But I digress. The judges take evidence from the two unrelated cases apparently at random, switching their attention back and forth between the two sides of the courtroom. Each time the judicial focus is turned on one defendant or the other, they and their lawyers are obliged to stand to address the bench. This creates a mildly amusing diversion for the spectators as people bob up and down like human jack-in-the-boxes.
We are in the public gallery, a stall that can accommodate about eight observers. Next to us is a policeman who tells us off when we cross our legs. At first I think this is a game, but the policeman looks increasingly stern so I deduce that he’s not slapping my legs for the fun of it. Gentle reader, don’t complain that you never learn anything useful from this blog. Today’s amazing fact: you’re not allowed to cross your legs in a Thai courtroom.
When she gets around to considering my friend’s libel case, the senior-looking judge expresses herself highly peeved that it has got as far as her courtroom. She urges the conflicting parties to negotiate a reconciliation. This is achieved to the satisfaction of everyone in about ten minutes, after which the parties are left somewhat non-plussed as to how they could have spent the last year paying lawyers to sling rude letters at each other when it could have been settled over a beer. I am as relieved as anyone when it’s over and feel a strong urge to celebrate with a relaxing bit of leg-crossing, but this temptation is quickly dispelled by a glance at the stony face of the law officer at my side.
As we make our way back into the sunshine, the trivial nature of the case and the disproportionate cost in terms of lawyers’ fees, worry and wasted time is what lingers in the mind. Like some near-imperceptible playground slight that escalates via a bit of pushing and shoving into a full-scale punch-up behind the bicycle sheds, whatever my friend was supposed to have said, and who cares, is lost in the massive procedural rigmarole that grinds into action in response. Why?
It all boils down to a matter of face. That’s a word you hear quite a lot in Thailand. Locals who may speak little English all seem to know the word ‘face’ though of course there’s a perfectly good Thai word for it too. It means something like ‘dignity’, ‘standing’, ‘reputation’ or, perhaps more honestly ‘what you think other people think of you’. It’s an important thing to hang on to here, a precious commodity. Nobody wants to lose face.
It’s my guess that a reluctance to lose face is more or less universal amongst our species. And yet people here talk about it a lot more that in other places I’ve been, making me think that it must be more important here. I ask Mrs Pobaan.
‘It’s very important for a Thai not to lose face,’ she confirms.
‘But isn’t it important for everyone?’
‘It’s more important for Thais.’
So there you have it. I was right about that.
Arguments here, ideally, are resolved in a way that allows both parties to retain face. However right you are, you must concede a smidgen of your rightness to allow your vanquished opponent to come out of the tussle with his face intact. Indeed, in my friend’s case, when she is told to apologise, her lawyer appeals to the judge that this would result in a loss of face. The judge readily accepts this point and orders a degree of compromise that allows face to be retained by both sides.
You see the operation of these same principles on the road. Say there’s a pickup behind you which tries to overtake but is prevented from doing so by the sudden appearance of an oncoming cement-mixer. When the lorry has passed the driver behind will spare no effort to get ahead of you, no matter how dangerous the required manoeuvre. Even though the darkened windows of the pickup prevent you from knowing even what he looks like, that driver will feel he has lost face if he doesn’t end up ahead of you at the next set of lights. If you want to avoid an unpleasant scene, you’d be advised to throttle back a tad to let him zoom past.
A friend tells me about the cost of maintaining face in one particular situation, the auction room. He is wont to attend sales of second-hand household goods and furniture and is at first astonished at the high prices that seemingly worthless bits of old junk can fetch. Then he notices two men battling for ownership of a box of dog-eared old LPs and realises what’s going on. Each bidder is determined, not to own the old records at a reasonable price, but to prevent the other guy from doing so. Either that, or they’re both obsessive Barry Manilow fans.
There’s another useful fact you’ve learnt from this blog—your old Bay City Roller records are worth something in Thailand.
Meanwhile the unlicensed hotel-keeper looks like he’s for the high jump. The judge makes dark noises about a huge fine and possible jail, his offence being apparently quite serious. The defendant gulps, looks dolefully at the bench and pleads guilty. In recognition of his loss of face, the judge reduces the fine to B200,000. A smile spreads across his face.