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.


  1. Hi Somtow

    Thanks for the article above.

    I was hoping you could explain something to me. Although intuition would lead me to agree with you that not enough opportunities exist for the working class to bridge the gap to middle/upper class status, how then would you explain the significant rise of the middle classes over the last 20 or so years? Surely this speaks of opportunities taken.

    Thanks a lot and sorry if I've missed something obvious.


  2. I would like to comment on a few things here. Politics are the same in every country some bad some good doesn't matter 1st or 3rd world. Fact is in both worlds the only difference I have seen so far is Red shirts took it to extreme as i would say way past extreme and that will never solve anything. They want Thaksin back in power how oblivious can they be they had no more when he was in power why do you think he is exile??? It is up to the people to rise above not below the ruling parties. 1st world low class stay that way no matter what as in Thailand it is called education and work of which I know is available to all Thais it is desire and hard work and determination that gets you there. Not doing crime after crime that gets you there. Go figure!! Just like here Thailand doesn't owe you a living!! It is the choices you make.