“You buffalo!” How this animal became an insult in Thai

A water buffalo cools down in a pond in the Ancient City Heritage Park in Samut Prakan on December 9, 2020. (Photo by Mladen ANTONOV / AFP)

“Ai Kwai!!!” literally translated as “you buffalo”, as in “you idiot”, is one of the most common insults in the Thai language.

In light of a recent controversy, where the permanent secretary of Thailand’s Interior Ministry called his subordinate “as stupid as a buffalo”, have we ever wondered why we have to use a buffalo to signify people’s stupidity, rather than other animals?

Meaning of being a “buffalo”-

Buffaloes have always been part of Thai people’s livelihoods, especially in rural areas, where agriculture is the dominant industry. Being called a “buffalo”, however, is considered very offensive by many Thais, almost as extreme as being called a “monitor lizard”, equivalent to dropping the f-bomb.

According to an article by the Department of Cultural Promotion, buffaloes are described as large animals which do not resist people when they are used for ploughing rice fields or are being dragged around by their owner.

Therefore, buffaloes are often compared to people who submissively follow other people’s orders, are often being fooled or taken advantage of. Even though buffaloes can be described as kind and loyal to humans, working tirelessly for their owners, people tend to regard this kind of behaviour as being stupid.

In common context, people would simply call others a buffalo only to indicate that they are stupid. This can happen in any situation, whether it’s for not doing well at school, making silly mistakes or for not understanding what people are talking about.

These derogatory references are often used in Thai dramas and songs, mostly in the context of being cheated on by your lover or being betrayed by one of your trusted allies, as if they would satirically put buffalo horns on your head.

Most foreigners, when they first come to Thailand, probably don’t understand why we use a buffalo to refer to people’s stupidity.

Famous English teacher in Thailand, Adam Bradshaw, posted a video many years ago, describing his experience of how he tried to contemplate what the insult really meant. In the video, he said he used to wonder whether being a buffalo meant being lazy, dirty or simply having a larger physique.

-As stupid as a buffalo-

More recently, a video showing the Interior Ministry’s Permanent Secretary accusing his subordinate as being as stupid as a buffalo went viral. This has attracted much criticism for his rude and condescending behaviour, despite having such a high position at the ministry.

In this video, the Permanent Secretary, Suttipong Juljarern, asked his subordinates about terminology in economics, to which they answered “demand and supply”. He then sniggered and asked them from where they graduated.

The subordinate told him that he graduated in political sciences from Chulalongkorn University, apparently the same university which Suttipong attended for both undergraduate and postgraduate studies. He then responded “How could you be as stupid as a buffalo” before showing off his own knowledge (and later making a mistake himself).

Suttipong subsequently apologised for his behaviour on Facebook. His apology didn’t seem to satisfy anyone, as he continued to excuse himself for being “luk-thung-style” who often speaks loudly and sometimes harshly to his colleagues. Even worse, he claimed that he was only teasing.

Many people took the phrase “as stupid as a buffalo” to be the most offensive part of this particular conversation, apart from denigrating his subordinates’ educational background.

Chulalongkorn University’s Political Science Student Union, the alumni association of which Suttipong is the president, issued a statement condemning his actions, which has been deemed to be discriminatory, demeaning to human dignity and to reflect his preference for seniority and authoritarianism.

Prominent political activist Srisuwan Janya also submitted a complaint to the Interior Minister and demanded a probe into the permanent secretary’s misconduct, stating that his excuse over his actions is unacceptable. So far, there has been no comment from the minister.

Move Forward Party member Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn condemned the permanent secretary’s actions on Twitter. His tweet can be translated as “With the permanent secretary using derogatory terms to demean his subordinates’ dignity and their education, the Interior Minister should answer questions from the people and the ministry officials as to whether this kind of person is suitable to be the permanent secretary.

-Should we ever call anyone a buffalo?-

The obvious answer is a NO. Nobody likes to be called a buffalo or any other kind of animal that has offensive connotations. In fact, insulting someone by calling them a buffalo might actually get you in trouble under Thai law (especially if the victim really wants to sue you).

“You buffalo” or “Ee-Kwai” is among the 17 derogatory terms under Section 393 of the Civil and Criminal Code, users of which can be subject to one month in prison and/or a fine of no more than 10,000 baht. This is because these terms are intended to be profane and cause humiliation.

Nevertheless, the incident has already served as an important lesson for many of us; we should treat people with respect, regardless of their educational background, knowledge and experience. Having a senior position at work does not mean you have right to talk down to other people.

To keep it simple, calling someone stupid will never make you look any smarter.

By Thai PBS World


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