It's the monsoon season again and here's Jay standing by the Operamobile. This happens once a year, though it really doesn't affect things that much; people just work around the rain. On the other hand, it must be said that politically speaking, it's the wrong season to stage big open-air protests....
Jay's first day at an English-speaking school produced a few memorable comments. "In my new school," he told me in wonderment, "the kids actually all raise their hands to ask and answer questions!" This isn't something that happens in the average Thai class, even with 50 kids ... it's hard to see a single hand up....
Friday, April 24, 2009
Years and years ago ... about three decades ... when I was an enfant terrible and not the eminence grise that I am today ... there was a peaceful student protest in Thailand that was bloodily put down by the Thai military. Martial law was imposed and, in order to justify their coup, the generals fabricated visual evidence of a plot against Thailand's most cherished institution, complete with doctored photographs of non-existent scenes of students desecrating these sacred symbols. Their control of the media was absolute, and the somewhat incompetently retouched photographs were not questioned for years.
Last week's situation was rather different. A violent protest, whose leaders (some genuinely idealistic, with real grievances) were simply unable to control the mob they had hired, was dispersed by the military under the firm control of civilians, with minimal violence and no direct deaths. (Two residents, incensed at having their homes invaded, were killed in a brawl with the protesters. The evidence seems to point the blame firmly on the protesters, although they are no trying to say that the killers were army militia in disguise.)
The government made no attempt to control the media, and yesterday allowed an open, televised debate on what happened. It was important to do that because the opposition, using the old playbook from the days of bloody coups, had made the assumption that there would be a huge mess and that in response the people would rise up to throw out the government.
When that didn't happen, there was no backup plan. If they couldn't show that this was a bloody and oppressive crackdown, the credibility of their cause -- including their genuine grievances -- would disintegrate. Which is a pity, because the genuine grievances ought to have been best served by a parliamentary process.
What we witnessed today is not going to be on CNN, because it's hours and hours of debate in Thai, and it doesn't have burning buses or angry mobs beating up cars. But it was far more important that what was shown on CNN because it showed a new kind of governance in action. The government was made accountable for what it did, and charges, even the most far-fetched, were able to be aired.
We watched the representative from Phayao give an impassioned and moving speech about a woman, whom, she said, had been dragged by the hair by a soldier. She played a video clip and indeed, it appeared shocking. Indeed, we had seen the same clip on CNN. She cited the U.N. charter on human rights and demanded that the prime minister immediately step down in response to what had been done to this woman.
The short, attention-getting video clip that looks really bad was of course, right out of the 1976 playbook. It had worked well for the generals, who got away with killing hundreds of unarmed students thirty years ago. Could the same technique be used to prove that Abhisit's virtually bloodless disbanding of the protest was in fact a bloody crackdown? Certainly, the representative's rhetoric was powerful.
But this is a different era. For one thing, the clip wasn't the only recording of the scene. The media had been present throughout, and it was therefore easy to produce any number of complete, unedited videotapes of the entire scene that had transpired. The clip shown by the representative showed someone dragging a woman, true ... you had to just believe their contention that it was a member of the military in disguise. But the entire tape showed clearly that this was an altercation between the red shirts and the press, and the only military intervention was to break up the squabble. It also showed these women (whom the representative described as pitifully imploring, grovelling in front of the soldiers and bringing them water) screaming obscenities at the press and being physically in-your-face for a very long time before someone decided to make it a brawl. When another representative stated that the person attacking the woman was a soldier disguised as a civilian, and gave his name, rank, and serial number, it seemed almost childishly simple for the government to rebut with produce pictures of that same soldier to show that he looked nothing like the attacker in question.
It became increasingly clear that the short clip in question was a Rorschach test: one could see a brutal suppression if that was one's agenda, and one could also see any number of alternate scenarios.
The C-span-like coverage is a first, I think, for this country, but we got to see all sorts of things people didn't want us to see ... because the cameras were unflattering to both sides, and didn't attempt to create a novelistic story out of it.
In short, times have changed since the days when you could produce a single photograph to prove your conspiracy theory. Someone, somewhere videotapes everything these days. From surveillance cameras to passersby with iPhones, there are always points of view you cannot control. Let's hope they all learn to deal with it.
Posted by Somtow at 9:51 PM
Thursday, April 23, 2009
My quest for exciting news about the Taliban takeover of Pakistan and other world-shattering events on CNN was interrupted by a panel of experts discussing Miss California's "position" on same-sex marriage. It was infuriating that the heartfelt, if brainless, remarks of this physically astounding specimen of womanhood should generate such punditry, and it got me to thinking....
What is it about the word "marriage" that upsets people so much? If a same-sex couple were perchance to receive all the legal rights and protections they should be getting, why would they still insist on the word "marriage?" Conversely, if you were not a same-sex couple, but you didn't mind them getting the various legal benefits of a civil union, why would you care enough to deny them the satisfaction of using the M-word?
At this point, such hallowed phrases as "the sanctity of marriage" begin to resound. And once the word "sanctity" pops into the dialogue, you know that you are outside the realm of civil rights and into the realm of religion.
I would like to suggest a radical solution to the semantic dilemma.
If the U.S. congress were to define marriage, not as the "union between" any particular numbers of persons of any gender, but as a "religious ritual" -- which is what is has always been, historically -- then all legislation about marriage would automatically be null and void as it would fall under the separation of church and state. I mean, congress doesn't legislate about baptism or extreme unction, let alone confession or excommunication. It can't.
This would mean than ONLY civil unions would qualify for whatever benefits they are qualified for by law. It would mean that institutions like plural marriage, same-sex marriage, and weddings in church and so on, could all take place under the aegis of whatever religion permitted such marriages, while having nothing whatever to do the kind of union that could provide the legal protections that should be provided couples of any sort.
Indeed, Miss California, in her foolishness, put her finger right on it, when she said "I'm not being politically correct, I'm being biblically correct." Precisely. And the U.S. constitution does not permit any legislation concerning biblical correctness. Therefore it can be argued that the constitution does not grant the congress, or the courts, the right to define "marriage" at all.
Of course there would have to be some kind of grandfather clause so that people married in church in the past could continue to receive the benefits of a civil union. But it's a solution which would eliminate a lot of needless debate and frustration, and CNN would have more time for real news....
Or would it?
Posted by Somtow at 10:28 AM
Monday, April 20, 2009
I pause to reflect for a moment on J G Ballard. I didn't really know Jim Ballard at all well but can't help feeling depressed about the passing of another giant. I also found out that it's Hitler's birthday. I am sure some kind of numerological, even eschatological, conclusion will be drawn from this.
Do you all remember the scene where the boy sees the distant flash of Hiroshima and doesn't know what it really is? Or the queasiness we all felt when he fingered a certain unnameable feeling people get when watching a car crash, and told us this feeling was actually sexual excitement? He was totally original, and scarier than any horror writer.
I said two words about Ballard on Facebook and Pete Young reminded me of my little homage to Empire of the Sun in my novella The Bird Catcher. Writing him into the opening of this story was like the ancient Thai tradition of wai kru, paying homage to one's teachers before beginning any creative endeavor.
Posted by Somtow at 10:56 PM
A year ago I talked in this blog about a kid named Jay who walked into our office for an audition. He turned out to have a very compelling story which you can read about in this old blog...
I want to tell those who wanted to know what happened to him ... last week, Jay auditioned for, and has been offered, a highly prestigious music scholarship to the Thai branch of the one of the world's top schools -- Harrow. This is a place that costs upwards of $30,000 a year to send your kid to, so it is an astonishing leap for someone who only a year ago was busking in the weekend market to put food on the table. All sorts of people chipped in to make this possible, notably Dr. Paul Beresford-Hill, former headmaster of Patana School (where I went to as a child.) He's also the proud possessor of a new violin which should hold him until someone sees fit to give him a Strad.
We're all quite stunned at how he has managed to pull this off.
Meanwhile, the child prodigy in residence, Trisdee, has been selected as young conductor of the year at the Rossini Festival in Rossini's birthplace, Pesaro and he's also going to conduct some performances of Cosi fan Tutte at the Opera du Rhin in France ... but in fact I have to say that he is no longer famous as Thailand's most brilliant musician under 25 (or even 50). The video he created on youtube has eclipsed all his classical music achievements, reaching 1000 hits an hour today and getting listed on world-wide top comedy lists. You can watch it below....
Posted by Somtow at 4:34 PM
Saturday, April 18, 2009
I received a comment on my blog (published elsewhere) in which someone asks me, basically, how I can project an optimistic, transparent society in a culture that enforces grovelling....
It would be easy to say, "Oh, this person just doesn't understand Thailand." That is the standard answer Thai people often give. But it is a question that deserves a more complex answer, because, in reality, a lot of Thai people don't understand Thailand either — rather, Thai society does not encourage people, nor do they have the inclination themselves, to examine the historical bases of their culture.
I use the commentator's word "grovel" throughout this blog post, with its jarring connotations, but there isn't a word in Thai that means "grovel" in the exact sense of the English. In English the word "grovel" implies that the groveller is a lower being, but in Thai a word such as "kraab" actually elevates the person referred to, and indicates that he has refinement. This makes it very difficult to discuss the issue. There's little semantic overlap between the terms of discourse.
In western culture, there is an association of grovelling with abject servitude. People see it as abasement. But in Thailand, the ability to grovel beautifully is a mark of a cultured sensibility and good manners. And, while people here don't usually bother to think this through, the fact is that even the highest members of royalty grovel to ordinary monks, and there are a lot of ordinary monks. This cyclical nature of grovelling prevents it from being the sort of sword-and-sandal "on thy knees, thou miserable cur" type of thing that westerners might expect.
If you as a visitor to Thailand have been a guest at a decent hotel like the Oriental in Bangkok, and have sat down in the lobby for a coffee, you may have been amazed to find the waitress serving it to you on her hands and knees. Perhaps it surprised you that she didn't act like an oppressed peasant while grovelling, but did it as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Within this culture, it is. People who cannot grovel elegantly aren't considered insufficiently oppressed in this country; rather, they are considered ill-mannered or uneducated.
My friend the eminent intellectual Bob Halliday, years and years ago, when he was still new in Thailand, was having lunch with HRH Princess Chumbhot of Nagor Svarga (an old friend and distant aunt of mine) one day. It was the 1970s and the communist threat was always under discussion. The princess said to Bob, "Let the communists come! I'm perfectly happy for them to take over. I'd love to see the entire aristocracy swept away and replaced with a classless society!"
At that moment, an aged servant came crawling into the room. Slowly and arthritically, she wormed her way across the floor in order to pour a cup of tea for the guest.
"But princess," Bob said, "how can you say such a thing with this servant crawling around on the floor?"
Princess Chumbhot said, "Until you understand that, Mr. Halliday, you will never understand Thailand."
Thirty-five years later, Bob Halliday understands it all. He could probably explain it better than I could and his Thai is certainly better than mine.
A century ago, the western-leaning and highly revered King Rama V abolished grovelling at court. But guess what? It slowly worked its way back. People who have grown up in Thailand in the last half-century do not realize this, but I have seen it even though I missed much of the process. Elders in my family who were alive in those times, including my great-aunt who was Queen in the reign of King Rama VI, told me that there wasn't as much grovelling for a while. Yet even the most revered king in the history of this dynasty could not legislate away something so profoundly intrinsic to this culture's sense of identity. Could it change? Undoubtedly, but (to quote the Freudian light bulb joke) it would have to want to change.
The fact of the matter is that people here love to grovel, love to do it as beautifully as they can, and don't feel demeaned or abased by it. Grovelling occurs at all levels of society and in all sorts of very fluid situations. And it is not actually compulsory. Indeed, on virtually every occasion when I've been in a situation where grovelling might be called for, the distinguished grovellee has always said, "Oh, don't worry about that, sit in a chair."
In the last hundred years, Siam has therefore moved from absolute monarchy with less grovelling to democratically elected governments with more grovelling. Therefore, I want to tell commentarians in the west who equate grovelling with servitude that the model doesn't really fit here. It is, in fact, the dreaded cultural imperialism to say that it does ... but that's a can of worms of another color.
Conclusion: It might be hard to see this from an outside perspective, but I simply don't think the grovelling thing is going to have much effect on whether this country can end up with a transparent and reasonable system of government. I think a massive investment in the education and living standards of the masses might be more effective than abolishing a few rituals.
Posted by Somtow at 9:01 PM
Thursday, April 16, 2009
The Songkran Holiday goes on and on and on, coincidentally interrupting the opera's fundraising activities to such an extent that we might have to reshuffle May. Yes, only two days have been added to the holiday by the government, but that means we lose the whole week, and also the week on either side of that week.
So we're suffering a bit of a setback and it will probably take several weeks of hard work to get things back up again.
This morning I'll talk about astrology and about bribery, but first I should let you know about the lottery results vis a vis my dream.
I bought the closest lottery ticket I could to the numbers that appeared in my dream, but, alas, my powers of ESP, or the ability of the dead people to communicate with me, were not quite up to it. One of the winning numbers, 850531, did in fact contain all the numbers alluded to in the dream (if as I did, you counted 4+4 as 8). The ticket I purchased, however, was 801531. If anyone reading my blog did purchase the correct number, I demand a percentage.
Astrology is a very important feature of life in Thailand. No one would think of doing anything important without checking with an astrology. My sister had an astrologer check for the ideal times for her Caesarian sections in order to guarantee the most auspicious future for her kids. So it is only natural that astrology should figure prominently in the post-troubles punditry.
My friend Mr. Thanong, one of the most balanced and perceptive political pundits in this country, backed up one of the most astute analyses of the political situation in The Nation with references to astrological charts. The Bangkok Post yesterday featured two astrologers, one who had predicted victory for the government, the other for the protesters, showing how the latter is now in the doghouse for incorrectly reading the omens.
I myself have often been defeated in life by the fact that I have a Mars-Venus conjunction in my third house.
This is all very mild compared to the Burmese junta moving their capital city to the middle of nowhere on the instructions of an astrologer, but it ought to alert the western media that they must use a little more cultural relativism in their analyses.
On facebook, I mentioned that my housekeeper told me they were offering people in her village 200 baht to don red shirts and protest. I immediately came under attack for being an elitist pig. Today, I had a chance to discuss the 200 baht with her in detail. It was so much lower than other figures that have been bandied about that I knew there must be more to the story.
She explained the situation to me quite explicitly. She said, "In my village, the day laborers get 150 baht a day for harvesting rice. It's a hot, backbreaking job and they don't get fed. Of course they were willing to take 200 for a free holiday to the big city and free food. Anyone would do it." It brought home to me the fact that, though domestic staff receive comparatively low wages, she's actually earning more than twice as much as she would at home, plus getting free food and medical care ... not to mention her own cable controller. Still, 200 is very low. I saw a figure of 3,000 baht, with a contact number, scrawled on a bathroom wall in Fortune City. And my friend Veeravan, also on Facebook, said that her housekeeper was quoted 800. And the conventional wisdom, supported by what looks like Thaksin blooper on Youtube, puts the fee at 500.
What happened to the rest of the money?
So, I put the question to Daeng, my housekeeper, and she said, "Oh, it's the middlemen. There is a sub-agent in the village and they actually pocket most of the money themselves."
My housekeeper may be uneducated (she can barely read) but she ain't dumb. She is perfectly aware that, in her village at least, the real issue is food, not democracy. And she's been quite articulate about it.
Were the yellow shirts also paid? I don't doubt that some were. However, I very much doubt that my mother, who enjoyed a day at the protests last year, would have accepted 200 baht.
Were all the red shirts paid? Of course not. I know Dr. Weng (presently under arrest) personally. He is an idealistic, honorable and passionate individual. I am sure that people such as he are in fact devoted to improving the state of our democracy. I hope that, when dialogue finally occurs, people such as he are invited to the table.
Whose side am I on myself? The side of reason.
The practice of buying elections will only stop when the price becomes unaffordable. That can only happen when educational and living standards improve all through the kingdom. Any two-bit billionaire can buy a country at $5 a vote, but if the figure rose to even $100, even Bill Gates might hesitate.
Posted by Somtow at 9:35 AM
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Two days ago, Bangkok looked down into the abyss. One day ago, it all died down, and by evening the hookers on my street were partying hard.
Today, everyone is in punditry mode. I have spent the day dissecting the dissections instead of doing my real work. It seems to me that the international press's reaction to Bangkok's angst falls into several main categories, ranging from misinformation to willful ignorance. Nevertheless, within twenty-four hours of the quelling of the riots, it was clear that the international media were backpedaling, using hindsight to pretend that they had known the whole time what was what in the knotty skein of Thai politics.
CNN and the other networks are engaged in storytelling. Their techniques are those of any good novelist. There must be a protagonist you can identify with. There must be noble causes and dark forces, a bright moment, a dark moment, and then a triumphant slug-out in which the entire problems of the universe are reduced to the actions of a single hero. Why do I know all this? Because I do it for a living.
To get viewer to watch the news (and to sell the products in between the news stories, which are what commercial TV is about) ... you must bend reality into this larger mythic truth.
It was clear, in this case, that the exigencies of storytelling were severely at odds with reality. Now the revisionism begins.
Now, it turns out that Luke Skywalker was actually Darth Vader. Now we learn that the rebel headquarters on Alderan is actually the deathstar. And facts that have been conveniently shuffled about in order to bring out the mythic storyline must be reshuffled.
It's not just the media that do this. People also do it to themselves, because we are all heroes in our own mythic journey which, one way or another, we strive to make conform to the Platonic ideal of mythic journeys.
The "yellow" team was never a huge monolithic alliance of the forces of conservatism, seeking to stamp out freedom, The "reds" were not a seething mass of proletariat workers throwing off the yoke of the capitalism elite. Both sides are uneasy and highly volatile groupings of people who barely trust each other and wouldn't be seen dead together if their self-interested agendas didn't happen to coincide. The "class war" which the international media seem so intent on making this into is just a cover.
One thing is clear: the plan may well have been for the present prime minister to function as a puppet of the military, but he managed to get them to work for him instead. And he did so using a whole new armory which has never been tried in the 77 years of Thailand's so-called democratic existence: weapons like reason, transparency, and a willingness to acknowledge that the other side might have genuine grievances.
Thaksin, too, brought new techniques into the political arena during his tenure. Everyone has always blatantly purchased the rural vote, but Thaksin, having purchased it, also gave them things other than money. I found him exciting and refreshing at first. But his regime also saw new lows in human rights and press freedoms. The killing of suspected drug dealers whose names happened to appear on blacklists that seemed to be quota- rather than fact-driven was shocking. So was the appalling use of brutality to subdue the muslim minorities in the south of Thailand. As a member of a government committee on talented children, I saw first-hand evidence of wastage and when I objected to the purchase of dozens of $5,000 chairs for a new children's center on the grounds that it might be better to spend such vast sums on the children themselves, the grant money already approved for me to help children in music mysteriously didn't materialized and we were subjected to a frivolous spending investigation. I had to pay for the program out of my own pocket though the government's name was on it.
It was apparent that this government was in fact more fascist-leaning, more graft-ridden, and more corrupt than what it had replaced.
Naturally, I thought the yellow shirts were a wonderful thing at first, and though I felt that the 2006 coup was a bit over the top, the odd thing is that intellectual freedom seemed to get better after it happened. Then, they censored my opera (or tried to). But that was really a bit of a joke. It wasn't really the junta, to be honest; it was little people trying to curry favor, and blowing it big-time.
After the election, however, the new government again failed to disburse funds for a noble cause they were supposedly supporting (this time for an opera project) which they had approved a week before the election, miring it in red tape and bureaucratic process. This time, I had to borrow money from friends and family to put on events which bore the logo of the prime minister's office.
I have therefore been personally shafted my quite a few of these governments, one way or the other, and have actually ended up involuntarily subsidizing them. But I digress. I just wanted to let you understand that I have had some personal dealings with some of these regimes.
The yellows were a lot of fun, and had great music and a party atmosphere, and had really important issues that needed to be aired. But then they had to go and say that poor people were too ignorant to vote ... a big, big, big, big blunder. How could these western educated elitists make such a political correctness faux pas? Simple. Because they're not all western elitists, any more than the reds are all bumpkins. Thaksin himself came from the very same moneyed elitist group he pretends to distance himself from, and a fair number of the military types are in fact sterling examples of the uneducated masses themselves. This entire dichotomy is basically a literary device.
The yellow's second blunder was to seize the airport. Because they were no longer any fun. They had become a nuisance.
And -- this is very important -- the fall of the government really had little to do with them seizing hte airport. The judicial review of the corruption charges was complete with due process, and it s was the judiciary that fired the government. A completely constitutional process.
The coalition that finally formed was also a result of a completely constitutional process. Abhisit assumed power with the same legitimacy as George Bush in his first election; he may not have won the popular vote, but he had a majority where it counted -- in this case, cobbled together from his party and the fringe parties and Thaksin defectors. One may disagree or not like it, but to say that his premiership is illegimate is simply untrue.
Back to metapunditry for a moment.
We must conclude that there are no blacks and whites in this whole mess. There are a lot of losers but there is, I think, a small victory. The military learned their lesson and did not attempt a coup. Despite Thaksin's ravings to CNN (none of which CNN bothered to try to substantiate) there seems to be no evidence whatsoever of the army killing anyone. It would be difficult to hide such evidence in this digital age especially when the press was invited to every military outing and they were all timed for daylight so that nothing could be hidden. But what seems to have escaped all but the most persicacious members of the foreign press is that the terms of discourse in Thailand have changed. An entire system of concepts -- brutal suppressions of dissent, banana republic militarism, democracy versus fascism, and so on -- is no longer relevant here. That is all old hat now, and the clever ones are scrambling to adjust. Politics as usual was trumped by reason ... which had never been tried before. It was a huge gamble on the part of Abhisit and it was way outside the box. It barely worked, but it was also the only thing that had the remotest chance of working.
We might, in fact, be at the dawn of a new age -- the very new age which Thaksin promised but reneged on -- an age of transparency, reason, and fair play. It may not happen, of course ... it is a very fragile thing. I'm skeptical, but hopeful.
The above has of course been yet another retelling of the hero myth. Hopefully, more of the facts will fit this time.
The street I live on is alive with activity this evening. After the rioting, the burning buses, the soldiers, and the near collapse of the country ... comes the revelry. It's Songkraan, the Thai New Year, when you are allowed to soak everyone you see with water and no one can complain. It's a blessing. It washes away the past.
My street is a curious one. I live in a sheltered cul-de-sac; not three minutes' walk away is the home of the prime minister. But cutting through a parking lot brings me to an alley containing an exclusive girlie club catering to Japanese, and then I reach the strip of the art bars: the Degas, the Renoir, the Mondriaan, etc. etc. The hookers are out in force in front of each bar, dousing each other and passersby with neon-colored water pistols and plastic buckets. Screaming and laughing and getting their teeshirts very very wet.
It is pretty much impossible to tell that the country has narrowly escaped plunging into civil war.
But then, this culture is really not one for history ... not true history anyway. It's a culture that lives in the moment. If you ask a Thai kid for a history lesson, you get something that sounds remarkably like it was spun from the fabric of fairy tale. And once a year, we wash away the past with water pails and shrieks of glee.
Could we not stop for a moment to connect a few dots?
Posted by Somtow at 2:16 AM
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
I woke up today with the TV still on and watched as the red shirt leader calmly gave himself up and the protesters, who had vowed to fight to the death, were calmly making their way towards the buses which will eventually take them home to the remote provinces from which they were originally recruited. The government is giving them air conditioned buses with free boxed lunches. In all this, there seems to be virtually no indication that any of the protesters wanted not to go home to some remote province ... they're just not from these parts.
Now, this has got to be the most nonviolent quelling of a citywide riot in history. If you do not believe me, let me draw your attention to the Rodney King riots in L.A., Tienanmin Square, Soweto, or any other remotely similar situation in living memory ... including some shameful episodes when this country was under the control of the military.
In three days, Abhisit has grown from an overeducated milquetoast to a formidable statesman who actually delivers what he promises, and Thaksin has shrunk from a satellite-beamed messiah to a ranting madman. Of course, the tables could still turn. They often do in this volatile world. They could even turn tomorrow.
Still, I'd rather get back to work on my overdue novels, operas, cantatas, and what have you. Of course, political crises have a direct impact on the number if blog hits I get, so if there's a side effect of more people buying my books....
It's almost 5 am here in Bangkok, and I'm reading the European papers online. Amazingly, it seems that reason might actually prevail in the current crisis. The Times said that Abhisit had won the media war, with Thaksin appearing shrill and unconvincing. And the U.S. has officially condemned the violence, not of the Thai government, but of the protesters, proving P.T. Barnum's adage that you can't fool all of the people all of the time.
Of course, the fact that Abhisit is able to utter a grammatically correct English sentence, complete with dependent clauses is, to say the least, refreshing. The last few leaders of Thailand have been decidedly lacking in this department. He doesn't knock us dead with passionate rhetoric, but he has a softspoken logic that grows on one. And he does have eloquence, even if it is not immediately apparent.
I'm starting to feel good about the Thai New Year, though who knows what tomorrow may bring.
Posted by Somtow at 4:37 AM
Monday, April 13, 2009
It had to happen ... someone finally died in the riots. Is it the glorious martyr the red shirts have been looking for since this morning, when they went to the hospital to fetch the body of their noble comrade felled in the struggle, only to discover that person alive and well? Alas, no; it appears to be someone they themselves shot ... a fellow member of the proletariat who had the temerity to not want a bunch of thugs hanging around their neighborhood. It must be pretty annoying for them: a senseless tragedy to be sure, but one they cannot even exploit?
Though doubtless there will be propaganda on all sides, I tend to believe that this version of the story is true since we see the relatives of the slain person on TV asking the government's advice on whether they will be able to sue the organizers of the protest for compensatory and punitive damages.
I've finally been catching the international coverage of all this. Though of course it concentrates on the sensationalistic aspects of it all, CNN's coverage has gradually become more balanced over the course of the day and towards evening Jim Clancy started actually trying to squeeze real answers out of Thaksin, questions which he squirmingly dodged. Alas, giving Thaksin such a platform allowed him to propagate a number of jaw-droppingly untrue statements. Still, it was good that CNN showed the Thai army only firing into the air while the protesters hurled Molotov cocktails and set buses on fire as the pictures accompanying Thaksin's statement that these red shirts were fighting only with their bare hands. This was more eloquent even than Clancy's haranguing.
Mild-mannered, intellectual and thoroughly European in his world view, Abhisit is not a very effective poster boy for Fascism, I'm afraid. Though I was doubtful it would work, I'm beginning to think that he might actually get away with being reasonable. That would be a landmark in Thai politics. I think that what triggered the red shirt riots is perfectly clear: Abhisit's fragile coalition was actually starting to work. Things were actually improving. Thailand was about to like the democrat party. If the Thaksinites didn't act now, they might not be able to get a mob up in a couple of months ... especially since the Abhisit regime was continuing and even expanding its investment in the provinces of the pro-Thaksin heartland. The country was even starting to smell like a democracy. Just as it did, very briefly, in 1973-6.
Now all this progress has gone to shit.
A clip has been circulating from one of Thaksin's phone-ins. In it, he appears to accidentally let slip the fact that the protesters were each paid 500 baht. Oddly enough, my maid says they were only paying people 200. Well, you can buy a mob, even a very big mob, but you can't buy democracy.
Posted by Somtow at 11:20 PM
So, finally, the "red show" on my satellite dish has actually been cut off. I am left with watching only the "voice of reason." I see that the red shirts did in fact march to the hospital to retrieve the body of their glorious martyr, only to discover that this person was stabilizing nicely in the ICU. How embarrassing. Another blow for the red shirts seems to have been the fact that the citizens of the Din Daeng apartment complexes didn't seem that willing to be held as hostages, and were bitterly complaining about it to the media. The idea that the proletariat might have more than one opinion must have come as a great surprise to those who claimed to be their representatives. It always does. One underestimates them at one's peril.
I'm starting to have some hope that Abhisit might actually carry this off. If so, it would certainly set an enviable standard in riot management that other nations might be wise to follow. History is littered with egregious examples of bad riot management: Soweto, Rodney King, and some pretty bad ones in Thailand in the 70s.
Meanwhile, I cling to these lottery tickets, and I'll report to you soon about how accurate a "prophetic dream" can be.
Posted by Somtow at 12:47 PM
As one of the few people I know who is switching back and forth between the redshirts' TV station and the regular news, I am astonished to know that I am inhabiting two completely different cities named Bangkok.
In the first Bangkok, a bunch of wild hooligans, led by an absent rabble-rouser who has already shifted his own family to safety in another country, is running rampant, smashing the prime minister's car, shutting down important international conferences, and generally rioting incoherently. A bewildered government is reluctantly clamping down, trying at all times to be the voice of reason, going about it all in a eminently civilized fashion. No one has been killed, though a few stray bullets have regrettably injured a few people who are now receiving the finest medical treatment.
In the other Bangkok, freedom fighters are storming the Bastile and demanding that hospitals be raided in order to liberate the "bodies of the martyrs." The prime minister, I heard, is a vicious murderer who has trampled over the squirming corpse of democracy, silencing the voices of dissent. In this Bangkok, Thaksin is the messiah who will sweep the country to a glorious future and build a new Thailand on the bones of the aforementioned massacred martyrs. (Though they seem to be scraping the bottom of the barrell to find any martyrs right now.) I just saw a woman screaming that the U.N. should send troops (thus equating the situation in Bangkok with Darfur or Kosovo.)
Switching back and forth provides an astonishing insight into how different realities can be. It speaks to the very nature of truth.
There's no "yellow show" anymore, but the contrast between the current "red show" and "yellow show" couldn't be greater.
There is a very, very difference between the first bunch of protestors (the yellows) and the current batch. The yellow bunch were all very middle class, even upper class. They brought their maids to the protests so that they could continue to be served their meals. My mother went. My sister and her little kids went so they could be photographed with Sondhi. There was this sense of moral purpose. Their TV show was pretty entertaining, as they had the country's top pop stars appear on stage from time to time. The yellows aren't too happy right now; they've handed in a petition urging the entire military top brass to resign for failing to deal with the riots.
By contrast, what we see in the red show is no fun at all. These guys didn't bring their maids. I reported months ago seeing a graffito offering red shirts 3,000 baht and a free shirt to join the protests, and giving a phone number to contact. My maid, who is very much in touch with the red shirts' social network, told me that word is that the pay is now only 200 baht. Nevertheless, there are people I know on their show as well ... people like the fiercely patriotic Dr. Weng. I know him, know for a fact that he's a good person. We worked together on the World Peace concert years ago and both of us were clearly on the side of Good against an extremely Evil force.
The voice of reason rarely prevails against blind, inchoate anger. Yet, somehow, flicking back and forth between the stations, who mirror the real world in such starkly differing ways, I personally cannot help feeling that I would choose the side of reason for once, even though I am by nature unreasonable.
Maybe it's just the Etonian solidarity thing. On the other hand, the prime minister did go to Oxford. Well, you can't have everything.
My friend (and fellow Cantabrigian) Dr Sumet says in the paper that we must all go and deliver flowers to the prime minister's house. I will do it, if I think I can make it down the street without getting drenched by Songkran revellers.
I do want to talk a bit about this martyrdom thing because I think that if Thaksin is to salvage any piece of his credibility, he must go to jail.
Every important figure in world history who fights for democracy has faced the jail thing. Whether it's Gandhi, Aung San, or Mandela, the willingness to go to jail has always been a significant factor in elevating these people to sainthood. Now, admittedly, Thaksin is under sentence for fiscal skulduggery, not for his beliefs. But there's no reason why a good PR firm couldn't parlay a couple of months of jail time into an agonizing inner struggle every bit the equal of Mein Kampf. I wonder why he hasn't thought of that.
As I state from time to time in one short story or another, the Thais believe very strongly that if you dream of numbers and death, you have seen a winning lottery number.
I had such a dream last night, so I will share it with all of you. The Thai lottery comes out on April 16, so you can all run out and buy tickets. I only ask that if my prediction makes you rich, that you'll write a small check to the Bangkok Opera as a gesture of thanks.
In my dream, I am a poor street kid who runs in a gang. We are in a huge urban sprawl and there is a beautiful tall building we are trying to reach. But we must run past a broken fence with a lottery vendor. You must have a lottery ticket to get into the building and the price of each ticket varies. It is a crazy lottery system because it not only has numbers ... you must also answer questions. In my dream there is a girl with me, a close friend, I can't tell who it is upon waking, and some other gang members.
To get the first lottery ticket I have to answer the question, "How many skulls are there in the bible?" and unthinkingly, I answer "3." I see three skulls in front of me in a sort of vision.
I am told "That is only partially true. There are actually 41." (maybe this is a numerological reference to 4 minus 1.)
However, I am allowed to have the lottery ticket anyway. I am told that I will receive $101.50. I am delighted. But the woman who is with me (now I am almost convinced that this was Judy, the late mother of my son John) really wants to get into the building.
I say, "All right, I will sacrifice this ticket and buy another with the money I have won."
Everyone starts to move to the building, praising my sacrifice, and I turn to buy another ticket. But now I have to pay 440. I am racking my brains thinking of how I will raise this ... when I wake up.
This is a classic Thai lottery dream with all the correct elements: skulls, numbers, and so on. So, I thought about it and said to myself, "Okay, if I actually see these numbers on the street, I better go ahead a buy."
Fool that I am, I could only find the number 801531, which contains all the digits in my dream except 44 ... but would 8 do as an analogue for 44? All I know is that I will win 20 million baht if this is the winning number.
If any of you can solve this mystery, buy a lottery ticket, and actually win based on my dream, all I ask is that you pay me the dream-tax. It will all go to the opera anyway.
Posted by Somtow at 12:57 AM
Sunday, April 12, 2009
Now that the country has been plunged into shame and dark despair, I thought it might add some perspective to note that in The Nation's powerful video of the stalwart citizens of Silom deflecting the depredations of the ravaging redshirts, the people's weapon of choice was not the Molotov cocktail, the AK-47, or any of the more usual tools of political dissent. Nay, rather, the marauding hordes were repelled by a much more original, and very Thai, assault weapon — the strategically projected bowl of noodles. Entire vats of noodles were eventually pressed into service.
Maybe now the world's democracy pundits will take us seriously!
Posted by Somtow at 1:54 PM
Thursday, April 9, 2009
I was amazed to read on Wikipedia that I am "a critic of the Thaksin regime". As a matter of fact, my criticisms have always been doled out with utter even-handedness to pretty much every government ever to run this country. I guess I should not blame Wikipedia, which is after all composed by anyone who wants to compose it, and the information about me is generally pretty accurate, though I've had to intervene personally a couple of times to correct sheer facts, such as when someone said that I'd been to a boarding school in Switzerland.
Now that traffic is at a standstill because of more political protests, and the prime minister's house is just a 2 minute walk from mine, and his sister has become my literary agent, it might be necessary for me to explain that Wikipedia's contention that I've been a critic of the Thaksin regime doesn't mean that I haven't been a critic of its successors. After all, it was the regime after Thaksin's that tried to censor my opera Ayodhya, and about which I wrote my famous "open letter to the prime minister" which, I believe, has been read by about three people.
However, it would be wrong to imply that my criticism has been over things like corruption or buying the election. Those things are all par for the course around here; Thaksin was better at it, that's all. He had many brilliant ideas. Of all the people to have had the post of prime minister, Thaksin is one of the few who might conceivably have been posssessed of genius. His succumbing to hubris was perhaps, therefore, inevitable. The tragic flaw comes with the territory.
No, all this talk of corruption and greed underlies far more serious problems. The use of the lawsuits to silence the press, for instance, whilst pretending to uphold the freedom of the press. The extrajudicial murders disguised as a drug war and the hypocritical announcement of victory, the tone-deaf response to the muslim question, are to me far worse than cheating on one's taxes to the tune of a few billion baht. Yet no one complains of those things. That is, I think, because when we look into the heart of an enemy, we tend to see ourselves. Corruption sees corruption.
The righteous indignation of Thaksin's opposition, however, went beyond the pale when they started to say that the poor shouldn't vote because they're too stupid. Even if they believed that, there are ways to say these things that do not cross the political correctness line ... such as suggesting that money be poured into rural education to enable the poor to make more informed judgments not colored by bribery. That was the moment when they lost my sympathy. Taking over the airport was simply dumb. It basically obliterated the moral high ground.
When I watched Abhisit's speech on TV last night, however, I must admit that his words were so balanced, so reasonable, so intelligent, and so well thought through, that surely this man cannot remain in office long. Thailand's system tends not to reward reason, intelligence, forethought, or balanced judgment. Brute force, brazen lies, and lining one's pockets are generally considered the most desirable traits in a Thai prime minister. Though naturally I have a vested interested in seeing an Old Etonian in power, I worry. I fear that he is simply too good for this job.
I want to say, however, that these two people do, in a strange way, have something in common. They are both operating in an intellectual universe far beyond the graft-driven grind of normal Thai politics. And I don't think that either one of them is understood by the majority of his own supporters.
If we can get through the weekend, we'll probably be okay. The Songkran festival is supposed to wash away the sins of the past. I wouldn't know. I probably won't get wet. I'm a Songkran hermit.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
So, this Hollywood producer I know who's been trying to get "Vampire Junction" made for years gets this response from one of Hollywood's biggest big-shots: He felt that it was a brilliant book, ahead of its time, groundbreaking--- but that the elements that made it unique and special have since (his quote) "been done to death".
What does this prove? Well, I think it proves that it never pays to have any original ideas. The person who makes money off the idea is never the originator, but the guy who comes in on one's coattails.
Meanwhile, thanks to all of you who logged onto www.thedragonstones.com to read the first two chapters of the new trilogy; since the number of hits has reached 100, I've added another chapter. However, I think I will set the next bar at 300 hits for adding Chapter 4.
Having another gout attack today. Ouch! Losing 100 pounds should do it, but it's a lot easier to lose it from the bank than from the paunch. It was so bad I had to record my radio show at home, but I'm making up for it by including a thirty minute piece by Schnittke in the show. That'll wake 'em up!!!
Posted by Somtow at 1:05 PM
Sunday, April 5, 2009
I must confess that I've found it slightly disappointing that my return from the grave -- or rather, the seven year writer's block -- wasn't greeted by tickertape parades in the SF community. Not surprising, really -- I suppose I should have expected it to be so. On two occasions during my writing career, I've had a hard time selling a novel. Each was rejected by twenty or more publishers. Each was eventually picked up by the kind of publisher one would least expect, and each eventually received a measure of critical and popular success far greater than might be expected from the trouble it gave me. I'm not counting my first novel, which also took a while to place, because a first novel is an untried thing. The two novels I'm referring to are Vampire Junction and Jasmine Nights. They are, in fact, my two most acclaimed novels.
I shouldn't really be surprised then that it's happening again. When my block broke, in mid 2007, I immediately turned in an overdue children's book, The Stone Buddha's Tears, to its contracted publisher, immediately sold three pieces of short fiction, and embarked on a huge fantasy trilogy. The children's book is in another kind of limbo right now, due to it being part of this series which the packager is having problems with. But really, I thought the fantasy trilogy would be in print by now. Instead it's giving me the same sort of troubles as my other two "breakaway" novels. Yet I can't help believing it is a huge conceptual and aristic breakthrough for me.
So, I am posting some installments of it at www.thedragonstones.com, a web page I've created for it, as a test. I've been giving readings here, and the reception has been unbelievable. Yet the New York publishing community remains unmoved. Perhaps I can get enough popular support from the posting, or I can persuade enough people to lobby the various fantasy publishers, or attract someone neither my agent nor I have thought of. Who knows?
It's had about 70 hits in 2 days; if I get up to 100 I'll post another chapter....
Then after that I will raise the bar ... or ask for donations ... !
Posted by Somtow at 3:09 PM