Sunday, November 30, 2008

A follow on from my Peasant's Revolt post.

So I'm thinking of a country that was divided across borders and by ethnic identity and income and lifestyle. That might sound very different to Thailand but if we think carefully, is it really so different?

One group felt oppressed and ignored by the government. They pressured a nationalist politician who sympathised with their cause. He organised rallies to intimidate other factions. On one occasion he organised a huge rally to make demands for his group. The rally stopped outside the president's office (Government House) where the nationalist politician told the president: "Give us what we want or address this group yourself!". In other words: "Hands up or this lynch mob will be set on you!".

A smaller state in the nation published magazine articles criticising the group. The group responded by organising a "Rally of Truth" to intimidate the small state and its people. It wasn't too hard for them to do that, because by then the military were clearly on their side.

Another state elected their own prime minister, but amazingly he was rejected by the police force in the region who had already decided they sided with the nationalist politician in our story. The police helped to whip up a rebellion against their own regional prime minister.

The nationalist politician decided to go about amending the constitution to crush critical press and remove regional assemblies (so that he would have more power). His followers became increasingly violent and bigoted. They often organised rallies under various guises and through proxies. Each side began to viciously ridicule and mock other sides, often with dangerous propaganda.

It descended into a bloody and miserable war that lasted until NATO intervened.

It is a recent event that has many similar elements to the Thai situation: misplaced nationalism, resentment amongst citizens based on income, ethnicity and values, factional squabbles and politicisation of the military and police. However, there are differences. Thailand is a long established country and has the guiding light of a monarch, something the nation I refer to lacked.

Ian knows what I am talking about, he met the founding father of this republic.
Can anyone else tell name the nation and people involved in my tale?

Friday, November 28, 2008

Countdown to civil war

Bangkok Pundit recently rated the chance of a coup at five percent. I'd say that percentage is higher and increasing by the moment. (NB Pundit has mentioned to me that he was talking about the chances of what will happen next, he expects that the chance of a coup at some point is actually higher.)

Somchai is effectively exiled in Chang Mai. In Thailand - even more so than other countries - a leader outside the capital is greatly weakened.

The refusal of the army to deal with the seizure of the airport - the heart of Thailand's main industry - is incredible. The pledge to use the navy and air force instead even more so. No greater symbol of the polarisation of the Thai establishment could be imagined.

Nobody has absolute control or power. Nobody seems sure of a solution. A dissolved parliament will lead to re-election of the PAD's (and other people's) enemies. Dissolution of the PPP will result in a new party being formed and Thaksin's rage increased further. A coup brings the nation to rock bottom but at least returns control to one entity.

Next week is the birthday of His Majesty The King. His Majesty traditionally uses the occasion to deliver a speech that often contains guidance and wisdom for Thai people. This year, as ever, people will listen with great interest.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Random thoughts: PAD, UDD, the blogs and the future

I think it would be arrogant for any of us to pretend we have all the knowledge and all the answers for the ongoing political crisis. We all have our own questions, opinions and ideas.

I could write pages of my own, but it would probably end up a garbled, fragmented mess. So instead, I will simply brainstorm my own thoughts and opinions, and I invite others to do the same.


- Their professed goal (new politics) is a very good one. Sadly, their methods have disgraced them.

- The PAD used to be a good thing. The first anti-Thaksin protests were the right way to protest. Why did they change? Perhaps they knew they lacked support this time around, so they needed to be more aggressive.

- One of the key failings of the leaders is their failure to condemn violent attacks such as the man who purposely ran over the policemen…..

- …this has attracted violent thugs who care nothing for the country but just want an excuse to attack policemen and others. Again, we must ask why this has been allowed, and the answer seems to be that the PAD need the numbers.

- This could have been something special. The PAD could have protested peacefully outside the airports, parliaments etc. They could have made a party atmosphere, distributed leaflets and staged music shows, etc, that got the message across. They could have pushed so hard for changes. It may have taken longer but it would have gained more support.

- The PAD seem to have a bandwagon mentality. Suddenly unions, students and shop workers all jump up and “demand” the government resign, all the while trying to get their picture in the papers.

- Will the leaders flee Thailand after it’s all over? Surely any political clout they have has been crushed under the weight of their crimes. Sondhi and Chamlomg must realize that they are playing Russian Roulette with their lives now.

- This campaign must have been expensive. Who is paying? Surely not Sondhi, he admits he is broke.

- There have been innocent victims in all this, but let’s remember where real sympathy should go. Whilst it was wrong to vandalise the Chart Thai premises, do we really want to shed too many tears for an incompetent, corrupt, godfather brand of politicians who have never been anything but opportunists?

- Likewise, let's remember that we have the likes of Chalerm in government. This is not a group of all nice people.

- My wife;s business has suffered as a result of PAD protests.

- General Prem has often spoken out during times of trouble, yet he has remained very silent during all this.

UDAD / Pro-government protesters

- In the beginning, it seemed to be the pro-government groups that resorted to violence. That has changed. For the most part they have been peaceful and articulate and they deserve credit for this.

- It shouldn’t matter and it doesn’t matter, but it has been observed (please take a look as it took me a long time to dig up that link!) that there are differences between the attractiveness of pro and anti government protesters. Perhaps Lalidah, Pasninja and others can join UDAD to even the score? (Just kidding, guys!)

- Pro government groups have the democratic advantage but geography is not on their side. Most of them come from outside Bangkok.

Both sides

- Talk about compromise but seem unable.

- Should really grow up and stop prancing around with weapons they have no idea how to use.

- Profess they are the ones who “really” love the country.

- The army and the police have probably improved their image during all this.

- The army have shown great restraint (*but is it for the right reasons?)

- The police don’t have the best international image but they have also been restrained.

- However, the police appear to lack organization and perhaps don’t like having the spotlight on them so bright that they can’t bully people as they have been accused of in the past. However, this certainly does not excuse the violence against them.

The endgame

- I see no way out. I think there will be no coup but I do see a military offensive that can only cause bloodshed.

- But that is not the end. The power struggle will continue. There are still questions to be asked, tensions simmering and things that cannot be said.

- I hope I’m wrong, I hope somehow this works out but I think things will get worse before they get better.

- In the very long term, I’m sure Thailand will be OK. As I’ve said before, it’s easy to look at the UK and say we are “democratically mature” but that’s because we went through stuff like this centuries ago. We still have problems now, but we get by. So will Thailand, but I’m not sure if it will happen in my lifetime.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The truth about Thaksin's swipe at the UK

Thaksin’s interview in the Arabic media is remarkable for two reasons. First, he’s let his anger (some might call it arrogance) get the better of him again. Those who do not reside in Thailand might misconstrue his “feel sorrow” comment. I’m certain this is a face saving exercise for the former PM. Thaksin is used to being looked upon as a man of great power. He took a gamble by praising the UK as “democratically mature” during his asylum bid, the obvious intention was to send a message saying: “Look, democratic countries want me! That shows how badly I was treated in Thailand!”.

Therefore his cancelled visa no doubt caused a great loss of face to him. His jab at the UK was his measured yet angry response. The little snipe at Britain will receive far more press in Thailand than the UK, and can fool his followers into thinking Thaksin is as influential in England as he is at home. The reality, of course, is that the UK government really isn’t concerned at all. Thaksin is page seven news at best for most Brits.

The other remarkable fact about Thaksin’s interview is that he directly states he will return to politics and discusses conditions for his return. These conditions are very frank for a sensitive topic in Thailand.

But even in absentia the former PM’s aftermath is still being felt, as tensions rise by the minute in Bangkok.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Teacher's Diary: dealing with complaints

So it just seemed to be a normal day until my boss called me in. I know the problem as soon as I look at her desk and see the exam scores for class nine C.

Nine C has been a headache all year. It's such a shame because I used to be very close with them but somehow they went from my top class to my most difficult class. I find the majority of them inattentive and several of them downright nasty.

But that's not the problem, the real problem is twofold. Firstly, a lot of other teachers don't have a problem with nine C. Some classes are universally "difficult" and others equally "good". But every teacher has an exception and nine C is mine, so any complaint arising from this class will attract attention.

Secondly, I've found many Thai administrators in schools lack a sense of proportion. If you have a class of fifty students and one complains, it's not: "One student complained", it's: "This class complained". The reverse is true, I've lost count of the number of times I've been told "This class really likes you" only to discover it's two or three students (ten percent) who have actually voiced an opinion. This loss of balance also applies to other topics. So we hear: "This class wants to focus more on listening skills" etc.

Anyway, back to my problem: a 9C student's parents have complained about her low test scores in my class. They objected on grounds that she has no problems in other classes - hence the reason for the first of my twofold problems I just mentioned - and that she has a very good notebook.

I look at her scores - she has indeed scored considerably lower for Social Studies than any other subject in all four areas (speaking, listening, reading, writing) and this isn't the first complaint to come out of the class. I'm starting to feel the strain here;this is my own fault because I've been too honest and made life difficult for myself.

In private schools in Thailand, the understanding is that nobody fails. Most teachers are happy to play along with this and give blanket high scores to everyone. Some teachers simply give one hundred percent to every student in every class. I don't do this for two reasons: not only is it dishonest, but it draws attention away from the gifted students who have worked hard to actually achieve high scores.

But the parents of this particular student are venting their anger. I explain the reasons for the low scores to my boss and to her massive credit she not only listens but actually tries to understand my view, but she's worried about any further confrontation with the parents. I offer to meet the parents but they can't speak English; so instead I offer to "review" the student's score (i.e. give the parents the score they want to forget this whole darn episode). This seems to go down well, until the phone call comes in from mum saying that her daughter will not and should not have to test again.

I investigate further. It seems that I've compounded things by giving the girl the wrong grade for her written work, it should indeed have been higher. I arrange an amendment and apology but her speaking and listening scores are correct;she couldn't answer the questions I gave her (about the Chakri Dynasty).

Mum and Dad are still unhappy. My boss arranges a chat with the student. She asks the student the same questions I asked in the test. The student confesses that she cannot answer and then agrees to confess that to mum and dad. Hopefully, the episode is all over.

What saddened me was that mum and dad's complaint never really seemed to centre around the progress of their daughter, but rather the idea that teachers should not have the right to give honest grades.

For some time I've been somewhat of a "grading rebel" but perhaps now it's time to toe the line and keep everyone happy, since my circumstances have changed yet again....

For when I get home today I'm greeted with some news that shocks me out of my chair. My wife is pregnant once again!

BTW As an aside I was saddened to discover that of my 130 grade nine students, a grand total of one could tell me the correct birthplace of HM The King.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Psychological warfare 101 - portray your opponents as terrorists, create vague, hazy, fears that get the public nervous and looking to you for protection.

As endorsed by George W Bush, one of the worst presidents of all time, now endorsed by Somchai Wongsawat.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The REAL answer to the crisis

Thailand lies in a state of disrepair. The foundations of democracy lie in a brittle state, looking as though one more shock might cause them to disintegrate. Not only do the three pillars - executive, legislative and judiciary - stand ostracised and mistrusting of each other, but they are also internally fractured. Senator battles senator, MP frames MP and lawyer cheats lawyer.

The public have followed suit and split into gangs. Each one has a name - indeed it seems that Thai people love nothing more than forming a group and giving themselves a name - a colour, a theme and a love of attention. Each one has an answer: be it "new politics", a "fight for true democracy" or "national reconciliation (via transfer of money)".

The problem is that none of these sound bites provides a real answer. None of them are good for the country in practice, what they all amount to is manoeuvre and counter manoeuvre. Thaksin is sent into exile, so he organises a rally. PAD take Government House, so Somchai revives old TRT policies to help Isaan people, people who criticise a certain senior statesmen seem to have a run of bad luck, the list goes on.

There are two notable traits running through every move in this political chess game: one, they reek of self interest for certain sections of society; two, they are increasingly myopic. "Bring back Thaksin" will not help Thailand, it will simply infuriate his opponents. "New politics" sounds great but talk of votes depending on "how much tax is paid" is highly revealing. Need I go on?

I'd like to offer my alternative. Forgive me for offering an opinion on Thai politics, and forgive me again for stealing a quote from a UK political party but the answer is: education, education, education.

This is not a rose tinted, Disney style answer. It is a genuine, long term solution to the problem. Likewise I am not suggesting that most people are uneducated or stupid or that I am a model of good study or teaching (I am neither), every country in The World, including England could benefit from higher quality of education.

Education empowers the masses on so many levels. The obvious benefit is that it gives greater awareness of one's society, government and practices. By bringing education to the people, we can eliminate this psychological divide between the so called 'poor people' and "Bangkokians". The feud between these groups always seems to boil down to a row over the charge that 'poorer' people may vote purely for monetary reasons and lack the information to make an informed vote. Universal education can destroy that argument.

Education can also breed confidence and opportunities. It grants independence to the student by allowing them to enter new fields of employment and find new opportunities for self finance. Such solutions are far more effective than village fund schemes or loans. These plans always keep the borrower reliant on the lender.

As a consequence of this, education can eliminate the class divide that is so evident in Thai politics. Indeed, that same divide also seems to reflect not just differing income, but differing values, culture and ways of solving problems. No greater victory can be won for transparency, fairness and democracy than by having far more people educated about any academic subject. Learning breeds curiosity and awareness on many levels, regardless of the subject being taught.

Why has education not been discussed more as a solution to the ongoing crisis? Simple; it gives no short term benefits. It doesn't generate hordes of cheering supporters, it doesn't create impassioned, nationalistic speeches, it can't provide immediate kickbacks (apart from building contracts) and perhaps worst of all: it doesn't give people the opportunity to parade around in gang colours, pretending they are going to hit someone with a plank of wood.

Education truly is a big part of the answer, but that doesn't mean we build more schools and universities and say: "Right, we're done!". We also need reform. Government schools need younger teachers who are trained in teaching methods that actually work. With great respect to many well intentioned, knowledgeable Thai teachers, too many of them rely on the old "water into a glass" teaching method which has proven ineffective.

We need teachers who understand effective teaching methods. We also need the love of discipline in Thailand to be matched by the love of giving opportunities and freedom of thought to students. We need qualifications to really mean something more than: "I can afford to go to this expensive university". Only by setting standards for teachers, students and exams can degrees in Thailand gain international recognition.

It doesn't just stop at schools either. Learning can come in many forms including books or computer games, yet the only reading I see with most people in Thailand is comic books. How often do we see someone reading a newspaper on the BTS or a non-fiction book while their shop is quiet? Comics are great for learning to read but not for further education. Likewise, computer games are massively popular here but Thai kids seem to plump only for "Call of Duty 4" violence based games. Again, COD is a great game but where are the strategy games, the historical epics or conversation driven role players? As for TV I don't watch a lot so perhaps someone else can address its quality.

We need education to be high in quality and availability. Right now we have a lot of universities that are well intentioned but unable. My wife once asked me how it was that more Thai students had university education than English students. I tried to explain but I found my answer was actually rather rude: a degree in England means the student has passed a certain standard of exam. In Thailand, it means the student paid the money and turned up at least sometimes. People who have never been to Thailand often think I am joking or being metaphorical when I tell them nobody fails in Thailand. But of course it's utterly true, which completely invalidates the point of passing.

All this change will take years, maybe decades, but I do believe it will happen and when it does, I hope that Thailand will reap the rewards. Many systems in Thailand are based on UK models, I just wish education was one of them, because then Thailand could pass through this stage of immature democracy that England passed long ago and move on to better things.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Dinghy sales with me and Weerasak Kowsurat

A journalist once told me that you can measure the arrogance of a celebrity by how many questions and comments they give to people in conversation. The less questions, the greater the arrogance.

I think it's true, so I now know that Weerasak Kowsurat, minister of tourism and sports, is actually a very modest, down to earth man. I know that because today I sat on a small dinghy with him as we darted around the Chao Phraya river.

The day was dull until then. The Tourist Police had a special ceremony which involved a whole lot of police, a display of force via police cars, Harley's and mountain bikes and no less than one hour and twenty minutes of talking, while we had to stand in the same spot. But then the day became surreal.

By chance, I was stood on the pier as Minister Kowsurat and the Tourist Police elite left the stage after their speech and headed to the pier. I moved out of their way as the entourage - surrounded by all kinds of media - stepped on board a small boat. Suddenly, the police commander said something about getting a foreign volunteer on the boat. His subordinate looked around, saw me, and literally grabbed me and pushed me towards the boat.

Before I knew what was happening, I was on board with some of the most important policemen and one of the most important politicians in Thailand. With all seats taken, I crouched on the floor next to Kowsurat, as the commander of the Tourist Police pointed out a few Loy Khatong sites to him.

It was less than five minutes before a motorised dinghy pulled up next to us. The commander told me to get on and I gladly obliged, feeling glad that the awkward moment was over. But then something happened that truly amazed me.

For reasons that I have not yet had explained to me, Minister Kowsurat suddenly jumped on to the small dinghy next to me. It was just him, me and the two drivers. Kowsurat instructed them to head to the next pier. He smiled at me, but didn't speak. So, still wondering if I was dreaming, I figured I'd start the chat.

"Have you had a good day minister?"

"Well yes, but it will be a long day, I'm flying to England this afternoon"

"But Thaksin isn't there any more"

[Thankfully he realised that I was joking and laughed]

"Yes but I'm going to see the princess"

Then our dinghy pulled up on a pier. I realised that I was supposed to distribute some of the tourist police leaflets to tourists, so I stood up on the wobbly dinghy and called out to some tourists.

They do what any self respecting tourist does when accosted in Thailand and ignore me. I turn to Kowsurat and say: "They think we are salesmen". He laughs and agrees. I explain we are just tourist police. The tourists realise we won't go away until they take our leaflets, so they take them.

I figure this incredible incident is now over, but Kowsurat instructs the driver to take us to another pier. As we move upriver I spot senior police, media and other people who are waving, filming and taking pictures.

I start another conversation and ask about the effects of the recent trouble on tourism. He explains tourism has dropped about twenty percent but that the worst seems to be over. I comment that the international coverage has been somewhat alarmist. He agrees and explains that he has invited ambassadors and media to visit him so he can show that the problems have not affected foreigners.

We stop at another pier. Once again I try to greet a few tourists and give out leaflets. Once again, I'm blanked. Kowsurat helps out by explaining: "we are not selling anything we just want to give some information". The tourist turns around and says something very, very rude in German. I don't know if Kowsurat understood but I did. Luckily another tourist takes our bumf and we leave.

Kowsurat asks about me. I talk about my family and my son and he does likewise. He then asks about my job and seems impressed when I mention my school. "it's a very good school" he says (my school is owned by a well known former minister). He even asks about my subject and what grades I teach. He asks which town I'm from, and mentions that he is visiting Manchester next week to meet some Thai athletes who will partake in the next Olympics. "I'm thinking of building a new pier at Sathorn" he tells me next. I respond by asking about the sky train route to Bang Khae. "It's planned to start next year" he says, "but" he grins; "you know it will take a while!".

Then our dinghy pulls up back at the main pier and we are pulled off the boat with media and other people looking at Kowsurat and wondering who the farang is with him. I thank Kowsurat and make my way home.

It's strange that of the phu yai I have met in Thailand, Weerasak Kowsurat and Sittichai Pookaiyaudom have been the least arrogant. Yet if I were Thai, I'd be opposed to them. I also note that the real phu yai in Thailand are a lot less domineering than some of those below them - such as headmasters and office managers - who seem to feel less secure about their authority, so spend more time displaying it. That trait, however, seems universal to me.

Life can be strange like that, especially in Thailand.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Note to self: proofread more.