Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Five Thai political role models

For the last year, I've been writing a diary for my son. He's only eighteen months old right now and at twenty eight years of age, I'm not planning on going anywhere just yet. But as a colleague and fellow dad who gave me the suggestion explained to me poetically: "You never know when it's time to go, and I have so much I want him to know".

The idea caught on, and since then I've been writing to my son every couple of days with general chat and commentary on his development, but also on what I hope and believe he can achieve in the future.

The more I tried to explain to him about the political situation in Thailand, the more I realised what a Herculean task it was. I ended up making a list of reading material I'd like him to read one day (I must be the only person in the world to recommend "An internal history of the Communist Party of Thailand" to a toddler) and a list of people whom I believe could make great role models.

The list of possibilities was endless and I'm sure it will expand over time. There will be plenty of non political role models too, everyone from Matthew Le Tissier to Roger Daltry will get a mention. But after some deliberation, I managed to produce my own political shortlist. As I typed the explanations for each choice in my diary, I realised that I was actually producing a paradigm of my own political views and principles as well. My list was thus:

Mechai Viravaidya

It's hard to know where to begin with Mechai, a man who has done so much for country. His most obvious contribution was in the AIDS awareness programs in the eighties and nineties. "Mr Condom" became famous for handing out contraceptives, opening restaurants with free condoms instead of mints and throwing in a little fun with some advertisements spray painted on cows. Just as importantly, Meechai served as a senator. He told one magazine "The senate is supposed to be impartial but only about twenty percent really are. Everyone tells you they love your ideas but when voting comes it's all 'as planned'. We are wastig the people's time". A more perspicaciously stated summary would be hard to find.

Like my son, Meechai is also half Thai and it's highly probable that this fact was played upon by some rival politician trying to score points by whipping up pseudo partisan emotions. I fathom that's a challenge many mixed race people around the world have encountered in similar form at some point.

My favourite image: Mechai in his restaraunt, the ambiance of the backdrop cogently enhanced by multi-coloured condoms

Kaewsan Atibhoti

Like the rest of the AEC, Kaewsan has been accused of a witch hunt, a set up for a kangaroo court, working under military pressure and general bias. The irony of this is that Kaewsan was critical of Thaksin when the former had nothing to gain by doing so. He has never swerved from being critical based on solid evidence. Critics of the AEC frequently draw reference to bias, but have rarely, if ever, produced any legal or logical arguments to support their claim. The undoubted dangers and threats on the AEC must be hard to take, but the group have remained professional, impartial and humble in their work.

Gender pronouns aside, Khun Ying Jaruvan Maintaka could easily be substituted in Kaewsan's place, here.

My favourite image: That no nosense 'looking down my glasses ' intellctual look, as sought after by scholars worldwide

Pridi Phanomyong

When considering Pridi, there is so much to be said and yet, paradoxically, the truth can be hard to trace for various reasons. Those who have studied the life of Pridi usually see a man who stood bravely against public opinion and dared to challenge the status quo duringa time of globally erractic change. One of his most courageous moves was refusing to acknowledge the declaration of war on Britain in World War Two. One can only wonder what the man who died in exile would think of Thailand's current political situation. Pridi died before I was old enough to realise who he was, but the passing of his wife bought home the importance of his legacy.

My favourite image: The black and white caricture, that somehow emphasises his legacy.

Supinya Klangnarong

The only one of the five I've had the privilege to meet. Supinya's story is simple and remarkable. She told the truth, and refused to be bullied out of retracting it. Faced with a lawsuit - exponentially greater than her profession could pay her - from a huge corporation that happened to be linked with the ruling PM , Supinya stood up for press freedom. Even when offered a drop of the charges if she made a written apology, she held firm and came through victorious. She knew the value of a free press not just in moral terms, but in its placement as a symbol of a healthy, thriving and progressive society.

My favourite image: Clutching flowers, with her arm raised in victory.

Anand Panyarachun

Anand is living proof that unelected officials can be liberal and progressive. In a time when Thailand was still in its infancy in terms of actively combating corruption, Anand entered as a military nominated PM and set in place economic reform and constitutional modifications that have left their mark to this day. Some sources state he was so liberal he actually upset some of the people that gave him the post. Anand later went on to become a critic of the Thaksin regime. He also headed the National Reconciliation Commission. One of his key suggestions for abating violence in the south of Thailand was making Yawi an acknowledged language in the region. Prem Tinsulanonda responded "We cannot accept that, as we are Thai. The country is Thai and the language is Thai... We have to be proud to be Thai and have the Thai language as the sole national language". The idea was lost.

My favourite image: Usually we see him at work, as an official should be. Could Thailand do worse than to see him return as PM?.

And that is my list. None are heroes in media terms, none are likely to be known widely outside Thailand. But that's the reality of politics. In a profession that theoretically involves working for the people, very few truly put principles and honesty before themselves. Those that do are (usually) not famous or celebrated. They are normal human beings with flaws, annoying habits and bad hair days (Well, except for Supinya, maybe). The fact that they touch lives and precipitated a drop of positive change both inside and outside the dark sea of politics is what makes them special.

There will be the natural right of passage of choosing trendy pop singers and their ilk as role models. It takes a while for us to recognise what truly constitutes a special quality in a human being. But in the long run, if my son could achieve half of what any of these above listed people have, I'll die quietly but happily. Then again, just staying out of trouble would do fine, too :-)


aurix said...

this is a really nice post. it makes me smile. it's really sweet that you're writing a diary/preparing a reading list for your 18-month son :-)

i admire the five role models you mentioned too and wish that there were more people like them in thailand.

hobby said...

IMO, you could also point him to examine the ideas of Buddhadasa.

Fonzi said...

There are actually many Thai heroes, commoners, who we can be proud of.

Unfortunately, many of them have been killed or exiled by military governments.

If I had the money, I would create a Tomb for the Unknown Commoner.