Theocracy’s Increase in Southeast Asia
A report by N. H. Knorr, president of the Society
ABOARD the KLM Constellation Milton Henschel and I had a few moments to reflect on what we had seen in Singapore and the enjoyable days spent there, but our attention was drawn away by thoughts of Thailand (Siam) and what we might expect there. Our plane was behind schedule and we hoped our brothers in Thailand would wait for our arrival. The flight was smooth and there was nothing below but the waters of the Gulf of Siam. Darkness settled down upon us and it was 9 p.m. when the “Holland” came to a stop at Don Muang airport, 13 miles from Bangkok, capital city of Thailand. At first we could not see the faces of the people we saw standing behind the fence at the terminal, but when we walked nearby we recognized the graduates of Gilead and many of the Thai publishers we had met four years ago. There were about thirty in all who met us. It took considerable time to clear customs on account of the fact that some Chinese passengers had dutiable articles in their possession and they were ahead of us. But our brothers patiently waited for us and when we cleared we shook their hands and got into the cars that awaited.
On the way into the city we passed several road blocks. While it is true that there is no war in Thailand, still for security reasons travelers at night are checked. On our way the branch servant, Brother Babinski, told us that they, from the time they first heard of the proposed visit of the president of the Society to the Far East, had looked forward to it with keen anticipation and began early preparations. We were to arrive on April 4 and now that date had come. The brothers were happy because the time for their assembly to open had arrived.
The assembly was well organized. A miniature stage with a white picket fence was prepared on the Society’s grounds, patterned after the style of the one at the Theocracy’s Increase Assembly in New York in 1950. All of our evening meetings were held outside, this being much more pleasant than indoors, as April is the hottest month in Thailand. There was always a breeze following sunset. Pressure lamps were provided for lighting, because the output by the power company is rather weak and all lights are dim. Some sessions were in the Kingdom Hall, which is located on the Society’s property and was repainted for the occasion.
The publishers put on the biggest advertising campaign ever launched for the Theocracy in Thailand. Weeks in advance articles began appearing in the leading English, Thai and Chinese newspapers relative to the Society’s work and the coming visit of the Society’s president. Thirty thousand attractive two-color handbills were printed for the public lecture, “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land,” to be given on April 8, and ten thousand of these were given to the newspapers to be inserted between the pages of the papers a few days before the lecture. This was done. The remainder of the folders were distributed to the homes and on the streets. In addition, three large banner signs were prepared and hung in busy parts of the city.
An entirely new advertising feature was introduced into Thailand, namely, advertising by publishers wearing placards on the streets in the busiest sections of the city. The traffic of cars, jeeps, buses and tricycles, as well as pedestrians, is so heavy in Bangkok that the streets are logically the best place to advertise. Most of the publishers were apprehensive as to how this feature of the work would go, but all co-operated very willingly and they found it gave a tremendous and unusual witness. Furthermore, large car signs were prepared and those who had cars mounted these on top. One side of the signs announced the lecture in Thai, and the other in English, and this too gave a striking witness.
Another part of the preliminary work was the mailing of more than one thousand letters of invitation to magazine subscribers, and many letters were also handed to interested persons by the publishers. Several Thai newspapers published articles labeling our work communism. By doing so they just showed their ignorance and revealed what a poor standard of reporting they have. They prefer sensationalism and lies in order to sell papers. But the truth cannot be hurt by such public statements, and so it is best to ignore them. They also published pictures of our brothers on the streets wearing placards, as “proof” of their statements. Preaching the good news is our work, and so we keep it up no matter what the papers and religionists say. We cannot be sidetracked by worrying over what the misinformed or haters of truth say. The reliable papers, the best ones in Bangkok, gave truthful reports of our work and we appreciated that. All the publishers joined in the work. Those from faraway North Siam had a big share in the advertising work.
The physical needs of the brothers were not forgotten either, and a cafeteria was set up at the branch. So the publishers were able to obtain their meals right at the convention. They found the shade of the trees in the yard very comfortable as they used woven mats for a table, while sitting on the grass.
As the convention began Friday, April 6, the usual Friday service meeting was pushed forward to Thursday evening, and that marked the beginning of the big feast all were to enjoy during the next several days. This meeting was very enjoyable in that two demonstrations were given entirely in the Thai language by some of the missionaries, graduates of Gilead School, even though they had been in the country but a short time. It should be noted that Thai is a very difficult language for foreigners, as it contains 32 vowels and 44 consonants and it has 5 tones. Brother Burkhart demonstrated how to begin a study in the Thai Watchtower and Brothers Ross and Stallard gave a street-witnessing demonstration. Brothers Burkhart and Stallard have been in the country only fourteen months, but because of their good pronunciation many they witness to in Cheingmai ask them if they were born in Thailand. It was a surprise to me to hear these brothers do so well.
Friday morning at nine o’clock the convention officially opened and a large group assembled for field service. During the afternoon the publishers went out into the placard-walking and leaflet-distributing work. On Friday evening the branch servant gave a brief address of welcome in Thai. Brother Henschel followed with a discourse on maintaining godly devotion, and then I spoke on divine healing. Both talks received close attention.
Saturday began with a pantomime acted out by two Thai pioneers and two missionaries, Brothers Burkhart and Laakso. The demonstration had seven scenes, beginning with one publisher offering a magazine on a street corner and ending with two publishers on the same street corner about two months later—a 100 per cent increase—the new publisher being the one who had taken the magazine on the street two months before.
After morning field service there were three 15-minute talks to begin the afternoon, by Brothers Ross and Thomas and a Thai publisher. After further field service the conventioners assembled for the evening session. At that time Brother Gruber, a graduate of Gilead, handled the whole program in the Thai language. It began with singing songs in Thai, a feature much enjoyed at all the sessions, followed by two personal experiences from former Buddhists as to how they came into the truth. They said they had been Buddhists from birth and Buddhism had been deeply implanted in them; in fact one had been a nun. They had considered Buddhism by far the superior religion. First when the publishers called they did not believe the message, but after repeated back-calls and many Bible studies they came to see that Bible knowledge was more powerful and life-giving than Buddhist teachings and doctrines, and that life could come only from Jehovah through Christ Jesus. Both expressed great gladness at knowing the truth, which they said they would never forsake. It was most thrilling to hear these testimonies, because up till now it has been a rare thing for real Buddhists to come into the truth. Not only do we have some Buddhists now in the truth, but they are very enthusiastic about it. They are thirsting for more Bible knowledge and make good students. None of us can ever let up on our study of God’s Word, and they appreciate that now. Following this, Brother Henschel gave a strengthening talk on preaching in spite of opposition, followed by my talk.
Sunday brought the climax of the three-day assembly, and it began with a baptismal discourse by Brother Burkhart, the circuit servant. It was very gratifying to see eight persons sitting in the front row as immersion candidates, most of them former Buddhists. To the speaker’s question “Do you agree to serve Jehovah God throughout all eternity?” they gave the interesting reply in Thai, “rup-rong”—that is, they guaranteed they would. Following this talk there was a very pleasant baptismal service in a nearby pond. The sisters wore sarongs.
The site of the public meeting was the auditorium of the University of Political and Moral Sciences. It is a large plant with many buildings, this school of higher learning, and it faces the famous Chao Phya river on the east bank. Law is one of the principal subjects. By 3 p.m. people began arriving, but we found that there was nobody to open the doors. This was so in spite of the fact that the University had been hired from 2 to 6 p.m. and had been promised with everything in readiness for the meeting. So for the next one and a half hours there was much hurrying and scurrying to find someone who had the authority to open the auditorium. A few minutes before 4 p.m. the janitor was located, but he refused to open the doors, because, he said, he knew nothing about the lecture. But we insisted that he telephone the secretary-general of the University; and he gave permission for the doors to be opened. About fifteen minutes before 4 p.m. I told Brother Babinski that if we could not gain admittance I was ready to speak to the waiting audience on the University grounds, under the large bo tree nearby, which is considered sacred by worshipers of Buddha. It would provide wonderful shade, and there along the river would be a place just as good to give the talk on liberty as inside the school. But we did not have to resort to that.
As soon as the doors were opened the people rushed in. A few of the seats were in place, which were quickly filled, but other seats had to be moved into proper position. We began a little late because of arranging of seats, opening windows and getting things in order. Early in the lecture I showed the difference between communism and democracy. This made it clear to the audience that we were not propagating communism as some of the newspapers had claimed. As I continued and began mentioning the name of Jesus, several groups filed out noisily, as though the name of Jesus was distasteful to them. But though some left, their seats were soon taken by others who kept on coming in. The audience listened attentively to the end of the one-and-a-half-hour lecture, which was interpreted into Thai at the same time. It was a varied audience, including businessmen, doctors, government officials, students, 7 Buddhist priests, Europeans and Chinese, in addition to the main body of Thai people. The attendance count was 367, and 300 booklets were given away free at the end of the lecture. This was Bangkok’s biggest public lecture attendance for Jehovah’s witnesses to date, and all the brothers were pleased with this witness.
Following the public lecture we again assembled on the grounds of the branch office and missionary home and the evening session began with Brother Powell giving a field experience in the Thai language, followed by a 20-minute coverage of The Watchtower. Brother Henschel followed with an hour talk on the pioneer service and I concluded with a coverage of our trip through the Pacific area, Australia and the Far East, ending with words of appreciation for the increase of the work in Thailand. I was very happy that Thailand had attained its 35 per cent increase in peak number of publishers, and I told the assembly it was the first country on this trip that had attained that goal and very likely Thailand would do even better before the year ends.
As to preaching the gospel in Thailand, an excellent increase was made since my last visit. In 1947 they reached a peak of 31 publishers, and now in March 1951 they had gone up to 119.
There are a number of Thai brothers and sisters that have taken up the pioneer work, too, in addition to the graduates of Gilead. Two sisters are on their way to the south of Thailand to begin work where there are no publishers and open up new territory. They were put on the special pioneer list to aid them in meeting their expenses. These two pioneers were very enthusiastic about the idea of leaving Bangkok and going into new territory, and the convention was a great stimulus to many in this regard.
New publications are being prepared in the Thai language. They already have “Let God Be True”, which has been a great aid in conducting studies in the homes of the people, and the new book “This Means Everlasting Life” is about one-third translated. These new publications will greatly aid the Thai people to grasp the knowledge of the truth and see the difference between Buddhism and the kingdom of God. The Buddhists have the idea that in a very short time great changes will take place in the earth and there will be a thousand-year reign of blessings. So it takes great patience on the part of the publishers to show them that the things they believe are different from that which is set forth in God’s Word, the Bible. The general conception of the Buddhist is that the body in which they reside is an unnecessary thing, and they do not have any great longing for life. At least that is the way they are taught. But there are some Buddhists that really desire to live and they love life, but their religion teaches them not to love life. The majority of the people look forward to death’s coming in the natural way. Nirvana is their ultimate goal, and the priests that go about in their yellow robes believe that their next step in life when they get rid of this fleshly organism will be nirvana. Then there will be no work, thinking, action, nor material things. They think they become a sort of nothing, and that is what they are striving for. The Devil has injected into their minds some peculiar beliefs and the Buddhist ideas are hard to understand. Why one should not want to live when he has the opportunity seems strange. It shows that he has no conception of the great Creator Jehovah, who is life and has given life to man. But a peculiar thing exists even among these millions of people that follow Buddha’s teachings—they have drugstores and doctors and when people become ill they try to get better. They are not really sure of their future. Even though they are not to love life they try to keep their old frame together just as long as they can. When a Buddhist receives the truth and accepts it he certainly sheds a lot of weights and cares and then he sees that life is worth living and he can enjoy it. How many Buddhists will show their desire to serve God is hard to guess, but Jehovah’s witnesses have the command from the Lord to go and disciple all nations and to preach the good news in all the world for a witness, and that is what they are doing in Thailand and many other parts of the world regardless of the beliefs of the individuals. If once the message is preached to the people the responsibility becomes theirs to accept or reject it. It can be said that the people of Bangkok and Chiengmai and some other cities where Jehovah’s witnesses are located know of the work and know what we are teaching, and if they are of good will and are seeking after truth and righteousness the organization is there to aid and teach and show them the way to go.
Monday following the convention we had the opportunity to see some of the territory that the missionaries and local publishers have not yet worked. We took a ride in a launch through some of the klongs (canals) that are the highways for many of Thailand’s people. We began at the edge of the river Chao Phya right in the heart of Bangkok near our hotel. The Gilead graduates were all with us. The river is a very busy artery of Thailand’s traffic and all types of craft may be seen. Steamers from the oceans enter the mouth of the river and dock at Bangkok. There are tugboats and sampans. Barges are used extensively for hauling wood, rice, coconuts and other products of the land. We went north past the rice grain elevators and under the new Memorial bridge and then we routed westward up one of the major klongs in Bangkok. Along the sides were the venders in their dugout boats, selling drinks, food, vegetables, or ice cream. There were sawmills and weaving mills. We saw yards of native cloth that had just been dyed hanging up to dry. Homes were built right beside the klong, with steps leading down into the water. People were taking a bath or doing laundry in water that looked very uninviting, to say the least. Often we would come to a wat (temple), many of which were quite run down and in need of repair. We saw few people worshiping and we inquired to learn whether the people were forsaking Buddhism, but it seems they choose to build new temples rather than keep the small ones going. They were a fitting symbol of decadent demon worship.
An interesting item on the way was the sight of the little houses set atop a post in front of the homes of the people. These, we were told, are devil houses and they are erected before the people build a house in order to provide a place for the spirits so the spirits will not come and live in their house with the people. The people are very superstitious and often they put food in these houses to keep the evil spirits contented. When the ants eat the food the people see it disappear and think it has been taken by the devils. Sometimes these little houses are very nicely painted and well kept, but other times they are not looked after.
On the few klongs that we saw thousands of people live. We were told that almost all of the people in Thailand can read and write their own language, including the ones who lived as the people we saw; so there is a big field for the distribution of theocratic publications in that country. But more publishers will have to be found to reach all the people.
We enjoyed our visit to Bangkok. The spirit of the publishers is good and the progress of the work is encouraging. In addition, Bangkok is the kind of city one would dream about if he were going to dream of the Orient, for here you find the great temples of Buddha sticking up all through the city and the pomp and magnificence of royalty. Gold leaf decorates the roofs of many a temple and great ugly statues “guard” the entry places. Huge Buddhas have been erected and altars burn sweet incense that is carried on the breeze far from the temples. Some temples contain fabulous jewels. It has the touch of the East of the storybooks. Evidently their religion was the greatest power in the land over the people in years gone by, but many of the people now appear to be putting commerce and politics first and they are interested in the ways of the West. It is a land of plenty, however, and many of the country people credit Buddha with giving them such a wonderful land that they never worry about starvation. They realize, of course, that mighty and powerful nations are now at work in the world and as in other places there is not the absolute feeling of security. The present crisis in the Orient has favored Thailand, for she has the rice to feed millions more than there are subjects in the country and many business establishments from abroad have made headquarters in Bangkok. Things are more normal in Thailand than in other points of the Far East, but the people have reminders with them that not long ago war struck their land, for bridges that were bombed and gutted temples are there to say trouble may come again. This may cause some of the people to look for the truth.
ON TO BURMA
The peak of the heat of the day comes just past noon and it was at that time we were to report to Don Muang for our hop to Burma. Our brothers went to the airport with us and showed much consideration by going at that time. It was the afternoon of April 10 and we were to take off at 2 p.m. But the plane was held up awaiting the arrival of a late plane carrying passengers who were to make connections to go into Burma. That meant we had an extended visit with the publishers who accompanied us to the airport and our wait was thus made pleasant in spite of the heat.
At 4 p.m. it was announced that our departure would occur. Leaving this group would be different in that we would not be leaving them for many years, because in a few days we were going to come back and spend another twelve hours with them en route to Hong Kong. So it was just a good-by for three days.
As we flew away we saw the brown, parched, cracked land of the rice paddies; it was the dry season. Just a few green things could be seen along the shores of the rivers and many canals. In a few months there would be monsoon rains and plenty of mud, and rice planting would begin. Over the level plain we flew and then came the mountains which separate Thailand and Burma. We went straight west until we came to the coast of Burma, and then took a northerly direction toward Rangoon. Flying brought a brief taste of cool air, but when we landed and that closed-in cabin soaked up the sun’s rays we felt the heat more than ever.