Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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Thai – Kham kho-thot | Kan kho aphay

May 27th, 2011 · No Comments · Apology, Thai

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Kham kho-thot | Kan kho aphay

Relates to apology

The term kham kho-thot (apology) can refer to: apology and excuse (Haas, 1964: 51).  It is composed of two key syllables: kho and thotKho means: to ask for, beg, request (Haas, 1964:  51) while thot means 1.  punishment, penalty; 2. harm, danger and ill effect.  (Haas, 1964: 251). While some academics have found that kho thot appeared earlier in the plays of Rama VI  (Diller, 1991: endnotes 21), Phaya Upakit-silapsan (Nim Kanchanachiva) “was responsible in the 1930’s for the propagation of the polite forms sawatdi ‘hello/goodbye’, kho-thot ’pardon me’ and kho’p-khun ‘thank you’” (Diller, 1991: 103).  Since then the word kho-thot has been regarded as part of Thai politeness in everyday conversation. There are at least three key variables related to apologising in Thai, namely naa ‘face’, saksi ‘dignity’ and kiat ‘prestige/reputation/honour’.  Many Thais consider ‘kan kho-thot or ‘kan kho-a-phay (apology, forgiveness, pardon) as kan sia naa ‘losing face’, kan sia saksi ‘losing dignity and kan sia kiat ‘losing prestige/reputation/honour’.

The term thot can be understood as long thot (punishment) as well as yok thot or apay-ya-thot (forgiveness). Therefore ‘kham kho thot’ (apology) can be translated as ‘asking  for punishment’ as well as asking for forgiveness’. For Thais, kham kho thot is  related to ‘losing their face, dignity , prestige/reputation and honour’.  To apologise is to accept a loss of status and dignity in society; much more than simply owning up to an error. Therefore Thai people have to be cautious in using this word. In order for an apology to be made, the cost of apologising has to be balanced by the beneficial aspects of asking for forgiveness. For instance, Thai leaders may be willing to apologise in order to preserve the prestige of key institutions of Thailand: the nation, religion and monarchy. They may also ask for forgiveness in order to preserve their popularity amongst public. Only in such cases is it likely that leaders will sacrifice their face, their dignity and their own prestige. In almost all other cases it is only the subordinate person who will apologise to their social, political or economic superior.

General Prem Tinasulanon, royalist former Prime Minister, and the current President of the Privy Council, also spoke of apology in a recent speech.  This speech was delivered at Rajabhat Suan Dusit University. After the speech General Prem was verbally attacked on a live TV program organised by two TV commentators, Samak Sunthorawet and Dusit Siriwan.  Moreover, the speech implicitly conveyed a royal message to remind a Thai leader, presumably Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to calm down political turmoil. So an apology was demanded, but Samak and Dusit both refused.  This was a case where they were struggling to protect their ‘dignity’, ‘face’ and ‘prestige’.  The conflict caused further tension and ongoing ‘verbal battle’ on both sides.

A further illustration of the role of apology in Thai society has been provided by some Thai TV stars and pop-singers that are popular in Thailand and in neighbouring countries including Cambodia and Laos.  In January 2003, a Thai TV star, Suwanan Kongying was accused of saying that ‘Prasat Nakhon Wat pen khong khon Thai’ (Angkor Wat belongs to Thais).  Cambodians reacted violently to the statement and some responded by burning down the Royal Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh and holding protests in Bangkok.  The chaos and tension between two countries ended when Cambodia agreed to pay compensation of approximately 250 million Baht while the TV star apologised to Cambodia  (Thai Rath 7/02/03). Additionally, ‘Lao people, particularly ladies, were gravely offended’ by Utain Promminh, a Thai pop-singer, who used a Thai expression which meant ‘dirty whore’ to refer to Lao women.  An apology was demanded from the singer since the expression offended the Laotian ladies ‘in a highly derogatory way’.  (The Nation, July 6, 2005).  In a region where historical animosities continue to influence contemporary politics the meaning of ‘apology’ is a fraught matter.

After the violence in Bangkok in April and May 2010 a campaign was launched under the banner of ‘kho-thot prathed thai’ (Sorry Thailand). A television advertisement on this theme, which attempted to blame all sides of the conflict and search for middle ground, was subsequently banned by the government which argued that its broadcast would undermine the ongoing efforts for reconciliation (prong dong).




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