Thursday, February 25, 2010

Homeland Security

"When will you return to your homeland?," one of my students asked me after class last night. My quick answer was, "Never! Thailand is my home now." But can it ever be my "homeland"?

I don't like the word "homeland." It sounds too much like "fatherland," a word I associate with Nazis who counted only the Aryan race in their monoculture. When it was chosen by Bush and his cronies for the name of the institution that would ostensibly protect Americans from terrorism, I cringed. It smacks of ethnic nationalism, and America was always supposed to be a melting pot where immigrant ethnicities where mixed, boiled and stir fried. The blend became something new: American. Fascists, however, like single identities that can be manipulated and mobilized against the enemy, whomever it might be. The unprecedented attack on the World Trade Center gave radical conservatives the excuse they needed to achieve their nefarious aims out of sight of a terrorized citizenry (read Naomi Klein).

In the 1950s and early 1960s, anxious and fearful Americans supported the supposedly anti-communist McCarthy and various committees ferreting out "un-American activities." Innocent people were caught in the net, people who were a little bit different. They didn't fit in the American xenophobic mold. They might have been born in America but it could never be their homeland. When I was a student at Berkeley in the 1960s, we felt at war with the wider culture as we campaigned for the right of blacks to go to university and vote in the south and for Cuba to be free of interference by the U.S. Vietnam was not yet easily visible on the radar but the Korean War was still a fresh memory. America was the only nation that had dropped nuclear bombs. The world was afraid of us. America, then and now, was the neighborhood bully rather than a standard bearer for freedom in the world.

I'm reminded of American chauvinism as I watch the winter Olympics from Vancouver. Here in Bangkok, it comes via ESPN on a Thai cable network. The announcers seem to be mainly British and there is no cheering for athletes from one country over another. The goofy fans in the stands with painted faces and waving flags are given equal time. I watch the medal count statistics and note that at the moment Germany is challenging the U.S. I find myself cheering for the Koreans in several events and notice that my loyalties now are free floating. If anything, I identify more these days with Asians now that I'm living on this side of the globe.

My students who are Buddhist monks use the English word "homeland" to identify the village where their family and relatives now live and where they grew up. Only one of my current forty students was raised in a large town or city (in his case, Bangkok). They speak of returning to their homeland during the holidays or after the term ends. I do not attempt to correct them by suggesting simply "home" or "birthplace," and I am not sure what dictionaries use this word to translate from Thai, Shan, Lao and Khmer. It's interesting that they use homeland to mean a specific place, while Americans are led to believe it stands for the nation as a whole.

Nan has returned to her homeland, a small village in the far north province of Phayao, for the funeral of her grandmother who died on Monday. Relatives have come from all over to mourn her passing, a woman probably younger than me, who sold one of her daughters into prostitution when she was 13. This is an all-too-common occurrence in rural Thailand that I cannot seem to forget. That same daughter, Nan's aunt, became successful in her profession and sent money home to her mother for years and even built her a house. When she became pregnant by a New Zealand sheep rancher, she returned to give birth to Edward, now 7, and she died there a few years later of cancer. Nan's grandmother had four children, two daughters and two sons. Both sons died of AIDs. She struggled to take care of her family during the years when war raged throughout southeast Asia. And when Nan's parents were forced to work in another province, she took care of her and her sister. More recently she has cared for Edward. I never met her. In fact, my existence was hidden from her, for she would have wanted my money, Nan said. "She likes money very much." Today this woman I am unqualified to judge will be cremated, "in the jungle," Nan told me, meaning in the forest rather than at the local temple because two people in the village died this week.

Where might my homeland be? Not in Toledo, Ohio, where I was born. After World War Two ended, my parents moved to North Carolina where my father was a salesman of plastics, the new miracle invention. I went back to Ohio looking for the house I lived in when I was in first grade, but it had been removed to make way for a freeway. I lived in several houses in Greensboro and then Lenoir, but I don't think of them now as home. And certainly not Atlanta where I lived for only a year when I was 12. I spent my formative high school years in Southern California in the 1950s and feel a fondness for the place without much attachment now. When I abandoned the south for northern California in 1975 it was without a backward glance. I returned only a few times to indulge in a bit of nostalgia. Santa Cruz was my home for over thirty years, with two years away to live in Connecticut and work in New York City. If I feel a fondness for a place now it is the beaches and mountains of Santa Cruz along the San Lorenzo River. I miss my children and my friends there and the familiar haunts where I hung out, but when I left I knew I would not return. Nostalgic visits back to California are not in my current budget.

Most Thais would find this absence of a sense of place that I can legitimately call home rather odd. When I ask them about their home they invariably give me their place of birth. While most are forced by circumstance to leave their homeland to work, they return on New Year's and Songkran and Loi Krathong to celebrate the holidays with their extended family. And many retain ID cards that list them there, which means that in order to vote in elections they must return to their village home. I'm sure this has a depressing effect on voter turnout, since minimum-wage workers cannot easily take off for what might be a three-day, round-trip home.

"Home is where the heart is," according to the familiar proverb. I take this to mean that home can be a moveable feast, an apt phrase that Ernest Hemmingway used in one of his books. "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man," someone says, "then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast." "Home" is a shifting signifier for the temporary abode of mobile, modern Americans. When I was growing up, families followed the husband's occupation. My father, who was disturbed at the lack of job loyalty I showed when starting out in my various careers, ignored geography in his search for employment. My parents returned to North Carolina after nine years in Southern California and both died in a retirement community near Tampa, Florida. Because he'd grown up there, my father considered Florida his true home, and my mother always showed an emigrant's pride in Canada where she was born (Winnepeg). When I left Santa Cruz, though, I took my heart with me.

Is it possible to be a citizen of the world, to count the planet earth as your home? Remember that Esperanto never caught on. Moving house frequently as a child, I recall the feeling of strangeness in a new place that gradually changed to familiarity. Sometimes I could recall the unsettledness I felt before getting my bearings. It was like the Necker Cube, that trick of optical illusion where you can learn to shift perspective at will. First it was strange, then it was home. With a little effort, I can even feel at home in hotel rooms. When my marriage broke up, I lived in a succession of short-term rooms that were comfortable if temporary. I've lived in my current furnished apartment for a year and a half. Without much decoration but an overabundance of books, it feels like home. Often I'm reluctant to leave and the thought of returning gives me pleasure. Nan and I are looking for a bigger (and hopefully cheaper) place and I'll leave here with no regrets.

Until then, the 22nd-floor Lumpini Place condominium is as much home as any place can be, particularly now that Nan is sharing the small studio apartment with me. The security guards (a regular militia) smile and nod at me, as does the lovely woman on the ground floor who toils at her laundry business seven days a week, ten hours a day. I walk Nan to the bus each work day morning and stroll a little farther after she's gone to buy my daily copy of the Bangkok Post from another hard-working woman who chatters at me in Thai as if I understand. Most afternoons when I'm not teaching I walk up the boulevard for exercise and errands, trying to stay in the shade of the elevated highway above. Several of the motorbike taxi drivers say hello and salute, asking me about my health and the lovely lady they see accompanying me in the evening and on weekends. I get thumbs up and high fives. Then I cross over the pedestrian overpass and walk by Tesco Lotus where we shop for groceries and sometimes eat frozen yogurt topped with fruit and candies at one of the many stores in the shopping mall. Lately in Tesco's clothing section I've been trying to find underwear that fits, constantly underestimating my waist size. A bit farther up the heavily trafficked road is Central Pinklao, an even bigger mall where I'm one of the regulars at Starbucks. The baristas greet me effusively and order my regular drink, a tall hot cappuccino. If I'm lucky I there is an empty stuffed armchair available in which to sit, sip my drink, and read the book of the day. Afterward I might browse at Asia Books, one of five booksellers in the mall and the one with the biggest English selection. On the way back home I nod at different people who have grown accustomed to seeing me, one of the few farangs to remain in this Bangkok neighborhood (the few they see are tourists that come and go).

What I'm trying to say here is that having a homeland does not necessarily provide security, and that not having one does not mean one is deprived. While critics may disparage it, the internet allows me to take my community along on my travels. I have become connected with friends from every stage of my life and we share thoughts and pictures by email, on Facebook and even via Twitter (though I've yet to limit my contacts there to only those with something interesting and essential to say). Home in this sense is a connection between family and friends rather than a particular place. Homes maybe temporary but "home" is an accumulation and culmination of a lifetime.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Thais are not Smiling

Listening to a Thai government spokesman defend the rule of law is like listening to Tiger Woods defend marital fidelity, observed political science professor Federico Ferrara lasted night at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok. Ferrara, who teaches in Singapore and has a blog called KhiKwai (translated as "buffalo dung"), has just published Thailand Unhinged, a strong critique of "Thai-style democracy" (he calls it "a fraud") which probably is too imflammatory to be sold here. The cover, by celebrated Thai artist Chatchai Puipia, is a horrifying parody of the cliched "Siamese Smile." Ferrara followed another academic, Panitan Wattanayagorn, currently on leave to work for the Abhisit administration, who described a 37-page security plan to prevent violence during the next seven days before the Supreme Court makes its much-anticipated decision about Thaksin Shinawatra's 76 billion baht of frozen assets. "Peace and order is our aim" he told a skeptical crowd of journalists and expats, and said the government was ready to negotiate "with any group." But he was questioned by Simon Montlake from the Christian Science Monitor on the unprecedented "hype about World War III" surrounding expected protests by red shirts over the government's double standards in dealing with the poor and disenfranchised. "This is a critical transition period," Panitan said, an observation with which all sides can agree.

Ferrara, who rarely minced words, said the "scare mongering" and "demonization every day" of anti-government forces, "is from an old playbook," but he agreed that Thailand, "with tension high now," is at a "critical juncture, a dire time." In fact, it's as if "the Reichstag is about to get burned down" (recalling the takeover of the Nazis in Germany in 1933). Ferrara said he became interested in Thai politics when he heard that the military pledges loyalty to the king but not to the government. This reminded him of 2,500 years ago in Italy when the army refused to fight for the patricians. Recent statements by Privy Councilor Prem recalled for him Mussolini's doctrine of fascism, but he said the yellow shirt leaders Chamlong and Sonthi were not as sophisticated as the Italian dictator. "The future of the country does not belong to the military," Ferrar said. "They should get the hell out of politics."

Unlike other politicians exiled by the frequent military coups in Thailand, "Thaksin didn't go away quietly," commented Suranand Vejjajiva, a former cabinet minister in Thaksin's administration and currently a columnist for the Bangkok Post. He is also a cousin of Prime Minister Abhisit "who doesn't speak to me any more." After the street violence of nearly a year ago, Suranand said, the reds have learned their lesson and "mainstream reds will stick within the law." But he said the language being used by authorities is similar to that from 1976 when many anti-government demonstrators were killed. Since then, however, "even the yellow shirts have helped to raise the political consciousness of Thais." Suranand said he was surprised at how "'double standards' caught on so quickly" and helped to highlight the injustices in Thai society. Taxi drivers, who get stopped by police and have to pay fines, can see this. It's not the BMWs and Mercedes Benz owners that are being stopped at check points." Suranand claimed he was now neither red nor yellow, but pink.

Sean Boonpracong, international spokesperson for the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD, the red shirts), wanted to hear from Panitan if the "check points" mentioned in the 37-page security document would be "road blocks" designed to prevent movement of protesters to join the expected million-strong march this month to challenge the government. Panitan quickly responded that residents of Bangkok would get very upset at having their notoriously bad traffic made even worse by police and army road blocks, and told Sean (they grew up in the same town) that the reds would be able to pass freely (much skepticism all around once again). Sean also commented that the governments offer of negotiations was a new development, but one not mentioned during Abhisit's year in office.

The room was packed at FCCT's penthouse headquarters with even more people than recently present for Olivers Stone's rant about the secret history of the U.S. Their interest was no doubt fueled by uncertainties about the future of Thailand. On the one hand, Bangkok seems very quiet and the inflammatory headlines in the newspapers make little sense. The reds have made their points non-violently for the last year, unlike the yellow shirts who closed down operations at Government House for six months and shut the airport, causing extreme damage to a country which relies on tourism. No greater example of double standards in Thailand exists. Demonstrations by yellow shirts were largely ignored by the army and the police, leading to the fall of two pro-Thaksin governments, and to date no one has been prosecuted or jailed for the many laws broken by that movement. I don't know what will happen this week, but I believe if any violence occurs it will not be because of the mainstream democracy movement. In Thailand, much violence has been caused by the invisible "third hand" elements. It remains to be seen if they will come out of hiding.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Geezer Rock

I turned the TV on early Monday morning here in Bangkok not so much to watch the Superbowl as to see if Pete (at 64) and Rog (65) could still strut their stuff. Half a Who, after all, is better than no Who at all.

The Monday Morning Quarterbacks were divided. Writer Todd Everett, a friend from the music business daze, drolled on Facebook: "Talkin' 'bout an abomination..." My bass-playing friend from Guitar Player Magazine, Ferd Mulhern, wrote that "half a who is less than the sun of its parts. Lame." Townshend's guitar playing was "very good," he added, but "the vocals sucked." Son Chris was prepared for the worst, but found them "pretty awesome." John Mendelssohn, rock critic for the Los Angeles Times in the 1970's, titled his blog post "So Sad About Us" and refused to watch "the superannuated half of a group that should have been dissolved the day the first of them died." Ellen Sander wrote, "All right! Rockin OUT! I'm going to forgive the medley. Hard to type while dancing." One critic noted that Pete's "belly made an unwelcome TV debut as it flapped out of his shirt on Sunday." Daltrey told an interviewer, "What can you do in 12 minutes? I thought it went OK. It's a TV show. Cameras were everywhere. I was so blinded that I couldn't see." Pete said, "We were trying to put on a great show. We had as much fun as we could have."

No, it wasn't the full group I watched up close and personal during the Quadrophenia tour of 1973 when I was publicity director for their U.S. record company. Pete's windmills and Rog's microphone-held hand raising seemed pale reiterations of their original moves. Despite the overkill of lights and pyrotechnics in the stadium, each looked as if they were having fun and the songs retained the cutting edge spirit that made them anthems of the 60s and 70s. The surviving front men at the Miami event were backed by Ringo's son Zak on drums, Pete's younger brother Simon on rhythm guitar, bassist Pino Palladino, and keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick.

I missed the manic Keith Moon who trashed the record company hotel suite in Montreal with Pete's help and got us all thrown in jail. And the stoic Ox, John Entwistle, should have been there as well. Sure, it's decidedly odd to sing about a "teenage wasteland" when you're only a few years away from a rest home. But give the old geezers credit. They prove that rock and roll will never die, and will never fade away either. Child protection advocates protested Townshend's appearance at the Superbowl because of his 2003 arrest for viewing online child pornography. He avoided a jail term by claiming it was for research purposes only, but was ordered to register as a sex offender for five years. Another couple of geezers, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, both 66, toured with the Rolling Stones last in 2007 and rumors have them going on the road again this year. Despite faces ravaged by age, their energy seems inexhaustible. Mick has seven children by four wives, and Keith was the model for Johnny Depp's characterization of Capt. Jack Sparrow in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie series (the rocker played the pirate's father in one film). As their record company publicist, I watched the Stones record in Jamaica and perform onstage in Hawaii back in their glory days. The music retains its primal growl even though Jagger is now Sir Mick. (Richards reportedly said he did not want to take the stage with someone wearing a "coronet and sporting the old ermine. It's not what the Stones is about, is it?")

Another old geezer, 62-year-old Elton John, also the recipient of a British knighthood, showed up at the Grammy Awards recently in the company of 24-year-old Lady Gaga. The piano-playing pair opened the show, and it was overkill all the way. I was present at Elton's America debut at a small club in Los Angeles in 1970 before the wild outfits and crazy glasses took over and "Your Song" from his first album has always been my favorite. On the Grammy telecast he sang an updated version with Gaga on a Siamese piano topped by black arms and hands. Both were smudged with ashes from Gaga's earlier performance of "Poker Face." Go figure. The entire show, aside from a few moments, was mystifying to me. Music has changed drastically since I was involved in the 1970s. Can I be forgiven for thinking it seems like another disco interlude, when surface effects hide an absence of depth? Is Pink an acrobat or a singer?

I feel like an old geezer mostly when I try to sit on the floor to eat lunch with my students after class on Saturday mornings. I'm teaching the five Buddhist precepts in English to graduate students in education administration. Most but not all are monks who know much more about Buddhist morality than I. It was easy enough to give them the English words for the precepts to abstain from killing, stealing and lying, but explaining the meaning of sexual misconduct was more of a challenge. Fortunately, most of the lay people stayed home to study for a test. I told the monks the Dalai Lama was against homosexuality but that the Buddha had not mentioned it anywhere. In Buddhism, the precepts are like training wheels on a bike for helping the follower live a moral life without falling. They are not commandments like the Judeo-Christian rules given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai. If Buddhists fall, they pick themselves up and start all over again rather than go to hell. This week I will try to explain to them why they should avoid intoxicants as well as various drugs that cause heedlessness. On the way to class last week I spotted the pink commuter bus that takes students daily to the new campus at Wang Noi near Ayutthaya. On the back was my photo which was taken last year to promote the new language center. I couldn't teach in the center this term but may do during the next term which begins in May.

After a couple of months of avoiding the Buddhist expat community, I attended two talks in the past couple of weeks. Last Monday, Ajahn Kusalo from Tisarana Monastery in eastern Canada, spoke about the desires that prevent us from the happiness of living in the present moment. Speaking from personal experience, he asked himself if he could be happy with cancer (despite lymphatic cancer, the answer was yes). Desire for what we don't have (health, wealth) can be stilled by stabilizing the mind. As a father who ordained in New Zealand after his marriage ended, Ajahn Kusalo evoked this by describing how he held his crying son until the tears stopped. "The mind is like a child," he said. As someone with cancer (who would prefer it to go away), his advice was particularly poignant. But I had problems with his advice to not buy a newspaper and get rid of gadgets. Fine if you're a monk who has renounced the world, but not good advice for a lay person. Ajahn Amaro, a British monk who is co-abbot of Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in California, spoke two weeks earlier about the clinging to sense pleasures that holds us back from liberation. He described the movement from "I like" across a bridge to "I want," and finally to "I gotta have." For Ajahn Amaro and many Buddhists, there is an inevitable disappointment even after we get what we want, almost as strong as when we do not realize our desires. "Desire is a liar," he told his audience of English-speaking expats. To argue that sense pleasure always engenders the dependency of addiction goes too far, I believe. Sensual pleasure is not so much the problem, I think, as wanting it to continue forever. Desire gets a bad rap from Buddhists. Must we avoid the beauty of a sunset or the love of a child? Ajahn Kusalo, when asked the difference between sense desire and the desire for enlightement, described the later as an "aspiration" which I think is to play unhelpfully with words. Liberation, I suspect, will come from the full acceptance of change.

It's been a busy time for films in Bangkok. Our IDEA discussion group watched a DVD of "Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country," a documentary by Danish filmmaker Anders Ostergaard from pictures take by Burmese video journalists during the protests against the military regime led by monks in the late summer of 2007. The scenes of crowded streets filled with cheering people before the crackdown made it apparent how much the generals are hated. "Burma VJ" was nominated last week for an Academy Award. The next week some of us went to the Foreign Correspondents Club for a screening of "Breaking the Silence," a documentary by Canadians Pierre Mignault and Helene Magny newly translated into English about the ethnic Karen within Burma who are struggling for independence and freedom. Then John Solt returned to Bangkok for his second annual (and last) Buddhist Film Festival at Thammasat University. I only saw two of the films over a two week period but they were both terrific. "The Burmese Harp" is a Japanese film made in 1956 that takes place during the ending of the war in Burma, and it's an eloquent testament to non-violence after the horror of conflict. "Enlightenment Guaranteed" is a comedy about brotherly love between two Germans that surfaces in a Japanese monastery." Made in cinema verité style by director Doris Dorrie in 2001, the film says more about the Buddhist dharma (zen in this case) than many a dhamma talk. I'm trying to see as many of the Oscar-nominated films as I can before the March 7th (the next day here) ceremony, and have been most impressed recently by "A Serious Man," "Up in the Air," "An Education" and "Invictus." None have played in the big Bangkok multiplexes so I have to resort to subterfuge. Nan and I saw Jackie Chan in "The Spy Next Door" and laughed a bit, but of course it's not in the running. Director Oliver Stone recently came to speak at the Foreign Correspondents Club and gave an entertaining political rant. I'm looking forward to his "Wall Street 2" as well as his TV series on the secret history of the U.S. (R.I.P., Howard Zinn).

As for books (R.I.P., J.D. Salinger), I just finished Naomi Klein's master narrative of the last 35 years of political economics, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. We'll discuss it on Friday at our monthly IDEA Group meeting. For those who can't breeze through its 560 pages as I did, I've downloaded the Michael Winterbottom documentary of the same name. But I do not think the feature-length film does the densely researched book justice. Klein bookends the recent tragic histories of countries, from Chile to Russia to Sri Lanka to Iraq, by comparing electroshock experiments in psychiatry which contributed to torture techniques with the neoconservative economic theory developed by Milton Friedman that advocates destroying economies in order to rebuild them, through privatization, deregulation and drastic cuts in social spending. Friedman's idea that freedom and absolute laissez faire economics go hand in hand was adopted by leaders from Pinochet to Reagan, Thatcher, Yeltsin, the two Bushes and even Nelson Mandela. But Klein provides ample evidence that an unregulated free market in every case only enriches the wealthy and impoverishes the poor. Even more horrifying is her story of how the United States government was privatized. Just as global corporations are now hollowed-out brands, subcontracting everything, under Bush and Cheney the federal government was also downsized and hollowed out, leaving the real work to subcontractors (more of whom are in Iraq than soldiers on the federal payroll). I'd like to know how much of this Obama has (or even can) turn around. Shock Doctrine is an unbelievably important book for the 21st century and any hope of restoring democracy to the planet.

This Sunday is an unusual confluence of holidays. Besides Valentine's Day, February 14th is also Chinese New Year, a very big holiday in Asia, and also the beginning of the Year of the Tiger. The shopping malls of full of red and cold decorations and various depictions of the tiger. Tiger prints are very popular in the clothing stores and stalls. And the infamous Tiger Temple in Thailand is coming under renewed scrutiny for what wildlife activists consider cruel treatment of its animals. My friend Michael treasures the photos taken of him snuggling up to a tiger during his trip there last year, but the evidence I've seen condemns the practice of turning wild animals into pets for the enjoyment of tourists. I don't know whether to give Nan red roses and chocolates before or after our evening visit to Chinatown where, if last year is any guide, a million people or more will crowd into the streets to enjoy the festivities. Valentine's Day is another holiday that Thais have adopted, perhaps for crass commercial reasons (the tourists in the shopping malls feel more at home). I suppose you could say the same for Chinese New Year, but since most Thais have Chinese blood somewhere in their ancestry, it's a time they embrace with zest, fireworks and dragons.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Onward Buddhist Soldiers

So you thought Buddhists were nonviolent?

In Thailand the military is independent of the government's control, and in fact it has the power to overthrow and replace governments elected by the people. In 1932, a bloodless coup by civil servants and army officers ended 150 years of absolute rule by the Chakri dynasty of kings. Despite a constitution (quite a few of them), the first 50 years of Thailand as a democracy were dominated by numerous coups and military dictatorships. Today, Thailand is defined as "a democracy with the King as head of state." Although the King is declared above politics, the military often defines its role as the protection of the monarchy. The last military coup in 2006 toppled the government of Thaksin Shinawatra which had twice been elected by popular vote. Following the post-coup election in 2007 that returned Shinawatra supporters to power, the military stood by while street demonstrations and politicized judicial decisions brought down two governments. Then it helped install a coalition government of anti-Thaksin political parties led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva who has never won an election.

All this is background to help understand why coup rumors are again in the air. Thaksin in exile is a thorn in the side of the military, bureaucratic and business elite that currently rules Thailand from Bangkok. While in power, Thaksin, who had been a lieutenant colonel in the Thai Royal Police (a powerful parallel military institution to the armed forces), strengthened a military that had been in decline. But the current army chief, Anupong Paochinda, has purged those officers allied with the ex-prime minister. Last year a group of retired generals joined Thaksin's Puea Thai Party of supporters. And earlier this month a grenade exploded outside Anupong's headquarters. There were no injuries but the general covered up the attack for a week. Khattiya Sawasdipol, a rogue major general better known as "Seh Daeng" who has a cult following because of his colorful exploits as a soldier for over 30 years, was accused of masterminding the attack and weapons were reportedly found at his home. But he was neither arrested nor charged with any crime. Instead, a show of support for Anupong has been orchestrated in the press with troops pledging their loyalty at mass rallies. Khattiya has been a vocal supporter of Thaksin and his red shirt followers, but it's hard to see how he presents a threat to the powerful military. The truth in Thai politics, however, is rarely on the surface. A Reuters story last week by Martin Petty was headlined "Are cracks appearing in Thailand's military?"

D Day for the anti-government forcs is Feb. 26th when the verdict on Thaksin's 76-billion-baht($2.3 billion) assets case will be handed down by the Supreme Court. It is expected that the seized money will be claimed by the government and that Thaksin will be considerably weakened financially. Since the moratorium on demonstrations during the King's birthday celebrations in December, the red shirts have mobilized selectively throughout the country to protest unequal treatment under the law, even forcing a retired general to give up the luxury vacation home he had built illegally on national park land. The English language press is full of predictions of unrest instigated by the red shirts (who in turn argue that the closing of the airports a year ago by the anti-Democratic yellow shirts has yet to be punished).

A headline last week read: "Coup? What Coup?" I don't know what to expect. Yesterday morning I heard several helicopters overhead and ran to my balcony to see if the coup had begun. Despite Abhisit repeatedly giving assurances that all is fine in the "Land of Smiles." whether it be about the forced repatriation of Hmong refugees to Laos or the GT200 bomb-finding devices purchased by for billions of baht by the military that have been shown to be useless. But there are public disagreements among coalition parties that could bring the fragile government down. Everyone knows that Thaksin's supporters would win if another election were held, for the ruling elites are politically and financially powerful but few in numbers. A coup would be disastrous for the economy and would probably not be bloodless. The pro-democracy movements (for not all support Thaksin) have declared that they would resist a military takeover this time.

Thailand has a large and well-funded military with a disproportionately large number of generals to command the draft-fueled 300,000 troops and 200,000 reservists. They own most of the radio and TV stations and generals sit on the boards of many large corporation. It's hard to see why such a bloated military establishment (largely created by America funds during the Vietnam war) is needed. A long-standing insurgency of Muslim separatists in the south commands most of their time, since low-intensity border disputes with Burma, Laos and Cambodia are more amenable to diplomacy that defense. In exchange for putting Abisit's coalition into power, the military received a hefty increase in their budget, allowing them to buy top-notch weaponry from various countries selling their technologies of warfare.There appears to be no government oversight and control. Voranai Vanijake wrote in the Bangkok Post yesterday, "When the military interferes in political affairs, they are abusing their role in society. Instead of standing on the wall with a gun, defending us from external forces, they mean to interfere, manipulate and control the political course of this nation." In another article in that paper last week, Suranand Vejjajiva wrote , "So long as a coup d'etat remains a viable political option, democracy is immature. That is a pity for Thailand, which has been experimenting with the democratic system of a constitutional monarchy for the past 78 years." He insisted that "the Bangkok elite and intellectuals must learn to respect the will of the people. Power must be shared. They must trust the people's judgment and learn to live with the result of what the majority of the people want."

The Democracy Monument, built to commemorate the achievement of constitutional monarchy in 1932, was designed by designed by Corrado Feroci, the founder of modern art in Thailand who spent much of the 1920s designing monuments for Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. He later changed his name to Silpa Bhirasr and was a founder of Silpakorn University, the major school of art in Bangkok. Here is a version at a recent toy show built with Legos, a fitting symbol Thai democracy: