Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Taking It to the Streets

Politics has gone into the streets in Bangkok and some people are worried. It's scaring the tourists away, reports the The Nation this morning. A week-long anti-government demonstration has blocked traffic on a bridge across from United Nations headquarters here, and Malaysia issued a warning about traveler safety in the city. Indonesia is contemplating doing the same, according to the president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents (ATTA). The is the slow season anyway, and a negative impact on tourism could increase the pain already caused by rising gas and food prices. The non-stop protest, which has drawn up to 10,000 at times, is led by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) a mixed bag of dissenters whose aim now is the resignation of embattled Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej whose party was voted into office five months ago. According to a story in the International Herald Tribune, the demonstration is "a round-the-clock carnival of protest songs, fiery speeches and -- because this is Thailand -- vendors hawking many types of sausages, smoked squid and green mangoes."

Politics in Thailand is dictated by attitudes toward Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire media tycoon who was deposed in a military coup in September, 2006, and his party, Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thailand), disbanded. His policies, which combined a rural populism with a business-friendly globalism (seemingly an incongruous marriage), angered many urban elites who identify more with the military and the monarchy rather than shop keepers and rice farmers. It didn't help that Thaksin was widely believed guilty (even by his supporters) of financial corruption and vote buying. During his exile, he moved to London and bought the Manchester City football team.

In the December elections, Samak and his People Power Party campaigned openly as a front for Thaksin, and they won decisively, much to the chagrin of the elites. Since the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in 1932, Thailand has had 17 different charters and constitutions. After the 2006 coup, the military junta drafted a new constitution which was approved by the electorate. It contained several articles aimed at punishing Thaksin and his now defunct party. But Samak and his allied politicians announced their goal of amending the constitution to remove the punitive measures. This is what fueled the PAD street protest. And it was this group's leaders, including newspaper publisher Sondhi Limthongkul and Major Gen. Chamlong Srimuang, who led similar protests against Thaksin which brought down his government. Even though the charter amendment move seems blocked, now PAD wants the unpopular Samak removed.

Last Saturday morning Samak went on TV to say the streets would be cleared by force. Police in riot gear surrounded the yellow-clad (to show their allegiance to the King by wearing his color) demonstrators. There was a tense stand-off all day as the crowd grew in size. Finally, in the evening, Interior Minister Chalerm Yubamrung announced that there would be no attempt at a forced removal. Military spokespersons have said daily that there would be no new coup. But unlike street protests on behalf of democracy in 1973, 1976 and 1992, all of which resulted in violence, the demonstrators are trying to bring down a democratically-elected government rather than military dictators. "It's a dangerous trend," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University.

Thaksin returned to Thailand in February and was greeted at the airport by cheering crowds of his fans. Although he is keeping a low profile, and has vowed to stay out of politics, he is widely viewed as the puppeteer pulling Samak's strings. He is hailed as a savior in the countryside for his pump priming and social spending, but is seen as a villain in the cities. Everyone, on all sides of the political fence, claims to speak for the aging King and the ultimate value of democracy. All enemies are seen as disloyal to the monarchy and subverting democracy. It's difficult sometimes to discern their differences.

I feel perfectly safe in Bangkok. This is a city that has taken the notion of "bread and circuses" to new heights. There are fashion shows and rock concerts on display daily at the Siam Square supermalls to amuse and titillate the populace. Restaurants and street stalls are always packed with international (and intra-national) gourmets. On Saturday, when the protesters and the riot police were starring each other down, Pim and I were in a karaoke room at Major Bowl in Ekkamai, singing our hearts out. Last night we went to see the latest installment of C.S. Lewis' Narnia saga and enjoyed the special effects (particularly the musketeer mice). Thais are used to military coups, rewrites of the constitution, and changes of faces in the government. Only rarely do they resort to violence against their own citizens (unless they're drug dealers or Muslim "terrorists"). Unfortunately, elections and constitutions become trivialized and its hard to see how democracy here can find an institutional form that will merit receive respect from all

Pim and I will move into our new apartment on the 10th floor of Lumpini Palace in Pin Klao at the end of this month. We're renting it from Roger, a graphics designer from Nottingham, England, and his wife Katsuda, a stewardess for Quantas Airlines, who've bought a house 20 kilometers away. When we met them on Monday to pay our deposit, Roger's arm was bandaged from wounds he received by getting into the middle of a cat fight. I liked him immediately when I saw he had Crocs on his feet ("I have three pair; it's all I'll wear," he said). I've only got two pair, but I told him abut the I Hate Crocs web site, and we had a good laugh over that. Afterwards, Pim and I walked across an overpass above the heavily-traveled Boromarajajonani Road (trying saying that with your mouth full) to the huge Central mall where we ate dinner at a Fuji Restaurant. This mall, and its twin across the street, both have large multiplex cinemas showing films in English and Thai. There are hundreds of shops and cafes, including branches of all the Bangkok bookstore chains. A new Tesco Lotus (the British department store chain) and an IT City electronics mall have opened next door. And these behemoths are surrounded by street stalls and shops selling everything from food to clothes at a discount. It's a world of difference from Sukhumvit, my current neighborhood, which has been designed for the convenience of tourists. In Pin Klao there are few signs in English and the trash does not appear to be picked up daily. It's equally urban but a lot rougher around the edges. I should be able to easily get a bus for the relatively short distance to Wat Si in neighboring Bangkok Noi where I teach on Thursdays. Pim will only have to travel 10-15 minutes across the river to her post office in Banglamphu. I would have preferred a town house on a small suburban street, or a cottage on stilts in a village, but this will do for the interim. And I should see a very different side of Bangkok, and Thailand.

As I write this, Obama appears to have won the Democrat nomination, although Sen. Clinton refuses to concede. Will Hillary accept the veep position? If she can get the power wielded by Dick Cheney, it might be a plum. It probably didn't effect the outcome of their race, but there is a fascinating piece on Bill Clinton's disreputable associates and his current activities in Vanity Fair here. Another writer, Chris Hedges, has become the conscience of America (along with Bill Moyers), and there is a terrific piece by him on "The Corporate State the the Subversion of Democracy" here. After reading it, tell me if you think Obama's election will make a substantial difference (certainly he will be an improvement over Bush and the possible presidency of McCain. And John Pilger, along with Robert Fisk the conscience of Britain, compares Obama with Robert Kennedy in a perceptive article here and finds them both wanting. Corporations (the "military-industrial complex" that Eisenhower warned against) are the true "terrorists" of the 21st century world, and defeating them will be extremely difficult. Here in Thailand the government, however, corrupt, responds to its citizens when rising prices cause suffering by devising controls to limit immoral profits. At least under Buddhism, profit is not sacred.

Tomorrow is my second class with the young monks. At UC Santa Cruz, I made a tremendous effort at the beginning of the quarter to learn all my students' names. That will not be easy here. Pim has translated the names of the 61 registered students for me, and already I can see that many if not most names can be spelled a variety of ways in English. On quiz papers and on the email and phone roster I asked them to fill out, names only sometimes match Pim's translation. Then there is the matter of titles. If I want them to call me "Dr. Will," (and informality is not a virtue for Thais), I must address them as "Venerable," "Phra" and "Pramaha," depending on their standing as a monk. Novices can be called "Samaneen."

I collected 17 email addresses from the 27 students in class last week and sent them a general email with a link to the Bangkok Post web site that provides help to students. Five wrote back. Although full of errors, there enthusiastic responses were understandable and encouraging to me. One asked me to call him "Sam." Last week I played "What a Wonderful World" on my iPod (through portable speakers) and asked them to write down missing words to the lyrics on a sheet I provided. Because one of the students mentioned "Hotel California," I've developed an similar exercise for this week using the the Eagles' hit. Given that they're monks, I should probably avoid any hit songs by Madonna or Britney.

As I finish this blog, the monsoon has darkened the midday sky and thunder is rattling my window.


Roxanne said...

Dear Mr. Yaryan:

I chanced upon your blog accidentally. BTW: the Kings in California are fine. The fire never touched them. Perhaps you already know that from Laurie's blog.

I just wanted to say that I was touched by your blog entry about Pim and the sunglasses. I wish you both luck in your relationship.

Life is (too) short. Love is (too) rare. If my daughter brought home an older partner who treated her with respect and kindness, I would be very happy for her. Love comes in packages of all shapes and sizes. I have told my daughter this since she was very young: It is not the 'packaging' that matters, but what's inside that counts. Look at your friends the Kings--a relationship outside of the box.

Take care, Roxanne

Dr. Will said...

Roxanne, thank you so much for your kind words and for your support. Yes, life is too short!