Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Pridi Banomyong

When I heard that Thanpuying Poonsuk had died I was really depressed. It seemed as though a thread that connected me to my roots and to the agonizing birth of democracy in this country had snapped.

I have always thought of Pridi Banomyong as a grandfather because he was a frequent visitor to my maternal grandmother's house and a lot of history was made there. I remember that my Uncle Eed, who has also passed away, always regaled us with stories of how the police came to arrest my grandmother, accusing her of concealing some great cache of arms for Pridi's revolution. I did not know the Thanpuying that well but I last saw Pridi in the Netherlands when I was a teenager.

Pridi was an exile living in Paris and all he wanted was a piece of paper from the Thai Embassy there affirming that he was still alive so that he could collect a small government pension. Certainly a small enough favor to grant the father of democracy, but the ambassador was too scared to provide the affidavit. Instead, Pridi took the train to the Hague, where my father, then ambassador to the Netherlands, wrote the letter. When he came to my house, my mother said, "You must always call this man grandfather. He's one of the most important people you will ever meet and he is very special to our family."

But this man did not exude any sense of self-importance. He was a gentle white-haired man and he and I went for a little walk around the streets of the Hague one afternoon. He radiated a kind of saintliness that I have rarely seen in any human being and it amazed me that a person who had once held the fate of a nation in his hand found time to talk to me about my teenaged aspirations.

I have thought of him recently because it has occurred to me that Thailand is a country that rarely rewards those who give their all to her. Bad things have happened to many of our country's most talented people; they have often become consumed in petty little turf wars or jealous bickerings. Terrible things happened to my father and, in a smaller way, they are happening to me now just as they did in 1978, the last time I came back to this country. At least I have had another chance to finish the work I started thirty years ago; many others never came back.

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