Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Israeli Terrorism in Gaza

At this writing, nearly 400 Palestinians have been killed in Israel's three-day bombing blitz of Gaza, while four Israelis are dead from the retaliatory rocket attack by Hamas forces. The ratio of 100-1 is typical for the protracted Middle East conflict despite the western press's characterization of the struggle as somewhat equal. The U.S. and the E.U. call on Palestinians to stop their attacks while turning a blind eye on the hugely disproportionate response by the U.S.-financed Israeli military. Tel Aviv says its bombing strikes are "surgical" and "targeted" (as has the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan), but the photographs of slaughtered children belie that claim. There are 1.5 million starving and imprisoned Palestinians living in Gaza and the bombing and threatened ground war by a superior military force constitutes genocide by any understanding of the word.

Words fail me. I find the present attack by Israelis on Palestinians, the latest episode in a 60-year battle for territory in the Middle East, to be mind numbing. I've read the news online and seen the video clips on CNN and BBC. Old positions are repeated ad infinitum. He said, she said. The Israeli-Palestine conflict has defeated dozens of peace makers. The U.S. has never been an uninterested party and the powerful Jewish lobby has blocked both Democrats and Republicans from proposing realistic solutions. Obama's election will not help, for he is a "friend" to Israel, which means that he and new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will continue the Bush administration's support for whatever the Israelis want to do.

There is some evidence that the bloody blitzkrieg of Gaza is occurring now for political reasons. The present administration fears that it will be seen as soft on terrorism if it continues to allow Hamas to fire rockets from Gaza. So the "all out war on Hamas" is a cynical political maneuver to prove its credibility, and the dead Palestinians are only pawns in its game.

I believe the establishment of the state of Israel on land occupied for generations by Arab and Christian (and not a few Jewish) Palestinians was a mistake. The Old Testament stories were no justification for this land grab, however sympathetic post-war Europeans felt for Jews persecuted by the Nazis. But the western world ignored the pleas of displaced Palestinians while immigrants from Europe took over their olive groves. For Muslims, the invasion of the Middle East was yet another western crusade, and we have been suffering the fallout from this mistake ever since. Radical Islam is a direct result of the theft of Palestinian land.

But Israel is a reality today, an ethnic religious state in which Arabs do not have the same rights as Jews. It is not a democracy with one vote for every citizen. Despite years of condemnation by the United Nations, the Israeli government continues to support the development of Jewish settlements on the little land left in the Palestinian territories. The largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, Israel's "success" is underwritten by American taxpayers. They pay for the bullets and bombs that kill Palestinians (just as Iran no doubt buys the rockets that Hamas sends into Israel). How will this all stop?

While not exactly realistic at this point, I agree with the one-state solution. Israel should cease to exist as a Jewish state and empower all its residents as citizens with full rights and duties. Let differences be sorted out in the electoral process, as it is done in other democracies. Historian Tony Judt made the argument for Israel as a binational state in a very controversial article in the New York Review of Books in 2003. Supporters of the present Israel of course argue that this will destroy the Jewish homeland and fulfill the objective of radical Islam. Perhaps. But there will never be peace so long as two major ethnic and religious groups continue fight over a relatively small plot of land in the Middle East.

Here in Thailand, the shoe is now on the other foot. Yesterday a mob of people in red shirts prevented Abhisit, the new PM, from presenting his policy statement to Parliament as required by law. They argue that he achieved office by a "silent coup" and want him to dissolve the House and call for new elections which they believe they can win. Abhisit is a member of the minority Democrat party which came in second at the last election a year ago. But demonstrations by the mob in yellow shirts, inaction by civil and military authorities while they took over government buildings and two airports, and a judicial decision that outlawed the ruling party, made it possible for him to become the country's new leader. Oxford-educated and good looking, Abhisit is a natural politician, but he was forced to make many deals with former opponents to gain power. The new foreign minister was a supporter of the yellow shirts and praised the airport closures which has brought Thailand's tourist industry to its knees. The ruling elite has given Abhisit its stamp of approval. But the rural poor who supported exiled PM Thaksin Shinawatra and his two successors are not pleased. The authorities who turned a blind eye to the yellow shirts for six months are poised this morning to get tough with the red shirts. I stay glued to the TV screen.

On this day before New Year's Eve, I thought briefly about blogging the year in review. This ends my first full calendar year as an expatriate in Thailand. But I think such dates are artificial, partitioning time just as national borders partition geography. However useful symbolic dates may be (July 4th, 9-11, or November 22, 1963, when JFK was assassinated), they are also unreal and subject to manipulation. How important is a decade, a year, really? "Age is just a number," one of my new young Thai friends told me. And numbers are an intellectual invention. How do we speak of what's real, what's essential?

My world was shaken a bit this morning when I read an email to me from a friend in America. She was responding with "love (yes, but tough--)" to my recent holiday postings, and wrote: "You are SO sad and lonely and negative in your blogs that it is pitiful! And, a good part of it is your making entirely. Isn't it time you grow up, appreciate all the talents and love you have/had, and come back to the people who care about you????" She criticizes my life style, my search for a Thai woman, and suggests it has something to do with emotional distance between me and my four children. "It's YOU that left your kids, not the other way around, so get over it and grow up and yes, grow old gracefully--with grace, as you have been very much gifted with, before you tossed it all away on your cravings." She asks: "Isn't it time you become accountable for your choices, instead of crying woe is me, and blaming it on everyone else?"

She has been a kind a compassionate friend and no doubt her opinions are shared by some others in my far-flung community. One of my sons has written that he feels "a little abandoned since you left." I wrote back to my friend:
I've tried in my blog to write about my experience as an older man living now in Thailand, teaching English to monks, and looking for enlightenment and love among those I meet. I am not sure what in particular pushed your buttons, but it seems clear that you do not agree with my choices. So be it. I've made lots of mistakes in my life and will continue to make them, but I try to live honestly and with kindness and compassion for those I encounter (including myself).
I told her that I've always felt accountable for my choices and that is one of my major topics here. As for my kids, I think I was a decent if not perfect dad. If they choose to live their lives without keeping in touch with me (as my friends continue to do), I must accept that. I don't see it as a judgment on the way I live my life, and I forgive them for their independence. Thinking that she found my blogs about love and sex disturbing, I wrote that I do not have all the answers, but I am trying to live my life in a conscious and truthful fashion, which includes writing about my search for a relationship with someone here. Yes, the women I meet are younger, speak little English, and have very different cultural values. But the fact that we can communicate with intimacy says something about the universal need for love.

Integrating the desire for love with the call of the Spirit has always been a challenge for me, and I have tried to articulate a materialist spirituality that honors physical existence as well as the eternal Dhamma. This morning I wrote to a Buddhist friend that I'm just trying to figure out how to live a decent life, or at least the last end of it (can't do much about what went before). Lately I've been focusing on the five precepts as a guide to conscious living. I can do alright by not stealing or lying, and I have little interest in intoxicants these days, other than a beer to be sociable with friends who drink. The only killing I do is of annoying insects, but I try to do it consciously. My main problem is sexual misconduct. I've sought companionship from the ladies and in the process have undoubtedly hurt people, myself included. The rules seems different here for old farang not yet ready for the dust heap.

If I have an approach to religious stories, it is to value the physical over the intellectual, humans who are living and breathing over the inherited wisdom that too often becomes frozen in religious texts and institutions. There is too much fear of the body and hatred of women in Buddhism as well as Christianity. Now maybe I'm just trying to justify my own physical impulses, but I think sex engaged in with love, kindness and compassion is holy. People who choose to work and raise families are no less than those who renounce the world and put on robes to wake up. But of course for each of us the path is unique.

I'm not sure if this will be the last blog of the year. But if it is, may you have a very Happy New Year.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas in Pattaya

I had to get away for the holiday, and Pattaya is a short distance from Bangkok. It was the R&R beach resort of choice for many U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War. The recent closure of the airport and the resulting collapse of the tourist season in Thailand does not seem to have affected Pattaya very much. I found the streets packed with the kind of revelers that sing "deck the halls with beer and condoms" rather than "Silent Night," and the touts of Walking Street, like the ladies above, donned their holiday best to attract their attention.

I'd been to Pattaya once before about a year ago, and the city's decadent charms qu1ckly paled for me. The harbor is so crowded with pleasure boats and jet skis that the water is polluted and the surf no doubt dangerous in which to swim. The thin strip of sand is packed with deck chairs and umbrellas and a grotesque assortment of aging and overweight Scandinavians and Russians in bathing attire too skimpy for their physiques compete for the sun's attention. On the narrow beach sidewalk, food vendors and hookers attempt to attract business from the passing parade of sex tourists and misguided families. Across the beachfront road filled with one-way traffic can be found high-rise hotels, restaurants, and an assortment of shops that offer useless and over-priced goods for the jaded visitors who throng a walkway too small for two people to easily pass. At night the bright lights of the justly famous Walking Street serve to hide many of the tawdry defects apparent in daylight, and last night "Jingle Bells" could be heard sung in bars decorated with red and white balloons where the ladies all were in slinky red dresses and wore Santa hats. There were fireworks over Boyz Street where the pseudo women dance. In the streets men could be seen holding hands. It's not the kind of place a good Christian (or Buddhist) would want to visit on his (or her) primary celebration.

I came here as kind of a joke only I could laugh at. Last year I was in India celebrating Christmas with full Catholic ceremony at Shantivanam, the ashram made famous by Father Bede Griffiths. The year before I was in London, staying in Helen's decrepit mansion. The sun did not shine for a week and the only white stuff was the remnants of an ice storm that made walking treacherous. I trudged carefully up Highgate Hill to a cold midnight Christmas Eve service in a Gothic church. The year before that I was at Holy Cross in Santa Cruz in the bosom of my faith community. But now I can no longer claim that identity. Remembering the ghosts of Christmas past is too painful. Were we really all that happy under the sheltering tree? So this holiday season, driven mad by the excessive decoration on display everywhere in Bangkok and the carols heard on store PA systems, I finally decided to get out of town. And Pattaya is conveniently located a short bus ride away. I traveled to the nearby Southern Bus Terminal and was on my way within the hour. Or so I thought. Not far out of the city the bus broke down. We sat beside the highway with the air conditioning turned off. A Frenchman and I tried to decipher the driver's explanation in Thai. After sweltering in the heat, we got off and found him looking at a couple of broken fan belts in the engine compartment. After a wait just long enough to be irritating, a replacement bus arrived and we were back on our way to Thailand's premier Sin City.

My purpose in coming to Pattaya was to visit a young lady here that I had met online. Her name is Banana (actually, her nickname is Gluai, the Thai word for the fruit) and she works at Friendship Supermarket for an unbelievably low wage. I soon learned that the emails I had received from her had actually been written by her sister who works as a computer clerk at a hospital in Sri Racha, the next city north of Pattaya. Both women are from a village near Pitsanulok, a province 375 km north of Bangkok, and both have small children being raised by mum. The sister has a husband but since both work they cannot take care of their child. Banana came to Pattaya two months ago and first worked at a fast food restaurant. Now she cooks for the market's owner and lives in a tiny room on a street full of bars patronized by aging farang (and that, my mother would say, is the "pot calling the kettle black"). I initially thought her lack of English would be "no problem." But it was. She was constantly on the phone to sister, asking her to translate. And sister was very insistent that I come to visit their family in Pitsanulok. I know that such a visit is tantamount to engagement in Thailand, and did my best to fend off the not so subtle demand that I join their family. Papa is a rice farmer, I learned, and their home does not possess a European toilet. It's not that Banana is unattractive; it's just that we've only met and they are already telling mum the fish is almost caught.

On my last visit here, I stayed at Ma Maison,a small, Swiss-run establishment with a cozy pool on Soi 13 which I found to be nice and quiet although close to the bright lights of Walking Street. But despite the public hand-wringing of travel agents and industry officials, it was full. I remembered another small hotel across the soi called The Haven and managed to get a room there for 1200 baht a night, with the addendum of a Christmas dinner priced at 800 baht (most of my meals are under 50). I wasn't planning to be festive in any way, but I succumbed. My room here is comfortable and the food is good. The other guests are almost all older men like myself, many with golf clubs. In the morning they shout over their newspapers about politics and the economy. I suspect many are retirees with little else to do but kibbitz about the world's woes. Is this my karass? The weather has been overcast, windy and cool (but nothing you would describe as cold). In the large nearby mall by the Ripley's Believe It Or Not! museum, a crazy Thai lady sits in a glass room surrounded by 5,000 scorpions that are scuttling around on the floor, trying to break her own previous record of 32 days alone with them. Her effort does not draw a very big crowd. In the evening I take Banana to Swenson's for ice cream sundaes in very big glasses. At the hotel she had to give up her ID card. This place keeps very close tabs on its guests, the majority of whom seem to be men and their Thai girlfriends. While Banana worked on Christmas Day, I stuffed myself silly with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, topped by apple pie a la mode.

Christmas is a holiday for families, or at the very least, friends, and I've gone far from both, geographically and morally. Perhaps that's the joke, and the joke is on me. When my marriage ended, I gave up the Currier & Ives image of Christmas, the Norman Rockwell vision of middle American values. I came to Thailand because it seemed an economic place to live out one's golden years, and it possessed a culture where old men are respected rather than tossed on the dust heap of society. Some of my children understand, and some do not. None seem particularly interested in caretaking an old man. I don't blame them; like most western parents, I taught them to be independent. Thais are scandalized by this. They believe family and friends care for one another unconditionally. Banana and her sisters, parents and relatives, would take care of me, if I so desired. In exchange for my resources, they would treat me as the patriarch, the role Jerry fulfills in his extended family of 27. But, as an independent westerner, I resist this particular Devil's bargain. So I spend my holiday relatively alone in Pattaya. Next week: What to do about New Year's Eve?

Eartha Kitt (how wonderful that the "Santa Baby" singer died on Christmas) and Harold Pinter, RIP.

Merry Christmas (and now Happy Boxing Day) from Pattaya:

Monday, December 22, 2008

Mince Pies & Mulled Wine

It's not my tradition, but I gladly accompanied Marcus to the Service of Christmas Carols and Readings at Christ Church on Convent Road in Bangkok last night. The Anglican church, which bore no trace of its location in Thailand, was filled with what I assumed were mostly British adults and children and a sprinkling of Indians who probably carried English passports. It was a bit of Old Blighty in the heart of Asian darkness bearing witness to the upcoming birth of the Christ child with songs and stories from scripture. Two years ago I spent Christmas in London, and, aside from the fog and freezing rain, it was same same.

The service began with a candle-lit procession by the choir and a solitary voice singing "Once in Royal David's City." Marcus, raised by atheists in a socialist family, told me this always brought tears to his eyes. Between familiar readings from the New Testament the choir and congregation sang "The Holly and the Ivy," "Angels We Have Heard on High," "Hark the Herald," "We Three Kings" (they were really Tibetan lamas, whispered Marcus), and some songs unfamiliar to me. Afterwards we walked outside with our candles and sang under the stars and brights lights of Bangkok. Several speakers during the service reflected on the move in the stories of the birth of Jesus from watching and waiting to arrival and fulfillment. I was struck by the emphasis on Jesus as God in human form rather than the message he preached, the Gospel of love for others. How different from Buddhism where the teaching of the Dhamma seems more important than the messenger, the Awakened One, the Buddha who realized the truth of who we are.

Marcus and I of course disagreed on this over our several helpings of mulled wine and mince pies in the church hall after the service. His spiritual trajectory has taken him from communism to Buddhism with a Mahayana slant that he picked up from his appreciation of Pure Land Buddhism in a Korean context. Now he is drawn to faith in a figure like the Bodhisattva, a faith that transcends intellectual analysis and the often elitist disdain for the religion of common people. While I can appreciate devotion in a Buddhist and Hindu perspective, I am unable to accept the Christ story at face value. It's all metaphorical I argued. The divine, if there is such a thing, is within all of us. While not disagreeing with me, Marcus, his eyes bright from the rare taste of wine (he strictly observes the precepts), said he could easily return to the Christian faith he never really had. As we stood by the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree, I thought about the faith community I had left back in Santa Cruz and how the language and stories we shared had bound us together in mutual love and an appreciation for the liberating message of Jesus (totally distorted by the myopia of conservative and fundamentalist Christians).

While I have not completely banished the "Bah! Humbug!" attitude that comes over me each December, I do miss the ghosts of Christmas past: cutting down the tree and decorating it with heirlooms, walking house to house singing carols with a group of friends, reading "The Night Before Christmas" to my kids, sitting before an open fire listening to Frank Sinatra sing, finding it hard to sleep the night before and waking way before dawn to open presents, sitting satiated amidst a blizzard of discarded wrapping paper, showing the new toys to my friends, taking a Christmas day hike in the redwoods. I do not miss: the pressure to buy an ever bigger selection of presents as if size reflected love. Over the years, something inside me shut down; as if to preserve the delicious memories of Christmas Past I had to resist the commercial and aquisitive impulses of the holiday season. There were never enough presents and they were never good enough. But by abandoning the dirty reality of Xmas Present, I began to lose the dream-enhanced memories of what was. Under the impact of mulled wine and mine pies last night, I got a little of that back.

I could write this morning about about Abhisit, Thailand's new prime minister, and the much debated hope that his reign will ease the political and economic crisis here. Or I could speak of my trip to Dusit Zoo on a quiet day last week with a lovely woman unlike any I have met here. I could talk about how my own apartment is becoming a zoo, with the cockroaches thumbing their nose at me the day after the room was sprayed with poison, and about how the mosquitoes fly effortlessly up to my 10th floor retreat, a feat my friends find unbelievable. Or I might say something about the DVD screeners for Academy voters that have appeared on the internet and how much I loved "Frost/Nixon." I could describe the festive atmosphere outside the recent red shirt rally in National Stadium and show photos of the enterprising merchants I took. I have notes for a few blogs in readiness, one on happiness and another on "Nail Biters and Nose Pickers" that some might find disturbing. Equally disturbing are the instant friends from online who think I should give them money because I have it; seduction and support do not always go hand in hand. Perhaps my readers would be interested in knowing that I bought cheap new glasses and an expensive hand-held CyberDict 11 that may possibly help me translate from Thai to English. Add to this outlay of cash, a bag of meds to keep asthma, indigestion and high cholesterol at bay, purchased from a medical supermarket at discount without prescription across from Sirirat Hospital. There are only a couple of shopping days left until Christmas but I have over two weeks of holiday to go before my classes resume at Mahachula. The beaches of Thailand's islands are tempting me. The sand should be relatively free of tourists put off by the recent troubles.

What I really want to say, though, is Merry Christmas to my family, friends and readers in distant places. I'm sorry I'm not there to hug you, tell stories and sing songs with you. To all those I have wronged, I'm sorry. To my children, some of whom have not written in months: I love you and miss you very much. I am only just a click away on the internet, in virtual spirit if not in presence. There really can be "peace on earth and good well to all," if only in our hearts.

This, then, is my metta Christmas greeting to all of you (including the homeless lady who sleeps on the bus bench near my apartment building).

Saturday, December 13, 2008

'Tis the Season

Last year I found it curious. This year I found it absurd. Why is it that Thais have embraced Christmas as their own? This is a Buddhist country with a tiny Christian minority. And the merchants are not simply pandering to a tourist mindset (if you can find any December visitors these troubled days). The gigantic tree at left (actually a simulated tree, like all of the Yule monsters) is in the Central Pinklao mall near my apartment and there are few farang living in this neighborhood to impress. There is a mechanical Santa in the Tesco Lotus across the street and Thais take their pictures standing in front of it. Artificial trees, fully decorated, are on sale in many stores. In Starbucks and in the supermalls in the Siam district cheesy Christmas music can be heard on the PA systems. I've been in that area the last two nights and the illuminated Christmas displays are bright enough to blind bystanders. It's disturbing. Jerry says he refuses to set foot in a department store until January. Of course, it's Christmas without Christ, a secular holiday. Just as Hindus absorb every religion into their Sanatana Dharma ("the universal law"), Thais adopt many western holidays (but not all: Valentine's Day and Halloween, yes, but not Thanksgiving or Groundhog Day). Tinsel, fake holly leaves and real Poinsiettia plants are everywhere, even in the red light districts. Deck the halls with beer and condoms: the Christmas season in Bangkok . I used to adore the idealism of Christmas, peace on earth and good will to all. but that was before gift giving became an obligation and shopping the primary ritual of the season.

Lest the reader think I have abandoned my roots, last night Dr. Holly and I went to a performance of Handel's "Messiah" by the Bangkok Combined Choir with a large symphony orchestra. It was held at Holy Redeemer, the Catholic church on Soil Ruamrudee near the American Embassy that I occasionally attended when I lived in Sukhumvit. Our friend Rex, a fellow Little Banger, sang bass in the choir of 75 singers. He told us afterward that the oratorio written by Handel nearly 270 years ago was originally four hours long but that they'd cut it to two hours and rehearsed for two months. The chorus has performed the work here every Christmas for over 50 years. The music was exhilarating: I love a big choir with a full complement of strings, and I particularly like the high trumpet notes toward the end. The program included the lyrics from Bible passages and I read again the story of death and resurrection. Holly, influenced by a disbelieving dad who attended sunrise services at the race track (mine "worshiped God" on the golf course every Sunday), asked me what "with His stripes we are healed" meant. Marks of the whip? I speculated. And I wondered again how the servant of God could "save" humanity by his suffering. It makes no sense compared to Buddhist teaching which puts the responsibility for ending suffering on each one of us. Why do we need a savior? It was a moving story when I belonged to a community that believed it. But now, like the bright lights of Bangkok each December, I found it a bit preposterous.

Not that the dhamma (which also means "universal law"), one of the "three jewels" of Buddhism, is that easy to understand. Last week, Phra Bhasakorn Bhavilai came down from Chiang Mai where he teaches at Mahamakut Buddhist University to speak to the Little Bang Sangha about karma. The author of Karma for Today's Traveler, the monk who had been a physicist and a photographer before ordination gave a standard interpretation which depends upon the doctrine of rebirth. Existence is a chain of causes and effects which transcend individual lives. Past actions can have consequences in future lifetimes. What we do now may be rewarded or punished after we are reborn. It's a tidy answer to the question of why the bad seem often to be rewarded and the good punished, and Phra Bhasakorn illustrated it with Power Point slides. Unfortunately, only half had been trandslated into English. The talk, based on his book, is a four-hour lecture which he had difficulty shortening (Handel was easier) to a one-hour presentation. A brief Q&A session barely touched on possible problems raised by the teaching.

I find it difficult to integrate karma and rebirth with the Buddhist doctrine of no-self. Unlike in Hinduism, where the individual self, the atman, is seen as indivisible from Brahman, the universal self, or Christianity, which teaches the each individual soul has a single lifetime in which to prove itself, Buddhism teaches that the self is a fiction created by clinging to a bundles of identities. I find this idea consoling, and very materialistic. Realizing that we fragile brains in a body are all in the same boat engenders compassion, kindness, and sympathy for others, as well as a calmness which helps us to endure the inevitable swings of fortune. But if this interpretation is true (and The Buddha suggested we explore for ourselves rather than take his words on faith), what can possibly survive the death of the body? If I violate one of the five precepts (no killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, or indulging in intoxicants) during my life, how can the penalty carry over after my death to someone with another brain and body? It seems as if all religions must avoid the problem of evil by positing some eternal ghost that escapes material limits. I didn't get to ask Phra Bhasakorn about this, so I will read his book for clues. My Christian friends could never explain to me what happens to their faith if heaven and hell are fictions to insure morality. For now, I'll stick with Buddhism as the ultimate explanation of how the mind works.

As I write this, Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the Democrat Party in Thailand, is poised to become the country's next prime minister. But anything could happen, and probably will, this weekend. Abhisit, 44, who was born in England and educated at Oxford, began his political career in 1992 with the oldest political organization in Thailand. It was formed in 1945 as a royalist party in opposition to the liberals who were responsible for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Since the start of parliamentary democracy, however, Thailand has seen 12 military coups and 18 different constitutions. Abhisit's party has consistently lost to parties headed or supported by exiled leader Thaksin Shinawatra. But after the "judicial coup" which toppled the third prime minister in three years, the Democrats have cobbled together a fragile coalition of formerly feuding politicians that may give them a majority when votes for a new prime minister are cast, probably on Monday.

Many observers find the latest twist in Thai politics a step backward. One blogger called it a "Frankenstein coalition." The author of Thailand Crisis wrote:
Ladies and gentlemen, the Thai democracy in action! After military coup, judicial coup, silent coup, mini coup, half coup, airport coup, bored coup, here is the bozo coup! Ingredients for this great recipe of “nouvelle cuisine”? Money, betrayal, will of power and a pinch of Lalaland. After hours of negotiations, and huge amounts of money, it seems that this coalition could form the new government. But watch out, the movie has not ended yet… We could have many more developments… And surprises. In any case, what would this “monster Frankenstein” government would be able to achieve ? Nothing of course. Welcome to the institutionalized instability. And when (if) we will have new elections… this “Frankenstein” government will be wiped out. Play it again, Sam.
Jonathan Head, an astute commentator for BBC News, believes that Thailand is reverting to old-style politics after the innovations of Thaksin who came to power in 2001. Abhisit was able to secure his majority by forming an alliance with Newin Chidchob, a provincial strongman from the northeast who publicly renounced his loyalty to Thaksin last week. Newin, according to Head, "simply sells his team of MPs to the highest bidder." Under Thaksin, Thailand's politics entered "a new age with the adoption of a new, populist constitution, and the rise of a new, populist party." But now, Head writes, "when the newspapers are carrying front-page photographs of the clean-cut Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva giving a bunch of roses to Newin Chidchob [above, right], once the mortal enemy of the Democrats and every bit the old-style godfather, it is clear Thailand has come full-circle. After three years of turmoil, old politics is back, where politicians of whatever persuasion can climb into bed with whoever gives them a shot at power."

Maybe. The situation could change dramatically today when a large crowd of Thaksin partisans will pack the 35,000-seat National Stadium to listen to a message by phone or pre-recording from their leader (now living in Dubai). It is expected that he will urge former members of the now disbanded Thai Rak Thai and People Power parties to unite behind the banner of the just-formed Phua Thai Party and elect a new prime minister who will follow in his footsteps. And one who can last longer then Samak (booted from office for hosting a TV cooking show) and Somchai (banned from politics because someone in his party bought votes in the last election).

If that happens, either the military will intervene as expected or the yellow-clad mob of demonstrators will return to the streets and perhaps the airports, which means no rest for the becalmed tourist industry. They have threatened to do so if another "puppet" of Thaksin returns. And their secret supporters will probably write another blank check (for an excellent analysis of the cost and the possible bankrollers of the disastrous recent anti-government protests, see this Huffington Post article). For an interesting perspective on Thailand's monarchy, by W. Scott Thompson, professor emeritus of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and an expert on Southeast Asia now living in Bali and Manila, check out this article in the Los Angeles Times. Thompson defends the King but I doubt that his words would pass muster in Thailand where he would no doubt be clapped in irons.

Eleven more shopping days until Christmas (unless you're in the U.S. and you have 12).

That's enough politics and religion (and its consumer rituals) for today. As for sex, at the moment my lips are sealed. But stay tuned.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

"A Right Royal Mess"


I stood with thousands of Thais on Friday night holding candles as fireworks exploded overhead, shouting "long live the King!" three times:

sohng phra ja reern
sohng phra ja reern
sohng phra ja reern

It was exhilarating and intoxicating. The large field of Sanam Luang was filled to capacity and hundreds of dignitaries and representatives of various interest groups stood on the distance stage below a huge portrait of the world's longest-ruling monarch. Holding their lights aloft, everyone sang patriotic songs to the music of a military band that I pretended to know. Near me were groups of nurses, scouts and even a contingent of Sikhs. It was the 81st birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX.

The King, however, did not attend his birthday party. He was ill, and the previous night had failed to deliver an annual birthday message to his subjects, the first time in anyone's memory. Last year, I was in the yellow-clad crowd when he drove by with his Queen to ceremonies at the Grand Palace next to Sanam Luang. I caught a quick glimpse of the man his unofficial biographer says never smiles. Six months younger than England's Queen Elizabeth II, His Majesty has been unwell for some time. A few days before his birthday, he had presided at the annual review of the troops, but he seemed stiff and uncomfortable. The King was hospitalized a year ago for a month from a possible stroke and he was seen to have difficulty walking at his sister's televised funeral two weeks ago. Some think he has Parkinson's. But speculation abut the King's health or his political views is outlawed by a strict lèse-majesté law in Thailand which is used by all factions to demonize the other side, an anomaly among today's democracies.

Believed to be above ordinary politics, in the past King Bhumibol has intervened dramatically to end political divisions in Thailand. A few months ago he told judges to "do your duty," and observers believe this gave cover to the "judicial coup" that last week toppled the current government (a selective legal decision that ignored competing parties). But he was silent when a long-running anti-government demonstration took over government offices and shut down two Bangkok airports for a week, disrupting the work of civil servants, causing tremendous economic damage and inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of travelers. The Queen, however, attended the funeral of a protester, giving tacit support to their goal of overturning an elected administration. Non-Thais have struggled to understand why the army and police ignored numerous government pleas to end the harmful protest.

This is now changing with a cover story in the current issue of The Economist, a British magazine that will undoubtedly be banned in this country. Rather than quote from the article and get myself in trouble, I will offer a link to the introduction, "The King and them," and to the full article, "A Right Royal Mess," and you can read for yourself the rumors that dare not be spoken in Thailand. Because of the airport disaster, and the necessity to understand why, commentators around the world are beginning to to investigate the historical roots of Thailand's crisis. All roads appear to lead back to the throne, although a long-term resident from Australia told me yesterday that the military here pulls all the strings and is firmly in control. While the sit-in ended and the airports opened right after the court brought down the government for vote buying in the 2007 election, there was no obvious connection between the two events, no clear reason why the demonstrators could declare victory and go home for something that had little to do with their harmful actions. The International Herald Tribune, the Guardian and Times of London, and Asia Times' analyst Shawn W. Crispin have all offered their ideas and theories.

At the birthday celebration, the color yellow was not as much in evidence as last year when the King turned 80 with much fanfare. Yellow is the color for Monday in Thai culture, the day the King was born (in the United States in 1927), and therefore is associated with the monarchy. But anti-government demonstrators had appropriated this color which now immediately identifies their members. I went to Sanam Luang with my ex-girlfriend Pim (we had gone together the previous year) and she works for Thailand Post in Banglamphu. I innocently wore yellow, thinking it the proper thing to do, but she was in pink. I learned that postal employees could no longer wear yellow or red, the colors associated with government supporters. It sounds like gang warfare in Los Angeles between the Crips (blue) and the Bloods (red). But most commentators are now calling the political struggle in Thailand a "class war" between an urban middle class (yellow) and the rural poor (red). In booths alongside Sanam Luang I saw much red and pictures of Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled former prime minister; opinions about him have sharply divided the country.

There was no violence between the two sides on Friday night when everyone paused to honor the King, the man who is revered by Thais as semi-divine. Standing in for him on the eve of his birthday were his son and two daughters (one of whom I saw in-person earlier in the week). The problem is not so much the King, according to the articles and blogs I have read this week, but what happens when he dies, the problem of succession. His personal charisma transcends the institution, and his son, by all reports, is neither respected nor loved. Some think the King wants his older daughter, the unmarried Princess Sirindhorn, to succeed him, while Queen Sirikit prefers the much married Prince Vajiralongkorn. He was clearly in the lead with his central roles at public ceremonies this past week.

This has been a dismal week for love. Pim asked to see me and I thought she wanted to talk about my blogged belief that she had lied to me, about love and about the reasons she left. But dialogue is difficult here, for cultural as well as linguistic reasons. Lying for Thai women is often less from self-centered cruelty than a respect for the other's feelings. We enjoyed the afternoon and evening together, reliving old times, but when she abruptly said good night near her apartment, I felt my heart break all over again. She had been affectionate when we were together, but it was apparent that there was no agenda behind it. It's always easier for the one leaving to be friends with the one left behind (I learned that when my second marriage fell apart), and although she clearly enjoyed my company ("we like to do the same things," she told me with a smile), I was not yet ready to be just a friend, the former lover. So I sent her the message that there would be no friendly "next time" for us.

George, who is recovering from an operation to replace his knee, sent me the message that he was ready to learn where I found so many women to date. I told him that "I would not wish this frustrating quest for love on my worst enemy." This week I've been stood up twice, the second time by a woman with whom I've corresponded for over a year who had offered me tantallizing promises that I discovered were mostly empty fantasies. A woman to whom I loaned money disappeared when repayment was due. Others play online games. But I pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again. I have a date today at The Mall, a big shopping development in the Bang Khae suburb for lunch and maybe more. On Tuesday I will meet a woman who is studying for an MBA, someone closer to my age (but still far off). And later this week I am contemplating a trip back to Koh Lanta where an email correspondent practices massage and wants to see me. I could use a laying on of hands right now.

Happy Pearl Harbor Day.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Is It Over Yet?

While hundreds of thousands of tourists, stranded in Bangkok by the takeover of two airports by a fascist mob, are slowly going home after the anti-government demonstrators ended their eight-day sit-it, the political standoff in Thailand is far from over.

On Tuesday the Constitutional Court disbanded three political parties for vote-buying in the 2007 election which returned supporters of exiled PM Thaksin Shinawatra to power after a 2006 military coup. It's ruling has been described as a "judicial coup." The law which punishes an entire party for the crime of a single MP and bars its top executives from politics for five years was a product of the most recent military regime and was specifically designed to prevent Thaksin's influence. So while the yellow-clad members of the misnamed People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) declared victory at the airport (although seizing the facilities had nothing to do with the court's decision), their pro-government opponents, distinguished by their red shirts, are not happy.

This strange law, which punishes guilt by association, also permits members of dissolved parties (but not their leaders) from reconstituting themselves under another name. So while the latest prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat, is out of a job and back on the golf course in Chiang Mai, MPs in his now defunct People Power Party are joing the new Puea Thai Party. Mostly Thaksin loyalists, they will meet on Monday to choose a new leader. Meanwhile, an interim goverment headed by caretaker Prime Minister Chaovarat Chanweerakul has ruled out dissolving the House and calling for snap elections unless there is a good political reason for doing so. The next few days will see intense back room maneuvering as conservative royalists and Thaksin populists struggle for power. Hovering over their negotiations is widespread fears of yet another military coup or even a civil war. Is it over yet?

Not by a long shot. Media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, one of PAD's leaders, warned that he's ready to call demonstrators back to the streets at any moment. "The PAD will return if another proxy government is formed or anyone tries to amend the constitution or the law to whitewash some politicians or to subdue the monarch's authority," Sondhi told cheering supporters at Souvarnabhumi. Some have called his movement's actions "a revolt of the middle classes" because it advocates an undemocratic "New Politics" which would disenfranchise the poor and solidify a rule of the elites. Mob rule is not the rule of law. Some commentators have begun to suggest that Thailand is becoming a "failed state," essentially ungovernable, like Sudan.

The forced shutdown of Don Muang and Souvarnabhumi airports was a disaster for tourists and Thai economic interests alike. The Wall Street Journal reports that The Bank of Thailand "slashed its main interest rate by a full point to 2.75% Wednesday, far more than market participants had anticipated, highlighting the central bank's fears of a sharp slowdown in growth. A steady decline in Thailand's inflation rate over the past few months, on falling global oil prices, also helped pave the way for the big cut. Already, official projections of a 4% expansion in gross domestic product in 2009 are being revised down and some officials have suggested growth could fall to zero." The dollar is slowly inching up against the Thai Baht (now 36.5 to $1) which means more bang for my buck. Upwards of 300,000 tourists were forced to spend another week in "the Land of Smiles" waiting for flights home; many will never return. And many more thousands will unable to begin their vacation here as the prime tourist season begins. They'll probably go elsewhere. What happens to the jobs that depend on their visit?

The showdown was temporarily diffused right before the King's 81st birthday. Ill and frail, last month he attended the public funeral of his sister, and two days ago he presided over the traditional review of his colorful troops, televised on all channels. In the past he has been able to mediate between warring factions in his nation. All sides pay him honor, although Thaksin partisans have been accused of seeking to make Thailand a republic. Tonight the King is scheduled to make his annual birthday address and many hope he will give some sign that will help to heal his divided country. His Queen, however, has shown her support for the PAD by attending the funeral of a member, breaking dramatically with the monarchy's traditional distance from politics. I plan a nostalgic visit to the evening birthday celebration on Friday at Sanam Luang with Pim, my ex-girlfriend. Last year we stood among huge crowds of Thais wearing yellow, the King's color, to see the royal couple drive past their subjects in a gold limousine and watch spectacular fireworks.

I visited Sanam Luang last Sunday to see up close the beautiful temporary temple complex built for the recent funeral of Princess Galyani, the King's beloved elder sister. My friend Mam and I strolled with large crowds through the various pavilions and around the tall central crematorium.
Thousands of Thais were admiring the temporary construction and, like me, taking photographs. It continually amazes me to see that almost everyone today is a photographer: people taking photos of people taking photos... It was a beautiful day. Later that night workers began dismantling the buildings constructed solely for the funeral. Now that the rains seem to have ceased, the weather is cool and humidity is low. For the Thais, this is winter and they wear sweaters and coats. For me it is a delightful summer, blue skies and temperatures in the 70s. The other night I leaned out my balcony window to observe the rare conjunction in the sky of a partial moon topped by the bright lights of Venus and Jupiter. It looked like a celestial smiley face. The universe from its infinite perspective was laughing at the foibles of us earthlings.

Yesterday I learned to my surprise that Christmas vacation has begun. Next week classes are canceled because of Constitution Day, a national holiday (I had been earlier assured that it was not a school holiday). During the following two weeks my monks will go on their annual forest retreat. And the final Wednesday of the year, Dec. 31st, is a scheduled holiday. So I will not see my students again until Jan. 7th. This makes me sad as well as fearful that they will forget all the English that I've taught them in the first six weeks of the 16-week term. We've only gotten through four chapters in the New Headway Elementary text. Yesterday they talked about what they liked to do in their free time (computers, music, videos, shopping), and I played for them Donovan's "Colours" (pointing out that Americans spell it "colors") and had them guess selected words in the lyrics. It was good to see Phra Prasob in the adjoining classroom among the 4th year students I taught last term. An older student, father of a son, he was recently diagnosed with leukemia. It gives me a warm feeling to be recognized and respected now by over a hundred of the orange-clad monks when I go to teach on the third floor every week.

On Monday I took a bus to Mahidol University, only a 20-minute ride from my apartment on the west side of the river, to attended an international conference on "Buddhism in the age of Consumerism." Richard Rubacher, a Little Banger who began teaching a class there this week on Hollywood and the Buddha, met me at International House where he is staying and we took an electric cart across the large campus to the beautiful facility of the College of Religious Studies where the meeting was held in a third-floor hall. We were offered breakfast and later lunch, and we sat with a lovely couple from Australia, Therese and Aung. They are in their first month of a six-month stint as volunteers at a refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border (Aung was born in Burma). One highlight of the event was the appear of Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn who opened the conference and stayed to take notes while listening to keynote speaker Alan Wallace, a Buddhist scholar from California. The security for her visit was elaborate and gave me a chance to view the unbelievable respect for the royal family up close. The unmarried Princess Sirindhorn is very popular with Thais, more so than her brother, reportedly the Queen's favorite, who will probably succeed to the throne when his father dies. We were not permitted cameras or bags and my notepaper was unavailable. A good academic, I understand little without taken notes, so I can't say much about Wallace's talk. I do recall that he said the labels "East" and "West" are no longer useful in matters of religious discourse, or perhaps anything else. We live in a global environment and similarities are becoming more important than differences. I also listened to an excellent Power Point-talk by the Rector of my university, Porf. Dr. Phra Dharmakosajarn, "The Middle Way: An Alternative for Life-Fullment." Buddhism, in their interpretation, offers an alternative to desctructive consumptive values of Euro-America. One day was enough for me, so I missed the talk aby Matthieu Ricard, pictured above with Richard, the Tibetan monk and author from France who has written about happiness from a Buddhist perspective, a topic on which I hope to blog someday soon.

Today is my 90th day in the Kingdom since receiving a visa and work permit and I must go off to the Immigration office to check-in. Every long-term visitor must report his address every three months, but I don't anticipate any snafus. Perhaps the airport closure will reduce the crowds. And now I must come up with an interesting itinerary for my month-long Christmas vacation. Where shall it be, the beach or the mountains?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

On the Brink in Bangkok

The bloody terrorist siege in Mumbai may have ended, but not the one in Bangkok. Three bombs ovenight wounded more than 45 at three different locations.

For an estimated 100,000 visitors stranded in Thailand, it has been a nightmare since several thousand members of a motley mob of anti-government protesters stormed into Souvarnabhumi International Airport last Tuesday and shut it down. A day later another wing of the group closed the domestic airport at Don Muang, effectively grounding all flights from the Thai capital. The affluent, like Denmark's Prince Frederik and his wife, Princess Mary who left Friday, can get out via chartered jets from U-tapao military base 12o miles southeast of the city, but this airport facility, now stretched to the limit, can handle only limited commercial flights. Thousands are now packed into its small terminal waiting to be airlifted out. The government has promised tourists in temporary housing compensation of 2000 baht a day, enough for a roach-infested room and several drinks at a strip club, according to one wag. The adventurous have taken buses or trains hundreds of miles to airports on the southern island of Phuket or in the northern city of Chiang Mai or have traveled overland all the way to neighboring Laos, Cambodia or Malaysia. But many are stuck in "The Land of Smiles" until the standoff at the airports is resolved.

And that might not be any time soon, although the airport authority anounced optimistically that Souvarnabhumi is closed "until Monday." Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat remains in Chiang Mai along with his now dysfunctional government, possibly fearing a much rumored military coup. The general in charge of security in the country refuses to act, and Somchai fired the national police chief when he likewise did nothing. The new chief has stationed several thousand police around the airports, but yesterday protesters attacked a police checkpoint outside Suvarnabhumi Airport, disabling 10 police vehicles and forcing security forces to retreat. A similar confrontation occurred again in the evening. Despite this police presence, demonstrators continued to stream into the airport to join the well-organized sit-in which is amply provisioned with water, food, medical supplies and blankets. Rumors hint at wealthy backers who support their goal of toppling the Somchai government

“We are ready to talk,” Lt. Gen. Chalong Somjai of the Thai police said in a news conference at a police station near Suvarnabhumi. “We are trying to bring this to a peaceful conclusion.” And that precisely is the problem. A small group of anti-government fanatics, the ill-named Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD), is holding the country hostage, demanding that a democratically-elected government fall because of its alleged ties to the hated exiled PM, Thaksin Shinawatra. The shutdown of the airports is a disaster for Thailand. It will probably take years for the tourist industry to recover, along with the hundreds of thousands of jobs it provides for a country where poverty is still widespread. Beside this, the inconvenience of the tourists and businessmen is small potatoes. How could this happen?

There is a complicated back story to the crisis which I do not fully comprehend, and probably could not report because of stict laws that prohibit mention of the royal family. Politics is a large part of it. Next week the courts are expected to force the administration's People's Power Party to disband because of vote-buying (a common practice) in the last election. But PPP members will shift over to another party quickly. The timing is important because some may not be eligible to run in the next election. PAD apparently will push for a select group of elites to head a temporary council which could force regulations limiting the ability of its opponents to regain control of the government. A fair election would undoubtedly elect politicians sympathetic to Thaksin's agenda (he remains influential in exile) because of electoral majorities in the north and northeast. PAD's anti-demoncratic policies would disenfranchise them. Added to these considerations is the birthday of the King next Friday. Since all sides profess allegiance to the monarchy, any conflict or violence on his birthday would be anathema.

Given all this, I am not a pacifist. The PAD leaders and their well-armed guards are fascist thugs and should be removed immediately. Their ideology has attracted a wide variety of mostly middle-class citizens (primarily female) with enough time on their hands to spend at the non-stop rallies. They besieged the government offices for three months before closing down the airports and damaging the future of the country they profess to love. An ill-managed attempt to evict them from Government House a month ago resulted in one death and many injuries because police used exploding tear gas cannisters from China. Past demonstrations that were surpressed by authorities in 1976 and 1992 left scores of protesters dead and wounded, so the government is understandably careful. But the PAD cross the line months ago. Its assemblies have not been peaceful. No government can allow its functioning to be so compromised by a small group of people. So the authorities now must clear out the sit-in and reopen the airports, and soon.

Sometimes I think the world is going insane, despite Obama's victory. I read of a Wal-Mart employee trampled to death in Nassau County, New York, on Black Friday after Thanksgiving, the day that consumers flock to worship in stores across America. And across the country in Palm Desert, where my brother practices law, two men shot each other to death in the aisles of a Toys R Us store, presumably because their wives were fighting over some desired toy for their kids.

There will no doubt be casualties in the battle to retake Souvarnabhumi and Don Muang. PAD members have vowed to fight to the death. The crowd is filled with old women and children who will be helpless to escape. What is missing at the moment is resolve on the part of Somchai and his ministers and will on the part of the security forces who must carry out the necessary dirty work. The red-shirted supporters of Somchai and his government have been relatively restrained, except for the overnight bombings. Today a large demonstration has been called for Sanam Luang. I was planning to go there to visit the crematorium built for the funeral of the Princess. But I will wear neither red nor yellow, the color for PAD members. Until the crisis is resolved, I find myself holding my breath.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

No-Fly Zone in Thailand

Hundreds of American tourists who have been vacationing in Thailand will be late for Thanksgiving dinner today. They're stuck in Bangkok after a large mob of yellow-clad anti-government protesters, some masked and armed with metal rods, invaded Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok Tuesday night and shut it down. Tourism is crucial to Thailand's economty and the busiest season begins next week. Although Suvarnabhumi (pronounced su-va'-na-pum') is the world's 18th largest airport and a major hub for Asian flights, police guarding the facility were ineffective and help from the powerful Thai military was absent. Why?

The protest, which began six months ago, was organized by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) with the aim of toppling any elected government it sees as allied to the hated former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, now in exile and on the run. It doesn't help that the current prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat, is married to Thaksin's sister. The People's Power Party, a stand-in for Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party which was banned after a military coup unseated him in 2006, won a majority of votes in an election nearly a year ago, with support primarily from the rural north and northeast. Conservative factions in Bangkok and the south were unhappy with the outcome and took to the streets earlier this year. Their stated goal is to annul the power of the poor (deemed ignorant and corruptable) in Thailand and install a minority government managed for the interests of elites. "We sympathise with the passengers, but this is a necessary move to save the nation," PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul told supporters at the airport. "If he [Somchai] doesn't resign, I will not leave." "Democracy," ha!

As I blogged on Tuesday, the PAD was losing steam and desperate. They had taken over government offices three months ago and the politicians and bureaucrats moved to temporary quarters at the older Don Muang Airport. They have twice blockaded Parliament to prevent debate on constitutional issues they fear will bring back Thaksin. Declaring a "final showdown" this week (the second so far), they forced Parliament again to postpone its session and surrounded the Don Muang offices with thousands of mostly middle-class supporters who seem to have found a new social life in the festive traveling demonstration, waving ridiculous hand-clappers and singing patriotic songs. But the government's passive approach to the protest, allowing the mob to wander where it wanted, backfired when PAD leaders sent thousands of cars and trucks with supporters to Suvarnabhumi where Prime Minister Somchai was due to return from a meeting in Peru.

Violence is now rearing its ugly head (contrary to my headline here on Tuesday). A pro-government mob in Chiang Mai dragged a PAD activist from his car before shooting and killing him yesterday. Four bombs were exploded at the airport. In Bangkok there was television footage of a PAD guard firing on pro-government demonstrators while next to him someone held up a large photograph of the King. Both sides of the now large divide claim allegiance to the monarch, whom Thais revere as almost divine, and look to him for guidance. But the 80-year-old ruler, who has intervened successfully in past political disputes, remains silent. Somchai supposedly had an audience with him yesterday but nothing has been reported.

Yesterday Gen. Anupong Paochinda, the commander of the Army whom Somchai had put in charge of security during his absence, bluntly advised the prime minister to dissolve his government and pave the way for new elections. “The government should return the power to people,” he told reporters. The prime minister refused. “This government was elected by the people under the king,” Somchai said on his return, his plane landing at Chiang Mai to avoid protestors. “The government will carry out its duty to the fullest for the benefit of the country and the benefit of the people.” Speaking on Thai TV last night, he condemned the seizure of the airport as illegal, undemocratic and a threat to democracy and the well-being of the country. The stand-off continues.

"The incident has damaged Thailand's reputation and its economy beyond repair," airport director Serirat Prasutanont said. The takeover by the PAD mob is one more strike against Thailand's $16 billion a year tourism industry, already damanged by months of political unrest and the global financial crisis. Over 40 million passengers passed through the glittering new Suvarnabhumi in 2007. Besides angry tourists who will probably never return, the closure hurts thousands of workers dependent on the airport, from taxi drivers to airline workers and sales clerks in store shops. A friend who does massage on Koh Lanta has seen few customers so far this year and is suffering from the lack of income. Most countries have issued travel advisories for Thailand, telling their citizens to stay away.

Gen. Anupong's refusal to prevent the airport takeover or restore order after it was accomplished is very difficult for me to understand. I can think of no other country that would allow protesters to occupy its government offices for months or close an international airport. Some have called Anupong's inaction and his call to dissolve the government a "passive coup." "There's no doubt this suggestion was not a very veiled threat by the army," said Chris Baker, a historian and political analyst. "They're saying to the prime minister, if you don't go, there's the threat of a coup. I think it might happen." The PAD is very well supported. They feed their troops, entertain them, and provide portable bathrooms. This takes money from somewhere. Who is paying them?

When I talk to Thais about this crisis which has brought their country to the verge of anarchy and chaos, they hint at mysterious forces behind the scenes who support the PAD and are intent on controling the government and the electorate to serve their ends. No names are mentioned. To speak ill of the powers that be here is a punishable offense, as a poor Australian, who self-published a novel insufficiently respectful, discovered when he was thrown into jail four months ago.

Ian Williams, discussing "Thailand's Political Maze" on the MSNBC web site, says that none of this "is openly discussed by the Thai media, which is shackled by strict lèse-majesté laws which make it a crime to offend the monarchy, but the future of the Chakri Dynasty goes to the heart of the current power struggle. One seasoned journalist summed it up nicely: 'Covering this crisis is like trying to explain the unexplainable, without mentioning the unmentionable.' Writing in the Bangkok Post today, Thitinan Pongsudhirak believes that "the PAD has come this far in its thuggish ways is attributable to its powerful backing, without which its relative impunity in the face of flagrant violations of the law can hardly be explained." The longer the crisis continues, he sais, "the longer and more exposed and compromised the PAD's backers have become." They are continually "dragging them down to the cut-and-thrust of Thai Politics to their own detriment." Who the backers are is not spelled out, but local political observers have learned how to read between the lines. Thitinan thinks a dissolution of the government, buying time "for the various protagonists to come to their senses and for Thai voters to have a say after a year of turmoil and volatility," is the only solution now.

In the meantime, life goes on. I cannot emphasize enough that I see no evidence on the streets of the trouble not all that far away. The traffic is still bad, the air quality could be improved, and beggars block the sidewalks. I feel perfectly safe and believe that any violence will be directed against specific targets, not me. But Thais seem to be able to smile their way through difficulties that would daunt a westerner used to a generally-accepted rule of law and democratic ideals (however hypocritically voiced).

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Nonviolence in the Streets

Anti-government mobs roamed the streets of Bangkok on Monday looking for a way to topple the government. But the government, like a good martial artist, avoided their thrust. As the Bangkok Nation described it, "their aggression was met with carrots rather than sticks by the Somchai government, which instructed the police to avoid any clashes and give way to the protesters." The violence of the previous weeks which was threatened yesterday was cleverly avoided.

Organized by the Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the yellow-clad protesters, estimated at somewhere between 18,000 and 30,000, were participating in what leaders called, once again, a "final showdown" (the last one several weeks ago obviously did not do the job). They surrounded Parliament but were frustrated when lawmakers postponed the session. Then demonstrators blockaded the old Don Muang airport, where the Prime Minister had moved his offices after the PAD occupied Government House three months ago. But Thailand's PM, Somchai Wongsawat, was in Peru attending the Asia-Pacific economic summit meeting. Police guarding the temporary government headquarters allowed the crowds to gather without attempting to prevent their ultimately futile show of force. Pro-government supporters were thankfully absent.

Several stories in the local press illustrate the PAD's desperation. Armed men calling themselves PAD guards hijacked a bus at gunpoint to take them to the action. But police shot out the tires of the bus and arrested them. A truckload of protestors was stopped at a toll booth on the expressway to the old airport and tied up traffic when they refused to pay the fee. Power to various police and political offices was cut off by some protesters. The Education Ministry closed several local schools, and keepers at the nearby Dusit Zoo relocated some of their more tempermental animals - kangaroos, wallabies and elephants - to quieter holding areas.

Because violence was in the air, I stayed glued to the TV screen Monday morning, watching news reports on the Thai channel but understanding little. All seemed quiet except for mobs in a party mood wandering the now empty streets. There were no scenes of police firing tear gas like the clash that left demonstrators dead and wounded several weeks ago. Score 1 for the government, 0 for the PAD. The endless anti-government protest begun six months ago, which aimed in the name of "democracy" at shutting down a democratically-elected administration, appeared to be running out of steam. The expected crowd of 100,000 did not materialize; and the group's ability to attract followers seems to be diminishing. Their strategy of of provoking violence to produce a military coup has, for the moment, failed. But no one has the key to ending the stand-off.

On Sunday Marcus and I traveled the short distance from our digs in Pinklao to Mae Chee Brigitte's Phra Sanhachai International Meditation Center in Taling Chan. The Austrian mother of two is a nun who came to Thailand in 1989 and was ordained a year later. She began teaching meditationin 1992 and her center is located in a colorfully painted house on a quiet residential street on the outskirts of Bangkok. A half-dozen students speaking English and German, including a young woman from Brown University in Rhode Island, were staying in the guest dormitory.

We had come to see Phra Ajahn Sahapan, a former engineer who has been a monk for over 30 years, spending long periods on retreat in the caves and forests of Thailand. While his Thai was peppered with English phrases, his words were translated into both English and German by Mae Chee Brigitte. Frank, a Little Bang regular, had attended a previous afternoon talk and gave the Ajahn high marks. Rather than a prepared teaching, Phra Sahapan encouraged questions from the group of 15 who had come to hear him at the center. It included Thai men and women as well as farang. His answers, delivered in an energetic voice punctuated by smiles, covered a wide range of the Dhamma, the wisdom and insight taught by the Buddha.

A question about yawning during meditation led to a discussion of the five hindrances that prevent seeing things as they really are: desire, anger, doubt, anxiety and boredom. The two main forms of meditation, concentration and mindfulness, were described and their comparison dismissed. Both are valid. It is important to go deeper, he stressed, to understand cause and effect, kamma, and to know what true nature is. There is only movement, the kamma wind blowing, and not particular movements. This is our first duty, to obtain a clear undertanding of what we are experiencing.

The teacher said he could only offer a map for realization but that we had to do the work and decide where to walk. I was particularly encouraged when he said that the enlightened one still had to function in the world. So much teaching leads to the conclusion that the world must be abandoned, while I increasingly feel that my salvation can only be here, in the existence that I have been given. Thai people, Phra Sahapan said, echoing Buddhadasa Bhikku, do not understand Buddhism when they rely on rites and rituals. They need to cut off the belief that rituals can bring enlightenment. Marcus finds this difficult to accept because it sounds like an elitist position that demeans popular religiosity, and I tend to agree with him. Poor farmers and shop keepers have little time or energy for a rigorous meditation practice and the intellectual analysis of the Dhamma popular among wealthy westerners.

The truth is already in us, the monk said, sounding very Socratic. There is no hurry, and we must not work for a particular result. The more you want, the less freedom you get from the three temptations, anger, greed and delusion. Meditation, he said, should lead to the obsevation of change, impermanence; concentration makes this hard to see. Everything is change: we grow old with every breath. There is no need for us to change, but just to notice when change occurs, when liking and disliking arise with our perceptions, and to be aware that nothing is me or mine. Seeing the labeling of liking/not liking is the essence of morality, sila.

The aim of realization, he told his students, is not to be born again. This can be achieved not by erasing past kamma but by understanding now the workings of cause and effect and to see deeply into reality. When separation disappears with the understanding of no-self, Phra Sahapan said, then there can be no broken heart, no grief for the dead, no difference between a car and a child. Marcus and I found it hard to accept the absence of need for compassion in everyday life and we cling to the Bodhisattva ideal of helping others, particularly those who have lost a loved one and find no-self little solice for their grief. For the monk, however, compassion seems to arise with understanding, with seeing things as they really are. His teaching was certainly offered us in the spirit of compassion.

A week and a half earlier, Jeffrey Oliver, former monk and now meditation teacher from Australia, spoke to a gathering of the Little Bang Sangha at Bodhgaya Hall in Bangkok. His talk on "How to Meditate" was a preparation for a one-day meditation workshop the following weekend and it was simplicity itself.

"You cannot empty the mind, so don't try it," Oliver advised. The practice is to remove yourself from your story and your attachment to it. Be aware of thinking, and it will stop by itself. The insights from Vipassana or mindfulness meditation are an experience and not intellectual understanding. The chief insight is impermanence, the realization that we can't own or keep anything. A mind calmed in meditation is able to realize true nature without concepts. "We have all gone to thinking school," Oliver said to his audience of mostly western expats. Thinking, he implied, gets in the way of the present moment, since it is so often attuned to the past and the future.

Oliver, who found it "not convenient to teach as a monk" during 10 years of wearing a robe, and who now calls himself a "freestyle meditation teacher," took his audience through a basic meditation practice. First, relax; second, be aware of breathing through the nostrils, and, third, count the out breath from one to five (my first practice was to go to ten). After a few minutes of this exercise, we were told to no longer observe the breath and to stop counting. Just sit in the present moment.

It's important to know why we meditate, Oliver said, and he ticked off a list of possible benefits: become a good person, find the truth, get rid of stress, develop wisdon, understand life, become free of suffering; and he added a few controversial ones: develop psychic powers and talk to the dead. Nonsense, Marcus said to me later. "We don't need to know why we meditate. We just do it, or not. It isn't an intellectual exercise." A fan of Pure Land Buddhism such as he encountered it during his last year in Korea, Marcus believes faith is an important element of Buddhism and, like me, is inspired by the pure faith of the common people. Thailand is a land steeped in religious faith that takes outward form in rites and rituals. Reducing Buddhism to meditation is a way for the west to colonize and absorb Asia's religious heritage. But it might just miss the point.

Oliver explained his technique for "motorcycle meditation," and said that he closed his eyes when riding on the back of a bike driven at break-neck speeds down a Bangkok soi. Yes, I said, but your body was not calm. I expect you were holding on for dear life. Someone mentioned the objective of perceiving the spaces in the mind between thoughts, the place where bliss supposedly resides. But, I argued, if you focus on the spaces between words, or the white space surrounding black letters, you cannot read. What is needed is something like a gestalt of enlightenment that permits us to experience reality fully while chopping wood and carrying water in the real world.