monopolized space. Siamʼs streets are another matter. Nothing could be more jarring than royalty billboards intersecting with those featuring beautiful, ever-young, nameless commoner models along with shampoo.

Only smiling real estate slips smoothly along in the parade of public images in both Siam and the Philippines. It threatens no one and its allure is attached to no persons.