Monday, May 31, 2010

Birth of an Orchestra

Jay receiving flowers from the Executive VP of Siam Commercial Bank after the premiere of Aldebaran

From today's THE NATION ... I suspect that from the words "Last Week" they must have held this piece for a while owing to a few slightly more newsworthy happenings in Bangkok....

BIRTH OF AN ORCHESTRA18-year-old  composer’s astronomical creation highlights youth orchestra’s debut

The Siam Sinfonietta, a new symphony orchestra considering entirely of teenagers, made a splashy debut last week with concerts at Rajabhat University in Korat and the Mahisorn Hall at SCB Plaza in Bangkok.  Both events played to full houses and featured ambitious programming including two complete symphonies.

The orchestra first came together in March as a result of a widespread talent search by Somtow Sucharitkul, whose “adult” orchestra, the Siam Philharmonic, has been getting a lot of international attention lately for its bold programming and ecstatic musicianship.   But auditions and scouting had been going for at least a year beforehand.  At the “Bach to the Future” camp, a symphony orchestra was forged after three intense days.

“It’s a new approach to education,” says Somtow, “geared towards the most highly motivated, creative and talented young individuals in our society, who often find themselves stifled in an over-regimented teaching environment.”  A visit to a rehearsal finds Somtow touching on aspects of philosophy and music history more commonly found at an advanced university level.  In the middle of the famous first movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony, he stops to ask the kids, “What key are we in?”  Winry, a lanky 15-year-old cellist, scratches his head  “F sharp minor?” “Right,” Somtow says.  “Why is that important?  What is about F sharp minor that is so shocking?”  “Because …” Jay, in the first violin section, stops to think, “it’s as far as you can get from G minor.”  “That’s it!” Somtow says.  “Mozart’s jolting the audience.  He’s saying, ‘Here we are, adrift, lost, far from the home key … and daring us to find our way home.  Now do you understand why it’s pianissimo? 

The kids have been listening in a way you rarely see kids listen in a classroom.  He picks up his baton.  The development section of the movement begins.  It’s hushed, magical. 

“Kids can play real music,” says Somtow, “with all the passion and intensity of a world-class orchestra.  The technique may not be all there yet, but they will learn it.  But they won’t play that way for you unless you respect their musicianship and show them how the act of creation is coming from them.”

In Korat last Sunday, and again on May 4th in Bangkok, the Siam Sinfonietta played with a maturity and sense of style not often found in Bangkok even in adult orchestras.  The programme contained two entire symphonies: Mozart’s Fortieth and what may have been the Thailand premiere of Haydn’s 83rd, “The Hen.”  Intonation was above average and sforzandi were crisp.   The Mozart was played with such radiant intensity that it led recording engineer Prateep, who records almost all classical concerts in Bangkok, to remark that it was “the best live No. 40 I’ve ever heard.”

Highlights of the concert, and showing that this is no ordinary youth orchestra, were works by Charles Ives (The Unanswered Question) and the world premiere of 18-year-old Jay’s minimalist composition Aldebaran.  This colorful, sci-fi flavored piece, while clearly showing the influence of Phillip Glass, had its own unique tonal flavor and was at times startlingly original. 
This is a very special orchestra which benefits from the attentions of internationally known musicians such as Somtow and Bruce Gaston (under whom they worked at camp in March) as well as coaching from Thailand’s top instrumentalists like Siripong Tiptan and Lertkiat Chongjirajitra.

The Siam Sinfonietta will soon be featured in a weekly reality show from the new @home channel on Truevisions and is planning regular concerts and tours both in this country and in exchange with other youth orchestras in Europe.

The Sinfonietta is still auditioning for a few daring and highly talented young musicians, especially in the string section.  Committed young musicians (age 12 and up) should contact K Pongsatorn, orchestra administrator, at, tel (081) 498 8864.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Permission to Quote

In response to the requests I have had to reprint some of the entries in this blog, I would like to say this: anyone may reprint individual blog entries, quote from the blog or translate it as long as the author's name and the original site is credited and the words "quoted by permission of the author" or other such language is included.  Thank you.


A group of people have worked to translate my words into Thai.  I'm told it was a "team effort involving lots of brilliant people" but the person who initiated the translation didn't identify them.  It gets across what I have been trying to say very well, and I hope that it can reach those it is intended for.

ผมเขียนจดหมายฉบับนี้ถึงพวกคุณเพราะในช่วงหกสัปดาห์ที่ผ่านมาหลายครั้งที่ผมโกรธ บ่อยครั้งที่ผมผิดหวัง ฝันสลายและอึดอัดใจ แต่มีครั้งเดียวในห้วงเหตุการณ์อันน่าเจ็บปวดทั้งหมดนี้ที่ทำให้ผมน้ำตาไหล นั่นคือเมื่อแกนนำของคุณ คุณวีระ มุสิกพงศ์ เข้ามอบตัวกับเจ้าหน้าที่ และพูดเรื่องความฝัน ความผิดหวัง ความหวังที่ยังเหลืออยู่ของเขา
เมื่อควันจาง จะมีคนบอกคุณว่าพวกคุณถูกหลอก ถูกล่อลวง ถูกซื้อและถูกทรยศ ว่าคุณเป็นแค่เครื่องมือของพวกคนชั่วที่จริงๆ  แล้วไม่สนใจว่าคุณจะมีชะตากรรมยังไง ว่าคุณเป็นผู้ก่อการร้าย นักวางเพลิง พวกทำลายวัฒนธรรม พวกเกลียดเจ้า จะมีคนกล่าวว่าคุณทำลายภาพลักษณ์ของประเทศในสายตาต่างชาติและขวางการฟื้นตัวของเศรษฐกิจ ที่ร้ายที่สุดคือเขาจะบอกว่าคุณทุกคนเป็นพวกไม่รู้เรื่องราวที่ใช้สิทธิใช้เสียงทางการเมืองอย่างผิด ๆ เพราะคุณไม่เข้าใจประชาธิปไตย
ผมเกรงว่าคำพูดของคนเหล่านั้นเป็นจริงอยู่หลายกรณี การเกิดใหม่ชั่วข้ามคืนของประเทศเราที่คุณอยากเห็น กลายเป็นเพียงอรุณรุ่งอันจอมปลอม อาชญากรรมมากมายถูกก่อขึ้น และทั้งสองฝ่ายก็ซ่อนความจริงสำคัญหลายเรื่องไว้ใม่ให้อีกฝ่ายรู้
ถึงแม้เรื่องเหล่านี้จะเป็นจริงในหลายกรณี ผมก็อยากให้พวกคุณรู้ว่ามันไม่ได้ลบล้างความจริงข้ออื่น ความจริงที่ฝังอยู่ในใจคุณ เมื่อคุณก้าวออกมาร้องทุกข์ด้วยการประท้วงอย่างสันติ
ประตูที่ควรเปิดรับคุณเมื่อหลายปีก่อน เมื่อประเทศนี้ก้าวสู่ระบอบประชาธิปไตย เปิดออกช้าเกินไป การศึกษาที่คุณต้องใช้เพื่อจะได้มีส่วนร่วมในสังคมอย่างเท่าเทียม ถูกปิดกั้นไว้นานเกินไป เสียงที่พวกคุณมีมาโดยตลอดนั้นก็ถูกพบช้าเกินไป และเพราะว่าถูกเก็บกักไว้นานเช่นนั้น เมื่อแสดงออกได้มันจึงทำลายสิ่งต่าง ๆ จนพินาศ และความพินาศร้ายแรงที่สุด ไม่ใช่สิ่งที่เกิดขึ้นกับห้างสรรพสินค้าและธนาคารไม่กี่แห่ง แต่เป็นความพินาศที่คุณก่อขึ้นกับตัวเอง
แต่ผมอยากให้คุณรู้ว่าเมื่อพูดถึงการปลดปล่อยจิตวิญญาณของมนุษย์ ประวัติศาสตร์อยู่ข้างคุณ หนทางสู่ประชาธิปไตยที่สมบูรณ์กว่านี้อาจจะยากลำบาก แต่ไม่มีสิ่งใดหยุดยั้งได้ คุณไม่ได้แพ้สงครามครั้งนี้ แต่ผมหวังว่าคุณจะได้เรียนรู้จากมัน คำถามคือไม่ใช่ว่าคุณจะชนะสงครามนี้ไหม แต่จะชนะอย่างไรต่างหาก จะด้วยความวุ่นวายและการนองเลือด หรือการเจรจาประนีประนอมอันยาวนานและเจ็บปวด ด้วยการพัฒนาทีละขั้นอันเป็นวิถีอารยะ
อาจยากที่คุณจะเชื่อ แต่หลายคนที่ถูกป้ายสีว่าเป็นศัตรู ล้วนมีความฝันสูงสุดร่วมกันกับคุณ ยกตัวอย่างเช่น ผมเชื่ออย่างจริงใจว่านายกรัฐมนตรี คุณอภิสิทธิ์ เข้าใกล้ฝันเหล่านั้นในเชิงความคิดมากกว่าแกนนำจำนวนหนึ่งของคุณ หากเขาไม่ได้เป็นเช่นนั้น ถ้าเขามีกรอบความคิดเหมือนผู้นำเผด็จการทหารหลายคนที่เคยมีมาในอดีต ซากศพจากเหตุเมื่อสองสามวันก่อนคงมากมายเกินกว่าจะทำใจได้
ผมยังเชื่อว่าผู้นำหลาย ๆ คนของคุณ อย่างคุณวีระ มีความฝันและความหวังเช่นเดียวกับเหล่าคนที่ไม่มีส่วนเกี่ยวข้องกับการเคลื่อนไหวของคุณ เพราะที่สุดแล้วมันเป็นฝันและหวังของคนไทยทุกคน ที่จะได้อยู่อย่างสันติ ไม่ต้องใช้ชีวิตดิ้นรนเอาตัวรอดอย่างไร้จุดหมาย ได้มีโอกาสเหมือนคนอื่นที่จะบรรลุความฝันที่ตั้งใจเอาไว้และจะได้มีชีวิตที่สมบูรณ์
อาจเร็วเกินไปที่จะหวังเช่นนี้ เพราะความโกรธแค้นและไม่ไว้ใจของทั้งสองฝ่ายยังมีมากเกินไป ถ้าคุณวีระได้รับการพิพากษาว่ากระทำผิดจริง ก็ต้องได้รับโทษตามกระบวนการยุติธรรม  เช่นเดียวกับคุณสุเทพ หากพบว่าเขาใช้อำนาจหน้าที่โดยมิชอบก็ต้องถูกตัดสินลงโทษเช่นเดียวกัน แต่คงงดงามยิ่งหากได้เห็นนักอุดมคติอย่างคุณวีระได้มีบทบาทในรัฐบาลของคุณอภิสิทธิ์สักชุด การประนีประนอมเช่นนี้เคยเกิดขึ้นในอิตาลีเมื่อหลายสิบปีก่อน และมันช่วยให้ประเทศนั้นพ้นจากปัญหาความขัดแย้งภายในที่อาจนำไปสู่หายนะ
คุณเปลี่ยนเมืองไทยไปแล้วชั่วนิรันดร์ ด้วยการได้ค้นพบและแสดงให้พี่น้องประชาชนของคุณเห็นว่าคุณมีสิทธิ์ที่จะคิด พูด และทำ ผมขอสนับสนุนให้คุณก้าวต่อไป คิดต่อไป แต่คิดเพื่อตัวคุณเอง อย่าคิดสิ่งที่ผู้อื่นบอกให้คุณคิด พูดในสิ่งที่คุณคิด ไม่ใช่สิ่งที่ผู้อื่นบอกให้คุณพูด และทำด้วยสติเช่นเดียวกับด้วยหัวใจ เพื่อผลประโยชน์ของทุกคน แม้แต่คนซึ่งมีความเห็นไม่ตรงกับคุณ
ในเวลานี้ คงมีคนไม่เท่าไรในกรุงเทพฯที่จะนึกขอบคุณในสิ่งที่คุณทำ แต่ผมอยากจะขอบคุณจริงๆ สิ่งที่คุณทำลงไปนั้นสำคัญมาก แม้อาจไม่ใช่เพราะเหตุผลที่คุณคิด และผมก็อยากอธิบายว่าทำไม
เวลาคุณตัดถนน บางครั้งคุณอาจไปเจอภูเขา เพื่อจะให้ผ่านไปได้ คุณอาจต้องหาทางอ้อมมันไป คุณอาจต้องขุดอุโมงค์ลอดหรือระเบิดทำลายภูเขาทั้งลูกเสีย
เมืองไทยได้มาถึงภูเขาลูกนั้นแล้ว เป็นเวลาอย่างน้อยสองทศวรรษที่ไม่มีใครยอมอ้อมมันไป ขุดอุโมงค์หรือระเบิดภูเขานั่นแม้แต่คนเดียว แต่ทุกคนก็รู้ว่าเราต้องผ่านมันไป ภูเขามันขวางทางเราอยู่ รัฐบาลบางรัฐบาลที่ผ่านมา ขโมยเงินของคุณไป สร้างบอลลูนสีทองงดงามขึ้นมา เพื่อพาคนบางกลุ่มข้ามภูเขาไป โดยไม่สนใจว่าที่เหลือจะถูกทิ้งไว้เลย รัฐบาลอื่น ๆ ก็เอาแต่พูด พูด พูด แต่ภูเขาก็ยังไม่ได้ไปไหน ก็แน่อยู่แล้วว่าคุณต้องหมดความอดทน

คุณไม่ได้ระเบิดภูเขานั่นทิ้ง แต่โศกนาฎกรรมที่เกิดขึ้นนั้นจะทำให้ทุกคนทราบว่า ได้เวลาแล้วที่เราจะต้องก้าวไปข้างหน้า คนของคุณและเหล่าทหาร ต่างไม่ได้ทนทุกข์และตายเปล่า แม้ดูเหมือนว่าเรากำลังอยู่ท่ามกลางความมืดและความวุ่นวาย วันนี้เราได้เข้าใกล้ประชาธิปไตยที่เต็มใบกว่าครั้งไหน ๆ ในยุคของรัฐบาลทักษิณและรัฐบาลต่อ ๆ มา สักวันหนึ่งผู้คนจะตระหนักว่าคุณได้เปิดตาพวกเขา ว่าพวกคุณมีส่วนอย่างยิ่งในการร่วมสร้างจุดเปลี่ยนของประวัติศาสตร์ไทย สุดท้ายแล้วคนอื่น ๆ ในประเทศก็จะเข้าใจและยอมรับมัน หรือกระทั่งอ้าแขนเพื่อโอบรับมันไว้ เพราะการโอบกอดผู้ที่เราคิดว่าเป็นศัตรูนั้น แท้จริงแล้วก็คือการโอบรับตัวตนของเราเอง

In Thai

I knew that if I said what I actually think, I would be attacked from both sides.  It's certainly interesting to be accused of being a flaming pinko and a vicious fascist in the same day, or to be characterized in tweets as being no better than Joseph Goebbels.  The fellow who said that by condoning "Abhisit's Massacre" I'm clearly a supporter of the holocaust, female genital mutilation, the Taliban throwing acid in schoolgirls' faces, and apartheid is clearly unfamiliar with the things I have worked for all my life.

The level of vituperation has been equalled only by the failure to actually read the letter before launching the attack.  And I'm also appalled by the stereotypical characterization by people who don't know me, talking about by wealth (I had to borrow money this week to pay the electricity bill to keep my computer on), my Porsche (I don't even own a car), and so on.   I may have been born into privilege, but my choice of career has obliterated most of the advantages of that.

One criticism is unfortunately very true and I'm trying to fix it.  That is the fact that my letter is in English.

I am working on getting the Thai version of my letter done.  It is absolutely true, and highly regrettable, that I am incapable of doing it myself.  My spoken Thai is quite adequate, but I never went to a Thai school and  I write Thai very, very slowly.  The best I can do is get someone else to translate it and then go through it to try to ensure that the real content is still there.   I'm sorry about this, but I'm trying to get it done as soon as I can.

Friday, May 21, 2010

An Open Letter to the Red Shirts

I am writing you this letter because in the past six weeks I have often been angry.  I've often been disappointed, disillusioned, and frustrated.  But there was only one moment in this entire agonizing sequence that moved me to tears.  That was when your leader, Veera Musikaphong, surrendered to the authorities, and spoke of his dreams, his disappointments, and his enduring hopes.

As the smoke dies down, you are going to be told that you were lied to, duped, tricked, bought and betrayed; that you were tools of evil men who did not truly care about your fate; that you are terrorists, arsonists, destroyers of our culture, king-haters.  It will be said that you destroyed the country's international image and obstructed its economic recovery.  Worst of all, you will be told that you are all ignorant people who have misused your political voices because you didn't understand democracy.

I am afraid that in many cases, the people who say these things will be telling the truth.  The instant rebirth that you wanted for our country has turned out to be more of a false dawn.  Many crimes have been committed and both sides have hidden important facts from each other.

Even though these things are in many cases true, I want you to know that they have not invalidated other truths: the truths that you carried in your hearts when you set out to air your grievances in a peaceful demonstration.

The doors that should have opened for you years ago, when this country became a democracy, have opened too slowly.  The education that you need to become equal participants in society has been withheld too long.  The voice that you have always had has been discovered too late, and because it was so long pent up, it is been expressed destructively.   And the worst destruction was not that of a few shopping malls and banks; it was the destruction you wreaked upon yourselves.

But I want you to know that when it comes to the liberation of the human spirit, history is on your side.  The road towards a more perfect democracy may be difficult, but it is unstoppable.  You did not lose this war.  But I hope you will have learned from it.  The question is not whether the war will be won, but how it will be won: through mayhem and bloodshed, or through slow, painful discussion and compromise — through evolution — the civilized way.

It may be hard for you to believe this, but many people who have been painted as your enemies share your most cherished dreams.  For example, I sincerely believe that the prime minister, K. Abhisit, comes philosophically closer to those dreams than a number of your leaders.  If he did not — if his mindset had been that of some of the military dictators Thailand has had in the past — the carnage of the last few days would have been unconscionable.

I also believe that many of your leaders, like K. Veera, share the hopes and dreams of those not affiliated with your movement, because they are, by and large, the hopes and dreams of all Thai people: to live in peace, not to spend your life in a mindless struggle to survive, to have the same chance as anyone else at realizing your aspirations and becoming fulfilled human beings.

It may be too soon to hope for this, because the mutual anger and distrust are still too great.  If K Veera is found guilty of any crimes, justice will have to be served, just as much as if K Suthep were found to have abused his authority.  But it would be a beautiful thing to see idealists like K. Veera playing a role in an Abhisit government.  Such a compromise occurred in Italy decades ago, and it saved their country from a potentially disastrous internecine struggle.

You have changed Thailand for ever by discovering, and showing your fellow citizens, that you have the right to think, and to speak, and to act.  I urge you to go further.  Keep thinking.  But think for yourselves.  Don't think what you're told to think.  Speak what you think, not what you are told to speak.  And act with your minds as well as your hearts, and in the interests of all, even those whom you disagree with.  

Not many people in Bangkok would feel grateful to you at this moment.  But I do want to thank you.  What you did was really important, though perhaps not for the reasons you think.  And I want to explain why.

When you build a road, you will sometimes come to a mountain.  To get to the other side, you may have to go around it.  You may have to dig a tunnel.  Or you have to blow up the mountain.

Thailand has come to that mountain.  But for at least two decades, no one has been willing to go around, dig a tunnel, or blow up the mountain.  Yet everyone knows we must get through.  The mountain is in the way.  Some past governments have stolen your money to build golden hot-air balloons so that a few individuals could get across, not caring if the rest were stranded.  Others have talked and talked and talked, but the mountain is still there.  Of course you are impatient.  

You didn't blow down the mountain, but the tragic events that have unfolded have convinced everyone that it is time to move on.  Your people — and the soldiers, too — did not suffer and die in vain.  Though we seem to be in darkness and chaos, a fuller democracy is closer today than it has been at any time during the Thaksin administration and all its successors.   There will come a time when people will realize that you opened their eyes, that you all contributed to this major turning point in Thailand's history.  In time, the rest of the nation will understand it, and come to acknowledge it, and even embrace it.  For in embracing those we thought our enemies, we really embrace ourselves.

Purakhanda's Video

I would like to share Purakhanda's video with my readers because I think it illustrates some points made previously rather well.  If you don't speak Thai, watch it both with and without the subtitles.  You will see how easy it may have been to confuse anarchic rhetoric with pro-democracy oratory.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A few small clarifications

I'm putting these here rather than answering the comments in the comment section because they might easily get lost.

Thank you for the overwhelming response.  Much of it may have been preaching to the choir, but I hope to have made at least a few people get a more realistic picture of all that is going on.  Even in the negative comments, there were many valid points and if I were writing a book about all this, I would also have given them an airing.

There are a couple of things though that might have come from my own haste to get words into the ether that perhaps I should clarify.

Many people are furious because they think I said "there is no gap between rich and poor" or words to that effect.  My assumption was that people had been following this blog, but obviously there are many new readers.  I discussed this issue a few weeks ago.  I said "unbreachable gap" because my point is that such an "unbreachable" gap always existed in the past and that in the past twenty years this gap has become "breachable."  In the tiny period that I lived in Thailand as a child (early 60s) (for about 5 years between the ages of about 7-12) the class structure was in full swing.  The elite were the elite.  The peasants were the peasants.  The gap was unbreachable 40-45 years ago, when I was little.

Now if you grow up believing fervently that the gap is unbreachable, you don't try to breach it.  But now there is a growing middle class and indeed the old elite is getting pushed into the background.  It because it is clearly seen that the gap CAN be breached that the poor have finally been able to see that they can have a real voice.  In that this has happened, I am entirely pro-red, as can be seen if you scroll back far enough in this blog to read my criticism of the yellow shirts' condescension.

I've also been attacked a lot for bringing up the racism issue.  It is, of course, offensive.  And should be.  It is nevertheless a real issue.  I know because I, who left Thailand at the age of six months, never entered the Thai educational system, only learned the language at the age of 8 and only started studying the culture in the 1970s, have had a hard time dealing with this racism myself.  I still cannot entirely dislodge my ingrained feeling in the innate superiority of the culture I was brought up in — Western culture.  I have often been as guilty of this cultural chauvinism as any of my attackers.  I don't think we should rid ourselves of it ... it is part of who we are.  I think we should face it and understand it.

As for those who lecture me about the finer points of the American system: I would remind them that they probably didn't have to take a test to become an American citizen: I did.

I'll gladly confess that it is an overstatement for me to have said the soldiers haven't killed ANYONE at all except in self defense, but that doesn't really undermine my basic premise.   All the accusations of massacring women and children have been in the "When did you stop beating your wife?" vein.  The soldiers have clearly been given instructions to shoot real bullets only in self-defense and they are clearly attempting to do so.

If this were NOT the case, Rajprasong would look like the Amritsar Massacre.  (Remember that?  It was when the British army fired on peaceful, unarmed protesters and killed women and children.)  Amritsar is what they were hoping for. ... that would be a case for a U.N. tribunal.  This is not it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Don't Blame Dan Rivers

I have been composing a long, day by day account of the "troubles" of the last three days, which I have not yet posted.  The reason is that I've been getting a lot of mail asking me to explain "the truth" to people overseas.  A lot of people here are astonished and appalled at the level of irresponsibility and inaccuracy shown by such major news sources as CNN, and are imputing the most astonishing motives to this, such as suggesting that they're in the pay of Thaksin and so on.

I don't think this is really what is going on.  Rather, I think that there are two basic problems: preconception and language.

CNN first became a force to be reckoned with during the "People Power" movement in the Philippines.  The kind of coverage we had for this was amazing.  There was a camera in every camp, and we could follow this exciting revolution every step of the way.  We knew exactly who to root for: the oppressed masses led by the widow of the iconic Aquino, and we knew that whenever President Marcos appeared he was Darth Vader, the symbol of an evil empire.  The arc of the story was simple and inexorable.  A whole new way of looking at the news was born, with all the excitement of a TV miniseries and, prophetically, a reality show as well.

Of course, many of the little details of the story were conveniently glossed over.  Reality was not — never is — so black and white.  But there are three important things about this story: first, in its essentials, there was a lot of truth.  And all the protagonists spoke English.

The Philippines, as Filipinos never tire of telling me, is the third most populous English speaking country in the world.  We will leave the definition of "English-speaking" to another blog, but it's very important that the various sides in this conflict were able to articulate their viewpoints in a language which CNN well understood.

The third important thing about the story is that it fulfilled a vision of history that is an inseparable part of the inheritance of western culture, that is so ingrained in western thinking that it is virtually impossible for an educated member of western society to divorce himself from it.

It is a vision of history as a series of liberations.  From Harmodius and Aristogeiton throwing off the tyrant's yoke to the removal of the Tarquins and the establishment of the Roman Republic to the failed rebellion of Spartacus, from Magna Carta to the Bastille to the American Civil War to the Russian Revolution, there is this Platonic Model against which these big historical movements are always compared.  There is a bad guy — often a dictator — who can be demonized.  There is a struggling proletariat.  The end comes with "liberty and justice for all".  This is Star Wars.   The dark times.  The Empire.

The "People Power" coverage was riveting, compelling, and contained all the emotional components of this mythical story arc.  Finding another such story, therefore, is a kind of Holy Grail for the international media.  When a story comes that appears to contain some of the elements, and it's too much hard work to verify those elements or get all the background detail, you go with the Great Archetype of Western Civilization.

Now, let us consider the redshirt conflict.

Let's not consider what has actually been happening in Thailand, but how it looks to someone whose worldview has been coloured with this particular view of history.

Let's consider the fact that there is pretty much nothing being explained in English, and that there are perhaps a dozen foreigners who really understand Thai thoroughly.  I don't mean Thai for shopping, bargirls, casual conversation and the like.   Thai is a highly ambiguous language and is particularly well suited for seeming to say opposite things simultaneously.  To get what is really being said takes total immersion.

When you watch a red shirt rally, notice how many English signs and placards there are, and note that they they are designed to show that these are events conforming to the archetype. The placards say "Democracy", "No Violence," "Stop killing innocent women and children" and so on.  Speakers are passionately orating, crowds are moved.  But there are no subtitles.  What does it look like?

The answer is obvious.  It looks like oppressed masses demanding freedom from an evil dictator.

Don't blame Dan Rivers, et al, who are only doing what they are paid to do: find the compelling story within the mass of incomprehensible data, match that story to what the audience already knows and believes, and make sure the advertising money keeps flowing in.

A vigorous counter-propaganda campaign in clear and simple English words of one syllable has always been lacking and is the reason the government is losing the PR war while actually following the most logical steps toward a real and lasting resolution.

If the foreign press were in fact able to speak Thai well enough to follow all the reportage here coming from all sides, they would also be including some of the following information in their reports.  I want to insist yet again that I am not siding with anyone.  The following is just information that people really need before they write their news reports.

-- Thaksin was democratically elected, but became increasingly undemocratic, and the country gradually devolved from a nation where oligarchs skimmed off the top to a kleptocracy of one.  During his watch, thousands of people were summarily executed in the South of Thailand and in a bizarre "war on drugs" in which body count was considered a marker of success.

-- the coup that ousted Thaksin was of course completely illegal, but none of the people who carried it out are in the present government.

-- the yellow shirts' greatest error in moulding its international image was to elevate Thaksin's corruption as its major bone of contention.  Thai governments have always been corrupt.  The extent of corruption and the fact that much of it went into only one pocket was shocking to Thais, but the west views all "second-rate countries" as being corrupt.  Had they used the human rights violations and muzzling of the press as their key talking points, the "heroic revolution" archetype would have been moulded with opposite protagonists, and CNN and BBC would be telling an opposite story today.

-- the constitution which was approved by a referendum after the coup and which brought back democracy was flawed, but it provided more checks and balances, and made election fraud a truly accountable offense for the first time.

-- the parliamentary process by which the Democrat coalition came to power was the same process by which the Lib Dems and Tories have attained power in Britain.  The parliament that voted in this government consists entirely of democratically elected members.

-- no one ever disputed the red shirts' right to peaceful assembly, and the government went out of its way to accede to their demands.

-- this country already has democracy.  Not a perfect one, but the idea of "demanding democracry" is sheer fantasy

-- the yellow shirts did not succeed in getting any of their demands from the government. The last two governments changed because key figures were shown to have committed election fraud.  They simply did not take their own constitution seriously enough to follow it.

-- the red TV station has a perfect right to exist, but if foreign journalists actually understood Thai, they would realize that much of its content went far beyond any constitutionally acceptable limits of "protected speech" in a western democracy.  Every civilized society limits speech when it actually harms others, whether by inciting hate or by slander.  The government may have been wrong to brusquely pull the plug, but was certainly right to cry foul.  It should have sought an injunction first.  Example: Arisman threatened to destroy mosques, government buildings, and "all institutions you hold sacred" ... a clip widely seen on youtube, without subtitles.  Without subtitles, it looks like "liberty, equality, fraternity".  

-- the army hasn't been shooting women and children ... or indeed anyone at all, except in self-defense.  Otherwise this would all be over, wouldn't it?  It's simple for a big army to mow down 5,000 defenseless people.  

-- since the government called the red shirts' bluff and allowed the deputy P.M. to report to the authorities to hear their accusations, the red leaders have been making ever-more fanciful demands.  The idea of UN intervention is patently absurd.  When Thaksin killed all those Muslims and alleged drug lords, human rights groups asked the UN to intervene.  When the army took over the entire country, some asked the UN to intervene.  The UN doesn't intervene in the internal affairs of sovereign countries except when requested to by the country itself or when the government has completely broken down.  

-- Thailand hasn't had an unbreachable gulf between rich and poor for at least 20 years.  These conflicts are about the rise of the middle class, not the war between the aristocrats and the proletariat.  

-- Abhisit, with his thoroughly western and somewhat liberal background, shares the values of the west and is in fact more likely to bring about the social revolution needed by Thailand's agrarian poor than any previous leader.  He is, in fact, pretty red, while Thaksin, in his autocratic style of leadership, is in a way pretty yellow.  Simplistic portrayals do not help anyone to understand anything.

-- the only people who do not seem to care about the reds' actual grievances are their own leaders, who are basically making everyone risk their lives to see if they can get bail.

-- the King has said all that he is constitutionally able to say when he spoke to the supreme court justices and urged them to do their duty.   The western press never seem to realize that the Thai monarchy is constitutionally on the European model ... not, say, the Saudi model. The king REIGNS ... he doesn't "rule".  This is a democracy.  The king is supposed to symbolize all the people, not a special interest group.

The above are just a few of the elements that needed to be sorted through in order to provide a balanced view of what is happening in this country.

There is one final element that must be mentioned.  Most are not even aware of it.  But there is, in the western mindset, a deeply ingrained sense of the moral superiority of western culture which carries with it the idea that a third world country must by its very nature be ruled by despots, oppress peasants, and kill and torture people.  Most westerners become very insulted when this is pointed out to them because our deepest prejudices are always those of which we are least aware.  I believe that there is a streak of this crypto-racism in some of the reportage we are seeing in the west.  It is because of this that Baghdad, Yangon, and Bangkok are being treated as the same thing.  We all look alike.

Yes, this opinion is always greeted with outrage.  I do my best to face my own preconceptions and don't succeed that often, but I acknowledge they exist nonetheless.

Some of the foreign press are painting the endgame as the Alamo, but it is not.  It is a lot closer to Jonestown or Waco.

Like those latter two cases, a highly charismatic leader figure (in our case operating from a distance, shopping in Paris while his minions sweat in the 94°weather) has taken an inspirational idea: in one case Christianity, in the other democracy, and reinvented it so that mainstream Christians, or real democrats, can no longer recognize it.  The followers are trapped.  There is a siege mentality and information coming from outside is screened so that those trapped believe they will be killed if they try to leave.  Women and children are being told that they are in danger if they fall into the hands of the government, and to distrust the medics and NGOs waiting to help them.  There are outraged pronouncements that they're not in fact using the children as human shields, but that the parents brought them willingly to "entertain and thrill" them. There is mounting paranoia coupled with delusions of grandeur, so that the little red kingdom feels it has the right to summon the United Nations, just like any other sovereign state.   The reporters in Rajprasong who are attached to the red community are as susceptible to this variant of the Stockholm syndrome as anyone else.  

The international press must separate out the very real problems that the rural areas of Thailand face, which will take decades to fix, from the fact that a mob is rampaging through Bangkok, burning, looting, and firing grenades, threatening in the name of democracy to destroy what democracy yet remains in this country.

But this bad reporting is not their fault.  It is our fault for not providing the facts in bite-sized pieces, in the right language, at the right time. 

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Waiting for the Barbarians ... to Leave?

Cavafy's poem is particularly significant today, especially the last lines....

kai tora ti tha genoume khoris barbarous?
oi anthropoi autoi isan mia kapoia lysis.

-- and now, what is to become of us without barbarians?  These people were a kind of solution --

Today, the prime minister has set a deadline.  The red shirts demanded that Suthep turn himself in; he did so, and they demanded that he turn himself into someone else.  Elsewhere I've said that this is essentially saying that he shouldn't have gone to the principal's office but to the janitor's closet.  It is a meaningless condition.

Although I suspect that most red shirt leaders are as tired of all this as everyone else, and would welcome an end, it is clear that their puppetmaster(s) have another agenda.

The deadline is in EIGHT MINUTES.  Is this exciting or what?

Unfortunately, the question of whether the protesters will leave, be forced out, or be horribly slaughtered is no longer that significant.  

The real issue is whether the underlying problems will be solved.

The educational abyss is the first one.  It is because of this abyss that we see a similar power change in the UK, with a less-than-majority party forming a coaltion to put an Old Etonian in No. 10 in a period where parliamentary corruption has been front page news for ages, without angry peasants seizing Picadilly Circus or taking over Harrods.  

The educational gap leads to the ignorance gap, the brainwashability gap, the employablity gap, the wealth gap and, ultimately, the class gap.

Well, if certain people have their way I'll probably be first in line for the gulag, so I await this countdown....

Monday, May 10, 2010

Whose Bluff am I calling?

This is a very interesting endgame.  On the one hand, the redshirts are cornered, essentially killed with kindness.  Their only hope of a decisive victory is to have someone use violence against them.

So, today, they announce that they'll accept the deal and immediately disband on condition that Mr Suthep gives himself up to face the charges of ordering the April 10th crackdown.   They must have thought that he would never do so, because that seems to be the way they themselves act, by demanding the impossible and then acting like the injured party when they receive "almost" the impossible in return.

These guys must never have had the Brer Rabbit stories told to them as children, because the briar patch beckons.  Suthep can easily turn himself in.  Getting convicted would be exceptionally unlikely.  Why should he care?

So, it must have been a shock when Mr Suthep immediately announced that he would turn himself in the next day, meaning that they would have to disband tomorrow.

Now, at about 7 pm, comes the news that a new condition is in place.  It is unacceptable for Mr Suthep to turn himself into the Special Investigations office.  He must turn himself in to the police.  Or else the reds won't leave.  So ... the fate of millions hangs on which office this guy will show up at tomorrow?

Does this mean that someone, somewhere, isn't getting what they want?  And could "what they want" be something as simple as 46 billion baht and a get-out-of-jail-free card?

The renegade general Seh Daeng, considered by many to be the most radical red shirt, suspected by some of being behind the grenades and the "men in black" ... has announced that Thaksin has given orders by phone that the red shirt leaders are all to be replaced by ones who will carry on fighting and that the others are to be relieved of their command.  The "Three Stooges", however, deny all this.  It is conceivable that both versions are true.

Tomorrow, it may all be a dream....

Nature Abhors a Vacuum

Well, after a lovey-dovey sort of Wednesday where everyone saw the Prime Minister's roadmap towards a new Thailand as a wonderful way out for all those who have waited and waited and waited ....

Now a lot of spoilsports are showing up.  Despite the red shirts ostensibly accepting the compromise, more grenades went off, killing a couple of cops.  More red shirts are coming in from out of town.  Oddly enough, the red shirt leaders deny responsibility for anything bad.  The multicolored are pissed that the government has caved in to the demands of what they see as rebels.  The yellows are demanding Abhisit's resignation over his being so nice.  The red shirts are saying Abhisit is only pretending to be nice.

I haven't posted much recently because to be honest, people in Bangkok have more or less adjusted to the fact that a number of Starbucks, five-star hotels, nice movie theatres and a great English language bookstore have become inaccessible and that a square kilometer or so of this huge city has become its own country with its own government and army.  The atmosphere has started to become one of "mai pen rai" ... which is certainly scary when you think about it. .  The Emporium is getting rich off Siam Paragon's woes, but don't they have the same owner?  A huge fire sale at Emporim Stadium of things that couldn't be sold in Siam Paragon over the weekend attracted huge bargain-hunting crowds.  Up to 80% off high society items meant the real thing was almost as cheap as a fake.  What is the world coming to?

Since nobody believes anyone, many people are just ignoring things or getting on with their lives

Which could be very frightening.  Before the bloodbath of October 14, 1973, which ushered in the brief shining moment of "real" democracy in Thailand, there was also a feeling that it was all going to be negotiated away.

It's not pride that comes before a fall ... it's complacency.

I woke up this morning and the red shirts have not yet dispersed.  Reportedly their leaders met for five hours without coming to a decision.  The real issue appears to be whether the leaders will in fact be able to get bailed out for their various criminal misdeeds.  They've presented an alternate demand now: they are willing to disband, and give themselves up to due process, on condition that the prime minister also be prosecuted for the same incidents for which they are being prosecuted ... something of a non-starter and clearly just a way of stringing this out.

Little has been heard from Mr. Thaksin except for some (video-less) phone conversations about which there are rumors of fakery.  It also seems that a funeral service was held for him at a family mausoleum, though it was supposedly a "fake funeral" to avert negative karma.  Yes, we do have such events in Thailand quite often.

Last night Abhisit gave, for the first time, a highly personal TV address that didn't contain too many long Sanskrit words.  Putting his position in words of one syllable was a really good idea.  A learned vocabulary suggests disengagement.  I wonder if he reads reads this blog.  He should; I always give good advice .... :)

Indeed, the British election is getting almost as much air time these days in the land of pagodas, politics and prostitutes.  It looks like they may have a hung parliament which is of course the usual state of affairs in this multi-party country.  This makes Christiane Amanpour's attempts to bully Abhisit in Hard Talk seem pretty lame, when we she was going on and on about how he would defend himself against the accusation of being "unelected" ... In Britain, the Prime Minister is NEVER directly elected at all ... one elects representatives and the parties take turns trying to form a government in order of viability ... well, Thailand happens to have a system basically modeled on that British system.  Abhisit's failure, however, was not to say to the woman, "Why are you asking me this?  Didn't you learn about the parliamentary system in school?"

Of course this doesn't explain why there aren't hordes of British redshirts throwing shit at Downing Street or bombing the Houses of Parliament.

The reason is very simple.  I went to school in Britain.  I therefore have learnt how this is supposed to work.  So have most people in the UK, so they know that seizing parliament isn't "real democracy."

One of the biggest cries of "foul" we hear here is "The party with the most votes didn't get to form the government ... so it must be illegitimate."  We hear this cry because the parliamentary process is being inadequately taught.

This not the American system, where the president's name is on the ballot (though even there, the popular vote doesn't guarantee a win.)  However, people are not being educated about the difference.  They have not been taught that having the MOST votes is not the same as controlling a MAJORITY of the seats.  The two are only the same if you get more than half the votes.

They simply have never been taught this here.  And, to quote Oscar Hammerstein II for a moment, "You've got to be carefully taught."

Now, there is plenty of corruption to go around.  In Thailand, we are basically at about the beginning of the nineteenth century.  The age of Pocket Boroughs and Rotten Boroughs (if you watched Black Adder Part III, or went to school in the UK, you know about these.)  Such important figures as William Pitt the Elder got into politics that way, and surely he is no less important a figure than Abhisit.  Thailand is a little head in this stage, because representation is more proportional, but still not perfect ... one of the red shirts' legitimate grievances.

If we take Magna Carta as an arbitrary date for a start to democracy in Britain, then from then to the British reform that got rid of pocket boroughs is about six hundred years.  Thailand has arrived at this stage in less than a century.

Perhaps the apathy in Bangkok isn't really selfishness or lack of concern for fellow citizens.  Perhaps it is simply that the long view has kicked in.  If the 180 years of British history from the reform act of 1832 to the Hung Parliament 2010 can be proportionally squeezed, we will have a British system in only thirty years.

So I'm offering a video of Jay's first world premiere in lieu of reconciliation....

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Disillusion and Dissolution

For the last few days I've been in Korat, which is a province some three hours' drive from Bangkok with a population of 2.7 million people.  It doesn't seem very far physically; 3 hours' driving in California doesn't always get you very far.  But the concert which our newly formed youth orchestra played in the packed auditorium of a local university there was the first time that a symphony orchestra of any kind had played there, the first time that works of Haydn and Mozart were heard live … and they were heard in exactly the way people of the 18th century would have experienced them … as completely new works, as exciting new ways of organizing the universe of sound.  It was an incredible audience.  Apart from the odd baby, the kept absolutely silent and they hung on every note.  Every familiar phrase of this music was a journey of discovery and wonder.   The kids, too, played their hearts out.  Despite a few technical glitches they dug into the meat of this music and made it their own.   It was, in every sense, "the real thing."  It is, indeed, the reason I came back to Asia.

And the reason I can't seem to leave and return to a more comfortable, bourgeois existence in a first-world country.  There's just too much excitement here.  The dawn of political awareness.  The government of a European-style liberal trying to navigate through an ocean of age-old conflicts.

It's an established fact that in this country, the past is being continually rewritten, and if you were not there, you are unlikely ever to be told what happened.  A prominent member of the Thai aristocracy commented on one of blogs that I hadn't gone far enough back, hadn't revealed the real sources of the various conflicts here.  I replied that it would take a book, and she said, "Better write it now, before the old people die off without being interviewed, and the truth is lost forever."

As an experiment, I once asked a dozen Thai high school kids whether Thailand had won the Second World War.  The answers ranged from "Of course" to "I think so."  The amnesia about Siam's close aliance with the Axis Powers in WWII extends to recent events, as well ... such as the various pratfalls our country has taken on the road to democracy.

When Dr. Weng called Abhisit a vicious mass murderer, did he somehow forget that thousands of alleged drug dealers were disposed of without trial during the Thaksin era in order to fulfill a "war on drugs" quota, or that Muslim protesters were routinely shot, tortured, or left to suffocate in airless containers?  If so much can be forgotten in only a few years, think of how much has been forgotten since democracy was first proposed for this country, almost eighty years ago.

I want to take a few statements that people, both locally and in the foreign media, have been bandying about, and just say "it ain't necessarily so."

"Thailand has never had a real democracy."

In 1973, as a result of a repressive attack by the military regime on protesting students which left perhaps hundreds dead, the government fell and a full-blown, exuberant democracy was put in place without any intervening stage between it and the previous dictatorship.  That democracy lasted only three years, but in those three years people really had freedom of the press, could discuss every taboo subject, and had civilians running everything.  It is important to know that Dr. Weng was an active student protester in that period, because his experience of students being shot at by fascists colors his entire worldview, and prevents him from understanding how much our world has changed since then.

It is true that this exciting democracy lasted only for three years.  Panicking generals put an end to it.  But those who were alive then have never forgotten how it felt.

"We are in a class war because of the unbridgeable chasm between the elite and the proletariat."

This tired page from the Marxist playbook was once true.  When I was a child, the gap did indeed seem unbreachable.  There was no middle class, and servants still crawled around on the floor.  However, to state this as one of the axioms of today's situation is to ignore the fact that in the intervening years a rather powerful middle class has come into being.  Except for the reverence and sanctity of the royal institution, the blue-bloods have become pretty irrelevant to the process.  The paradigm of the Russian/French revolution is frequently invoked, but it is inaccurate.  Serfdom was eliminated a very, very long time ago.  If there is any kind of class war going on, it is between the nouveau riche and the slightly-less-nouveau riche.  Go back a couple of generations with almost anyone who is anyone in Thailand today — from millionaires to generals — and you will find rural or working class backgrounds.  The gap has been bridgeable for some time now.  The problem is not that it can't be bridged but that not enough opportunities exist for the bridging to occur.

"It's all an anti-monarchist plot."

This, too, is a tired page from an old playbook.  It has been invoked a few times in the past.  It has rarely been a credit to its invokers.  The 1976 coup used doctored photographs to insinuate that students were attacking the royal family.  This is not a good accusation with which to "cry wolf" because it has generally tended to backfire.  So, there had better be proof.


A few days have passed since I started writing the above and I've returned from Korat and done a second concert in Bangkok with the kids.  Which was quite different.  For one thing, Pa Daeng, immersed as she is in her dawning political awareness, has been a little more absent minded about her domestic duties and packed the wrong shoes for my concert, as a result of which I had to conduct in my socks.  I knew that someone would end up noticing, so I decided to tell the audience that I wanted them to feel more Thai ... that this concert should feel like us having a nice chat in my living room about music ... a living room that just happened to have a symphony orchestra sitting around in it....

Well, the kids again outdid themselves, though the audience had a tough time getting to the hall amid 2-hour traffic jams .... and the stress of waiting to see if the red shirts would accept Abhisit's "Magic Plan."

The plan looked really great yesterday, but today it is already unravelling.  Because the Magic Plan gives the red shirts everything they claim to want, but doesn't address some things the leaders actually want: amnesty for the leaders, a dissolution to come quickly enough to ensure they win the election and before the Abhisit government succeeds in fixing the economy or doing anything else that might make it more likely to hold on after an election.   It seems that, while stating publicly that they will righteously defend themselves against these charges, they have in fact been secretly attempting to negotiate the charges away ... "terrorism" being, at least in theory, a capital offense here.

I think most people believe that some, even most, are innocent of the more extreme accusations.  Still, there wouldn't be this much squirming if there weren't some fear that one or two charges might stick.  For instance, the infamously iconoclastic Dr. Porntip, forensics superstar, has announced that the last soldier to die from what conventional wisdom has decided was friendly fire was in fact shot by a sniper from a location which agrees chillingly with footage shot by a foreign reporter, once more opening up the question of that mysterious "Third Party".   And we know that Dr. P is notorious for calling them as she sees them, government be damned....  is there a smoking gun somewhere?  (And if so, whose smoking gun?)

Once again, the unspoken is at the heart of it all.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Blogging at length

I was feeling very ill after tonight's rehearsal of the youth orchestra (which went very well) so tonight I will refrain from blogging even though the situation is getting more and more interesting.

Catch you all tomorrow.....