Thursday, April 29, 2010

Does Thailand Need a Superhero?

How is comic book action like a war? I went to see "Kick-Ass" (above) last night to escape the gloomy news yesterday of a soldier killed by "friendly fire" in a battle with anti-government forces in a northern suburb of Bangkok. It's a film about the impact of comic books on an impressionable teen who yearns to be a superhero despite the absence of any real powers. So he begins his adventures by buying a colorful wet suit and mask from eBay. And he gets hurt. It reminded me of the scenes this week of soldiers in their helmets and camouflage outfits and the police in their Robocop suits carrying plexiglass shields, many with guns, and I wondered about the impact of violent and bloody Thai action films (its most popular genre) on their expectations of war.

Real war, as writers tell us and photographs depict, is hell. The above photo shows one of the injured after several grenades exploded near a crowded Skytrain station last week. As of this morning, 26 people have died and over a thousand were injured in several violent episodes over the last 19 days. Tens of thousands of security forces face off against tens of thousands of demonstrators occupying nearly five kilometers of streets in central Bangkok where they are protected by large "Mad Max" barricades of tires and sharpened bamboo sticks. For many days, the newspapers and internet have predicted a sure-to-be bloody crackdown on the protesters' encampment which would certainly spark a civil war throughout the country.

"Kick-Ass" is an enjoyable and fast-moving farce on many levels, but it begins with the premise that in an imperfect world (the hero-to-be lives in a very gritty neighborhood of New York City where he is routinely mugged), we are encouraged to believe in saviors like the ones we see portrayed in comic books, on TV and in films. In a world of bullies and gangsters, we feel someone has to stand up and eliminate the bad guys. Outside of our cultural fantasies, this mantle of a righteous savior was most consciously adopted by George W. Bush and his gang of crusaders who waged war on the "Evil Empire" by invading Afghanistan and Iraq, and whose successor, Superfly Obama, is poised to punish Iran for being uppity. In Thailand there are many heroes lined up to save the country, from Prime Minister Abhisit and PAD (yellow shirt) leader Chamlong to the UDD (red shirt) panel of leaders -- Veera, Nattawut and Dr. Weng -- as well as numerous looser cannons like Seh Daeng and Arisman.

In "Kick-Ass," the pretend superhero, awkward Dave, meets the real thing in 11-year-old Mindy (aka Hit Girl) and her trainer/father Damon (aka Big Daddy), a disgraced cop out to get revenge on the gangster he blames for putting him in prison and the suicide of Mindy's mom. The foul-mouthed Mindy was raised to kill and she slaughters numerous rooms full of bad guys before enlisting Dave's help in the finale. Manohla Dargis at the NY Times says the film "at once embraces and satirizes contemporary action-film clichés with Tarantino-esque self-regard — it’s the latest in giggles-and-guts entertainment." The distinguished Roger Ebert called it "morally reprehensible." Dare we suggest that it's just a film of what began as a comic book which takes the influence of comic book morality seriously?

I won't pretend to know what Thais read but I know that action TV dramas and films and stories about evil ghosts are extremely popular, and I've seen many people reading cartoon and manga books on public transport and in cafés and restaurants. There are two ways that young Thais who can't afford to go to college can escape the country's pervasive poverty: join the military or police, or become a monk. Most soldiers are conscripted (I expect the wealthy can buy their way out of service). Aside from a long-lasting violent Muslim insurgency in the south, the Army has it easy with relatively stable borders and no outside enemies. I doubt that soldiers receive much training in crowd control (the last riot was 18 years ago). They are very well-equipped because of the bloated military budget (much increased after the 2006 coup) but untrustworthy since it is believed many are "watermelons" (green outside but with red sympathies within). Some say there is enmity between the Army and the police. The bloody battle April 10 was a rout for the misguided troops; some were even captured by the stone-throwing reds and their weapons and uniforms confiscated. Most of the dead and injured that night were civilians, but a mysterious group of "men in black" targeted a troop command post with deadly accuracy and some believe it indicates rebellion in the ranks (the reds denied they used lethal weapons). The explosions in Silom were likewise apparently committed by a shadow "Third Hand." The government claims the reds did it, and put in charge of the investigation a forensic "expert" who recently touted the value of fake bomb detectors purchased by the military for an outrageous sum.

Yesterday a caravan of 2,000 red shirts (actually, they have abandoned red now for a less identifiable pallet of colors) on their way to meet supporters in a northern suburb were met by a large force of soldiers and police who blocked the road. Without warning they fired live rounds as well as rubber bullets into the crowd, injuring 19. Protesters threw stones, shot metal balls from sling-shots and launched fireworks in response. The soldier killed was riding a motorbike toward police lines when he was shot and another was wounded. The battle was cut short by a torrential tropical storm and the red caravan retreated to central Bangkok. In videos shown on TV last night, those with guns can be seen firing wildly. There seems no organization or method in the violence, just as on April 10 when soldiers attempting to close down a protest rally site got caught in their own tear gas and fired their guns aimlessly while retreating. I watched it on live TV and it was not a pretty sight. But I also want to consider the mind of the young cop or recruit who has little knowledge of war beyond cartons, movies and video games. The Thai Army is top-heavy with generals but apparently few officers schooled in leading their troops.

In an amazing serendipity, the nemesis of Kick-Ass in the film is another amateur superhero who calls himself Red Mist. He's the nerdy son of the gangster HG and BD want to put out of business (by dramatically killing all employees and their boss). Although this isn't intended as a film review, he's played with aplomb by the delightful Mclovin' from "Superbad." I say "serendipity," because the day before the Times of London ran an editorial about Thailand headlined "Red Mist" in which it was argued that "
Mr Abhisit must accept the Red Shirts’ proposal of new elections in three months, a wholly reasonable proposal that he rejected out of hand." According to the editors "He must acknowledge that he has become part of the problem, and step down immediately — not for exile, as the Red Shirts demand, but for an honest fight at the ballot box." In "Kick-Ass," Red Mist survives to, no doubt, appear in the sequel. If Abhisit resigns, I doubt he will be back, and that's probably the root of his stubbornness (when in opposition, he urged the government, faced with yellow shirt protests which closed the international airport, to do what he refuses to do now).

Unfortunately, there are no superheroes at the moment in Thailand. Abhisit gave interviews yesterday to CNN and BBC in a unconvincing attempt to make his intransigent position seem reasonable to an international audience. At home he has smeared red leaders and the opposition Puea Thai party with the anti-royal brush, claiming that they are involved in a conspiracy to topple the monarchy. It's the ultimate card in Thai politics, and can justify any sort of repression against the nation's enemies (many are comparing it to 1973 when protesting students were beaten, slaughtered and lynched, as seen in videos currently available on YouTube). It reminds me of the reprehensible McCarthy and the witch hunt for un-Americans. On their side, red leaders here constantly vilify their enemies from the encampment stage, comparing Abhisit to Hitler and worse. Chamlong and his yellow shirts, whose street campaigns brought down Thaksin and his successors, has warned Abhisit that his group will soon take matters into its own hands if the Army cannot end the red rally.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Human Kindness is Overflowing

It's raining in Bangkok in the early morning today, something not all that common for this time of year. I can see dark clouds over the city from my 9th floor window. Lightning strikes unexpectedly close by and thunder rattles the walls. When it rains here, it really pours, but not for all that long. I love it. I stick my head out the window and let the downpour give me a shampoo.

Broken windows and empty hallways
A pale dead moon in the sky streaked with gray

No one writes bittersweet lyrics better than Randy Newman. He hands you strong medicine and gives you a sweet melody to wash it down so you don't notice the taste. Whether writing about slavery ("Sail Away"), short people, rednecks, consumption ("It's Money That Matters"), Hurricane Katrina ("Louisiana 1927"), the final solution for an ungrateful world ("Political Science"), a polluted river ("Burn On") or the U.S. Empire ("A Few Words in Defense of Our Country"), Newman stands the truth on its ironic head. What would he have to say about the mysteries and illusions that plague Thailand now?

Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles
With frozen smiles to chase love away

I can add nothing new to explain the political troubles here that have claimed more than 25 lives and injured nearly a thousand protesters, soldiers and innocent bystanders since the military's botched attempt two weeks ago to close down the anti-government red shirt rally that began March 14. Army Gen. Anupong has apparently refused to remove the demonstrators whose encampment has paralyzed the shopping and business centers of the city. He's in favor of a political solution to the standoff but the politicians seem incapable of solving anything. An emerging pro-government movement, led by the same yellow shirts who occupied Parliament for four months and closed Bangkok's airports in 2008, gave Prime Minister Abhisit seven days to end the demonstration or else (the deadline is tomorrow night). Many countries have issued travel warnings for Bangkok and the tourist industry is in the toilet. Last night, however, there was no reported violence and today the wet weather must be putting a damper on the conflict.

Lonely, lonely
Tin can at my feet
Think I'll kick it down the street
That's the way to treat a friend

Since returning from our vacation a week ago, I've stayed close to home. The areas of trouble are a good distance away, even though I can spot the tall buildings around Silom and Ratchaprasong from my window and watch the military helicopters when they fly over on observation missions with my binoculars. Last Thursday night the Foreign Correspondents Club held a panel discussion on the crisis and a fellow expat asked me to join him there. But the FCCT is located on the top floor of a building in Chid Lom close to the main gathering of red shirts and a stone's throw away from the stage where a procession of speakers have inspired their forces for several weeks. Going there seemed risky to me, and I used Nan's fears for my safety as an excuse to stay home. Sure enough, just as the meeting was scheduled to begin, several grenades exploded near the Sala Daeng Skytrain stop in Silom where a secondary confrontation was taking place between red shirts behind an improvised "Mad Max" kind of barricade and a large group of yellow shirts throwing bottles and stones at them from across the street. There were numerous casualties, including the death of a Thai woman.

Bright before me the signs implore me
To help the needy and show them the way

No one knows for certain who lobbed the grenades or from where, although the government spokesman said they came from behind the red barricade and the reds claim that a "third hand" force is trying to frame them. Silom was crawling with soldiers providing security who saw nothing. The same mystery envelopes the April 10 shoot-out when most of the casualties were red shirts. Who shot who, why, and and from where, cannot be answered convincingly for everyone, even though a movie actor tenuously connected to the reds has been arrested and has apparently confessed his involvement at the behest of red leaders. Too often significant crimes remain unsolved and unpunished in Thailand. No yellow shirt has been prosecuted for the chaos they caused in 2008, no culprits have been nabbed for a month's worth of random (and, until this week, harmless) bombings around Bangkok, and even the attempted assassination of yellow leader Sondhi Limthongkul was never solved. Thailand has an extremely well-funded and equipped police force and military (despite few external threats), and yet they seem incapable of maintaining a rule of law.

Human kindness is overflowing
And I think it's going to rain today*

The bombings in Silom confirmed my worst fears. I was certain that it was the beginning of a civil war. I was more afraid of the yellow shirts (hiding behind a "multicolor" banner) than the numerous security forces. Composed of mostly the discontented middle class from Bangkok, they are threatened by the uppity protesters and appeared belligerent and angry on the TV news, carrying signs and yelling impolite slurs (comparing the reds to water buffalo, lizards and other animals, the equivalent of "nigger" in America) at the darker-skinned invaders from the provinces who now proudly refer to themselves as "phrai" (peasant). Some commentators believe the royalist yellow shirts are guilty of fomenting violence in order to provoke a military coup that will preserve rule by the privileged Bangkok elite. They have openly advocated increasing the non-elected portion of government. What a contrast with the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), the red shirt organization, which actually lives up to its name by advocating democracy! The UDD wants to increase elected representation and is calling for a new election to undo to the damage to democracy caused by the illegitimate 2006 military coup that overturned an elected government.

If I were not with Nan, I would probably engage in more risky behavior, but now I know that she worries about me, understandably. Several westerners were injured in the Silom blasts. On Friday my monthly political discussion group was holding an urgent meeting in Sukhumvit across the city. I've been a faithful participant for six months. It would require me to cross through or over the demonstration sites, at least the main one in Siam. So I declined. By yesterday afternoon, it was apparent that all was quiet, negotiations were rumored, the military was not going to begin a crackdown against the demonstrators, and I felt like a wimp for not attempting to join my friends. Second-guessing is a foolish taskmaster.

*I prefer the version by Nina Simon, but others, by Newman himself, Judy Collins, Bette Middler, Joe Cocker, Dusty Springfield, and, more recently, Norah Jones, are also fine.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Power of Water

Nothing under heaven is as yielding as water.
And yet in attacking the hard, the unyielding,
Nothing can surpass it. Nothing can take it's place.

--Tao Te Ching (trans. by Sam Hamill)

Three days after the bloody clash between soldiers and anti-government protesters in Bangkok, tourists and Thais were throwing water at each other on Khao San Road, a block away from the intersection where over 20 people died and more than 800 were injured. The battle with water was a celebration of Songkran, the traditional Southeast Asian New Year, when Thais splash water and colored powder on each other. The photo above was taken last Tuesday on the main drag of Ao Nang, a tourist destination on the Andaman Sea where Nan and I spent a very wet and wonderful week, with many ups and a few downs..

It was hard for me to leave Bangkok a week ago Saturday because the government had obviously chosen that day to remove the red shirted demonstrators from their rally at Phan Fa Bridge in the old city of Rattanakosin. On live TV, large numbers of troops could be seen moving toward the site in the afternoon. Although soldiers were supposedly supplied only with shields, truncheons, tear gas and rubber bullets, across from the United Nations headquarters some of them were pointing their guns at the crowd and one reporter showed where a real bullet had hit her car. The reds fought back with sticks, stones and water bottles. From my apartment window I could see a helicopter across the river circling above them. Thousands of red shirts at the other rally site in the heart of Bangkok's shopping center were in a tense standoff with police. But it was time to go.

The Southern Bus Terminal was filled with people waiting for their buses home. Most Thais who live and work in Bangkok have family elsewhere and they usually return home for major holidays: January's New Year celebration, Songkran, and Loi Krathong in November. Many like us choose to take a holiday. Plane, bus and train tickets sold out weeks ago. We ate in a packed food court while watching a Thai comedy on the overhead TV. I didn't bring my laptop with me and only learned about the bloody battle several days later from an English newspaper at Starbucks in Ao Nang. The last time I traveled to Krabi a year and a half ago, it was by plane. This time we took an overnight "VIP" 24-seat bus for about $29. The steward passed out water and snacks and it was relatively comfortable, but I was unprepared for the arctic air conditioning. The TV featured a bloody Thai historical video with the volume turned on high, but I blocked it by listening to the new Sade CD on my iPod. Around 11:30 were were awoken when the bus stopped at a huge restaurant to feed us a set meal along with hundreds of other travelers.

At the beginning and end of my first trip to the Andaman coast I stayed in the nondescript provincial town of Krabi but spent most of the 12 days on the islands of Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta. I visited Ao Nang only to take a long tail boat from there one morning to the beautiful landlocked Railay Beach. It's a town devoted to tourism but not obnoxiously so like Pattaya or Phuket, and it offered a variety of sea excursions like the two we took from Ko Samui. Two months ago we found Ao Nang Mountain Paradise on the internet and prepaid for six nights. After our early morning arrival, we found it in the shade of a large cliff. Our room was not yet ready so we set out for the beach and soon realized that it was a very long walk ("1 minute," claimed the web site). The pool was green and slick with algae. The shower handle was attached by gravity rather than a screw On our second night there, the electricity failed in several of the bungalows including ours. The apologetic night manager said it was a problem at the power plant but I suspected faulty wiring. After two hours in the hot dark battling mosquitoes, we rented another hotel room up the street. In the morning the electricity was back and we took our first speed boat excursion. That night about 10, the electricity gave out again. This time we told the embarrassed employee that we had to leave, and he told us to come back in the morning for a refund. It was too dark to pack, so we found another room and returned in the morning. The unsmiling day manager said refunds could be only given by the online agent. She said we would have to pay for the two nights we slept in another hotel since we left our belongings. I angrily refused to return the key when we left. Later she called my mobile phone and threatened to summon the police, so Nan took the key back. Our hotel for the next three days, Pranang Flora House, was exceptionally comfortable.

Fortified by 50 SPF sun block, Nan and I spent our days on the beach (in the shade where we could find it), in the surf and on board the speedboats operated by Baracudas Tours Krabi. We signed up for two trips, the 4 Islands tour on Tuesday and the Phi Phi Islands tour on Friday. The Andaman seascape is dominated by numerous karst rock formations that rise up out of the water, whether pillar or island. On the first excursion we joined an extended family from Trang, stopping first at Pranang Cave on the Railay peninsula where the local spirit of a princess is placated with phallic objects offered by fishermen hoping for a good catch. From there we traveled around Chicken Island (which looked more like a turkey to me) and stopped at a small beach where we had a set lunch in a tiny restaurant constructed from driftwood. At low tide, you can walk from that beach to the nearby Tup Island, our next destination, to snorkle and swim. Our final journey was to Poda Island with a wide white sand beach and shady trees inland.

It was Songkran and there were large crowds at every stop, almost all of them Thai (or at least non-European), which surprised me. All of the guests at Ao Nang Mountain Paradise had been Thai, while the two main streets of Ao Nang were filled with farang tourists and businesses that catered to their perceived needs (tacky souvenirs and identical beachware on sale in every shop). When our speedboat returned to the beach at Ao Nang, the Songkran festivities were in full swing. Revelers of all ages strolled the boardwalk, squirt guns in hand, and pickup trucks filled with Thais drove slowly, looking for likely targets on which to pour buckets of water. Two years ago in Chiang Mai I noticed that tourists love Songkran. There the watery holiday lasted a full week. In Ao Nang, only a few foreigners kept up their water fights the next day.

One sunset Nan and I discovered the Moon Terrace restaurant on a small beachfront alley where numerous places specialized in fresh seafood. The view was spectacular as we sat outside to eat on the deck. We returned again on our final night. If I were a Colman Andrews or an Ed Ward, two friends who specialize in writing about food, I could describe the dinners. Suffice it to say that each were divine. Early in the week we explored Railay with its magnificent beach on the east and mangrove-studded shoreline on the west. We sipped cold drinks at a restaurant with a view on the western hillside and watched students pulls themselves up the face of a nearby cliff at one of the many climbing schools in the Krabi area. In between island trips, we spread our mat on the ground in the shade of the treeline and enjoyed the main Ao Nang beach watching the tide roll out, from high in the morning to low in the late afternoon. Of course we occasionally worried about a possible tsunami, since Ao Nang was struck by the big one in 2004 (you can read about its impact on Ao Nang and see photos here). One day we walked to the southern end of the beach where there are numerous massage pavilions and each of us received a pummeling for 200 baht. And in the evening we had a delicious do-it-yourself barbecue dinner at a packed sidewalk restaurant (this is one form of Thai food farang can only find here).

Our final speedboat trip was to the Phi Phi islands, Phi Phi Don and the smaller and uninhabited Phi Phi Lay. It was a larger crowd which included a couple of farang, a bigger boat, and only one passenger threw up (a couple of them looked distinctly unhappy). I'd stayed a few days before on Phi Phi and found it small and crowded. Much had been rebuilt after the tsunami which was particularly destructive there. Our first stop was to go snorkling in the channel off Bamboo Island. The fish were abundant and the coral lovely in the turquoise blue waters. Next we headed with a fleet of tour boats to tiny Phi Phi Don with its hidden inlets, lagoons and beaches. Our first stop was Viking Cave (misnamed, obviously), now privately owned, where bird nests are collected for the famous soup. We continued on to Lohsamah Bay and Pileh Bay but the many boats made the water too rough for snorkling. Finally, the pièce de résistance, Maya Bay where "The Beach" was filmed. We were warned when the tour guide describe the beach as "a market."Numerous boats had anchored in the lagoon and hundreds of visitors milled around on the sand or in the surf. Many sought shade in the lee of a cliff. All were taking photos. Since it was high tide, there wasn't much of a beach. Back at home, I compared scenes from the film with my photos and saw that the filmmaker had hidden the entrance from the sea with a cg effect, but the lagoon, minus people, would be no less beautiful.

After a short trip to a remote side of Phi Phi Don where monkeys live in the trees along the shore, lunch was another set meal at a restaurant on Ko Phi Phi's Ton Sai Bay where the boats dock. Since we had 40 minutes to spare, I walked Nan through the twisting lanes of tourist shops to the lovely beach on Loh Dalam Bay. I doubt that any Thais vacation on Phi Phi. It's a backpacker's paradise, with bars, shops selling banana shakes and pancakes, and videos of American movies showing in the evenings. We stopped for drinks at D's Bookstore, much expanded now with a terrace on the other side, where I used to sip cappuccino and browse the book titles in the late afternoon during my last visit. Back on the boat, our final stop was Bamboo Island with its broad white beach and good snorkling close to shore. A group of Muslim girls were enjoying the water while fully clothed, head to toe. After more swimming, we ate absurdly high priced ice cream bars in the shade of a grove of pine trees before heading back to Ao Nang.

It was a wonderful vacation and eminently suitable for Songkran since we were wet most of every day. As the days lengthened, I began to suffer withdrawal from the internet and tried to catch up on the news that I'd missed with the hotel's computer. I found copies of Bangkok's English papers at the local Bookazine, but the news was old by the time I read it. Mysterious and unknown elements were believed responsible for the worst of the violence on April 10, whether rogue soldiers or renegade reds no one seemed sure. Abhisit called them "terrorists" and hinted them someone wanted to radically change Thailand's government (code for overturning the monarchy). The red shirts consolidated their demonstration at Rajaprasong, continuing the shutdown of five-star hotels and luxurious shopping malls, while the military positioned snipers in surrounding buildings. Arrest warrants were issued for red leaders but an attempt to capture a couple backfired and several of the police were held hostage. The fascist yellow shirts began a demonstration, first calling themselves people of no particular color and then yesterday demanding that Abhisit end the red rally or they would take to the streets again. The Prime Minister put General Anupong, the military commander-in-chief, in charge of ending the anti-government protest even though earlier the soldier had said that only a political solution was possible for the protracted conflict.

Back home, with swollen feet and ankles after another 11-hour bus ride, I watch the tweets from Bangkok closely and search the relevant blogs and web pages for news and information. It's hard to synthesize since events are moving rapidly towards some kind of a conclusion. I agree that only political negotiation can lead toward a settlement, but it seems obvious that the different sides are not willing to listen to each other. "In the facile political taxonomy we use to categorize nations, Thailand is considered a democracy," wrote one writer in Time Magazine. "Yet the country remains, if not a banana republic, a juicy, messy mango republic." Pavin Chachavalpongpun wrote this morning in the Bangkok Post, "Thailand has long lived in a fairy tale world in which the supposed ideal of perfection effectively eclipsed the huge differences and fragmentations in society." But he predicted that out of the current struggles a new Thai identity would emerge. The red shirts, he said, "are seeking to reinvent a national identity of their own. They are eager to reject the top-down process of identity making, while campaigning for a bottom-up way of how Thais should express their nationhood."

Water is powerful. The 2004 tsunami and the Grand Canyon are proof of that. Can Thailand's politicians learn from the wisdom of the Tao?

But the muddiest water clears as it's stilled,
and out of that stillness, life arises.

-Tao Te Ching (trans. by Sam Hamill)

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Which Side Are You On?

This morning Thailand is holding its breath, waiting for the next chapter (the final one?) in the ongoing political drama between tens of thousands of anti-government protesters demanding new elections and the embattled administration of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva which--so far--says no.

For almost four weeks, the demonstrators, instantly identified by the color red, have taken their demand to the streets, first occupying the broad Ratchadamnoen boulevard near Democracy Monument in Rattanakosin, the older section of Bangkok, and, for the last week, also sitting in at the Ratchaprasong intersection in Siam where they effectively closed down the luxury shopping malls, Siam Paragon and Central World. Since they claim that the wealthy elites control the government, their message could not have been more clear. The United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) has conducted a number of other symbolic operations, like splashing blood donated by their members at Government House, the headquarters of Abhisit's Democratic Party, and on the gate to Abhisit's home. Thousands have ridden in trucks, taxis, tuk-tuks and motorbikes, flags flying and music playing, through the streets of Bangkok where the residents seem mostly supportive. In the last two days, however, red shirts have invaded the offices of the Election Commission to demand a case against the Democrats be prosecuted more vigorously, and forced their way into Parliament where they disarmed a guard with what they claimed were illegal weapons. Although they left soon after, some MPs had fled in fear out the back.

This was enough for Abhisit who declared a State of Emergency in Bangkok and several surrounding provinces. The Internal Security Act (ISA) declared before the reds arrived in Bangkok March 13, was apparently not working. The reds have thumbed their noses at the ban on the rally near the shopping center where perhaps 60,000 have gathered. And they defied a ban on travel over 11 streets declared off-limits by the government. Every restriction proposed by the government has resulted in an escalation of threats by the reds. Talks between the two sides last week, when the reds called for a dissolution of Parliament and new elections in 15 days and Abhisit proposed nine months, resulted in mostly posturing. Eager mediators have suggested that six or three months is a reasonable time frame, but Abhisit has kept silence.

Last week, I came across an article in Asia Times Online by Danny Unger, a political science professor at Northern Illinois University, which attempts to analyze the polarization among foreigners in Thailand which somewhat reflects the divide between Thai political factions. He observes that "in recent months the atmosphere surrounding discussion among foreign followers of Thai politics has featured arrogance, intolerance and a disturbing tide of a sort of political correctness." I've noticed that many foreigners, particularly those who post to the Thaivisa forum, dislike red shirts and defend the yellow shirts who closed down Bangkok's airports last year in an eventually successful attempt to throw out an elected government of politicians loyal to exiled PM Thaksin Shinawatra. Unger believes that "most foreigners who comment on Thailand seem to converge in wanting the country to become a liberal democracy, one in which elections are meaningful policy contests that are not subject to military reversals, in which the law is applied reasonably equally to all. Different foreigners may give more or less emphasis to the values of equality, liberty, or solidarity, but most seem to want something approximating the political systems of Denmark or the Netherlands."

Uncertainty and a lack of understanding, Unger believes, leads foreigners in Thailand to very different conclusions about the country's political chaos, even if they share liberal democratic hopes for Thailand. He cites Mike Montesano, a scholar based in Singapore who concludes that "the foreigners who have not aligned themselves with the red shirts have simply gone native. He refers to 'a long tradition of uncritical attraction to Bangkok's social elites' that leads earnest young American democrats to shed the political values of their youth in a 'daft' embrace of Thai elite perspectives. This abandonment of earlier cherished values is particularly perverse because many of these foreigners have spent time in Thailand's countryside and therefore should know better. Montesano finds this phenomenon of a sort of expatriate false consciousness 'fascinating - and more than a little depressing.'" Unger's argument is a bit muddled and his conclusion is not easy to discern. The question of why expats favor either red shirts or yellow shirts is important, however. I suspect that many who work here yearn for stability and might prefer that the elites continue to rule the country. Perhaps red shirt partisans like me are attempting to relive their radical youth in a foreign climate.

I sent Unger's article to a group of expats I know who meet monthly to discuss issues in Thai and Southeast Asian cultural and politics. One member shared it with an American friend who has lived in Thailand for a long time and raised a family here. Her response, which I read, was an intelligent expression of the elite's position. I do not have permission to print that letter, but here is my comment to my friend on her friend's remarks:

"I thank you very much for sharing ______'s response with me. I've met her and I like her. Great spirit. But because of her connections I would expect her to share their interests.

"What stands out for me from _______ and in other arguments of this kind is that it's all about Thaksin. From all my reading and from walking around the streets with the reds a number of times, I just don't agree. In fact, I think Thaksin is far less important for the reds than the yellows (and I include _______ in this overly-simplified schema). I really do believe that the reds are here in Bangkok because most of them truly want a say in how the country is run; they want the democracy that Thailand has rarely had since 1932. Thaksin is a symbol, like the red color, useful now but not essential forever.

"I agree that any love they have for him is misguided. He was not a friend of democracy when he was in office. He made himself rich by pulling government strings. He trampled on human rights in the south. And his support of the poor was strategic rather than philosophic. He was corrupt and he was crooked, but often in the tradition that all Thai politicians have used office for their own advantage.

"That said, I agree with (Chris) Baker and Pasuk (Phongpaichit, in their book Thaksin) that Thaksin created a new kind of political party, and by giving crumbs to the rural poor he awakened in them a desire to control their destiny. In the past they had been controlled by Bangkok elites and by rural political bosses. Thaksin, perhaps accidentally, gave them rising expectations (one of the roots historians give for the French revolution). In addition, they are less poor. The economy has created a bit of wealth in the provinces (although the disparity between rich and poor is bigger in Thailand than other Asian countries). Unlike _______, I do not see the Sufficiency Economy promoted with the King's projects to have empowered the rural poor to increase their wealth and power. This is something I would like to know more about, but I think it was designed to keep them traditional and satisfied and not a recipe for social and economic progress. It's a safety valve, like the institution of monkdom which keeps many unemployable males off the streets.

"The only solution for Thailand is for people like _______ as well as the urban middle classes, to be able to speak with the red shirts and the provincial people they (I do believe) represent. Democracy is only possible with compromise. The current standoff might have been avoided had the Democrats and the reds agreed on a dissolution in three months (not 15 days or nine months). What's wrong with calling for an election? The reds feel that their elections have been stolen from them and they're right. The coup and politically motivated judicial rulings put in power an unelected government. _______'s wrong when she says the Democrats represent all sides; Abhisit has traveled very little in the north and northeast where he is not welcome. When _______ says "it is rather difficult to match any western pattern," she is arguing for a "Thai-style democracy" which is not really a democracy at all. The military's 2007 constitution and the (yellow shirt) PAD's New Politics advocate limiting democracy to the elites, until the ignorant rural masses are ready and will not be swayed by rich businessmen like Thaksin. This is not democracy, and not a recipe for one in the future.

"I have been very hesitant about supporting the current demands of the red shirts in Bangkok for I feel that only disaster and violence can result from a protracted struggle with the military and the police. I hope I'm wrong. I wish the middle class residents behind the 1992 protests could make common cause with the reds, but I fear they've pushed them away. Aside from the struggle for Parliament yesterday, a strategic mistake I think, their moves have been symbolic, powerful and non-violent: the splashing of their own blood, the marches through the streets, and now the sit-in at the biggest symbol of wealth and privilege in Bangkok, the gates to the supermalls. How can preventing people from shopping be considered as violence? This is absurd and proves their point about the elite.

These are my early morning thoughts as I wait for the other shoe to drop on the reds."

The photos in this post (if you click on one, you can see a larger version) were taken on Tuesday afternoon when I rode the Skytrain from the river to Siam Square and walked from the station up Rama I Road to the rally site. It was my fourth visit to a gathering of reds since Songkran last year, when it all toured sour with violence in the streets. I think they've learned from that debacle. As before, I was amazed and inspired by the energy, the sounds and the smells. Someone quickly shoved an ice-cold cup of water into my hand. Others shouted for me to take their photo. At a red rally, the country comes to the city with their food, music and welcoming spirit. I felt totally safe. Some people were sleeping while others were up and dancing, waving their foot-clappers to make noise and applaud the speaker who could be heard from the stage as well as from hundreds of satellite speakers. There were portable toilets and even showers. Lines formed for free food. I got there in the afternoon and most people were hugging the available shade. Later I rode on the Skytrain past the rally at dusk and, viewed from up above, Ratchadamri Road past Central World was filled with red shirts as far as the eye could see.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Confession of a Bipolar Buddhist

Sometimes the contradictions cannot be resolved. I confess to an attraction to both a Buddhism of the head and a Buddhism of the heart. In America I first learned about Buddhism from the writings of Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki, and spent over 20 years on and off the meditation cushion. Now in Thailand I am learning about Buddhism from devotees who bow to a bewildering variety of images, acquire sacred tattoos, link themselves to spiritual power with string, wrap trees in colored cloth, hang amulets around their necks, cover altars and icons with flowers, small squares of gold leaf, candles and sticks of incense, and who practice generosity by giving coins to beggars and food to monks. If I still identified as a Christian, it's as if I might be torn between attending a Unitarian Universalist meeting and a gathering of holy rolling snake worshippers.

Perhaps Stephen Batchelor shares a little of this ambivalence, for he writes, uncharacteristically I might add, "I am glad I belong to a religion that worships a tree!" in his new book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. In what might be considered a sequel to his highly controversial Buddhism Without Beliefs, published in 1997, Batchelor presents his view of a this-worldly Buddhism, devoid of metaphysical beliefs like karma and rebirth. He roots his understanding of the Buddha's teaching in a rigorous study of the Pali canon, the oldest documents of Buddhism. This is a perspective that I can embrace. Despite a lifelong effort to understand and accept metaphysical, mystical and transcendental accounts of reality, I find myself at this late stage a confirmed materialist. "The challenge of Gotama’s eightfold path," Batchelor writes, "is, as I understand it, to live in this world in a way that allows every aspect of one’s existence to flourish: seeing, thinking, speaking, acting, working, etc." Then he adds an important caveat with which I totally agree: "I find it immoral to relegate the demands of this life to the 'higher' task of preparing oneself for a postmortem existence (or non-existence)."

This is an intellectual Buddhism, however, shorn of ritual. Though he was a monk for many years in both the Tibetan and Korean Zen traditions, Batchelor also studied existentialism and pragmatism, and brings Sartre, Heidegger and Richard Rorty to the discussion. "Buddhism has become for me a philosophy of action and responsibility," he writes. I, too, studied philosophy, in particular the implications for religion of Wittgenstein's later writings, but find that ideas can sometimes get in the way of mindfulness. For Batchelor, however, mindfulness, Vipassana mediation,"serves as an antidote to theism, a cure for sentimental piety, a scalpel for excising the tumor of metaphysical belief." Living in Thailand, I am surrounded by non-physical perceptions of reality; we share space with spirits and ghosts. The Buddha, presumably, answers prayers (Nan says she prays that "everyone be lucky"). We have two Buddha icons and one of the Hindu god Ganesha atop our bookcase and they are adorned with flower garlands for every Wan Phra (Monk Day, on the four phases of the moon).

A visitor in Thailand soon notices the ubiquitous wai (hands folded in reverence and respect) that Thais make when passing a Buddhist temple or spirit house. In addition to glasses and bottles of red soda (the gods apparently like red), the spirit houses usually feature a Hindu deity inside, mostly Ganesha but often Brahma in one of his forms. Images of the mythical bird Garduda are prominent on buildings if the company provides services to the monarchy as a kind of royal seal of approval. It's hard to know where Hinduism ends and Buddhism begins in Thailand. Historically, Hinduism came first to Thailand followed by Theravada Buddhism imported from Sri Lanka, but the replacement was never complete. Even deeper in the Thai psyche is an indigenous animism in which nature is alive with spirits that must be placated with arcane rituals including string to increase power and provide protection from danger. There are religious shrines to everything in Thailand, from ones covered in phallic symbols to promote fertility to others where clothes and toys are presented to a dead mother and her child. The Chao Phraya River in Bangkok is full of fish donated to gain merit (a royal princess recently put 55,000 fingerlings in the river to celebrate her 55th birthday).

Batchelor's new book is a mixture of autobiography with the quest for the historical Buddha through Pali scripture and visits to sites in India and Nepal, and his version of a slimmed-down Dhamma (he calls his style of writing "a collage"). He acknowledges that his early understanding was mostly intellectual. "As a Western convert, I saw Buddhism as a set of philosophical doctrines, ethical precepts, and meditation practices." But when he lived in Korea surrounded by lay Buddhists he realized this was naive. "I began to see it [Buddhism] as a broad cultural and religious identity, one that provides a framework for fallible humans to make complex decisions in a precarious and unpredictable world." I think it's difficult for Westerners, who experience Buddhism from books and speakers while attending a retreat, or on a cushion in a meditation hall, to understand the resonances and overtones Buddhism has for people who live it fulltime. Who is to say what is Buddhist and what is not? Ph.D. student Brooke Schedneck from Arizona is currently doing research in Thailand on how meditation centers here treat Western visitors differently, and her findings are appearing in her blog, Wandering Dharma. Basically, non-Thais receiving a training in meditation without much of the customs and ritual that cradle Buddhists would consider essential. What's the baby and what's the bathwater here?

I teach English to monks at a Buddhist university and hear fascinating stories about their lives. I've gone to temples with Nan to make tamboon (merit) for her recently deceased father and for my son Luke. Recently her grandmother died and I've seen the photos of the cermony where her body was carried in an elaborately designed "boat" to the cremation ground. Shrines, icons and images are everywhere I walk. And yet, like Batchelor, it is difficult for me to be other than a secular Buddhist. "Whether I liked it or not," he writes of the time even when he was a monk, "I was a secular, post-Christian European," and "I had no wish to let go of my cherished humanity.” In his quest for the historical Buddha, Batchelor finds much support for a godless Dhamma. He believes the Pali canon presents Buddha as an "ironic atheist." Rather than an aggressive atheism "premised on a denial of God every bit as fervent as the believer’s affirmation of Him," he thinks Buddha was neither a theist nor an anti-theist. "'God' is simply not part of his vocabulary. He was an “atheist” in the literal sense of the term."

In America I became a Catholic because I liked all the bells and whistles, the incense and the candles, kneeling and genuflecting. The plainness of Protestant churches seemed sterile and deadening to the soul (when I still believed that one's soul could be considered distinct from the body). I read and re-read the Bhagavad Gita and tried to understand the differences between the three spiritual paths it described: the paths of wisdom (jnana), action (karma) and devotion (bhakti). On my first trip to India six years ago I visited many temples and found the popular devotional piety of the people inspiring. There religion was infused into the culture and not a separate sphere of action. It seemed possible to appreciate Hinduism both intellectually, by reading and listening, and spiritually, by participating in communal rituals. Here in Thailand I have found the same unity of religion and life. Batchelor defines religion as "life living itself: not a mechanical repetition of dogmas motivated by threats and fear."

Most Buddhists in Asia are polytheists, Batchelor writes. When a country becomes Buddhist, "the spirits and gods are only downgraded, not abolished." Buddha, he said, "did not reject the existence of the gods, he marginalized them." Still, for the secular Batchelor, "no single Asian form of Buddhism was likely to be effective as a treatment for the peculiar maladies of a late-twentieth-century post-Christian secular existentialist like myself." This goes for me as well. I know that while I can appreciate and applaud popular piety, I will never be able to totally partake of it, just as I can never culturally become a Thai no matter how well I learn to speak the language or eat their spicy food. Is this a form of spiritual bipolarity?

Life, for Batchelor, presents itself as an unresolved question. "Existence strikes us as a mystery, as a riddle. This experience reverberates through us, issuing in the sounds ‘Why?’ and ‘What?” The various religious of the world are systematic formulations of the answers to these questions." By studying early documents traced to the teaching of the Buddha, he came to realize "how deeply Buddhism was tied to the world-renouncing norms of much Indian religion" and that it "still has as its ultimate goal the ending of rebirth and thus of life as we know it." And as "the words of Siddharttha Gotama metamorphosed into the religion called 'Buddhism,'" he writes, "I began to suspect that something might have gone awry." This opinion has been much criticized by tradition-oriented Buddhists (read this scathing review of his new book). Nirvana, in Batchelor's view, is "a way of being in this world that was not conditioned by greed, hatred, or confusion...[it was] a radical shift of perspective rather than the gaining of privileged knowledge into some higher truth...The heart of Gotama’s awakening lay in his unequivocal embrace of contingency" and this was to be found "not by turning away from the world but by penetrating deep into its continent heart." (my emphasis added)

When he was a monk, Batchelor's mother wrote to him with this advice: "You cannot stay in Nirvana forever, my dear."

Confession of a Buddhist Atheist is a challenging and insightful book and I have not done it justice. I'm following it by reading an equally controversial interpretation of Buddhism, What the Buddha Thought by Richard Gombrich, a Pali scholar from Oxford. During a visit to Bangkok six months ago he gave a talk in which he said that Thai Buddhist monks treat women "as untouchables." It caused a storm of controversy. I'll report on my findings later.