Pope Francis at the Military Air Terminal of Don Muang Airport © Gregorio Borgia
The Pope is in Bangkok. The fact that this will be a visit to the margins and to a completely different culture is reflected in a kind of shy curiosity: It’s good that he’s here – hopefully he won’t be too obvious.
After an eleven-hour overnight flight, Pope Francis landed in Bangkok at noon Wednesday (local time). Coming from autumn wet and cold Rome, Thailand’s capital awaits the head of the church with tropical warm and humid 31 degrees. The soon to be 83-year-old Francis accepts the greeting at the foot of the gangway joyfully and seemingly rested.
As the pope approaches a group of flag-waving "Papa Francesco" shouters and walks along a line of airport employees greeting him, the waiting convoy of cars has to pull forward 50 meters to let the state guest board the plane. Present from the beginning of the Red Carpet, right next to General Surayud Chulanont, the King’s representative, is Sister Ana Rosa. Jorge Bergoglio’s cousin has lived as a missionary in Thailand for 53 years and is serving as an interpreter for the pope these days.
But first there will be a half-day break before the guest begins his visit program on Thursday morning with a meeting with Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha and a speech to representatives of politics and civil society. For the kingdom’s leaders, this visit is an honor, as they have hardly received state visits of this caliber in recent years. Around 800 media representatives are accredited – considerably more than the organizers expected.
Celebrity factor of a moral authority
However, it’s more the celebrity factor of a moral authority that gets the pope attention. Although religious leaders are honored in Southeast Asia, the guest from Rome is head of a vanishing minority of 0.6 percent in Thailand. And so Visanu Thanya-anan of the Bishops’ Conference first summarizes to the national press who this pope is and what he wants: The mission of "Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, is to proclaim a culture of love and mercy according to the teachings of Jesus Christ."The visit is intended for all faiths and ethnic groups and should "strengthen universal brotherhood".
The fact that Bangkok’s streets are decorated in yellow and white in many places is not a welcome to the guest. Yellow and white are not only the Vatican colors, but also represent the Thai royal family.
On Thursday afternoon (local time), King Maha Vajiralongkorn is also scheduled to receive the pope at his palace. The large-format portrait pictures of the 67-year-old monarch, who temporarily lives in his villa on Lake Starnberg – there as a neighbor of Peter Maffay – and in Switzerland, show the monarch still as a young crown prince.
People waiting for the pope are not to be seen along the streets; a passage of the city highway is at least decorated with flags of Thailand and the Vatican. Francis is almost exclusively driven in a closed car in Bangkok: But instead of a Fiat 500, there is a – small – Lexus sedan. The Popemobile will be used only on Friday during the mass in the stadium.
It should be exciting to see how clearly Francis, the social preacher, can deliver his messages in this regard. For example, while the Thai people are flattered that the pope is visiting them. On the other hand, like many Asians, they are quick to react with sniffles to possible criticism.
Understanding other cultures better
Thailand, which was never a colony and had to fight for independence, knows no break in its history, after which many things became different. The kingdom is characterized by a traditional Buddhist worldview: the good ruler – vividly remembered by many as Good King Bhumibol – cares for his subjects.
The country’s elites are therefore not so keen on modern social policy and democracy. How these could also be justified religiously, the Pope could explain.
Because the emerging middle-income country’s society, which is now pluralistic and interested in democracy, urgently wants reforms. The reasons for this are not only the problems of migration and globalization, but also the economic success to date, which calls traditional role distributions into question.
A free discourse about this, however, does not seem possible. On the contrary, observers sense an increasing narrowing and control. Whether the guest from Rome will provide individual, small impulses in his speeches will become clear in the coming days. On the flight, he already pointed out to journalists that "cultures that are far removed from the West" need to be better understood.