Friday, March 26, 2010

Following Edward

Parenting is work for the young. I learned that lesson once again as I followed after Edward, a stick-thin but incredibly energetic seven year old, on the beach and in the surf during a three-day holiday this week on Ko Samed in the Gulf of Thailand. Edward is fearless and, protected only by an inflatable tube, he ventured into deep waters and occasionally too close to where speedboats back up to load and unload travelers. That he speaks very little English beyond "Hello" and "Good morning" and my Thai is equally incomplete made control and discipline difficult.

Edward's aunt is Yuan, Nan's mother, and they've come down from their small village in Phayao to visit us in Bangkok. We'd all met a couple of months ago in Chiang Rai when I went to get Nan after the death of her father (he and Yuan divorced long ago; she remarried and is the mother of Nok, a 16-year-old son). Last month Yuan's mother died and Nan returned for the funeral which was attended by local dignitaries and several hundred people. Edward had never been to Bangkok and Yuan's last visit was over eight years ago so I wanted to show them a good time in the big city. They arrived early in the morning by taxi from the bus station accompanied by Nan's sister Ann, and that evening Ann's boyfriend Surin took us all out to dinner. The following night we had Thai barbecue at a cavernous restaurant on the Chao Phraya River underneath Pinklao Bridge. In the absence of a shared language, food paves the way. Nan and Yuan went shopping at Tesco Lotus and returned laden with supplies. They may not cook the familiar Thai dishes you find in American restaurants, but I've never eaten so well at home (and I have the padded stomach and extra kilos to show for it), served by two lovely Thai cooks

Last weekend, they got Edward a new bathing suit and an inner tube and went swimming in our building's pool. Later, Nan took her mother and cousin for a ride on the river to Wat Pho while I worked at Mahachula University, interviewing several hundred prospective volunteers for the big Day of Vesak celebration in May and testing their English. In the mornings we watched cartoons on TV and in the evening a popular lakorn about ghosts. Our tiny apartment accommodated the four of us very well. Edward likes robots and I got him the two Transformers DVDs to watch (dubbed in Thai for him, subtitled in English for me). I tried to imagine, without much success, how strange and wonderful everything in Bangkok must seem to him. He was curious about everything and affectionate with the old farang that he began to call Papa.

Edward's father raises sheep in New Zealand but they've never met. He wrote Banyen not long after the birth that his wife threatened to take the ranch if he returned to Thailand. Banyen left home at 13 and became a high-class prostitute. She traveled to Europe and built homes for herself and her mother in Phayao. Edward's birth was difficult. He was two months' premature and spent another month in an incubator. Several years later, Banyen died of cancer, and he has been raised by the grandmother who just died along with Nan's mother. From all reports, he's a happy boy with lots of friends in the small village. When we met in Chiang Rai, Nan bought him a bicycle to ride to school. When she returned for a visit, I bought him a toy robot which she took back with her and it made him very happy.

Our trip to the islands was an adventure. Finding a taxi on a Monday morning did not turn out to be easy. When we finally got one, he managed to get lost inside the camp of the red shirts, and although I've been sympathetic to their cause I did not want to watch them eat breakfast. We finally reached the station at Ekkamai not long before the bus left for Ban Phe. The short ferry ride to Ko Samed was a thrill for both Yuan and Edward (Nan and I had done it last June), and we went over the dirt road in the back of a pickup truck to our hotel, Samed Villa. There is a high entrance fee on the island for tourists but my work permit got me in at the Thai rate. When we checked into the luxurious family suite, I discovered my work permit missing and suspected that I dropped it in the truck. After about ten minutes of extreme panic, I received a call from the man who found it (my mobile number was in the permit book). But he was at Wang Duan, a beach farther down the island. When a driver quoted us the outrageous one-way fee of 200 baht, we rented a motorbike for 150 and drove over the rutted and bumpy road to retrieve the missing document. No helmets were available and I was scared to death, but necessity is the mother of courage.

Ko Samed is less developed than the more popular island and beach destinations and seems to attract more Thais and fewer western tourists. There is not much of bar scene and children almost outnumber adults. On the first night we walked up the beach to eat on the sand at Ploy Talay and watch their incredible fire show (on my first visit I posted a video of it to YouTube and found dozens of others from similar shows there). I swam just enough to get a pink sunburn on my legs where Nan said I was “stingy” with the sunblock. She rented a big inner tube while Yuan and I relaxed in the shade of a beach umbrella. Edward, a regular fish, rarely left the water. I finished The Ghost Ocean by Richard Benke, a fellow reporter on the Pasadena Star-News forty years ago. After many years with AP in New Mexico, he’s published two novels. The second night we had dinner at Tubtim Resort on Pudsa Beach where I stayed a year ago with my kids Molly and Nicky. For our return trip home at midday Wednesday, we finished the adventure with a speedboat ride to Ban Phe in a third the time of the ferry.

Back in Bangkok we were greeted by troops massed near Government House and trucks blockading the roads with razor wire. Without a computer or newspapers, the political struggle in Thailand had fallen off my radar. But I quickly caught up on the news. The government’s show of strength backfired as overkill, and the blockades were dismantled the next afternoon. Some 500 protestors, men and women, old and young, shaved their heads yesterday, a symbolic gesture almost as bizarre as the blood sacrifice last week. The reds remain encamped near the Democracy Monument and both sides have refrained from violence so far, although there have been several mysterious grenade blasts with little damage. Reportedly, the Prince’s head photographer visited the rally a few weeks ago and was quickly fired. The Prince was at one time said to be friendly with exiled Prime Minister Thaksin, symbolic center of the red universe. While numbers may have dropped down to perhaps 25,000, new recruits from the provinces are expected for a large demonstration on Saturday. The Thai media, particularly the English press, continues to demonize and exaggerate the threat by the reds, although some commentators are suggesting that they be taken seriously. If you remove Thaksin from the mix, you have an unprecidented challenge to the oligarchy of unelected elites and military that have ruled Thailand for decades.

Jim Marshall, a character every bit as colorful as the rock musicians he photographed for over 40 years, died in his sleep at a New York hotel on Wednesday at the age of 74. Marshall’s iconic black and white pictures of the San Francisco music scene in the 1960’s captured the spirit and sound of the times. He was an in-your-face kind of a guy who rubbed many people the wrong way. I got to know him when I was doing PR for Atlantic Records in Hollywood and he used to come to my office to thumb through my collection of books about music to see if anyone had stolen his photographs. Jim was aggressive about access to his subjects and ownership of his work, and he let it be known that he carried a gun and would use it if necessary. I visited his Union Street home and hired him to take photos at the first Willie Nelson picnic in Dripping Springs, Texas, in 1973. Jim knew everyone and introduced me to quite a few. But after I left the music business and was working for Guitar Player Magazine in northern California as the art director, I encountered his nasty side. For a story on Jerry Garcia, we used a Jim Marshall photo given to us by the Grateful Dead’s management which they said they owned. When the magazine came out, Jim thought differently. He called and threatened to shoot me. “You know I’m not kidding,” I recall him saying. It definitely soured our relationship. But his creativity as well as his eccentricity will long be remembered. R.I.P., Jim.

Last week Nan and I went to see Sek Loso at an aircraft-hanger sized club within walking distance of our apartment. We met my Canadian friend Tony, a graduate student in Buddhist Studies, whose 65th birthday party we’d recently attended. He was with Reynu, his Thai girlfriend. We were told to arrive at 8 in order to get a seat and then learned that the headliner would not go on until after 11:30. But Nan was excited since Sek Loso is a superstar here, with numerous CDs and even a bit of international fame to his credit. After saving a table close to the stage, we ate dinner al fresco in the large garden restaurant outside. Once inside the club, we watched the opening act, a large band fronted by two men and a woman who sang an array of Thai standards mixed with comedy that exceeded my understanding. The room was packed and most people seemed to be drinking whisky. Our table was near the powder room and a steady stream of girls filed in to adjust their makeup (according to Nan who said few were using the toilets). When I entered the man's side, I was surrounded by several men who proceeded to apply hot towels to my neck and massage my shoulders in search of a tip. This is apparently the custom at Thai nightclubs, but it definitely inhibited my flow. I was without doubt the oldest rocker in the house. Sek Loso’s midnight show began with cheers and flashbulbs (everyone now owns a camera in Thailand), led by an entourage from his fan club (they carried a sign). He reminded me of Bruce Springsteen with the same rugged charisma (more apparent with sunglasses than without), and I enjoyed the music, standing and dancing like those around us. The next day I ordered a selection of his recordings from iTunes. Tony and Reynu faded early but we stayed for at least an hour, it being a work day for Nan.

School's out for summer now and I have time on my hands. I spoke with the Venerable Hansa who is organizing the Vesak celebration for MCU and volunteered my services. I think he wants me involved with the English-speaking academics who will be come from all over to present papers on Buddhism and politics, economics and the environment, as they did last year. My duties remain to be described. This Sunday we will move from the 10th to the 9th floor into an apartment that is slightly bigger and a bit cheaper. Yuan will help with the cleaning, packing and moving. Edward will play with the new Transformer I bought him yesterday. Last night we set up a new internet account with True and requested that the TV cable be moved to our new location. After our guests leave, I am sure I will miss Edward and his energy. We have few weeks free before leaving for our vacation during Songkran week at Ao Nang, a beach near Krabi. Life is very full for this happy old man.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Requiem for the Reds

I wanted so much to celebrate the tens of thousands of red shirts who gathered in Bangkok over the weekend to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and call for new elections. But I fear their effort so far has failed. The protest enters its fifth day this morning with many donating blood which will be flung at the gates of Government House later today in a gory ritual directed at politicians who have blocked the campaign of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) for "true democracy." Drenching the corridors of power in red blood may be a powerful symbol but I doubt that it will dislodge the amatya, the Thai word for the oligarchy of elites -- monarchy, military, bureaucracy and wealthy businessmen -- who control the destiny of this country.

To the powerful in Bangkok, the "Red Menace" (a headline in the Bangkok Post) consists of the poor "rural hordes" (another headline) from the north and northeast marching to the tune of Saint Thaksin, the prime minister who was deposed in a military coup nearly four years ago. And they do it only for the money, twice what they can make on the farm or on construction work in the cities (see one person's denial at left). It's pretty well certain that Thaksin was a crook, but at least he was their crook. He revolutionized party politics in Thailand by appealing directly to the voters rather than just to the provincial political bosses. He made it possible for them to see a doctor for 30 baht a visit (less than $1), and he gave a million baht to each village (Jerry says everyone used it to buy cell phones in his Surin village). This may have simply been a cynical plot to win votes from the electoral majority in the provinces, but it gave people the idea that they could have a say in their destiny, a radical notion, a democratic notion. You can't put that genie back in the bottle.

After the many military coups in Thailand, the defeated politicians usually slink away, with their tails between their legs. But Thaksin will not disappear. He shuttles between Dubai, Montenegro and Cambodia (and who knows what other secret hideouts), urging his followers during video phone links to continue the struggle against the injustice that has silenced their votes and deprived him of much of his fortune. It's a shame that Thaksin is such a powerful symbol for the reds. I suspect he was everything his critics say about him, no real friend of democracy and human rights. The return of Thaksin to power would be a disaster for Thailand, every bit as bad as the current government which remains in office only because of the military coup makers and its shadowy backers.

On Sunday morning, Nan and I crossed Pinklao Bridge to visit the site of the demonstration along Ratchadamnoen, the broad divided boulevard that passes the Democracy Monument which was built to commemorate the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in 1932 (the constitution that keeps getting rewritten). Large public demonstrations in 1973, 1976 and 1992 took place around that monument, each interrupted by violence that has not so far has (thankfully) taken place here in 2010. Red shirts waving flags and flashing the V for victory sign at photographers streamed into the street by us on trucks, motorbikes and tuk tuks while demonstrators on the sidelines cheered them on. It was inspiring. When an old woman accompanied by her grandson greeted me with a handshake and thanked me for coming, I was reduced to tears.

The UDD had hoped to gather a million people in Bangkok after the court decision that confiscated two-thirds of Thaksin's frozen assets, and the numbers were clearly important.Leaders delayed the rally for two weeks to prepare their forces for the final battle to oust the illegal government that had disenfranchised them. This gave the ruling oligarchy time to scare people away with a deluge of warnings in the media about expected violence and allowed the military to set up road blocks which discouraged or delayed convoys of red shirts coming from the provinces. I asked a motorbike taxi driver if he were going to the rally and he looked horrified, miming for me a soldier shooting a gun. I'm sure many local supporters sat on the sidelines. They could be seen cheering the red shirts as they marched through Bangkok to an Army base in a northern suburb yesterday to demonstrate against Abhisit and the generals who were headquartered there. But the prime minister predictably refused to resign and call new elections. He escaped in a helicopter. Most impartial observers seemed to think 100,000, more or less, were attending the weekend demonstration, far fewer than the number organizers had sought.

I last visited a rally of red shirts in April a year ago when an estimated 100,000 gathered around Government House, several days before street violence during Songkran besmirched their anti-government message. Then, as on Sunday, the red shirts were friendly and festive, eating, dancing to music and the speakers onstage, and waving their foot-clappers and bamboo noise-makers; all seemed very happy to see a farang in their midst. But at 10 am on Sunday the crowds on Ratchadamnoen seemed thinner than before, perhaps because people were hiding in the shade from the blistering heat of the sun. Even though the event was not officially to begin until noon and people were still arriving, it was apparent to me that the goal of a million, or even half that, would probably not be reached.

A second problem for me was the composition of the crowd. These were primarily Thais dark from the Isaan sun, farmers and small business owners from the provinces who were most impacted by disempowerment. It was not the middle classes from Bangkok who were among the 200,000 in 1992 to demonstrate against a coup general who tried to become prime minister (the bloodshed after that protest was stopped by royal intervention). In his passionate political tract, Thailand Unhinged, Federico Ferrara argues that the red shirts must engage the "key swing constituency — Bangkok’s masses of ordinary people." These are the "army of secretaries, clerks, accountants, computer programmers, and shopkeepers that will ultimately decide the fate of the old order." Only by joining hands can the reds as well as yellows overthrow the retrogressive order of military strongmen and corrupt politicians and businessmen. The reds will have to "throw Thaksin under the bus, embracing the urban electorate’s desire for more transparent, more honest, more responsive government." I think Ferrara's correct. Only a combined movement of Thais, urban and rule, who seek "true democracy" rather than the fraudulent "Thai-style democracy" claimed for years by the elite, will ever succeed in turning things around.

I call this post a "requiem" because I really do honor the movement of Thai people to control and improve their lives, but I think the color-branded politics of Thailand will lead only to disaster. An article in the Telegraph of London last weekend by a retired British diplomat is headlined: "Thailand could be falling apart." Tim Collard writes that "it’s looking like the vast social inequalities in the country are beginning to take their toll on the set of complex social contracts which govern this intricately intertwined society, with Lord Buddha and King Bhumibol reigning benevolently over all." No one seems to be willing to compromise, and isn't that what politics is supposed to be about? Abhisit, the elites of the oligarchy and the urban middle classes focus exclusively on the evils of Thaksin without considering that real grievances exist outside Bangkok. After their Songkran disaster, the UDD held teach-ins around the country on the virtues of democracy and organized smaller scale local rallies. Unfortunately, one red group in Chiang Mai chose to demonize homosexuals and closed down the gay pride day parade. This thuggish activity alienated many potential overseas supporters. I was told the UDD did not want to alienate splinter groups, but I think this policy must be reexamined.

Although hotel rooms are mostly empty now because tourists are notoriously nervous about political strife, the Thai stock market is happy and has been rising for the last four trading sessions. This seems to illustrate Naomi Klein's thesis that global capitalism loves disasters, even potential ones. For Bangkok residents the protests brought welcome relief to weekend traffic. Yesterday was like a holiday, with the streets in my neighborhood relatively empty. Four bored soldiers in riot gear stood duty on the overpass to Tesco Lotus nearby, and a small group of troops sheltered in the shade of the flyover at the Charoensanitwong intersection down the street from my apartment building. On Sunday night Nan and I went to see "Green Zone," an thrilling Iraqi chase movie based on real politics, while outside the theater and across the river the politics of color symbolism continued. This morning the UDD online TV channel is showing red shirt leaders donating blood for the political theater they've planned later this afternoon,. This was followed by a stage full of orange-clad monks giving the donors a blessing, and some of them could be seen giving blood (monks involved in politics bothers Nan very much). Soon the rural participants will need to return to their farms to tend their crops, and the stall keepers, taxi and motorbike drivers will need to resume work. At times the UDD spokespersons speak of a seven-day demonstration, but it's hard to know at this point when they will bring it to an end, and what they will tell their disappointed followers.

In the immortal words of Bob Dylan (and seconded by Jimi Hendrix): "There must be some kind of way out of here."

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Pippi Longstocking Grows Up

I'm a late convert to the thrilling trilogy of mysteries written by the late Swedish writer Stieg Larsson, but I'm no less passionate about his characters, the remarkable tattooed and pierced computer hacker Lisbeth Salander and the intrepid left-wing journalist Mikael Blomkvist. Without reading the Millennium series of novels, who would have imagined that Sweden was filled with sex traffickers and rapists, nasty capitalists, drug-dealing motorcycle gangs, rogue government security agents, unrepentant Nazis, and turncoat Communist spies? After a slow start, I gathered speed and fairly rushed through the nearly 2,000 pages, completely caught up in Larsson's fascinating labyrinthine plot twists. By the end I felt a deep sense of disappointment that the Nordic Nick and Nora's adventures were now over.

Larsson's biography and the incredible world-wide popularity of the books he wrote for fun in his spare time (over 25 million copies sold) make a story almost as fascinating as the three that were published only after his death at the age of 50 in 2004 of a heart attack. He was a crusading political journalist who began his career as an activist with a Trotskyist Communist party. As editor of the journal Expo and correspondent for the anti-fascist Searchlight, he documented Sweden's extreme right-ring and racist organizations, forcing him to live in hiding for years because of death threats from his targets. According to the London Guardian, "He raged against exploitation, cruelty, the unchallenged power of institutions and individuals against the meek and the poor. He understood the brutal non-ethics of global capital. It all shows up in the novels." Larsson was a rare example of a male feminist whose principal character Lisbeth Salander is an even more unusual example of a popular feminist heroine, who doesn't hate men, "just men who hate women" (the Swedish title of the trilogy's first novel, translated into English as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

When he couldn't sleep, Larsson wrote fiction. He loved crime and sci-fi, edited several fanzines, and was president of the largest Swedish science fiction fan club. He was fond of American and British detective stories and in his trilogy mentioned the authors Sarah Paretsky, Agatha Christie, Val McDermid, and Dorothy Sayers, among others, by name. Pippi Longstocking, the pig-tailed popular heroine created Sweden's Astrid Lindgren, was the model he used for Lisbeth Salander, Larsson admitted, and he conceived her as a grown up Pippi.

Eva Gabrielsson was Larsson's partner of over 30 years. They met in the 1970's at an anti-Vietnam War rally in the north Sweden town where they grew up. Even then, she said, "he defined himself as a feminist. This was unusual. He saw the situation of women at an early age and never stopped seeing it." While his view of the world can "mainly be understood from a perspective of women's rights...his concern was all violence against people who are branded 'wrong' at some 'wrong' point in time. Sooner or later we might all be affected since we all belong to some minority." She said his grandfather who raised him had been imprisoned during the Second World War for his anti-Nazi views, and when he was 14 he saw a girl gang-raped and couldn't stop it. That he also didn't report it filled him with guilt for life. They never married because, Gabrielsson explained, public records are easily available in Sweden, and it would have made Larsson more traceable by his enemies, creating danger for both of them.

A workaholic who smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, Larsson suffered a heart attack after climbing seven flights of stairs when his office elevator broke down. Because Sweden has no provision for common law marriage, when he died without a witnessed will (a 1977 document left everything to the Socialist Party), the rapidly escalating wealth due to book sales has gone solely to his family, a father and brother. The resulting feud over the writer's unexpected fortune is seen by many as a tragic injustice that would have upset the feminist author deeply. According to Gabrielsson, he was not close to either of his relatives. "I think they're motivated by greed and envy. They envy my closeness to Stieg. He really disliked his father." She has had a career as an architectural historian and said their work and shared beliefs, as well as Larsson's writing, took the place of children. The Larsson family offered her Stieg’s half of their one bedroom apartment in exchange for his laptop, which contains his notes for a fourth book. She turned them down. They sold the film rights for a fortune and movies have been released of all three books in Sweden (the first opens in London this week). The estate is now valued at over $30 million.

"Stieg would be horrified," she says, at the way her rights have been denied. "We were constantly collaborating and it is my brainchild as well. The only way I can explain the seriousness of it is that it is like someone selling your children, placing them in any old whorehouse for the rest of their lives." As the London Sunday Times critic Joan Smith put it in her review, "the three novels taken together are a cry of rage against the sexual abuse of women and girls." Gabrielsson objected to the change of titles in the English editions of the books and believes the translation is "badly written." A website,, is raising donations for her campaign to change the Swedish inheritance law so that common law spouses are recognized.

Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa explained the Millennium trilogy's success by saying that Larsson had produced one of the great stories of "just avengers" in popular literature. He had read the trilogy with "the same happiness and feverish excitement" with which he had read Dumas, Dickens and Hugo as a boy, "wondering as I turned each page, 'And now what's going to happen next?'" Many of the reviews I've read of the Millennium trilogy (named after Blomkvist's radical journal) are not very complimentary, complaining that Larsson's characters are unbelievable and the plots filled with unusual coincidences. I initially had difficultly imagining a James Bond world in placid Scandinavia. But notes in the third book reminded me of recent political assassinations there. Sweden's Prime Minister Olof Palme was gunned down in the street in 1986 and foreign minister Anna Lindh was stabbed to death in a Stockholm department store in 2003. The first crime is still unsolved, and the verdict in the second case has by no means satisfied everybody.

Jerry loaned me his copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo months ago and I put it down after a few dozen pages. Larsson is scrupulous about detail and the book is rife with Swedish names and geographical information that made little sense to me. The first mystery takes a while to get going and I was impatient. With nothing else to read after Christmas, I took it out of a pile of unfinished books and started again. At some point I found I couldn't put it down. At the end I quickly searched the bookstores for the sequel, an even more absorbing read than the first. I did not realize that Larsson's trilogy had become a publishing sensation until after finishing The Girl Who Played with Fire. Both books were available here in Bangkok in American and British editions. But I couldn't find the third book. Booksellers in America, where The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest will not be published until May, are importing copies from England and selling them for as much as $45. I finally found a copy at Asia Books for 350 baht (about $10), and since then all the English bookstores have become flooded with copies.

I'd rather not write a proper book review of the trilogy since you can easily find information about the characters and plots online. My purpose here is just to rave about Stieg Larsson's masterpiece and to urge that you read it for yourself. His political perspective, which he incorporates easily into the stories, is another reason I found his writing congenial. And the injustice done to his partner, Eva Gabrielsson, deserves to be publicized.

As I write this blog post, Bangkok is filling with anti-government demonstrators, and many expect the turnout to number in the hundreds of thousands, effectively shutting down the city. The red shirts have been demonized by the government and the press , even though the Prime Minister told everyone not to panic after warning that bombings and sabotage were expected at 30-40 locations are the city. I think the warnings are designed to justify any later oppression, however harsh. Military roadblocks have been set up all over the country to make it difficult for the predominantly rural protesters to reach the main rally on Sunday near the Democracy Monument. The aim of the red shirts is to force a government that was installed by the same elite that staged a coup in 2006 to resign and call for new elections. That objective is not likely, and the prospects of violence are very real. I will be following events closely, although I have promised Nan not to go out on the streets (at least the expectation of trouble has cleared the roads and traffic is almost non-existent today).

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

An Open Letter to the Red Shirts

I support the goal of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (popularly called red shirts) of "ending the age of the Thai military dictatorship and restoring freedom, democracy and justice to our beautiful nation." To that end, the UDD is mobilizing a major protest demonstration in Bangkok this coming weekend when several hundred thousand supporters are expected to descend on the city from all over the country. They will be met by an unprecedented force of from 50,000 to 100,000 military and police with orders under the draconian Internal Security Act to control them. Another 46,000 "disaster prevention volunteers" are on standby. "Our aim is to topple the government," said UDD leader Jaran Ditsatapichai at a press conference last week, "to force them to make a choice between suppressing us and stepping down." The odds are not good, and the prospects of violence are significant. Although I had been asked by the red shirts to help them communicate with the international community, Nan is very fearful of the consequences of my involvement and I am not a little afraid of trouble in the streets. So, as a guest in Thailand, I must respectfully decline to participate directly and will stand on the sidelines praying the Metta Sutta and hoping for an outcome that might somehow reduce the tensions in this polarized country.

Last April, when 100,000 red shirts came to Bangkok and surrounded Government House, I went to see the demonstration for myself and took hundreds of photos. I encountered almost no other farang besides myself but was greeted warmly by many in the large crowd. With music and speeches on several stages, it felt to me like a Thai version of a political Woodstock. A day latter the celebration turned into rebellion with intersections closed by blockading taxis and burning buses, and protesters battling with police in the streets. There is some evidence that "third hand" instigators were behind the violence rather than protest leaders, but the red shirts lost the subsequent spin war. They were branded by backers of Prime Minister Abhisit as revolutionary thugs, enemies of the monarchy and the nation. Worst of all, they were merely pawns of Thaksin Shinawatra, the corrupt leader overthrow by the military in a 2006 coup.

I've been trying to understand the politics of Thailand since I arrived here in August of 2007. Since then I've read many books, articles, news stories and blogs and attended numerous talks. And I've been persuaded that the red shirts are a broad-based political movement fueled by the rising expectations of the rural and urban poor who were given a voice for the first time by Thaksin's policies. He was twice elected prime minister by large margins. I also believe that "unusually wealthy" Thaksin became rich by feeding at the public trough as the government's leader (the gory details are in the comprehensive book Thaksin by economist Pasuk Phongpaichit and historian Chris Baker). His overthrow by the bureaucratic, business and military elites that had traditionally kept the poor under their thumbs made him an immediate martyr to the red shirt's cause. Thaksin is a potent symbol that currently unifies the movement but I believe it is the thirst by disenfranchised people for true democracy that will survive

Since 2006, the military has been effectively in charge of Thailand. They rammed through a new constitution consolidating their power that replaced the popular "People's Constitution" of 1997. The junta's version was the 17th charter since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932 (there have been 18 military coups since then). The preamble to the junta's 2006 document reads: "Thailand has been under the rule of democratic government with the King as head of state for more than 75 years." But political scientist Federico Ferrara calls this the "comic-book version of Thai history" in his book, Thailand Unhinged, and says the country "has only been a 'democracy' in any meaningful sense of the word for a relatively small portion of its post-absolutist history." When the Supreme Court decided last week to keep two-thirds of Thaksin's frozen assets, it was acting under the military junta's constitution even though the generals in their coup had violated the 1997 constitution which was never questioned. The most potent charge the red shirts have against the rulers of Thailand is that it governs under "double standards," one law for the rich and powerful and another for the poor and underprivileged. As Suranand Vejjajiva, a former cabinet minister in Thaksin's administration and currently a columnist for the Bangkok Post, said recently, "Taxi drivers routinely get stopped by police and have to pay fines. It's not the BMWs and Mercedes Benz owners that are being stopped." The red shirts' most recent success was to force Privy Councillor Gen. Surayud Chulanont to demolish the home he had built illegally on national forest land where the poor are often arrested for poaching. Surayud had been appointed prime minister by the military after the 2006 coup.

Three dates are infamous in Thai history: October 14 1973; October 16, 1976, and "Black May" (17-20) 1992. Each time popular uprisings were crushed by security forces with numerous deaths. In 1973, nearly 500,000 people gathered around the Democracy Monument in Bangkok to protest the regime of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikhachon for operating without a constitution. Soldiers firing into the crowd killed 77 and wounded 857. Thanon's return from exile in 1976 provoked another large demonstration that led to perhaps the deaths of 300 students at Thammasat University at the hands of the military and private militias. And in 1992, the military cracked down on over 200,000 demonstrators protesting another coup's constitution and killed nearly 100. Between 1992 and 2006, the military's status as well as its budget were at an all-time low ebb. But the coup of 2006 which removed Thaksin has restored their fortunes and made the generals more powerful than ever (despite recent revelations that they spent millions on a bogus bomb detector and a surveillance blimp that cannot fly).

I fear that something like the above will happen next weekend when the red shirts attempt to make the government choose between suppressing their demonstration and dissolving parliament as a prelude to new elections. Abhisit, the leader of the Democratic Party, who cobbled together a ruling coalition after the coup courts had deposed two prime ministers, has never won an election, and would almost certainly be defeated by Thaksin supporters and red shirts if a new election were called. Since he's the tool of the elites another coup would be unlikely. So the ruling elite have everything to gain by suppressing the demonstration this weekend. Even though the red shirts have declared non-violence as one of their "Six Principles," there have already been several incidents that indicate "third hand" elements may provoke a response or simulate violence on their behalf (a grenade was thrown at a bank and weapons were allegedly stolen from an army warehouse). Government spokesmen have issued numerous hysterical warnings about possible violence, jacking up the fears of the urban population so that a military response will ultimately seem justified. It's a scary scenario.

The red shirts by contrast seem supremely rational end eminently peaceful. Smaller regional demonstrations have been held for several months without incident. Through their English-speaking spokesman Sean Boompracong (on Facebook and Twitter), they have declared their beliefs in constitutional monarchy, non-violent change, a justice system free of double standards, and that Thai citizens "deserve to have their voices heard and their concerns addressed." In addition to the above, their six-point program includes the restoration of the 1997 constitution and "an effort to deconstruct and move beyond the Amartyatippatai (aristocracy) system." They cite Mahatma Gandhi as an example for their movement as he was "successful in liberating the Indian national from the rule of the British Empire."

When I arrived in Thailand the military junta was consolidating its power and promoting a new constitution. But when the first election was held, candidates supportive of Thaksin won handily. Clearly a majority of the electorate did not support the coup. Then the ironically named People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which had demonstrated against Thaksin prior to the coup, took again to the streets, and for many months shut down operations at Government House and even closed both Bangkok airports for a week. This motly collection of urban middle class and thugs for hire had backers in high places. The police were ineffective at stopping them and the military refused to act. Their disruptions caused billions in losses to the Thai economy and the fact that no one was ever convicted of any offense is the clearest example reds can offer about double standards in the justice system. A year ago, after two prime ministers were removed on legal technicalities, Abhisit came to power when one of Thaksin's former lieutenants defected, allegedly at the urging of the military and other powerful sources. Young and well-spoken, he was the ideal front man and has performed well for his backers.

So now we have a classic Mexican standoff (look it up). Neither side has shown the slightest willingness to compromise with the other. Thaksin, according to the yellow shirts and Abhisit's backers, is the devil incarnate. Red shirt leader Jakrapob Penkair, currently in exile, declares that he and his comrades will drive what the calls the "aristocratic dictatorship" from power. The red shirts, according to their elite despisers, are revolutionaries intent on overthrowing the monarchy. "The political situation remains fragile," said Foreign Minister Korn Chatikavanij yesterday. "There is a very small minority of people trying to create instability and potentially violence over the next few days." Thanong Khanthong, a columnist for The Nation who sides with the latter, wrote after the assets decision, "The potential clash looks inevitable, as any political compromise is out of the question." Only historian Thongchai Winijakul, author of the classic Siam Mapped about the construction of Thai identity through geographical adjustment, holds out any hope, and it will require patience. "The best option for the reds to win is by election," Thongchai argues. "No matter what, if they just wait, they have the vote. They are not stupid. They can wait."

The factor no one discusses is the eventual royal succession. Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, has been in the hospital for five months for an undisclosed condition. Last night Abhisit went to the hospital to brief him on plans for keeping order during next weekend's demonstration and the two were shown talking on all Thai news telecasts. After the slaughter of civilians in 1973, 1976 and 1992, the King was seen by some as a stabilizing factor. Since the 2006 coup, his main recorded comments have been during the installation of new judges when he advised them to "do your duty." This was interpreted as support for the Supreme Court's work in determining the disposition of Thaksin's frozen assets. The fact that they did not take all of ex-PM's money is seen as a gesture of fairness, although most commentators believe that Thaksin will never recover a single baht of the remaining third due to other impending court cases.

I am not sure what will happen next weekend, but I know that it will not settle the clash of colors in long-running unraveling of Thailand. Only enlightened statesmanship that would encourage the warring parties to discuss their differences and propose a compromise might stop the downhill slide. And there is no sign of that at the moment. So, because of the likelihood of violence on the part of disgruntled parties on either side of the color divide (and most likely by the so-called upholders of public order), I will not be marching with the red shirts this weekend. I'm also not sure that another large demonstration will bring down the government. If it does, it might be at an unacceptable cost. I agree with the opinion of Thongchai and think that patience, jai yen, will better achieve their goals. Time is on the side of the red shirts.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Diastematics, Unite!

Is Johnny Depp insulting the gap toothed, or what? The actor, who has a fixation on teeth for his different celluloid personas but no discernible gap (the highly revered distinction diagnosed as diastema), chose to define his character as the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton's new "Alice in Wonderland" with a gap between his front teeth. Does he think this is a sign of madness? According to the authoritative Wikipedia, from once upon a time a gap between the teeth has been associated, particularly in women, with insatiable lust. Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century wrote about the lusty "gap-toothed wife of Bath." In Nigeria, diastemata are occasionally regarded as being exceptionally attractive mostly among the western regions, and in France they are called "dents du bonheur" ("lucky teeth"). In northern parts of India people with a gap between the front teeth are thought to be very lucky in life.

I've uncovered another possible reason for Depp's gap. Vanessa Paradis, French actress and singer and the mother of Depp's two children, is a noted gap-toothed celebrity. Perhaps he did it to honor her. There are many famous gap tooths, from David Letterman's and Madonna's to Eddie Murphy's and Elton John's. Burton's Mad Hatter is a lovable as well as loony character under layers of special effects that give Depp eyes of gold as well as the gap in his teeth. For his characterization of Jack Sparrow in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, Depp choose a few gold teeth for his mouth, and patterned his mannerisms after the moves of Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards. Imitation, as they say, is a sincere form of flattery.

Being diastematic myself (see photo below for a look at my gap), one of my early heroes was Alfred E. Neuman from Mad Magzine (another association with madness since you wouldn't consider Alfie to be lustful). Editor Harvey Kurtzman spotted the image on a postcard pinned to the office bulletin board of another editor who described it as "a face that didn't have a care in the world, except mischief." Neuman appeared in the magazine in the mid-1950's over the phrase, "What, me worry?" Now I can think of him as a Bodhisattva. The original of the gap-tooth face borrowed by Kurtzman for his magazine is lost in the mists of time. I've seen versions from the 1920s and the 1890s. The most famous gap-toothed face in the 1960s belonged to British comedian Terry-Thomas. With a silly double-barreled stage name, he played a number of over-the-top upper-class cads and bounders. His films included "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" and "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" as well as string of British comedies that were never easily understood by Americans. When I was living in London from 1964-66 and working for a TV journal, I was given the assignment to interview him. We had the opportunities to compare gaps and as I recall mine was bigger. Terry-Thomas's dental diastema provided the basis for the naming of a widening of the scapholunate space ("Terry-Thomas sign") in a traumatic wrist injury. Famous gap-toothed women include Lauren Hutton, Cleopatra, Sandra Day O'Connor, not to mention Condoleezza Rice. Director Les Blank made a documentary film about them in the 1980s.

Burton's depiction of Lewis Carroll's fantasy is an overwhelming visual treat and a twisted departure from the standard story. As an older Alice revisiting an earlier dream (nightmare?), Mia Wasikowska has little to do. Fortunately she previously showed her considerable acting skills in the first season of the excellent TV series abut psychotherapy, "In Treatment." Here she's little more than a backdrop for spectacular special effects, chief among them the hydrocephalic forehead of Helena Bonham Carter's Red Queen. She far outshines the good White Queen, her sister, played by the wispy Anne Hathaway who seems as puzzled as Mia about what to do. Roger Ebert in his online review writes that the original books seemed "creepy and rather distasteful" to him as a young reader. "Alice," he concludes "plays better as an adult hallucination, which is how Burton rather brilliantly interprets." Burton's Underland, says Ebert, is a "perturbing place where the inhabitants exist for little apparent reason other than to be peculiar and obnoxious. Do they reproduce? Most species seem to have only one member, as if nature quit while she was ahead." Manohla Dargis in the New York Times calls the film "dark and sometimes grim," and says Burton's Alice is mostly a foil for Depp who "brings his own brand of cinematic crazy to the tea party. With his Kabuki-white face, the character seems to have been calculated to invoke Heath Ledger's Joker." No mention of the gap. Perhaps she didn't mind it.

Nan and I enjoyed the spectacle of Burton's "Alice" at the opening night screening in Bangkok, a full day or more before moviegoers in American and Europe had the chance to see what the fuss was all about. Once again, I found the plastic 3-D glasses clunky and awkward. While an improvement over the old paper ones, I think they darken the film considerably (you only have to remove them to see this). As with "Avatar," after a few minutes you forget that there is anything special with 3-D and enjoy being occasionally startled by a special effect (like when the Red Queen hits a hedgehog into the audience with her flamingo mallet). Maybe it's my aging ears, but I found the dialogue weak and unclear while the rumbles and bangs to accompany the numerous effects were loud and even overpowering. I tried not very successfully to explain to Nan the history of the stories about Wonderland by mathematician and photographer Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll was his pen name) which were designed to enchant a prepubescent Alice Liddell (photo here taken in 1858 when she was six). There are no pictures of Dodgson smiling so I cannot tell if he has a gap tooth. Even old Walt Disney apparently found the appeal of the stories puzzling.

Speaking of Roger Ebert, there is a very moving article in Esquire by Chris Jones about his struggle with the throat cancer that took away his voice several years ago. Ebert has been a film critic with the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967 and is best known for the entertaining TV program he co-hosted for 27 years with Gene Siskel in which the two movie fans debated the latest releases, often in friendly disagreement. When Siskel died of cancer in 1999, Ebert was joined by Richard Roeper. But after an operation in 2006 he could no longer speak. He continues to write about film prolifically, however, and several days he ago he appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to demonstrate a new computer activated voice that sounds remarkably like his old speaking voice. A company in Scotland input hours of Ebert's voice from his TV program to create a computer-assisted vocal program.

School's out for summer! Last Wednesday was the final class for the second term of the school year, and after an examination next week my students will be on holiday until the end of May. This is called the "summer vacation" in Thailand because April is the hottest month. All of the monks had freshly shaved heads because of Wan Phra, the full moon day last Sunday which was also Makha Bucha, the Buddhist holiday that celebrates the Buddha's sermon to 1,250 newly ordained monks nine months after his enlightenment. For their weekly presentation, I asked them to talk about what they were going to do after school let out (using present continuous and "going to" for future intentions was the lesson). Many were traveling to different monasteries where they were going to teach (infinitive of purpose) the Dhamma to newly ordained novice monks. I told them that Nan and I would be traveling to Krabi by overnight bus during the week of Songkran in April where we planned to swim and go snorkeling (and get wet during the water festival's street battles).

I'm suffering withdrawal following the end of the winter Olympics in Vancouver. Each morning I got up before dawn and turned on the TV to watch coverage on ESPN from Canada. Aside from curling, which reminded me too much of men (and women) staring at goats, I found most of the events, as well as the opening and closing ceremonies, riveting. The high point was the women's figure skating final won by Yu-Na Kim (or is it Kim Yu-Na?), in a breathtakingly beautiful and technically awesome performance on ice. I even found myself rooting for the Koreans, our neighbors to the north now, during the speed skating events. ESPN's coverage was refreshingly free of the jingoistic chauvinism even Americans complained about from NBC. In Asia, since Thailand sent no athletes (where was the Jamaican bobsled team this year?), the competition seemed more about ability that nationality. Sure, America got the most medals but not the most gold (that honor went to Canada followed by Germany). It was interesting to see the different ways that standings were calculated (most gold or most medals) by different sources. The downhill and snowboard competitions were unbelievable. How can anyone do that? It was wonderful to see the snow as I sat here in Bangkok bathed in air conditioned coolness, and by the final ceremonies I felt quite proud that I was half Canadian (mom was born in Winnipeg). Now Nan is lobbying for a trip to Korean during the next winter season. She wants to sample the snow for herself.