Off-Color Humor and Southeast-Asian Politics Make Khamkhun a Classroom Favorite       

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by Kate Mrotek

Image courtesy of Daniel Wheeler.  BigObjects.com

Akkharaphong Khamkhun, assistant professor of Political Science at Thamassat University in Bangkok Thailand, looks up at me from behind his desk, bright-eyed and grinning. He wags slightly in his chair with a playful energy, waiting expectantly for our interview to begin. As I sit down, he theatrically puts his hands to his chest and chuckles.

“I guess this means that I am an important person,” he says.

Khamkhun started out at Thamassat as an undergrad, receiving two royal scholarship awards, the highest honor to any undergraduate in Thailand, and a first in Thai history. He presented his master’s thesis, “Border of Mind: Nationalism, Tourism, and Competing Meanings of the Thai-Cambodian Borderline” at the 3rd Singapore Graduate Forum on Southeast Asian Studies in 2008. Parts of the thesis were published in academic journals all over the world. At twenty-eight, Khamkhun is one of the youngest assistant professors at Thamassat.

by Kate Mrotek

 

Akkharaphong Khamkhun, assistant professor of Political Science at Thamassat University in Bangkok Thailand, looks up at me from behind his desk, bright-eyed and grinning. He wags slightly in his chair with a playful energy, waiting expectantly for our interview to begin. As I sit down, he theatrically puts his hands to his chest and chuckles.

“I guess this means that I am an important person,” he says.

Khamkhun started out at Thamassat as an undergrad, receiving two royal scholarship awards, the highest honor to any undergraduate in Thailand, and a first in Thai history. He presented his master’s thesis, “Border of Mind: Nationalism, Tourism, and Competing Meanings of the Thai-Cambodian Borderline” at the 3rd Singapore Graduate Forum on Southeast Asian Studies in 2008. Parts of the thesis were published in academic journals all over the world. At twenty-eight, Khamkhun is one of the youngest assistant professors at Thamassat.

In Thailand, talking in this way could be seen as unfavorable to the King, an offense punishable by jail time, or even death. But it is this carefree attitude and off the cuff humor that keeps Khamkhun’s lectures exciting, fresh, and most of all, funny.

In the classroom, Professor Khamkhun combines playful antics and a disdain for censorship, making his classes a favorite among Thamassat students. While lecturing on a military coup, the Professor acts out the King Bhumibol of Thailand finishing his putt in a game of golf before being seized by military junta members. He holds an imaginary golf club in one hand as he raises an unconcerned finger to the advancing junta with the other.

“Just one moment please,” he says, then putts. “Ok, let’s go,” he continues, falling out of his stance and laughing along with his students.

In Thailand, talking in this way could be seen as unfavorable to the King, an offense punishable by jail time, or even death. But it is this carefree attitude and off the cuff humor that keeps Khamkhun’s lectures exciting, fresh, and most of all, funny. In the middle of a lecture concerning the pervasive sex tourism industry in Thailand, he mischievously turns from a table of statistics on the board, raises his eyebrows and announces to the class, “I’m giving you lip service.”

The Professor takes on a more serious tone when lecturing on other aspects of Thailand’s history. With an air of pride, he speaks about the revolution of 1973, when college students led a non-violent protest in the Thamassat courtyard against an oppressive military regime. Professor Khamkhun points to the courtyard outside, and says “Thamassat students risked their lives for freedom, right outside this window.” Image courtesy of Daniel Wheeler.  BigObjects.com

He devotes an entire class to the massacre of October 6, 1976, where 40 Thamassat students were brutally killed on campus for opposing the reinstatement of a military regime leader, Field Marshall Thanom Kittikachorn. The characteristically jovial Professor is solemn and of few words as he presents slides and video footage of the massacre.

The majority of Professor Khamkhun’s lectures focus on topics involving the disparity between the rural poor and the social elites in Thailand. He shows his classes the movie Thongpoon(which is banned in Thailand), depicting the true life of a poor farmer and his family. The opening scene shows Thongpoon’s wife walking next to electrical towers that supply electricity to the nearby capitol, while the family’s own rented house is without power or running water. When Thongpoon’s wife falls ill, the meager salary he earns for backbreaking work earns is not enough to purchase the medicine needed to save her life.

“And this is still Thailand,” Khamkhun says. “Even to this day, this province is made up of farmers and their families living on next to nothing.” The disparity between the rural poor and Bangkok elites continues to fuel violent conflicts between the political parties in Thailand today.

“Thai people and European people, American people, Vietnamese all want the same things: happiness, freedom, family, equality.”

Professor Khamkhun’s own academic focus is the idea of nation states and the way that national borders affect the rural populace. His thesis paper is an analysis of the Thai-Cambodian border and the culture, tourism, and nationalism unique to the area. The title “Border of Mind” gives an indication to the undercurrent of the piece.

“The Thai-Cambodian border is a line drawn on a map,” Khamkhun explains, “there is no geographical distinction between the two sides, and it was established by the French in the first place. From a cultural standpoint, these people at the border areas speak the same dialects, they pass back and forth over the border, they have intercultural marriages–essentially they are the same. Yet one receives a better wage and more opportunity then the other.”

Professor Khamkhun is ethnically Laotian and a citizen of both Thailand and Cambodia, which is where he grew up. His background has fostered a passion for the history and politics of Southeast Asia as well as an awareness and sensitivity to social issues.

“I was discriminated against when I spoke Cambodian in school when I first moved to Thailand,” he says. “They looked at my darker skin and heard me speak, and said, ‘Uh! He’s not Thai, he’s no good.’”

The Professor goes on to describe the many similarities between Thai and Cambodian culture in terms of linguistics and traditions, which themselves draw from India and China. In a class teeming with foreign exchange students, Khamkhun promotes ideas of cultural equality.

When asked if Thai people and people from the West have similar ideals, Khamkhun says, “Thai people and European people, American people, Vietnamese all want the same things: happiness, freedom, family, equality.”

He adds with a half-grin, “Besides, when the lights are off we are all the same color.”

by & filed under Health & Humanity, World.