India is the world’s biggest rice exporter. Its actions can send tremors through the global rice market. But Thailand, which ranks second in rice exports, can give a master class in how to tell a nice rice story. Conferences are so “old school,” smiled the gentleman at the registration desk of the Thailand Rice fest 2023. Inside, there was no poster of politicians nor any sombre speech. The sprawling Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre had turned festive, with storytelling about different varieties of rice, lots of people — farmers, traders, cooks, marketeers, consumers — tasting the varieties on display, shopping, watching. I thought of the mango festivals in Delhi, where you must wait for the speeches to get over before you can reach the king of fruits. A young medical doctor told me he wished rice to have the same sensuous feel as wine or cheese. I followed him to check out innovations in rice and imagined I was sipping red wine as I tasted a new variety. In another corner, people were being taught the ‘correct’ way to eat rice. It starts with looking at a grain of rice, then smelling it, soaking in the aroma, then chewing it, and letting it rest for a few seconds inside the mouth. Only then do you eat it, explained an MBA student. Organised by a Thai firm with support from a host of government agencies including the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Tourism Authority of Thailand, many rice-related organisations and other private firms, the festival was a charming way to invite everyone to join in adding value to the rice we eat every day. I tried the black rice, the jasmine rice, and a few other varieties. On the way out, there was a giant poster. “Have a rice day,” it said.
A philosophy of festivity is the packaging. The substance inside the package, the public conversations and political discourse in Thailand, pivot around the here and now. As a foreigner, I look at what makes news. I look at the headlines. They reveal not only what is happening but also a country’s priorities and how it wishes to project itself. What does not make headlines or is muted tells you as much about a country as what does.
What were year-benders in 2023? What shook up the country or the world or both? As I write, Israeli bombs continue to pound Gaza. The humanitarian crisis continues. Every day brings chilling images right into our living rooms. Meanwhile, the other war — between Russia and Ukraine — lingers on. The world is engulfed in “polycrises”, with multiple environmental, social, technological, and economic stressors interacting at increasing velocity. Their combined impact is causing unpredictable shocks of greater intensity.
Thailand went through huge political turmoil after general elections in May 2023. The new government which was sworn into office this September faced a massive challenge — rescuing Thai nationals stuck in war zones in two different parts of the world — along with routine problems. As of mid-December, eight Thais are still being held hostage in Gaza, while 23 have been freed, according to the foreign ministry. Every day economic issues dominate the political and public discourse. One of the top stories in Thailand this month has been about minimum wages. The new government led by Srettha Thavisin will move forward with its plan to raise the average daily minimum wage by 2.37% starting January 2024, according to the local media. This decision comes in the wake of a comprehensive review initiated by the government. The current minimum wage is 328-354 baht (Rs 788-851), with variations between different parts of the country. Prime Minister Thavisin wants the minimum wage to be higher. Recent headlines also spotlight the Thavisin government’s attempt to tackle Thailand’s festering household debt problem. The cabinet has approved debt suspension for smaller businesses and support for retail debtors, the prime minister said. The other headline-grabber is Thailand’s moves to legalise same-sex marriage. The House of Representatives has passed four Bills to amend the country’s Civil and Commercial Code and legalise same-sex marriage. The four Bills still need to clear a few more stages before becoming law. “We are finally on the road to bridging the gap to equal rights for all today! Congratulations to the LGBTQIA+ community for the Same-Sex Marriage Bill passing its first reading. May love finally triumph,” Mr Thavisin said on social media platform X.
Headlines in India are not so much about everyday issues affecting everyday people. The focus is on what makes India extraordinary. As the year draws to a close, one can catalogue India’s victories in diverse spheres — with its Chandrayaan-3 mission, India became the first to land in the lunar south pole region; India is a global chart-topper when it comes to remittances; it also tops in digital payments; India entered the list of the top 10 “fastest countries for median 5G download speed” in the third quarter of 2023. There are many more success stories which add to Brand India globally.
But there is also the other India which grabbed headlines because of a hyper-polarised political landscape, the horrific happenings in Manipur, mass suspension of MPs from Opposition parties and an overhaul of India’s criminal justice system with three criminal law bills being passed in Parliament, along with other legislation, while most Opposition MPs had been suspended. There was little debate or discussion in Parliament. The discussion in media was confined to editorial pages.
What rarely makes front page headlines is the everyday concerns of everyday Indians, jobs or the lack of them, per capita income and bread-and-butter issues affecting ordinary households across the country, the millions who barely manage to survive or who are sinking into debt because their incomes have not kept pace with the rising cost of living. What makes news is a reflection of the society that reads or watches the news.
Patralekha Chatterjee is a writer and columnist who spends her time in South and Southeast Asia, and looks at modern-day connects between the two adjacent regions. X: @Patralekha2011