Monday, November 30, 2009

Confessions of a Absent Pater Familias

For many years, our family celebrated Thanksgiving with the extended family of my good friend Peter and that day was always a joyous chaos of kids and conversation, food and indigestion. After my immediate family fell apart, I went annually to my oldest son's home in Sonoma where his wife, with the assist of her sister-in-law, always prepared a feast that would make Martha Stewart proud. Last week, stuck in my apartment in Bangkok with bronchitis and laryngitis, I was able to see photos of this year's celebration posted instantly on Facebook from my son's iPhone. And my extended family gathered this year at the home of Peter's son (he's moved back into the house where he grew up) and he, too, posted a photo on Facebook, of a plate filled with turkey and all the trimmings. The matriarch of this clan, my friend and former landlady, sent me lots of details about who brought what to the Thanksgiving table. "Of course we missed you'" she wrote, "but I am getting used to not having you around."

It's hard for an American expat not to get sentimental; the myth of togetherness between the first colonists and the Indians they soon would drive out of New England (those they didn't kill) is drilled deep into our bones. And who can quarrel with the virtue of giving thanks, even if many of the 18th and 19th century Thanksgivings in the U.S. were celebrations of victory in battle? The overriding narrative is that Thanksgiving is a time for family and friends to gather for a celebratory meal and to count their blessings. It's a wonderful vision. I had intended to take Nan to meet Jerry and Eric at Bully's Pub on Sukhumvit, a bar owned by an American where Jerry and I had enjoyed a sumptuous repast of traditional turkey et al last year. But ill health forced me to cancel. So I stayed home on the couch, hacking and wheezing, and watched lots of movies (highly recommend: "Goodbye Solo," "District 9" and "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee"; Unfortunately the demise of torrent giant Mininova may make it more difficult to stock my film library).

It's not easy to write about the absence of family without sounding maudlin. I was once the most sentimental of pater familias. Hallmark card commercials would make me weep. I wanted so much to achieve the Norman Rockwell version of the Thanksgiving-Christmas season that failure was inevitable. My digestion system rebelled after days of turkey and leftovers. I found I could no longer shop for presents since nothing I found was good enough for those I loved. The reverse side of an obsession with holiday traditions is "bah humbug!"

My youngest son sent me a Thanksgiving email greeting the day after. The two middle children remained silent. All I had for consolation from Sonoma were a few online photos. Out of sight, out of mind, is trite but true. And of course I have no one to blame for the absence of family now but myself. I chose to cut my ties with America over two years ago to live permanently in Thailand. There were many different reasons to leave, but one was the failure of our family to stay together. While still living in proximity to past memories, I was unable to let go of might-have-beens. The new friends and adopted families I found did not make up for the two broken families (the first marriage ended 30 years ago) I had left behind in my wake. Only by redefining who I was, by starting life over in another place, did it seem I could put the shambles of a past behind me. Since all seemed to be doing fine without me, I could think of no reason not to leave.

When my marriage ended, I was told it would take me half the time we had been together to get over it. Another six years to go. I wonder if the same formula applies to expats. How long will it take for me to no longer think of myself as an America? Jerry has been here for 15 years and he reacts with disgust at the implied identification. I read the New York Times online and rant about the failures of Obama as an interested observer. Why do I care about Tiger Woods or Sarah Palin? It's difficult for me to abandon fahrenheit for celsius, pounds for kilos, and dollars for baht. I maintain a U.S. address at my son's house and bank accounts in California, while "true" expats have their Social Security checks sent directly here. Since coming to Thailand I've made as well as lost friends, met a fascinating array of international residents and visitors, and have been welcomed by several communities of expats, like the National Museum Volunteers and the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. I'll never become fluent in the language and will always remain an outsider, but the rewards of living in the "Land of Smiles" continue to outweigh the disadvantages.

Chief among them is my relationship with Nan. She is the joy of my life now. An attentive reader will know that I have long been looking for love in Thailand, since my visit to Ko Samui nearly three years ago when I had a "girlfriend experience" with a bar girl there. A large number of foreigners come to Thailand looking for sex, an easily obtained commodity. I soon determined that this was not enough for me, and looked online for what I described as "the last love of my life." It's not easy being a cliché, an older farang who dates women young enough to be his daughter. Did I want their youth to rub off on me? I met some lovely women who had different reasons for wanting to take care of an old man, and one I lived with for ten months before she decided the age difference was too much for her. Six months ago I met Nan after an email exchange and took her to dinner at Sizzler (she wanted farang food). Improbable as it may sound, this young woman from a small village in Phayao in the north of Thailand and I fell in love with each other. We've been living together now for almost three months, and are building a family together. I met her mother, half-brother and cousin in Chiang Rai in September, and last weekend her sister Ann came to visit with her boyfriend Surin. At the end of the year Nan and I will take a luxurious six-day vacation on Ko Samui where my longing for love began.

I don't expect to become a pater familias (a term for the head of a Roman household) in the traditional sense. I cannot have any more children and Nan says she's fine with that. She feels as if Edward, the 7-year-0ld son of an aunt who died of cancer, and whom she helped raise, is her child. She knows that village life has little appeal for me, and that I believe my savings is insufficient to cover the "bride price" necessary for a Thai country wedding. My Social Security income and teacher's salary, however, is more than enough for a comfortable life in Bangkok. Surin, a retired bank official, is looking for a house in which to invest, one large enough for us with visits from Ann on weekends (she's still at university). Next year Nan will go back to school herself to finish the last two years of her bachelor's degree. I warn Nan that I may have no more than ten good years left, and she says that's enough for her (but jokes that she may die before me, you never know). We hold hands while walking on the street every day and snuggle on the couch in the evenings to watch a Korean historical soap dubbed in Thai ("The Painter of the Wind" with the ultra-cute Moon Geun-young playing a male artist). Yesterday she talked me into going to the hospital to see a doctor for my bronchitis and laryngitis where she translated for me, and now she makes sure I take the medication along with a honey-lemon concoction she made. I don't know what I've done to deserve this, but I accept it with gratitude.

Last week I went to the new Immigration Division office in the huge new Government Center on Chaeng Wattana near the old Don Muang Airport. Foreign residents have to report in person every 90 days from the date of their last entry into the Kingdom and my time was up. It's far to the north of the city proper and I took two buses and a special shuttle (a two-hour journey) to the facility which from the outside looks like a spaceship and inside resembles an artificial world. The old office on Suan Phlu was closer but was often as crowded as a cattle car. It only took 15 minutes to process my paperwork and afterward I explored the subterranean city of shops, cafes and banks. There were few people about and I expect many of the government offices have not yet been filled. Bangkok's notorious traffic and the threat from submersion by sea water because of global warming no doubt necessitate the move inland. The northern suburbs are a mass of construction with major university campuses and megamalls setting up shop. My return trip by taxi, Skytrain and bus was a half hour shorter if a bit more expensive. But it's a journey to which an expat must become accustomed.

I joined the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) a couple of months ago but have not visited their penthouse facilities very often since then. A week ago I attended new members night where quite a few old hands as well as newcomers were given a tour of the media offices that share space in the Penthouse with the FCCT. The BBC's new Asian correspondent, Alistair Leithead, let visitors pretend they were telecasting from the balcony studio with a real night skyline backdrop. Karen Percy, Southeast Asia correspondent for the Australia Broadcasting Corporation, took us around her offices down the hall which included a fake skyline backdrop. At AsiaWorks we were shown a full compliment of broadcasting services that are used by such clients as CBS, Al Jazeera and the Discovery Channel. CNN has an office in the building but it was not part of the tour. The FCCT bar is quite popular and one fiftyish Brit told me he comes frequently to get away from his Thai wife and two-year-old twins. The food is excellent and a trio was playing jazz tunes while overheard monitors showed scenes from a dozen TV networks.

Thankfully, I missed Black Friday back in the U.S. (or as I prefer to think of it, Buy Nothing Day), but it's impossible to escape the cheezy decorations in every major store here in Bangkok. Farang are few and far between in Pinklao, my neighborhood, but there is this monster fake tree rising several floors in the Central Mall and numerous models of Santa Claus on display at Tesco Lotus. The decorations, however, are relentlessly secular. I have yet to see a creche. Here, I don't feel obliged to buy presents. But I do have my eye on a new camera, my first SLR. It's a Canon 500D, and I've found a Japanese version that is nearly $200 cheaper. Yesterday I spied a small fiberglass tree on sale next to a selection of tinsel, ornaments and lights. I'm tempted to get it for our apartment so Nan can experience a little of the Christmas spirit. Last year I went for mulled wine and mince pies at the Anglican church and I heard a performance of Handel's Messiah at a Catholic church. I've even thought about taking her to a Christmas eve midnight mass, although it will probably be in Thai. This will be my third Christmas in Thailand and the old programming is fading away. Or maybe it's only hiding.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Abstinence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

There has been too little about sex lately in this blog and I'm in danger of having to change it's name. So I'll write today about "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" in which sex, although absent, is the elephant in the movie.

The second installment of the film franchise of Stephenie Meyer's long-running book series about vampires, teenagers and werewolves has been heavily promoted in Bangkok. Posters and cardboard more-than-life-size cutouts of the protagonists are everywhere and dozens of companies are co-promoting the film (the Red Cross is noticeably absent from the list). Thais love movies with ghosts and buckets of blood so the "Twilight" series (Meyers has written four books so far) is a natural here. I'm attracted by blockbuster films. How else can one understand modern culture? A week ago it was the end of the world as we know it in "2012," and last night Nan and I attended the opening night of "New Moon" (since our time zone is ahead of most of the world, we were among the first anywhere to see the film). All Thai cinemas have reserved seating, and we bought our tickets early. The audience was packed with a certain demographic that I was not in, but we snuggled under a blanket (theaters here keep the temperature set on frigid) and suspended our disbelief.

The plot was simple: Normal teen girl loves vampire boy who responds in kind but leaves town fearing he (or a relative) might suck her blood (despite her fervent desire to let him "change" her). Broken-hearted and depressed girl is consoled by her hunky best friend who reveals he is a werewolf. After a few plot twists (i.e., an allusion to Romeo and Juliet that requires a quick trip to Italy), the unholy love triangle is resolved, sort of.
Edward: You just don't belong in my world, Bella.
Bella: I belong with you.

Jacob: Have you ever had a secret you couldn't tell anyone?
The critics, of course, do not fall for this stuff. Jacob's secrets, according to Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, "soon emerge, first in the form of some massive biceps. My, what big muscles you have, Bella tells him, nicely exposing her inner wolf." But she doesn't go to first base with either monster. The problem, already evident in the first movie, "is that a vampire who doesn’t ravish young virgins or at least scarily nuzzle their flesh isn’t much of a vampire or much of an interesting character." Unconsummated relations -- even kissing is a no-no in Meyer's books -- do not make good drama. "Chastity is only hot, after all, when it seems like it actually might be violated," writes Dargis. Mick LaSalle hated the movie a little less in the San Francisco Chronicle. "It feels like missing the point to talk about 'The Twilight Saga: New Moon' as a movie. This is a pop culture phenomenon, some weird early 21st century aberration, our equivalent of the hula hoop or dancing the Charleston on a biplane's wing." It's great that there's a movie that makes girls scream, writes LaSalle, since there are so many designed to make teenage boys scream. (Director Chris Weitz was producer and co-director of "American Pie.") LaSalle sees Edward, played by Robert Pattinson, as a young James Dean in whiteface who can't kiss Bella (Kristen Stewart) "without moaning and turning colors, because if he loses control he might open up one of her veins. Edward has been a teenager for almost a hundred years, and he's still no good at it. " Michael Phillips from the Chicago Tribune believes "New Moon," which he calls “Twilight: The Squeakquel,” is better than the overwrought book, unlike film versions of Dan Brown's religious thrillers, "the only two movies ever made with less sex than the first two 'Twilight' films." Phillips situates the plot in the high school setting where it belongs.
Torn between two hunky supernatural theoretical boyfriends and feeling like an emo fool, Bella and “New Moon” wrestle with all sorts of metaphoric issues. Vampirism and werewolfery are just two more high school cliques to navigate. Guys with anger management trouble, hormonal urges that cannot be satisfied, a succession of pristinely objectified boys — no wonder there are a few female teenage fans.
What can I add to the exhaustive analysis of the above? According to Phillips, Meyer's thesis in her tremendously successful books is “No Sex! Ever! Or You’ll DIE!” (Disclaimer: I've not read any of Meyer's books and am relying on the jaundiced view of others). If it weren't for the subtext of vampires and werewolves, this message of abstinence could be embraced by the conservative family values movement in America, not to mention the Roman Catholic Church which prefers to preach no sex before marriage over the use of condoms. In the two films I've seen, the Cullen family of vampires are sophisticates who live in a luxuriously modern house and listen to classical music. The werewolves, on the other hand, come from the Quileut tribe of Native Americans and and run around outdoors, shoeless and shirtless (Philips suggests the film could be called “Abs in the Rain"). Is there the undercurrent of a class or racial distinction here? Jacob's father, the chief, is in a wheel chair in the first film. Is this a commentary on the plight of native people? Desire, in Meyer's universe, is the hunger for blood; the outcome is a kind of death and the incorporation of the "changed" into the vampire community. And you couldn't find nicer neighbors than the Cullens, who've signed a treaty with their traditional enemies, the werewolves (I don't recall this from the old Bela Legosi movies) and promised to only suck the remaining blood from road kills. It's the "bad" vampires from outside who are killing all the hikers and hunters in the hills. Dad Cullen is even a doctor because he wanted to do good. This is a revisionist reading of the old horror standby if I've ever heard one.

Speaking of sex and the Catholic Church, the American bishops are putting their obsession with sex ahead of their mission to the sick and poor, according to Adele M. Stan in AlterNet. During their "week of shame," the bishops "proclaimed themselves willing to see health-care denied to millions of uninsured Americans, and to yank the social-service rug out from under the feet of tens of thousands of urban poor in the nation's capital." According to Stan, the bishops refused to bless a compromise on the health care reform bill and strong-armed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi into adding the Stupek amendment which prohibits federally-funded abortions to the House bill which passed (at present, the Senate bill does not contain this language). In addition, "the church threatened to sever its social service contracts with the District of Columbia if the city council of Washington, D.C., passes a measure legalizing same-sex marriage -- a move that would throw services to 68,000 of the poorest and most vulnerable citizens of the nation's capital into chaos." Frances Kissling, the Catholic feminist activist, said that these events demonstrated the church's "willingness to just be a bully."

It's ironic that the Church has appointed itself moral arbiter in the realm of sexuality, writes Stan. "As an institution, it ranks among the world's most sexually dysfunctional. Its demands for life-long celibacy from its priests and nuns attract no small number people who are uncomfortable with their own sexuality -- be it something as benign and normal as homosexuality, or something criminal and predatory, as in the case of the priests who preyed on minors." Stan argues that the Church has long excluded women from the priesthood for no reason other than their sex, and that its claim to defend the fetus or the priest or the original intention of Christ are part of "a dynamic that feeds the misogyny of the church's all-male leadership."

The long struggle for gender equality in the Roman Catholic Chuch is now echoed in the Buddhist community where a decision by Ajahn Brahm to ordain four nuns in Australia last month has divided those who follow the Theravada tradition. Ajahn Braham's monastery was expelled from the Thai Forest Sangha and many leading western monks are supporting the rule in Thailand which forbids women to ordain as nuns because the practice died out years ago and requires labyrinthine doctrinal decisions to reinstate. Pandit Bhikku has written a very measured response in his Little Bang Sangha web site which supports ordination of women in general but laments the secrecy of Ajahn Brahm's action. An overview of bhikkhuni ordination is provided by Dhammalight. On there is a good discussion of community healing. Sanitsuda Ekachai has written two insightful columns about the controversy over ordination in the Bangkok Post, here and here. And Absolutely posted a very moving article by a Bangkok woman named Chdarat on how "gender inequality has blighted the Western perception of Thai Theravada Buddhism."

But to move back from gender to sex, the socialist government of Extremadura, an autonomous region in western Spain whose capital is Mérida, is "tackling masturbation hands on" by launching a major program to help children in their "discover of self-pleasure." According to a report in the London Guardian, "Pleasure is in your own hands" is the slogan of a campaign aimed at teens 14-17 that has sparked political controversy and challenged traditional Roman Catholic views on sex. The government will spend €14,000 on leaflets, flyers, a "fanzine" and workshops for the young in which they receive instruction on self-pleasuring techniques along with advice on contraception and self-respect. The plan has scandalized not a few. "This is an intimate subject that should be dealt with at home," complained local opposition leader Hernández Carrón of the rightwing People's party. "We have become the laughing stock of Spain." The conservative Confederation of Fathers and Mothers of Schoolchildren charged, "They are interfering with the right of parents to educate their own children about a matter as important as their sexuality." In America and many other countries, the effort to teach "sexual self-exploration" to under-18s would be dubbed child porn and all of the adults behind it arrested.

Finally, it's a little know fact (except to those concerned) that Thailand has become the world center of penis reattachment surgery. Penis hacking, according to a story that has gone the rounds of the internet, is a peculiarly Thai form of sexual violence. I can attest to this only from the stories that regularly appear in the Bangkok English language newspapers. And a number of Thai women have confirmed to me that cheating lovers deserve nothing less (said with a knowing roll of the eyes). The reporter interviewed a surgeon in Bangkok who reattached his first phallus in 1978 and who has stitched back many a male member for grateful patients."Doctors and psychologists blame the attacks on a mix of Thailand's tradition of polygamy, which was banned about 100 years ago but still persists, and the fact that the phallus is revered as a symbol of power and fertility." Women, however, are learning how to prevent recovery and reattachment, and have fed the member to ducks, flushed it down the toilet, boiled it, and even attached it to a hot air balloon in one case. The surgeon provided some advice to potential victims: "If you have a mistress they (wives) will get mad and cut it any time, so make her very happy, always carry a thermos to put it in and keep the name of a good doctor close by," he said.

Nan has assured me that this could never happen, so long as I tell the truth to her. But that does not necessarily make me feel secure. Recently we had our first real upset after I left the computer on and she read some of my emails to an ex-girlfriend. When our relationship was still new, Nan had left to take care of her father who was dying and I had no idea when or if she would return. So I succumbed to temptation. After she came back to live with me following her father's funeral, I was not exactly truthful when she asked what I had done in her absence. It took a couple of days, but the storms of jealousy passed. I pointed out to her that reading your lover's emails is not a good way to build trust. Now that the past is put away, I keep an eye on the knives in the kitchen and make sure she has nothing to worry about or fear.

Monday, November 16, 2009


Tragedy or comedy, the epic story of Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's deposed PM on the lam, is worthy of a Shakespeare, a Molière, or perhaps the Coen Brothers. An interview last week in the British Timesonline and a short visit to neighboring Cambodia, where he has been appointed financial adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, has generated a perfect storm of apoplexy among those Thais not wearing red shirts.

Thaksin "is using a helping hand from a neighboring country as a tool to overthrow the monarchy and the Thai government," Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said Friday in Bangkok. The People's Alliance for Democracy (an ironic name for the mob of yellow shirts that has brought down several governments) held a rally in Bangkok yesterday that drew 15,000, and issued an announcement in English: "We declare that Fugitive Thaksin Shinawatra has now become an enemy to the Kingdom of Thailand. He has become a traitor to his motherland by threatening Thailand’s national security and becoming an antagonist to Thailand’s constitutional monarchy. He has conspired with the enemy in undermining Thailand’s dignity." A bomb, or probably a large fire cracker, exploded during a speech by right-wing media baron Sondhi Limthongkul, leader of the PAD's New Politics party, injuring several people. (He called for the annihilation of "traitors.") Thaksin, on his web site, said that his domestic political opponents are suffering from “false patriotism” in their disagreements with Cambodia.

The week began with continuing fallout from the arrest of several people for allegedly causing a 7% drop in the Thai stock market a month ago by spreading rumors about the King's health. The Wall Street Journal editorialized against the "broad net cast over internet users" by the Computer Crimes Act and lèse-majesté laws:
We don't know whether any of these people violated Thai laws. But we do know that their arrest sends a powerful message to all Thais about the risks they face for posting information online. This is stifling not only to political discussion, but also detrimental to investors at home and abroad who rely on that information to make investment decisions.

Many analysts say that the stock market dip in October took place because of an information vacuum about the health of the King; in such an environment, rumors spread quickly. But the solution is to have more information, not less.

Then Thaksin, from his exile in Dubai, gave an interview to Richard Lloyd Perry, Asia editor of London's Timesonline. The original story published Monday was quickly blocked by Thailand's internet censor because of an inflammatory headline, but the full transcript is still available here. It's difficult for the uninitiated to understand why it provoked such outrage. Thaksin ruminates about a future after the end of the King's reign and even praises his heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. According to a spokesman for Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit, “the comments in the interview were offensive to the royal institution." Foreign Minister Kasit said Thaksin's interview "violates the monarchy, which is the country’s main institution,”and said the Justice Ministry would consider whether to charge Thaksin with lèse-majesté on top of the two-year prison sentence imposed upon him in absentia for a real estate transaction when he was prime minister. Timesonline editorialized that "the Thai laws of lèse-majesté have always been excessive. They now look childish, too."

Thailand is an exciting, modern, forward-looking nation, but nothing jars with this quite so much as the antiquated prohibition against discussing the monarchy in anything but the most fawning and platitudinous terms. At times, the country can seem less like a constitutional monarchy and more like a personality cult. This benefits nobody, not even the royals themselves...Thailand can only benefit from a free and frank discussion of its own system of government. Scrutiny need not entail disrespect.
After the hullabaloo over the interview erupted, Thaksin denied everything. He claimed the Timesonline story was "distorted" and "untrue," even though a recording of the conversation was transcribed by his own press representative. In a letter published in The Times, Thaksin writes: “Accusations that I am against the monarchy have been used by my political enemies in Thailand many times in attempts to discredit me. They will not succeed for I am and always will be a faithful and loyal servant to the King.” A commentator in the Bangkok Post wrote that "several people who have read the full transcript of Thaksin’s interview do not find any remarks offensive to the monarchy. But for many Thais, any public discussion about the succession is deemed offensive and inappropriate to the reigning monarch.”

Then came Thaksin's dramatic visit to Cambodia where he played golf with his old friend Hun Sen, addressed a group of businessmen in Pnom Penh, and met with tourists (see below) and hundreds of Thai supporters near the ancient temples of Angkor Wat near the border in Siem Reap, including 70 members of parliament from the Puea Thai party, second reincarnation of the disbanded Thai Rak Thai party Thaksin founded in 1998. Thailand requested Thaksin's extradition as a convicted criminal; Hua Sen refused, saying the conviction for corruption was purely political. The official response said Thaksin had been forced from office although he had been “OVERWHELMINGLY and DEMOCRATICALLY elected by the Thai people.” (caps in the Cambodian original) Then Thailand withdrew its ambassador and Cambodia did the same. Thailand tore up a joint maritime oil-exploration treaty negotiated during the Thaksin era. According to The Economist, Thaksin described Hun Sen "as a pal of 20 years who 'dares to say the truth to the world' about his ill treatment. Actually, the two men have not always seen eye-to-eye. But both see themselves in a similar light, as bluff sons of the soil, surrounded by royalist enemies." But even some red shirt supporters have their doubts about this alliance. "Many Thais see Hun Sen as the kind of oafish strongman they do not want anymore in their own country."

Nationalist tensions remain high between the two countries, given an unresolved border dispute over Preah Vihear, an ancient temple awarded to Cambodia by the World Court in 1962. Some Thais claim this decision was based on an inaccurate map and want the temple and land around it back. On Friday Cambodia withdrew 1,000 troops from the area as a peaceful gesture but Thailand did not do likewise. Sabers are rattling. A Thai engineer was arrested in Phnom Penh on spy charges for allegedly "stealing" information about the plane flights of Thaksin and Hun Sen. Generals have spoken about war, rumors have spread that the borders may close, stories in Thai papers mention the possibility of evacuating Thai nationals from Cambodia. Thais are no longer flocking to the gambling casinos over the Cambodian border. Prime Minister Abhisit, in Singapore rubbing shoulders with President Obama at the APEC summit (their joint photos are all over the Bangkok media today), rejected an offer by ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan to mediate the Thailand-Cambodia dispute. Cambodia is a member of ASEAN but not APEC.

I've been trying to understand the Thaksin saga since I arrived here two and a half years ago. Recently I read an excellent political biography by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, originally published in 2004 and reissued with a new second half that covers the period leading up to the military coup in 2006 and ending with the Songkran disturbances in April of this year. Their final paragraph is instructive: "In the near is difficult to imagine him playing a direct role" in Thai politics. But, given this country's "capacity for surprise," the authors suggested six months ago, it would be "unwise to rule out future incarnations." The events of the past week have certainly proven that to be true. Thaksin is making use of his web site, Twitter and Facebook to keep his hopes alive and encourage his supporters.

Descended from a family of Chinese tax farmers and silk merchants that immigrated to northern Thailand in the 19th century, Thaksin was born in Chiang Mai. Baker and Pasuk write that he "grew up in an environment of wealth, power and privilege," although in his autobiography Thaksin "presents himself as a 'backwoods kid' with a tough childhood." He began his career as a policeman, studying in Kentucky and Texas for advance degrees in criminal justice. While working as a policeman, he operated a silk shop, a movie theater and an apartment building, but none were particularly successful. Before he resigned as a lieutenant colonel in 1987, he started a computer leasing business and then a pager service, making use of influential government contacts. He launched a mobile phone service in 1990 at the beginning of the telecommunications boom with a concession monopoly from the government and was soon one of the richest people in Thailand. In 2001 Forbes said he had an estimated worth of $1.2 billion. In Thailand, according to Baker and Pasuk, the "political regulation of business is the source of abnormal rates of profit." And all of the businesses in the Shinawatra empire originated from government concessions.

Much of the profiteering under Thaksin was not through old-fashioned methods of stealing from the government budget but through deft use of government power to inflate the profits of private companies.
Thaksin entered politics in 1994 and was briefly appointed foreign minister. Although he lost his first election, Thaksin was named deputy prime minister in charge of Bangkok traffic in the Banharn Silpa-Archa government. "He carelessly gave the impression that he had vowed to solve Bangkok's traffic problems within six months -- and was constantly taunted for failing in this impossible task." In 1997 he was again deputy prime minister in the Chavalit Youngchaiyudh government which fell during the economic crisis. In 1998 he founded the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) Party (TRT) with a unique platform promising universal access to healthcare, a three-year moratorium on debt for farmers, and one million baht locally-managed development funds for all Thai villages. "Thaksin made a direct appeal to the rural voter with a policy platform. No previous political leader had done anything similar." TRT won a landslide victory in the 2001 election, the first under the 1997 "people's" constitution.

"In the 1990s," write Baker and Pasuk, "Thailand seemed to be moving away from the centralization and repressive controls of the old security state towards more participation, debate, and respect for rights and freedoms." But Thaksin was not the "breath of fresh air" promised. "The unraveling of this optimism was rapid." The media were tightly controlled, protesters were beaten by police and called "anarchists," NGOs were condemned as almost treasonous, Muslim separatists in the south were massacred, laws were passed to stifle dissent, and during the 2003 "drug war," nearly 3,000 extrajudicial killings were done by police. According to Baker and Pasuk, "Thaksin's apparent sympathy for rural protest was entirely tactical. His real agenda...was to suppress rural protests and the organizations behind them."

Nevertheless, "he was mobbed like a rock star" by his fans. "Since Thailand began to flirt with democratic politics over seven decades earlier, no politician had dominated the public life of the nation in the same manner." Others, however, objected to his growing authoritarianism, his enthusiasm for unchained capitalism, and for the "growing evidence of state power manipulated to increase Shin profits." As he "lost his credentials as a reformer, nationalist, savior of domestic capital, and even a safe manager," he used the populist card to regenerate support. He even set a deadline for eliminating poverty: "Four years ahead, there will be no poor people. Won't that be neat?" The rural voter who used to exchange his vote for the promise of the godfather's local patronage, "now exchanged it for a promise of cheap health care and local loans." But the urban elite, militarists and monarchists to the core, were not pleased with this turn of events, and saw him as "a corrupt business-minded politician who posed a threat to the nation's institutions and future." The collapse of the military budget, from 16 percent in 1991 to 6 percent in 2006, did not win Thaksin many friends among the powerful. The end came swiftly when in September 2006 the military deposed Thaksin while he was speaking to the United Nations in New York. "Tanks were welcomed with smiles, flowers and digital cameras," and, with budgets renewed, the generals "returned to their favorite pastime -- buying expensive weapons of questionable utility from countries with lax standards of public accountability."

After the constitution was rewritten by the military junta, voters nonetheless overwhelming elected politicians from the Peoples Power Party (PPT), the reincarnation of the now banned TRT. So then the elites backed PAD's street protests, which included closing the country's two main airports, and a politicized court to thwart Thaksin's influence. Prime Minister Samak was thrown out of office for moonlighting on a TV cooking show, and his replacement, Thaksin's brother-in-law, was caught in the net when the PPT party was outlawed on another legal technicality. At this point, a former Thaksin loyalist, godfather Newin Chidchob, switched sides, enabling a new coalition government to form headed by the Democratic Party with the unelected Abhisit in charge. Thaksin was expelled from his temporary home in England and forced to live on the lam. He divorced his wife, according to one interpretation, to protect some of the family's dwindling assets from further seizure. Although still a billionaire, Thaksin now roams the world in his private jet, investing in sports teams, diamond mines and oil exploration, playing golf with friends like Hun Sen, and keeping in touch with his supporters in Thailand by telephone and video call-ins at rallies.

What is more striking about Thaksin than his consistency are his changes, write the authors Baker and Pasuk. "He has been surrounded by advisers putting ideas in his head and words in his mouth. He has been open to the forces and conflicts of a society undergoing jolting change. As a man of no real principle, ethical or political, he has reflected the forces swirling around him."
On the face of it, Thaksin is a terrible candidate to become a symbol of democracy. While in power he openly poured scorn on democracy as a principle, trampled on human rights, limited the freedom of expression, deployed violence callously, and mocked the rule of law. But just as history handed him the unlikely role of populist it then handed him the equally improbably role of defender of democracy.
It's amazing that this political cipher, so good at dipping into the government trough to reap excessive profits, can hold Thai politics hostage for so long. In a recent column in The Nation in Bangkok, the authors, using the pen name of Chang Noi, point out that people are beginning to see that the intense political division in Thailand "is not caused by one man but a massively unequal distribution of wealth and power."
A simple way to measure income inequality is to estimate the gap between the top fifth and bottom fifth of the population. In countries like Sweden and Japan, where people value the advantages of living in a relatively equal society, the difference is 3 to 5 times. In Europe and North America, it's 5 to 8 times. Among Thailand's Asian neighbors, it's 9 to 12 times. In Thailand, it's 13 to 15 times. Almost all the countries worse than Thailand are African states with civil wars or Latin American states with endemic populist movements. The risks are very clear.
The disparity in wealth is even greater, and they provide statistics to prove it. Likewise land ownership. When you look at how governments raise and spend money, in Thailand "the government redistributes from the poor to the rich." Spending on health, education, and infrastructure benefits the rich more than the poor. So do subsidies on public utilities. This difference does not go unnoticed by the mostly rural poor who see an elite in Bangkok controlling the resources. Thaksin gave them hope, even if it was misdirected, that justice was possible. The Abhisit government and its powerful backers have not yet learned how to harness that rising dissent.

When the school term finally began last week, I had mostly Cambodian monks in one of my two classes. The other class was all Thai, which puzzled me. It occurred to me that the monks from Cambodia must be concerned about all the shouting across the border, although I knew they would not say anything about it to me. So I talked to them about the politicians' argument between Abhisit and Hun Sen and their fellow travelers, and said that it shouldn't change the warm affection Thais and Cambodians felt for each other (the border is a recent invention to divide people). Even though I wasn't exactly sure they should feel safe, I told them that I thought the war of words would eventually go away. I knew from past conversations that monks from Cambodia had grown up under the Khmer Rouge and had seen friends and family killed or maimed by land mines.

Since I'm a guest in the Kingdom, I rarely tell Thais that I like the red shirts and fear the fascist yellow shirts. Before things turned bad last April, I mingled with the red shirts at their demonstration around Government House and found them to be friendly and curious about an American in their midst. Most appeared to be dark skinned and probably farmers, although I know many come from the ranks of Bangkok taxi drivers. After reading Baker and Prasuk's book, I have no love for Thaksin and believe he would probably be a corrupt despot were he ever to gain political power in Thailand again. I don't think leopards can change their spots. The poor deserve justice and control over their lives. Democracy in Thailand is a radical notion.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ajahn Brahm Expelled for Ordaining Nuns

The popular monk Ajahn Brahm has been disciplined by the Thai forest monastery sangha founded by the Venerable Ajahn Chah because he was involved in ordaining four women as nuns, or bhikkunis, in a ceremony on October 22 at his Bodhinyana Buddhist Monastery in Perth, Australia. The Wat Pah Pong Sangha's action of excommunication (revoking Bodhinyana's status as a branch monastery) has resulted in a firestorm of controversy in the Theravada Buddhist world.

The ordination of nuns is illegal under Thai Buddhist law because the order of nuns became extinct sometime between the 11th and 13th centuries, after which, the argument goes, no new bhikkhunis could be ordained since there were none left to preside over an ordination. However, nuns currently may be ordained in the Theravada tradition in Sri Lanka, and also in Mahayana Buddhist countries, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam and China where the religious authorities are not so conservative. According to an official statement from the Thai forest sangha, Ajahn Brahm's decision to ordain nuns without permission "may cause wrong understanding among Buddhists throughout the world, and division of views regarding this issue." Called to Wat Pah Pong a week after the ordination, Ajahn Brahm was told the ordination at his monastery was invalid and the senior monks asked him to recant. He refused.

Born in London, Ajahn Brahm went to study with Ajahn Chah in Thailand after graduating from Cambridge and remained for nine years. He has published numerous books and is extremely popular here in Bankok where his talks draw large crowds. His ordination as a monk was presided over by the abbot of Wat Saket who is now acting Sangharaja of the supreme Monks’ Council of Thailand. In his online statement of "why he was excommunicated," Ajahn Brahm said he had consulted his preceptor "to ask him precisely his opinion on the ordination of Bhikkhunis outside of Thailand. His response, which I have circulated amongst the Western Sangha for a long time now, was 'Thai Sangha law does not extend outside of Thailand.'" The conflict over ordaining nuns is complex, involving Buddhist traditions and lineages, the formal Vinaya rules established by the Buddha and national sangha regulations which often reflect cultural prejudices. I have written before about how the Thai Sangha treats women as untouchable. Ajahn Brahm discussed his support for bhikkunis in an interview in the Bangkok Post last April (a complete transcript of the edited interview can be found here).

The fallout from this controversy is particularly intense because many western Buddhist monks have been trained in the forest tradition and owe allegiance to Ajahn Chah's lineage based at Wat Pah Pong. Although he is not in that tradition, the influential Bhikku Bodhi initially supported the ordination ceremony in Perth, but later issued a retraction. Ajahn Chandako, an American monk now at Vimutti Monastery in New Zealand, wrote that "this particular ordination was a serious mistake." His criticism was answered by Ajahn Brahmali and the Bodhinyana Sangha who reminded Ajahn Chandako of his previous view that, while there are no serious obstacles to ordaining nuns in the west, ordaining bhikkhunis in the Ajahn Chah Sangha "is another matter." It was this resistance that prompted Bodhinyana to proceed in secrecy. When informed by Ajahn Brahm, Luang Por Ajahn Sumedho, abbot of Amaravati Monastery in England and the most senior western representative of the Ajahn Chah tradition, advised him not to proceed with the ordination. A meeting of monks was to be held at Bodhinyana Monastery in December and bhikkhuni ordination was on the table. Many objected that Ajahn Brahm's action was premature. The contrary view is that it might have been more difficult to push the issue after the expected negative response was received.

A tempest in a teapot, as my atheist friend Jimmy might say. Maybe. I have previously written about Ajahn Brahm's view that the sangha can only be an organization of monks, leaving laymen and women outside the ecclesiastical establishment. This comes close to the common belief that only monks and nuns can be enlightened (and in Thailand that means only men). The rest of us must be satisfied with earning merit by serving the sangha in order to gain a beneficial rebirth. I have less sympathy these days for this interpretation of the Buddha's teaching. I agree that the practice of tamboon might promote generosity, but the hierarchical structure of society that favors monks over ordinary people creates more suffering than it relieves. Ajahn Brahm has written that it is "not necessary to be a bhikkhuni to realise enlightenment - some laywomen and mae chees have done it." But he also apparently agrees with Ajahn Chah who said the Buddha established the sangha of monks and nuns because "it is the best vehicle for a person to practise to reach enlightenment." I support the decision of individuals to pursue understanding and wisdom by becoming renunciates. I would just like to see gender equality. Thai Buddhists have created the category of mae chee for women who want to leave secular life. They wear white and shave their heads. But they are not true nuns and many end up as unpaid servants to the monks in temples. I applaud Ajahn Brahm's decision to ordain nuns at his monastery and only hope that his example will be followed someday in Thailand.

The political scene here is going looney tunes (you'll have to decide who is the Road Runner and who is Wile E. Coyote). Cambodia's prime minister, Hun Sen, always ready to tweak Thailand's nose, has appointed fugitive PM Thaksin Shinawatra to be his financial adviser. He arrived in Phnom Penh this afternoon and the Thai government is scrambling to seek his extradition (a non starter given his support by Hun Sen). The PAD yellow shirts have called for a major protest rally on Sunday in Sanam Luang Park. Ambassadors have been recalled over the appointment and war drums are sounding along the border between the two countries where the PAD is also now demanding that Thailand reclaim by force Preah Vihear Temple, a bone of contention since last year. And on Monday Thaksin gave an interview to the Timesonline of London which appeared with a headline referring to what might happen after the King's death. This caused a tremendous uproar, including the blocking of the offending story (but not the complete transcript of the interview), along with Thaksin's denial that he ever said anything negative about the royal family (he seemed to be predicting that the Prince will be a "shining" ruler when his time comes).

Last week our IDEA (Information/Dialogue/Exchange/Analysis) Group held its first book discussion and Ian kicked it off with an incisive analysis of Jungle Book: Thailand's Politics, Moral Panic, and Plunder, 1996-2008, a collection of columns by Chang Noi (the pen name of historian Chris Baker and economist Pasuk Phongpaichit) published over a dozen years in The Nation, one of Bangkok's two English language papers. The authors argue that "the rule of law has never taken root" in Thailand. Pointing out that over 2,600 people were murdered by the police during Thaksin's notorious drug war, they write: "This is not the rule of law but the law of the jungle." Through several changes of government, a military coup, and several constitutions, Chang Noi provides a litany of examples to show incidents of widespread corruption, repression and censorship, environmental devastation, political rule by "godfathers," and the endless bloody struggle between government forces and Muslim separatists in the south along the Malaysian border. It's not a pretty picture. In his most recent column, Chang Noi documents the "massively unequal distribution of wealth and power" in Thailand. "Just making government's tax and spending a bit fairer would begin to counter the trend to inequality. Is there the political will to make those changes? How much time is left."

The IDEA Group is a spin off from the comparative religion study group which has been meeting for the last six weeks in a spacious and art-filled 27th floor apartment not far from Sukhumvit and Soi Cowboy. The members of both are from the National Museum Volunteers, an organization formed forty years ago to train museum guides and disseminate information about the history and art of Thailand. Since politics could not be the topic of an organization sponsored by the royal family, our book group is totally separate. Religion, however, is not so controversial. Each week three members of the study group have presented PowerPoint talks on different aspects of religion. At our final meeting yesterday, Betty told us about compassion in the world's religions, Jo Ann discussed the importance of fire and water as religious symbols and Jeanne shared her beliefs as a Mormon in a talk on life after death as seen by the major religious movements. I've been very impressed by the collective knowledge and the research that participants put into their presentations. I'm sorry the study group has ended and look forward to another on a similar topic next year.

As a form of diversion, I've become hooked on the Panda Channel on True Vision's cable. Lin Bing was born last May 27th at the Chiang Mai Zoo, the first giant panda to be born in Thailand. Her parents were on loan from China and her birth was a major event here. Now the family reality show can be watched 24/7. It's a kind of video wallpaper and very addictive. No TV or not living in Thailand? No problem. You can watch online. Her name was chosen in a contest which drew 22 million post cards. The name is Chinese for "forest of ice." "B" and "p" are very close together, and Ping is the name of Chiang Mai's major river. The baby panda is supper cute, but I feel a twinge of guilt watching her struggle to get out through the bars in her cage. I know my friend Bob Chorush, a fomer rock and roll writer who is now an animal activist, would find it much like watching a child grow up in prison.

Last weekend I was invited to the 38th floor recording studios at GMM Grammy, the entertainment conglomerate here, to participate in the preparation of an audio book from the English version of Mind Management by Phra Wor Vajiramedhi. Phra Wor is a young monk from Chiang Rai who has published many best selling books and has appeared frequently on TV to present "applied Dhamma," Buddhist teaching for the masses. He wants to learn English and I had been approached previously by Santi from the Buddhadasa Archives and his wife Oraya, who teaches English at Thammasat University, to help. Unfortunately, I've not had the free time to spend a few weeks with the monk in Chiang Rai. Several of his books have now been translated into English and a benefactor is paying for recording time. It was to be read by Wanni, his 20-year-old niece, who spent her early years in California but was having difficulty with some pronunciation. So I was invited to be producer, stopping the recording when anything sounded wrong and offering advice and well as encouragement. I even recorded several chapters myself as a guide for Wanni. We didn't get very far and I'm not sure about the next date. I'm going over a copy of the book now to see if some multi-syllable words might be exchanged for simpler words more suitable for a popular CD.

Getting into the GMM Grammy building was not easy. There were were hundreds (thousands?) of young people waiting to try out for "Star6," a TV talent show similar to 'Academe Fantasia" which I've watched here in the past. It looked as though they were turning in applications and getting numbers at a gas station next door and then lining up for the audition. TV cameras and photographers circulated in the lobby to take pictures of the contestants who all wore numbers across their chests. I had to give up my passport in order to get a pass to enter the sacred precincts upstairs. Nan told me to watch out for famous entertainers but I had no idea what I was looking for. Yesterday, after the study group and a couple of hours visiting with Jerry, I stopped by Siam Paragon to browse at at Kinokuniya, the largest English-language bookstore in Bangkok. Hearing much shouting from one end of the large luxury mall, I found hundreds of fans, many with signs featuring the names of their favorites in lights, watching a group of stars from various entertainment competitions. I'm not sure why they were gathered together for what looked like a conversation, but the passion of their followers was obvious. Beatlemania (and the example of Sinatra's fans before that), in its current form, is alive and well in Bangkok.

If you stay an expat too long, eventually the familiar becomes strange. I was shocked the other day to see Christmas decorations going up in the shopping malls. The metal frames of what will become gigantic Christmas trees have begun rising into the sky at Central World and Siam Paragon. In the True coffee shop, I spotted these two large and brightly-lit (fake) trees. Back in America there is always a traditional delay until after Thanksgiving. First the turkey, then the not so subtle propaganda in the stores to buy presents for the family as a sign of the true faith. Some people can accept this as a time for generosity. I always felt a step up in pressure to please, and I could never think of gifts good enough to express my love. They always seemed to fall short of my own expectations. Now that I live here in Thailand, the Christmas season seems little more than a strange ritual other cultures adopt and Thais make use of to sell their goods to tourists. Still, despite this realization, there is a closet in my mind where the thought of singing carols, decorating the tree and reading "The Night Before Christmas" stirs half-forgotten memories.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Healing Power of Water

Millions of Thais headed toward the waters Monday night to let their troubles and cares float away, symbolically that is, as they celebrated Loy Krathong. Nan and I braved a crush of people on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, stopping to observe the festivities and eat at Phra Arthit Park in Banglamphu (with cotton candy for desert), before attempting, unsuccessfully, to cross the Rama VIII Bridge to attend the huge celebration there. The crowds had complete jammed the stairway and sidewalk, making movement impossible. So we returned to the river bank under the Pinklao Bridge closer to home and floated our krathongs there. I took the further step towards forgiveness by freeing not only a small snake but a turtle into the waters.

Loy Krathong is one of the two mostly secular national holidays in Thailand, which occur as well in Cambodia and Laos. Along with Songkran in April, both involve water. Songkran coincides with the New Year in many Asian countries, at the end of the dry season in Thailand, and it was originally celebrated by cleaning house and washing Buddha images. Now, however, it's the occasion for a joyous three-day water fight. Loy Krathong may owe something to Diwali, the Festival of Lights in India which pays respect to the waters of the Ganges. In Thailand it is celebrated on the full moon of the 12th lunar month of the year and honors the Goddess of Water, Phra Mae Khongkha. Thais make or buy a small boat or raft (krathong) built on a slice of banana tree trunk and decorated with intricately folded banana leaves, flowers, candles, and incense sticks. They range from the simple to the very elaborate. By launching their krathong on the water, Thais give thanks for the rainy season just ending and let go of any lingering anger, grudges and resentments. This was a challenge for me.

While any body of water will do (streams, lakes, ponds, canals, even condominium swimming pools), in Bangkok most people try to find a toehold on the edge of the Chao Phraya River, a magnificent but quite polluted waterway which could use a little healing (the sludge of millions of soggy krathongs today will entail a massive clean-up). For my first Loy Krathong five years ago, I accompanied Jerry and Lamyai to a party in a penthouse across the river from the Continental and Shangri-La hotels. At midnight the hotels held a fireworks contest that was quite impressive. For my first Loy Krathong as a resident three years ago, I accompanied Pim to Rama VIII Park where more people than I'd ever seen up that close celebrated the holiday in festive style. Last year I walked by myself to the park in Banglamphu not far from Khao San Road (still hungover from Halloween) and later put my krathong in the water under the Pinklao Bridge.

Nan had never floated a krathong in Bangkok. At home in her village in Phayao they used the irrigation canal. In the afternoon yesterday, residents gathered in the lobby of Lumpini Place to make their krathongs. Later they would launch them into the swimming pool. We took a bus to the river and walked across the Pinklao Bridge, stopping to marvel at the parade of colorful boats decorated with lights, some featuring music and spotlights that swept the sky. We walked along the river bank to Phra Arthit Park where the crowd was full of farangs trying on the new holiday for size (and why wouldn't it go over in America or Europe?). In addition to putting their krathongs in the river, we saw some people letting birds out of cages to gain merit. At the park, we sat on the grass and ate grilled pork, sticky rice and something resembling baloney balls on a stick, and topped it off with white cotton candy that revived for me memories of carnivals back in the U.S. After getting turned away by the bodily traffic jam at Rama VIII Bridge, we returned by bus to Pinklao and comparison shopped for the nicest krathongs.

We paid top price, 50 baht each, for two lovely krathongs. And after lighting the candles and incense, turned them over to a couple of children at the river's edge who took them further out into the river, paying them each 20 baht for the service. Later we thought we saw our krathongs in a bucket collected for resale. Also on sale were birds, snakes, turtles and what looked like snails, all gathered by the clever vendors as offerings, for a price, to the river goddess. Since my grudges have been hard to give up this year, I felt a surge of generosity and decided to liberate a snake in order to make merit and hopefully receive a little forgiveness (that I had a nightmare recently about a snake biting me had something to do with it). The small viper was only 20 baht and I dumped him out into the water. Immediately a couple of the little opportunists tried to catch it for resale. The snake seemed too small to do much good, so I next decided to release one of the turtles from bondage; not the little one but a medium-sized bugger for 70 baht who I observed trying to crawl out of his bucket. I walked away from the main action and flung the turtle to freedom, hoping none of the children would see him. Nan said that freeing a turtle gained very good merit because it had such a long life, and would transfer that attribute to me. I watched him swim out into the stream. Soon there were children in hot pursuit. I don't know if he was caught or not, but I hope any short-lived freedom would not be deducted from my merits. Then we went home and were fast asleep before the fireworks show began.

A week ago a photographer followed by an assistant and a TV cameraman came up to us at the pool in our building and asked if we were willing to let her take our photograph inside our apartment. She said the owners of Lumpini Place (a giant company with condos all over Bangkok) had offered short-term accommodation to artists and designers in exchange for using their work in promotional material. I thought it sounded like an interesting experience. A few days later they came to our small room and took a few photographs au natural (for us that day it meant sitting on the couch with our computers. It only took a few minutes and I didn't expect much. But last Friday night in the lobby her photos were on display and refreshments were served. You can see our photo on the left in the show (double click on the photo to see it full size, as with all the photos in my blog). There were several other Thai-farang couples, and in almost all the photos someone was on the computer, an amazing commentary on modern domestic life. All those attending the "opening" of her photograph show seemed happy to see us in it, including the lovely woman who operates the laundry and some of the cleaning staff. While I was initially worried about being so public, given the disparity in our ages, I felt gratified by this acceptance.

I've never been a big fan of dressing up on Halloween but I appreciate the desire of others to make fools of themselves in public. Thailand has adopted Halloween as their own without the trick or treating. This year I saw fewer displays in stores using the holiday as a sales gimmick, but I thought we'd find costumes in abundance on the Khao San Road where the backpackers gather. I suspect this fellow looks like this everyday, but on Halloween he was somehow funnier. Some of the bars had balloons in orange and black as decoration and many vendors were selling devil's horns which blinked on and off in different colors (predominantly red), but I seemed to be one of the few customers who bought a set and wore them (I'll spare you that photo). Gulliver's, where we went disco dancing a couple of months ago, was advertising itself as "Psycho Hospital" for the evening. Some of the vendors were getting their faces painted to look like ghouls or vampires (Bangkok is counting the days until "New Moon," the latest vampire franchise movie in the Twilight series, opens; I'm more looking forward to the Mayan end of the world saga, "2012"). Ghost stories and horror movies have always been a staple of the Thai film industry. At one bar a couple of kids were wearing masks , much to the delight of the drunk customers. Another bar advertised: "Halloween - Night Day - Very Strong Cocktail." A third hung a welcome sign on a black robbed skeleton. Carved pumpkins, however, were not in evidence. I also missed the crunch and smell of autumn leaves under foot.

Bloggers in Thailand are outraged by the arrest yesterday of a man and a women working in the financial industry for allegedly spreading rumors about the King's ill health in order to influence the stock market which plunged dramatically over a week ago (but rose back up a few days later). Because both had posted notices (one a Thai translation of a Bloomberg report) on web sites, apparently after the market had already dropped according to reports, they have nonetheless been charged under the Computer Crimes Act. Even the more conservative Bangkok Post editorialized today, "The Computer Crimes Act, denounced when it was passed under the military regime, has turned out much like its critics feared - being used as a catch-all law to stifle criticism and to intimidate the media." The annual Press Freedom Index for 2009, released earlier this month by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), ranked Thailand at number 130 out of 175. The Kingdom was up to 66 seven years ago before the Thaksin government's curbs on press freedom and the current use of the computer act and lèse majesté laws to silence dissent.

Another story keeping Thailand in suspense was the extradition to Bangkok several days ago of Indian financier Rakesh Saxena who was accused of embezzlement 15 years ago before fleeing to Canada where he has fought a long-running legal battle to prevent his return. Ultimately the highest court there ruled against him and he was brought back to face questions about his involvement in bad loans to 16 politicians, many of whom are currently in the Abhisit coalition government. As adviser to the president of the Bangkok Bank of Commerce, Saxena's activities brought about the bank's collapse in 1996. The failure of the BBC was one of the first dominoes in a financial crisis that spread across Asia, shaking the world economy in 1997, and the Wall Street Journal described him as the "Mrs. "Leary's cow of the global financial crisis" after the mythical animal that supposedly caused the devastating Chicago fire of 1871. There is much speculation in the press now as to whose political careers Saxena's testimony might destroy, or even if there will be an assassination attempt. But the ever unflappable Abhisit claims he is not worried about any possible revelations. Fat chance. Sometimes it seems here as if I'm stuck inside of a Thai version of a weird haunted house.