Tuesday, August 21, 2007

An Exercise in Democracy

A Thai man casts his vote on the constitutional referendum at a polling station in Bangkok (NY Times Photo)

If you believe that voting is the end all and be all of democracy, then you will be impressed that Thailand's bloodless military coup last September has ended not with a bang but a whimper, the approval by national referendum of a new constitution that will supposedly speed the return of civilian government. I visited a polling station on Sunday next to a housing development near the Ari BTS (Skytrain) station where police officers live rent free. We were visiting my companion's friend who lives in two small rooms with her young son. While another parent watched several of the children (including the adorable twins pictured below), we went over to the group of tables surrounded by yellow tape and the women, after presenting their ID cards, checked the box on the form for either "accept" or "reject." It was all very familiar. Democracy in action.

But how significant was the vote (and, more generally, are elections a panacea for governmental problems, a way to give the people a role)? This isn't easy for me to determine. Thai politics are complicated confirmed Luan, my old friend Larry's wife, last night. They have been living in Florida with their "half-breed" son (the son's words) for the last 15 years but returned this month to visit Luan's family in Phetchabun. We met for dinner with Luan's sister who lives in Germany. I have been reading the Bangkok Post, thinking it the more liberal of the two English-language dailies here, but since it seemed to support acceptance of the draft constitution, written by the military junta (which calls itself the Council for National Security), I'm not sure. It did present articles for and against the document.

The coup last September, which was blessed by the King, overthrew the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a move supported by the country's elite and financial interests and opposed by the rural poor who benefited from Thaksin's populist policies. Thaksin, a baht billionaire telecommunications tycoon, has been indicted for corruption but is living in exile in England where he recently bought the Manchester City soccer team which won its match the night of the referendum. Opponents of the draft constitution were smeared as followers of Thaksin, but in the accounts I read many of them called for rejection of the document as a protest against military rule. One essay in the paper said the referendum was just a show for western financial interests and ultimately it meant nothing.

Approval was hardly unanimous. Only 57 percent of the 45 million eligible voters went to the polls (that figure looks good compared to poor American election turnouts). Authorities blamed the low showing on heavy rains Sunday (not in Bangkok where it was hot and sunny early in the day) and on the people's "boredom with politics." Of those voting, 58 per cent said yes and 42 per cent, no, to the proposed constitution. But in the northeast, stronghold of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thailand) party, 62 per cent of the voters rejected it. "The referendum's result shows that the country is still as divided as before," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, quoted in the Washington Post. "The divisiveness is deep-seated and the referendum has done nothing to change it." According to the Post analysis:
The 186-page constitution, which will be the country's 18th since 1932, curbs the role of politicians, gives more power to unelected bodies such as the courts and could perpetuate the behind-the-scenes power the military has wielded in Thailand for decades.
It replaces a 1997 constitution designed to curb military coups (18 in Thailand's modern history). The coup last September was the first in 15 years. A general election will now be held in December after the King's 80th birthday celebration which promises to be a splashy affair. While the king here is a constitutional monarch, he is much revered by his subjects. And while his influence on politics is very subtle, his approval is needed for any political movement to succeed.

I have been in Bangkok now for two weeks, and in my 7th floor mini-suite at Siam Court for half that. Tomorrow the elevator will be out of commission for seven hours while undergoing repairs which may make my location not quite so attractive. However, I remain fascinated and enchanted by this place. Sitting here at my small table in the dining room, half-naked in my Indian kavi dhoti, cooled by a fan, I marvel at the twists and turns of fate. Slowly I am becoming a resident of this place. I buy a toilet bowl cleaning brush, study the hieroglyphics of the Thai alphabet, and purchase a "Smart Pass" for travel on the Skytrain (see photo). Most big city subways use refillable cards like this, and I still have an Oyster card I used on the London tube. The Bangkok BTS pass is no good on the new subway system, however. They issue wooden tokens that magically open the gates and must be deposited at the end of the ride. It was explained to me that the subway and BTS systems were built by different foreign companies. The new subway is cheaper, though, and seniors like me even get a discount. The ticket seller at Hua Lamphong Station last night laughed as he asked my age (so as not to embarrass me if I were younger than I looked).

It didn't take me long to notice that my laptop was getting hotter than usual during use, and I attribute this to Thailand's 220 volts of electricity coming out of the socket in the wall rather than the 120 volts I received back in the U.S. (I have a Ph.D., after all). So I visited Pantip Plaza, the super electronics mall in the Pratunam section of Bangkok, to look for a cooling pad. There were all manner of gadgets in the numerous shops clustered together on six floors that smiling clerks wanted me to use, including an overpriced pad in the Apple store. I finally picked a fan that fits under the laptop and gets its power from my USB port. It's rather weak and may be a Chinese ripoff, but I choose to believe that I am safeguarding the life of my MacBook. I also bought a can of tissues for cleaning the screen since I suspect Bangkok's legendary pollution might cause trouble.

After a ride on a river taxi Sunday on the Chao Praya (which I learned last night I have been mispronouncing with a hard "ch" and the "r" which is ignored by Thais), I visited Wat Mahathat next to the amulet market in search of an English sangha for instruction and meditation. The International Buddhist Meditation Centre seems to have gone missing. All the web sites mentioning it are out of date. We crossed into the wat compound where music was playing loudly and festivities involving a large number of children in colorful uniforms was just ending. I was directed to the international office on the third floor where a Buddhist nun dressed in white rummaged through her papers in search of a flier given to her by a British monk curently studying at the university on the temple grounds. He was apparently offering talks in English, but as she never found the flier, I will have to call this week for information. Back downstairs, my companion and I spied a popsicle cart and bought several which melted in the heat almost before reaching our mouths.

The amulet market outside Wat Mahathat was packed with weekend browsers looking for hot deals. Thais collect amulets like westerners collect stamps. Better yet, they buy amulets like stocks, hoping the value will go up. The most popular amulet right now is the Jatukham Rammathep, a large, round image which you see hanging from the necks of Thais and tourists trying to go native. According to Wikipedia:
The amulet is named for two princes of theKrung Srivijaya kingdom of southern Thailand, and is believed to provide protection and good fortune to the bearer. Some legends hold that the name actually belongs to an incarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, whose worship was known in the south due to the presence of Mahayana Buddhism there during earlier eras.
The original amulet was created in 1987 by a Thai policeman who believed that the spirit of the icon had helped him solve a difficult case. Following his death in 2006, the amulet began to soar in popularity and copies were sold as fast as they could be made. Most copies sell from 200 to 500 baht, but limited edition amulets call sell for over a million baht. A woman was trampled to death earlier this year in a stampede at a temple when new copies of the amulet went on sale. At the amulet market, where crowds thronged the narrow sidewalks to look at traditional Buddhist amulets as well as the Jatukham copies, I saw artists at work on new editions, painting the stamped image with gold leaf. According to recent reports, however, the craze for Jatukham amulets is collapsing because the market is now glutted with inferior copies. There is only so much good fortune to go around. Also on sale in the market were gold circular frames, and chains on which to hang them. In between the amulet wares were tables of false teeth. I knew from past visits that you could sit down with a dentist and have a used pair fit for your needs. This contrast highlights the way Thai Buddhism blends superstition with real life. Another example is the large department store in Central World Plaza, named simply: Zen.

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