Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Ghosts and susperstitions in Thailand

What do Bill Clinton and General Sondhi have in common? Denial of "sexual relations"? An endearing yet somehow occasionally irritating tone of voice? Maybe, but that's not the answer I'm looking for.

In fact both men have used astrologers for purposes of political prognostication.

In defence of Bill, reports state it was actually Hilary who consulted an astrologer for purposes of guidance (yes, that would be the same Hilary leading the polls right now) whereas general Sondhi has no such excuse. He has consulted a famous Thai fortune teller ever since the same seer "forecast" Thaksin's downfall.

Sondhi is not alone. Thaksin Shiniwat also consulted an astrologer and a shaman on a regular basis and actually refused to talk to press for an entire month because of negative planetary alignments. The same fortune teller did not forewarn of the coup, but this seemed to go unnoticed.

With men in such positions of power behaving in such antiquated manners, can we really criticise the rest of the nation for their staunchly superstitious beliefs?

Thais from any class have strong adherence to rituals and superstitions. Most Thais will have a "spirit house" outside their home to accommodate local spirits and blessed Buddhist amulets are a fixture in most taxis and buses as a safety charm. The same style amulets are often worn around the necks of males. The higher the rank of the monk who blessed the amulet, the higher the fee.

Many Thais believe strongly in spirits. Teachers (not students) in my old government school would ask me - in all seriousness - how I could stay alone in a classroom without being afraid of "the ghost". After the tsunami ravaged Phi Phi, Thais refused to visit for fear of stalking spooks. Hospital workers have often relayed to me tales of deceased patients walking the corridors at night. One girl told me a "ghost" walked so close to her she could actually read the name on the death tag.

Thai males often seek tattoos drawn by monks using a traditional bamboo needle , as they believe the tattoos bestow magical powers. A former colleague once told me to "be careful" because a local man had been knocking on doors in our village and using "black magic" to make people give him their valuables. The man only had to touch someone to cast the spell. These are not simpletons relaying these tales, they are educated and respected members of the community.

During the early operating days of Suvarnabhumi Airport, so much 'bad luck' and so many strange sightings occurred that a group of high ranking monks were called in to bless the airport. During their chants, a man came from nowhere and claimed to be possessed by a well known Chinese spirit. The spirit "demanded" the building of a spirit house. When the monks agreed, the "possessed" man passed out and had no recollection of what happened when he awoke.

The locals are not alone in this of course. It was a fellow teacher and friend that prompted this blog by his report of seeing a ghost in his English home. It's difficult to gauge just how many Brits believe in ghosts but I'd wager the number is less than Thailand.

So what, then, is the reason for the firm Thai beliefs? It would be easy to be snide and say lack of development is the root of the issue, but while such cynical and possibly offensive assumptions may unfortunately have a drip of truth , I'm sure that's not the whole picture.

A very bright private student of mine actually asked me the preceding question during class. I spent forty minutes trying to give an effective answer. What it boiled down to was religious doctrine and inherited culture. While less than ten percent of Brits are now practising Christians, the idea of heaven and hell - and thus spirits leaving the world - has taken root. As such, our psychological make up encourages us to be sceptical if we see something we don't understand. We don't automatically interpret the strange light we just saw in the hospital as a passing ghost, because many of "us" don't have that trail of logic.

In contrast, Buddhists have no belief in heaven or hell as such, they believe spirits move between "planes". Since most Thais are practising Buddhists, their logical trail allows for spirits to be seen and heard. Thus, the perception functions in the brain are far more likely to interpret and therefore visualise unidentified phenomena as spirits. Remember those "mind trick" pictures like the two faces that is also a vase? It's the same principle, when confronted with an unclear or confusing picture, the mind tries to "fill in" the details by matching the picture against previous experiences or beliefs.

Of course, because we "see" something doesn't really mean it's there.

Being a Buddhist in philosophy if not religion myself, I have no problem with other's belief in spirits , etc. but I do think I can pose a problem when it becomes open to abuse. I don't want a country's coup to be decided by the alignment of the planets, I don't like the idea of poor people spending a lot of cash on an amulet because they think it will bring them merit, and I certainly don't like corrupt politicians refusing to give answers because mars is in the wrong place.

That's no fault of the lovely Thais though, it's a fault of all mankind. We can't accept we are just "flesh and bones" , we always look for the reassuring idea that we don't just die and disappear.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Thailand Vs Google youtube

If there is a Thai equivalent to the old adage "There's no rest for the wicked", then Thailand's ruling junta must be asking themselves just how bad their karma is right now.

As if the escalating tensions between the junta and the PTV (see my previous blog) and various other anti-coup groups were not enough, eh? Protests are becoming more popular and various allegations of graft and abuse of power are doing the rounds. This being Thailand, it's very rare for anyone to actually be specific, simply because everybody has some blackmail on some one else so a typical allegation is simply "a man who recently came to power has been extorting the TV stations". Another popular allegation method is to use some silly epithet. For example: "Chinese older sister has been alluding to evade tax" and so on. The junta have made counter threats as thinly veiled as possible against protesters as well as suggesting they have all been sponsored by "ostracised politicians". All to no avail, protests continue.

It seems the old brass are not learning by error though. About one week ago, an appallingly badly made "movie" on youtube.com depicted pictures of HM The King accompanied by bad quality music slowly having some kind of lines drawn across the picture. It resembled the work of a maladjusted hermit. Had it been ignored, it would have faded away. But, in their infinite wisdom, the MICT or ICT (Ministry of Information and Computer Technology) decided to ban it.

Before we knew it the issue had mutated from a bad and vulgar but unpopular video to an international expose of insecurity, lese majeste and restrictions on freedoms in Thailand.

There was nothing new about this decision. ICT have been revelling in their self appointed role of purity guardians for a long time, and any of their staff will proudly quote the number of blocked sites as being well into the thousands. What was new this time around however was that the blocked site wasn't internal pornography or a local university website that dared to question the coup, this time the victim was a very popular international American nerd site. And of course, western nerds don't like being told what the hell to think.

After the usual tactic of denying responsibility didn't work out, the ICT accepted they had blocked the site and "demanded" youtube take down the video. Youtube initially refused but eventually succumbed -- presumably due to the drop in advertising revenue for the region -- and removed the offending "clip". However, the first frame (i.e. a still picture) remained viewable. The ICT continued the ban and again "demanded" that even the first frame go down. This time, a collectively vexed youtube issued a statement explaining they "will not assist censorship."

Having lost face, the ICT responded in the only sensible, modern and adult manner possible. Like a kid in the playground that doesn't want to admit he lost at marbles , the nation's moral thought police responded with "We were right, and to show we were right we'll ban more sites!". And indeed, the ICT made an official notice of more closures and official "warnings" to other sites. This time though, they played it safe and stuck to bullying Thai websites. The most popular Thai newspapers which print pictures of dead and mutilated bodies of woman and children on its cover almost every single day, remain non - samizdat.

The backlash against such censorship was inevitable and, in my opinion, self inflicted by the medieval level of incompetence and maladjustment by the ICT. Various other forms of disrespect to sacred Thai institutions have appeared on line and youtube have issued a statement offering to "educate" the ICT on how to block a specific video rather than an entire site. The offer appeared genuine but the stress placed on the word "educate" means a further loss of face to our juvenile minded moral guardians and , ergo, more tantrums and more censorship from Big Brother seems sure to follow.

The ICT represents a microcosm of Thailand's developmental conundrum. They want to be viewed as a modern, developed country with rich tradition, yet the rulers are neither modern nor developed. Their Jurassic beliefs that people will respond to cogency dictatorship and their embarrassing level of incompetence at communications censorship has bought nothing but problems for Siam. It smacks of insecurity and hidden agendas. What's more, it may prove to be ultimately self defeating. It seems that for the first time in a long time, Thais are actually starting to ask something to the effect of: "If people have nothing to hide, why are we not allowed to criticise them?" A good question indeed.

A bizarre cartoon and a silly reader's letter appeared in 'The Nation Thailand' today. The letter slated Google for its defence statement: "we also have videos mocking George Bush on our site". The writer stated "Effigies of Bush are burned across the world by those who revere the Thai king." I found this statement in condemnation of Google not only false, but bizarre. The writer seemed to be using the logic "If the person is already disrespected it's OK to do it on youtube, otherwise, it should be censored".

I suspect fanatics like this are the people who would most benefit from a dose of global reality and un - manufactured truth. Freedom of speech does not allow freedom to incite or encourage harm, but it most certainly does include freedom to say something we might not like.

One can only hope some good comes out of this. Some foolishly optimistic part of me hopes that the ICT will learn that not only is it wrong to tell people what to think, it's impossible. The more one is told not to peruse something, the more recalcitrant and curious they become. Sadly, the kindergarten mentality of ICT's "each time someone denies us we'll block more sites" response does not bode well. The temperature climbs.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Matryoshka : disecting Thai politics

The challenge with trying to understand or explain Thai politics is similar to understanding computer technology: there are many abstract layers. Just as computers have electric currents, machine code, compilers, hardware and software, so does Thai politics have its politicians, its power holders, its public activists and some who appear neutral but hold massive sway. Some we can see and some are concealed, just like Matryoshka dolls. This last twelve months have seen almost all of them in action.

Shinawatra, wife of ousted PM Thaksin has been formally charged with tax evasion. The court has released Potaman and two co-defendants (brother and secretary) on bail with a trial set to start in one month.

The announcement of the trial was a huge shot in the arm for Thailand’s beleaguered, maligned and tired looking military junta.

So much has changed since the last time I wrote about the political war games between the “New money” of Thaksin and his sizable band of young blood business politicians and the “Old ginger” or “Old money” generals and public officials born into upper class families and used to having a hold on directorships, land rights and dubious incomes as a considered birthright. Such has been the slew of mistakes, fallacies and lethargic and clumsy reactions that the country's finest military men have been left looking more like “Dad’s Army” than the guardians of justice that rolled tanks into Bangkok so confidently just six months ago.

With painful irony, the finest soldiers of Siam have not once, not twice but repeatedly loaded up their political artillery, and blasted themselves in the foot. As the ousted young bloods have kept mostly to the sidelines awaiting the chance to jump aboard whichever party looks set to take power next, the old brass have given their rivals the courtesy of doing themselves far greater damage than Thaksin could have dreamed of.

It all started so well. The coup occurred at the exact same time that privy council chairman General Prem Tinsulanonda was in audience with His Majesty The King. When Sondhi and his men calmly and politely explained to the nation that the coup had taken place due to Thaksin’s rampant corruption, inducement of national divisions bordering on class war, possible disrespect to the king and massive aggravation of troubles in the Muslim south, many Thais nodded in agreement. With grand promises of corrective action and the appointment of well respected ex-soldier Surayud as PM, the future seemed better, if not perfectly bright. The King - as noted by Giles Ungpakorn - had previously rejected the idea of installing a royally appointed PM as undemocratic but endorsed the coup within twenty four hours.

It didn’t take long for things to turn downstream once more. In hindsight, my inexperience of previous Thai coups probably meant that others saw the symptoms before I did. When Surayud appointed an interim cabinet with an average age of sixty five and full of military personnel, the first voices of non-Thaksin affiliated dissent followed. The interim cabinet was full of aged, unimpressive and often returning politicians who had achieved little in their prime. More aggressive critics voiced concerns of the return of “Old ginger” , suggesting the old boys clique had seized power after faling to win it fairly from the modern new breed of civilian politicians.

The first major strike against the junta was the massive crash of the bhat. Due to the bhat becoming alarmingly strong against the dollar, finance minister Pridiyathorn Devakula introduced a thirty percent reserve rule designed to stop rapid withdrawal of foreign funds. International investors responded with a stock market equivalent of the middle finger and drew out as much as they could. The crash made headlines across the nation and criticism followed suit. For his part, Pridiyathorn Devakula simply refused to apologise and said no more.

Perhaps the financial stumble would have been short lived were it not for a greater issue facing the junta. When the coup took place, Sondhi and his crew played a sure crowd pleaser by stating that Thaksin’s rampant capitalism was threatening the country’s very future, and the new regime would save Thailand by employing “the sufficiency economy as set out by His Majesty The King”. Indeed, His Majesty had recently made references to sufficiency economy that gained particular notice and stood in stark contrast to ideas and policies set forth by Thaksin, a known aggressive capitalist. The problem of course was that nobody really knew what sufficiency economy actually meant. Whilst ambiguous references to “getting it right” and “producing the right amounts” may have placated some, the vast majority of people had no idea.

As major international critics such as The Economist described (follow this link about half way down the page) it as “new age waffle” and quoted a UNDP source as saying “We can’t discuss our concerns with the Thais because the policy was set forth by the King, criticism is not allowed”. Giles Unpagkorn boldly and bravely statedEverybody is sufficient but some are more sufficient than others”.

The need for clarity became stronger. Several radio stations did their best attempt to Jedi mind trick the public by airing a daily bulletin that stated “the sufficiency economy theory has been very clearly set out by ..............” , but stock markets suggested otherwise. The continued uncertainty saw shares slowly slump. In desperation, Surayud appointed none other than Thaksin’s right hand man, former finance minister Somkid Jatusripitak as his new sufficiency economy spokesman. Somkid was the right hand of Thai Rak Thai (the ousted government) ‘s aggressive capitalism and was also under investigation by the junta for corruption. It mattered not. The official line was that Somkid would “Explain the sufficiency economy to the international media” the reality was that Somkid was known as a man who could sell sand to an Arab, and would talk the junta out of their self inflicted mess. Sadly it was not to be. Activist groups pointed out that the junta employing a corrupt capitalist to explain the theory ostensibly designed to replace corrupt capitalism had some flaws, and Somkid resigned after less than one week.

Even bigger problems lingired down south.With the chairman of the military council being a Muslim and the appointment of a PM who promised a more gentle approach to the Muslim insurgency in the south, hopes rained high for a restoration of relative – if not total – peace in the region. To his credit, Surayud truly tried. A heartfelt public apology to Muslim villagers had the media awash with reports of “onlookers being moved to tears” and genuine gestures for peace such as the dropping of charges against all “Muslim” aggressors in the Tak Bai Incident showed the government’s sincerity. But it was not to be. In response to gestures of peace, the militants responded with fear and hate. Attacks against innocents were escalated. Killings, beheadings and drive by shootings increased. Most notably, the militants observed the new government responded to protests by “villagers” especially women and children. A new tactic of creating roadblocks and protests with, yes you guessed it, women and children became increasingly frequent. With his game plan failed, Surayud and his people had no other response.

Other than repeated statements of a pledge to peaceful means the junta had no other ideas. The killings continue unabated, the most notable being the minibus ambush, which instigated a tangible change in attitude from the Buddhist minority of the region. (Readers probably know my take on this by now, peace is useless when offered to those whose rulebook has no interest in peace).

Since then, a curfew has been enforced in the region along with a ban on pillion motorbike passengers, with some success. How long the restriction on freedoms will be tolerated while the power holders desperately seek answers remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the overthrown new breed were on the ropes but they did their best to compound the troubles of the old brass with the occasional offensive manoeuvre of their own. Most TRT rats shamelessly jumped ship after the coup, since TRT - along with Thailand’s oldest party The Democrats - were already on trial and facing dissolution for violation of election conduct (another long article in itself). Popular opinion held that the military might “influence” the judges to dissolve probably TRT and quite possibly the Democrats. This would wipe away chances of a TRT comeback and the joint loss of the Democrats would create a political void , possibly demanding the return of selfless "defenders of the nation" to generously take the reigns and all the burdens of power and lucrative directorships that come with it. The new breed saw it coming though, and deserted TRT and its ideology in droves. New parties were formed within weeks, although a political action ban rendered them inactive.

The remnants of TRT were picked up by MP Chaturon Chaisang. Chaturon – maybe not working alone – waited patiently for a time to mount a political offensive as troubles mounted for the junta and the axe came down over iTV. Chutaron astutely announced the launch of “People’s Television” or PTV. A TV station designed for “the people” (i.e. the impoverished people of the Thaksin’s stronghold in the north east, and most subject to misinformation). Overcome with paranoia, the military threatened TRT with legal action if they launched the station.

Chaturon again smelt fear and called their bluff, going ahead with their launch. What happened next depends on whom you believe. Either a series of bizarre and unprecedented problems caused the launch to be delayed, or the military resorted to the kind of tactics employed by Thaksin in power and employed broadcasters to sabotage the transmission. I’ll let the reader decide.

The problems of PTV only served to enanger not only Thaksin’s favourite targets of exploitation (ie. the poor) but also many others. Anti - coup protests began to grow in attendance, forcing to Sondhi and Surayud to hint at both an early election (to placate the people) and enforcement of emergency law which forbids protests (to intimidate the people) making sure every base was covered.

By now the honeymoon period wasn’t just over, it was an ancient memory. Angered by blunders, agitated by slow and clumsy reactionism and impatient at restrictions on freedom, the military were, and are, rapidly running out of time. While PM Surayud’s personal popularity seems only mildly damaged – he has at least conducted himself with decorum and honesty – the ineptitude of the personnel around him had tarnished the regime greatly. Adding to Surayud’s woes were the frequent and often ill considered statements frequently emanating from general Sondhi. Often contradictory to the man he personally appointed as PM, Sondhi seemed only too happy to boisterously echo opinions on everything political. Most notorious was his bizarre rant against Singapore in which Sondhi claimed the satellites sold by Thaksin to Singapore were “ a national asset, and as a soldier, I want them back”.

Interestingly, newspaper reports this week reveal that Thai Air Asia are in negotiations to buy the satellites back. Thai Air Asia are widely believed to have military links. A cynical man might wonder if Sondhi was not already aware of the negotiations and felt that a whipping up of fake national sentiment followed by the “recovery of national assets” would make him look a hero.

And yet, for all their mistakes, what is in my opinion the moist glaring junta blunder of all seems to have missed the headlines. On New Year’s Eve, a series of co-ordinated explosions rocked Bangkok. Many naturally assumed such work was an escalation of the long running Muslim terrorists in the south. Yet within twenty four hours Sondhi appeared on national TV and stated “We are certain this was arranged by politicians who recently lost power” (do you really need me to explain who he meant?). The general even stated “It was not southern militants, they would get lost in Bangkok”. Sondhi repeated these words ad - naseum in the national press as the untrained and outmoded Thai police, aware of international attention, did their best to impersonate the FBI guys they had seen in the Hollywood movies.

Things remained this way until secondary headlines in the media last week had the formal announcement “Special investigation teams conclude: explosions were the work of southern militants”. The about turn around, the retraction of “I am absolutely certain it was the work of ousted politicians” sailed through the press. It was as if so much had gone wrong, it wasn’t really news anymore.

As if to summarise the painful irony of the position, pint sized General Saprang gave a galvanising and boisterous interview in the English press, loudly and bluntly proclaiming his pride at “defending the King and the nation” and firing a warning that he was the chief of investigations into corruption at Suwanapoom airport. Within a week, Saprang had been discovered taking his family on a luxury holiday in England and Germany, ostensibly to examine “airport procedures”. The cost of the family “trip” was eighty million bhat, courtesy of the Thai tax payer.

It was time for the military to pull themselves together and start swinging some punches of their own. To their credit, they have at least tried , and they may yet have one or two aces up their sleeve.

After the coup, the junta realised that Thaksin must be seen to be taken to justice. Having the good sense to realise they could not genuinely do this themselves (well they could, but every man and his dog would know it wasn’t done fairly), the junta appointed a SWAT team of financial and legal nerds, with a special requirement that each and every one of them must wear glasses. The team would become known as the Assets Examination Committee (AEC) or the Assets Scrutiny Committee (ASC) depending on which translation you prefer. The ASC was headed by Kaewsun Atibodhi , a man I admire as one the very few who seemed resistant to Thaksin’s lure of corrupting money and yet fair and level minded. Indeed, other than the appointment of Banjerd Singkaneti who once foolishly likened Thaksin to Hitler , leading to claims of apprehended bias by Bangkok Pundit, the team seemed well chosen.

As the junta repeatedly reloaded their arsenal and blasted themselves in both feet, The ASC quietly and efficiently proceeded with their work. Predictable obstacles blocked them as feeble bureaucrats refused to co-operate with investigations either fearing a return of TRT or possibly having something to hide themselves. Paper trails seemed to disappear and many testimonies were defensive and weak. As the extent of self protection of the corrupt became apparent, a few cases gained importance, including the alleged (like most Thaksin family cases, every soi dog in Bangkok knows they did it, but it’s hard to evidence) tax evasion. With the announcement of formal charges, many , including myself, were pleased and felt that the coup makers charging the Shiniwatras was the lesser of two evils. Others, like popular blogger Fonzi at Thailandjumpedtheshark felt it was a witch hunt. Personally, if the witch is an arrogant and corrupt politician, I say hunt them.

It’s quite possible the trial will see another political chess game played out, with “supporters” of the Thaksin’s already showing up to offer roses and vocal support, anti coup protester stepping their actions up a gear, anti Thaksin groups doing the same, and the military struggling to maintain their already shaky justification for their actions.

Two other pieces of the political chessboard are also on the move. Former police general Kowit, who was always on shaky ground for being considered close to Thaksin , was sacked two moths ago. Of course when I say “sacked” I mean it in the Thai sense which means the bungling and corrupt police officer who arrested eight scapegoats for the Bangkok bombings, all of whom were released the next day, was not actually fired. He was moved to an inactive post. In his place came Seriphisut Temiyawej , a man who appears to be more genuine and made some encouraging remarks about cleaning out the police force of corruption and dishonesty, a daunting task for any man.

Seriphisut has already made some changes. Predictable criticisms followed his decision to appoint his own men as his assistants, but my own feeling is how can anyone be serious about stopping corruption if they don’t have people they know and trust working alongside them? One interesting case was the woman who had her hand cut off by a drunken police officer whom she had refused to sit next to in a karaoke bar. The woman complained to the local police who disgustingly blocked her complaint. She then made a personal visit to Seriphisut Temiyawej and the offending officer was immediately suspended and set for trial. On the downside, Seriphisut made some infelicitous remarks to the wife of missing Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit, who remains the subject of a long running and controversial investigation.

Finally and perhaps pivotally, the new constitution continues its development. The Constitution Drafting Committee seems well run and has a seemingly independent chief in Prasong Soonsiri. Depressingly though, the inevitable reports of military interference and the sudden omission of left sided rules designed to scrutinise the government including prohibitation of another coup, have dampened the few who still held hope.

The military continue their defiance. A recent public meeting revealed that Thaksin himself is still under investigation for possible Lese Majeste, unauthorised use of national lottery services and human rights abuses (during the war on drugs). The CDC are still happy with the progress of the constitution, new police chief Seriphisut has promised the hunt for the Bangkok bombers will no longer be a sham and the Election Commission are still ready for an election this years.

The future of Thailand really hangs in the balance. The military must have the courage to allow not only the charging but also the punishment of the Shinwatras. A financial penalty would be equivalent to letting Thaksin’s family show he is not only above the law, but the law is his own personal jester. Undoubtedly the Thaksin’s will BOTH overtly and covertly lobby the courts and the people. The judicial staff must be protected and unhindered and the military must deliver the security they so gladly use profess as an excuse to take up company directorships.

The constitution is open to public referendum. If the new constitution is not a significant advance on the old one, it must be rejected and questions must be asked. Sondhi is doing nobody any favours with his vocal calling of the shots in what is supposed to be a set of laws for civilians.

Thailand must take a new economical direction, one this is genuine, applicable, and based on reality. If this means accepting that even some of the most revered institutions are perhaps a hindrance to progress, this fact must be accepted even if not openly admitted. The people will only suffer otherwise.

Finally, true democracy must be returned to the people as soon as possible. The possible dissolution of the two political behemoths worries me. While a clean slate may be welcome, the rats could and will simply jump to another ship whilst the remaining void stands as a nice excuse for self proclaimed “protectors of national security” to step in.

The old brass are both literally and figuratively on their last legs. In a country that proudly proclaims itself to be modern yet traditional, the coup makers used every crowd pleasing quote and promise in the book to justify their destruction of semi-democracy. The people gave them a chance because they wanted to believe in them.

Should the elections take place fairly and promptly, should corrupt politicians face punishment, should the military truly hand power back to the people and arm them with a strong constitution, if Seriphisut Temiyawej and his cohorts make the first steps of police reform, and should PTV and the populist stations be given the freedom to activate but become robbed of their ability to exploit and manipulate, Thailand can look forward to a bright future.

If, as international investors seem to fear, the military cling to power by delivering phoney elections, a weak constitution and lip service to reform, then the pattern of non progress and uncertainty will simply play out in a continuous repeat of the last twelve months. The losers, as always, will be the masses.

Damn that was a long blog.