Friday, May 21, 2010

The Aftermath

When I wrote about living with uncertainty a week ago, I had no idea how fast uncertainties could multiply. This past week has been a roller coaster ride out of control. The impact of Bangkok's political troubles on me, however, has been minimal compared to the sufferings of the 52 that died and over 400 injured in six days of street fighting. Since the military dispersed the anti-government demonstrators from the city center on Wednesday morning (with less than feared casualties), angry mobs have torched over 30 buildings in the city and town halls in several provinces. I watched from my 9th floor window as plumes of smoke rose over the Bangkok skyline. Transportation remains extremely limited and many stores and banks are closed. We've had two nights of curfew that silenced the city. Birds could be heard singing before dawn this morning.

During the Battle of Bangkok I remained mostly rooted to my couch, watching the often horrifying scenes unfold over Thai TV without understanding much of the commentary. Twitter has become the news source of choice for instant comment on dangerous events, although the wild rumors often outweigh verified facts. I regularly read the tweets of several dozen people in Bangkok, many of whom were in the midst of the fighting and sent out incredible photos from their mobile phone cameras. I used Google Reader to keep track of over thirty bloggers in Thailand and the local English press, and these sources along with twitter often provided links to important articles in newspapers and online sites all over the world. On Facebook I frequently posted comments and links to numerous stories and coverage of events. Many videos of the fighting were instantly available on YouTube. The journalistic output was astounding and overwhelming, as was the plethora of incredible photos available online of the action on the other side of the Chao Phraya River not that far from my apartment.

Because so much as been written and photographed, I won't attempt a synthesis, or add my two cents worth to the chronology. In the videos I've seen of the fighting, sometimes there are more press photographers and cameramen with their green arm bands than combatants. Bangkok has been a magnet for prominent conflict journalists who roam the world looking for trouble. With digital photography and cell phones, everyone today can be a journalist. But it's also very dangerous. Several reporters and photographers have been injured or killed while covering the anti-government protest in Bangkok since the first major battle with fatalities on April 10th. Many rumors claim journalists are even targets, some say of the reds and others blame the military. One of the first buildings set on fire was television Channel 3 even though their coverage has been relatively balanced, and the staffs of The Nation and Post were evacuated from their buildings due to the danger.

Despite the widespread news coverage of events in Bangkok since the protest started on March 12th, it's hard to know whom to believe. Thai politics and social relations are so complicated that nothing is what it seems. "Black shirts" or "third hand forces" have been blamed for the deaths of five soldiers on April 10th and for numerous attacks since then by bombers and snipers. Although almost all of the 83 fatalities and over 1,800 injuries since April 10 have been civilians, the government continues to label red shirt factions as "terrorist" (as many as 500) and blame them for much of the killing. Why would reds kill reds? You might also ask why Thais would kill Thais, as many Thais are doing, and there are no easy answers.

Jerry is stuck in Sukhumvit and I doubt that I can travel across the city to visit him since the conflict area blocks my path and the military continues to restrict access. His wife wants him to take the train to their farm in Surin. But since the banks are closed, he can't get to his money. I have to take a van from Wat Mahathat to my university in Wang Noi near Ayutthaya this afternoon for a conference this weekend and hope that I encounter no difficulties. The Immigration Office is closed all week which gives me only a few days next week to secure a renewal of my visa and work permit. The skytrain and subway remain shut down, but if the power brokers have their way, perhaps the road in front will be cleared and Siam Paragon will open its doors this weekend. The curfew is in force again tonight, from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., and the city's massage parlors, bars and strip clubs are in crisis. Tourists are fleeing for the flights home from Souvarnabhumi Airport and many are vowing never to return again to the city of angels.

For some, the supreme tragedy is the destruction of Central World, Bangkok's largest luxury shopping mall and the second biggest in Asia (top photo). It stood alongside the main protest site at Ratchaprasong, the intersection surrounded by five-star hotels, stores patronized by the wealthy, and several important Brahmin shrines. Before 9-11, it used to be called the World Trade Center. That name was changed along with a major facelift several years ago. Now the building is in ruins, as is a large Big C store across the street and Center One, a major shopping complex near Victory Monument. Some protesters were seen stocking up on HiSo supplies before the flames spread. While Bangkok residents and tourists bemoan the demise of this landmark, others comment on twitter and Facebook that the many deaths and injuries were more important than a palace to consumption, and that those who value buildings over people are misguided at best.

I was a supporter of the red shirt cause as I understood it, true democracy in Thailand and an end to double standards. I've read enough about Thaksin Shinawatra to believe that he was an unsavory politician who made his fortune feeding from the public trough. But he wisely empowered people in the north and northeast of Thailand to believe they could have a stake in running the country. A military coup in 2006 and several dubious court decisions disenfranchised them, taking away the results of several elections. The current administration of Prime Minister Abhisit is a minority regime of royalists and militarists with the backing of the fascist yellow shirts who closed down the airport during their street demonstrations in 2008 (and were never punished for the damage they caused to Thailand). But when the Bangkok demonstration began in March I had a bad feeling about it. While the stated goal was simply new elections (which the reds were certain they would win), it didn't seem to me that confrontation with the military could ever succeed. Thailand's enemies are mainly internal and the military, a regime unto itself, is very well armed. I suspected that the real goal was to create martyrs in an attempt to sway the middle class in Bangkok to their side.

While there are now plenty of martyrs, the reds, perceived by many in Bangkok as ignorant rural savages (racism is linked to skin hue in Thailand), made numerous tactical errors that have angered their potential supporters as well as allies whose jobs were lost when the rally site among the shopping malls was selected. No one likes their lives disrupted for no clear reason, and although early on the reds engaged in several symbolic actions that brought a degree of visible support throughout the city, the long shutdown of business and facilities only increased the perception that the country was invading the city and the privileges of the better classes were threatened. This destroyed any hope of a compromise between the pro-democracy movement and the middle class who were active in the political demonstration of 1992. The government's spin doctors increasingly succeeded in isolating the reds as "terrorists" and enemies of the monarchy. By the day of the crackdown May 19, few were willing to stay the hand of revenge.

It's hard to know what will happen next. Certainly the roads will be cleared and cleaned of any evidence that the reds were there. The malls still standing will be opened, and those destroyed will be torn down and rebuilt, for Bangkok thrives on tourists who need their shopping fix. Pockets of rioters will probably continue to harass the authorities in Bangkok, but sabotage no longer has any achievable aim other than mindless destruction. At their peak, perhaps 200,000 participated in the red movement in Bangkok with many more supporters back home or working in the city and unable to take part. It's hard to know whether the government will engage now in reconciliation or revenge. Abhisit's spokesmen take over the TV airwaves frequently to announce milestones in their witch hunt against terrorists, the finding of hidden arms and financial restricts for suspects. The red leaders are in jail and some will be charged and tried for terrorism which carries a death penalty. It's certain, however, that the rage against the regime will simmer in the provinces and in the sois of Bangkok. Unless someone seriously engages in diplomacy and compromise, the Battle of Bangkok will begin to look like the beginning of a civil war in Thailand.

And yet...I continue to love my life and the people here. They deserve better. While I'm angry at the mobs rioting in the streets, I feel I understand their discontent and rage and sympathize with what I saw as the long term goals of true democracy and an end to double standards. Some have pointed out that the red movement never had a political program, and some splinter groups were homophobic thugs like the reds in Chiang Mai who forced the cancellation of a gay pride parade. Maybe the two-month campaign in Bangkok was just too simplistic. But it spoke to the rising expectations of a disenfranchised group of Thais, perhaps even the majority. So its call must be heeded by the powers that be here or the future will be very uncertain (and this is where we began).

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Losing Control and Loving Life

A good friend with serious age-related physical problems bemoans that “it gets harder and harder to keep control--health, money, body, sanity.I fear death. But more I fear being immobile, flat on my back, unable to move, paralyzed for some reason.” Without being in control of our lives, he seems to say, we are little more than a lump of meat, subject to the whims of others. Freedom is movement under our own steam. I responded that, “in many ways, I'm more fortunate than you. I may be long in the tooth, have prostate cancer and arthritis, weird skin growths and heat rashes, and I may be overweight with sagging pecs, a knee that threatens to blow, high blood pressure that reddens my face, and a libido that needs chemical assistance, but I still can walk and am fairly mobile.” Nevertheless, I too experience the suffering and anxiety that comes from a lack of control over my life.

Daily existence in Bangkok is good practice in living out of control. Uncertainty -- learning to live without knowing what comes next -- is the norm when the lingua franca is strange, street signs are unreadable, and cultural values go against the grain. I’m continually off balance at my university where the bureaucracy seems inefficient and Byzantine, and my requests for information are often ignored or misunderstood; only in the classroom with my monks eager to learn English do I feel at home. This is the time of year for gathering documents from the school to renew my working papers and I still don’t know if I’ll make the deadline on time.

In addition, I may be forced to make a quick trip to California to resolve financial and legal issues that threaten my retirement income, something I mistakenly believed was perfectly safe. This comes only a couple of weeks before the start of the new term and this year I’ve agreed to teach both 3rd and 4th year undergrads, four classes a week at two different locations. Preparation will be the key to making everything run smoothly. On top of all this, I was invited to serve as secretary for a panel on “Global Recovery through Buddhist Ecology” at the 7th United Nations Day of Vesak celebration co-sponsored by my university, which begins in 9 days time. Even though Thailand is currently having a heat wave, with temperatures as high as 40 Celsius/104 Fahrenheit, I feel like I’m skating on thin ice.

The idea that it couldn’t be otherwise, that existence is inherently uncertain, is strangely consoling. If total control is an impossible dream, then we can’t be faulted for failing. The Buddha taught that impermanence -- the fact that nothing created can last -- is one of the three characteristics of life. “At the heart of Buddha’s awakening,” writes Stephen Batchelor, my current favorite Buddhist teacher, “lies a counter-intuitive recognition of human experience as radically transient, unreliable, and contingent.” Accepting that this is so is nirvana, the blowing out of the fire of existential discontent. “Embracing contingency,” explains Batchelor in Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil, “requires a willingness to accept the inexplicable and unpredictable instead of reaching for the anesthetic comfort of metaphysics.”

Metaphysics” is a code word for Batchelor which represents the view that pleasure can be prolonged indefinitely, pain can be avoided, and the eternal soul within and the omnipotent god without are all that matter. It is the fantasy of a non-contingent reality where truths are eternal and absolute. The Buddha’s awakening, he writes, “is only intelligible as a response to the diabolic contingency of the human condition.” Batchelor once called the absence of metaphysics agnostic and/or secular, but now confesses that his Buddhism is atheist in a new book with that title, and describes his interpretation as “theology without theos.”

The other two characteristics of our experience, the Buddha taught, are the all-pervasiveness of suffering and the absence of a self. Suffering ranges from the natural (birth, sickness, death) to the self-imposed, particularly the pain we feel when our hopes do not come true or when our life spins out of control. The self that Buddha denies is the metaphysical self, the eternal soul separate from the physical body that incarnates briefly and survives death. But rather than dismiss the self as a fiction, he presents it as a “project to be realized.” Batchelor describes this as a “performative conception of self” which allows for freedom of choice and hence an ethics. “The self is thus neither nonexistent nor eternal but created by one’s acts,” he writes. It’s not a fixed thing or personal essence, but “a tentative and confused story hastening towards its conclusion,” what Batchelor calls in his more recent book a “functional, moral self that breathes and acts in this world.” And one of its acts that can result in awakening to the non-metaphysical truth of existence is to embrace that very lack of control that seems to declare our impotence.

Batchelor’s Buddhism sets the doctrines of karma and rebirth aside and focuses on living this life, awake and aware. This is an approach I like despite his critics who cry: “Heresy!” “Rather than seek God – the goal of the brahmins, “ according to Batchelor “Gotama suggested that you turn your attention to what is most far from God: the anguish and pain of life on this earth…To embrace the contingency of one’s life is to embrace one’s fate as an ephemeral but sentient being. As Nietzsche claimed one can come to love that fate.”

“Heresy is the way to salvation!” In Batchelor’s recent book I learned of the British Anglican clergyman and retired Cambridge professor who makes this startling claim. “I have a greater affinity with Don Cupitt than with any living Buddhist thinker, Batchelor wrote in Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. I’ve just finished Cupitt’s slim 2008 volume, Above Us Only Sky: The Religion of Ordinary Life, and it’s a bomb thrown into the heart of institutional religion. “The only religion that can save you,” Cupitt writes, “is one that you have made up for yourself and tested out for yourself: in short, a heresy.” He adds, “On the day this book is published, I call finally and sadly terminate my own lifelong connection with organized religion.”

Cupitt the ex-priest, more than any other thinker I’ve read, brings religion down to earth. The task of religion, he writes in Above Us Only Sky, “is to give us the courage and strength to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to life. Only we create the world, and only we can redeem it. By solar love of life we can inject meaning and value into life for everyone.” What he calls “solar living,

teaches us to accept one-way linear time, life’s contingency, and death, without complaint. Instead, we should cast ourselves heedlessly into the flux of existence. We should burn, burn and burn out with love for life, a love that tries so far as possible to be everywhere affirmative, and nowhere allows itself to be turned into disappointment, resentment and hostility.

I will leave aside his devastating critique of the world religions, which he believes rely on metaphysical fantasies to keep their followers in chains, and just briefly mention the 27 brief slogans in 7 sections that preface the book, Cupitt’s “short systematic theology of the religion of life” which he claims is already in place (he hints that it might be what was once called “The Kingdom of God”). He says it’s what people the world over, and particularly post-Christians, already believe. Despite “The Limits of Life” (section 3), “we should simply love life and say Yes to life until our last day.”

My friends and I are suffering the inevitable indignities of old age and are fearful of the vagaries of events. I haven’t even mentioned the troubling political conflict in Thailand that threatens at any moment to spin out of control into civil war. “There is no stable real world and no enduring real self,” Cupitt says, and “our world is our communal, partly-botched work of folk art.” Despite this apparent nihilistic view, “this situation is not one for despair: it offers us the freedom to remake ourselves and the world.”

I know that this is true, that creative expression in the service of loving life can lift concern over losing control of the consequences of our actions . I find my outlet in writing this blog; my friend with the severe physical disabilities continues in spite of them to write brilliant short stories, essays and books, his fertile imagination constantly at play. Cupitt is right: “Continuous letting-go and renewal creates joy.”

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

A Cooling Off Period

We left overheated Bangkok for the hills and waterfalls of Kanchanaburi province on Saturday morning and found a brief respite from the stress of political uncertainty in the waters of Erawan Falls. Scads of holidaying Thais joined us on this three-day (Monday was Labor Day) weekend.

The trip was a treat for Nan's brother Nok who has been visiting us. Most of the time he stays in our room, playing his guitar and talking on the phone with his girlfriend back in Phayao. If he were home during this school vacation, Nan says, he would be required to work on the farm. So he's happy doing nothing in Bangkok. Surin, his sister Ann's boyfriend, drove us to the mountainous province on the border of Burma, three hours northwest of Bangkok. Thankfully, we skipped the "Bridge Over the River Kwai" (a reconstruction for tourists) and the controversial Tiger Temple, and headed for a couple of scenic temples before stopping at a government guest house near Srinagarind Dam in the Erawan National Park.

Wat Tham Seua (Tiger Cave Monastery) and Wat Tham Khao Noi (Little Hill Cave Monastery) are cheek-by-jowl on a pile of rocks not far from the Mae Khlong Reservoir at the confluence of the Khwae Yai and Khwae Noi rivers (prounced "kway" rather than "kwhy"). We took a cable car to reach the top but had to hike up another nine floors in the chedi to appreciate the impressive view of the surrounding countryside. While both temples are Buddhist, Tiger Cave follows the Chinese tradition (Mahayana) and the other one is Thai (or Theravada). It was brutally hot and we passed up a visit to the caves which required yet another climb. Everyone paid their respects to the large golden Buddha while I took photos of the architecture and religious images. A half dozen large tour buses had disgorged hundreds of pilgrims just before we arrived, but by the time we left they were all gone. Surin took us to a waterside restaurant for a feast of fish, sheltered from a passing shower.

We checked into the government guest house which is owned by the Electricity General Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and features a conference facility, a large garden, and many other amenities. You have to know someone to stay there (I saw no other Westerners or signs in English) and Surin is a regular. Some of his old friends were there, and, since he is married, I was asked to pose as the ajahn, Nan, Nok and Ann's English teacher, to provide cover (he and Ann have been together for four years). We had a lovely house with three separate bedrooms (each with toilet and shower). It was a short walk down to the reservoir, but the water was low due to the current drought. Srinagarind is one of the largest dams in Thailand and provides electricity to Bangkok (we couldn't visit the dam because guards were worried about red shirt sabotage and blocked access to the public).

The next morning we drove the short distance to Erawan Falls which consists of seven separate waterfalls. It was a good hike in from the parking area and we settled on the 3rd waterfall as our destination. Hundreds of Thais and a sprinkling of Westerners chose likewise, bringing children and carrying water toys and provisions of food. On the walk in we saw warnings about snakes and "fierce monkeys" but never saw either, to my disappointment. At the pool I quickly realized where the current craze of fish spas as an adjunct to massage parlors got its inspiration. Tiny fish (and some not so small) immediately began nibbling on our feet and legs. It was a regular piscine banquet. Negotiating the rock and root shoreline was not easy for me, now that my balance is challenged by age. But the crowded water was delightful and I stuck my head under the falls to get a mock shampoo. Surin dozed while resting in the water and the rest of us played and took photos.

Getting away from the strife was restful. Nan has noticed that the computer connected to the internet is my cocaine, my yaba (Thai speed). I am addicted to twitter and Facebook and depend on them to know what's happening, in Bangkok and far away. But I found it quite easy to let the computer go and even enjoyed its absence. We ate well and I found rural and hilly Kanchanaburi reminiscent of the Sierras in California. This was my second trip to the area, the first a meditation retreat at a riverside resort several years ago. Along the highway to Erawan park, I saw many large and colorful boulders on display for sale, some of them carved. Not marble, Surin said, and Nan told me the rocks were "bombed" out of the hills. I saw many mounds with huge gouges out of them. Apparently the ubiquitous round tables with benches can be shaped from the stones. The trip home Sunday night was quick, for Surin is a fearless (and scary) driver. I noticed how difficult it is for me to give up control, but in Thailand it is a constant practice. And of course I turned the computer on as soon as I got home.

The day before our trip, I visited the areas of central Bangkok controlled by the red shirts. First I took the Skytrain from the river to Chid Lom and got off to examine the barricades set up there and a block east at Phloem Chit. Dr. Holly lives nearby and I dropped in on her for coffee and conversation before heading several stops east on the BTS to Kinokuniya at the Emporium for some book browsing (what I wanted was in stock but missing and could not be found). The Emporium is getting all the business lost by Siam Paragon and Central World several blocks away which have been closed by the protest. From there I returned to Chid Lom and descended into the red encampment. It was midday and hot, so the presence of protesters looked sparse until you examined the shady areas. On the stage singers entertained the crowd with Thai folk music. My last visit to the red city was before we went to Krabi, before the violence began. Since then, 26 people have been killed and more than 1,000 injured in several incidents. Pictures of the martyred red shirts were everywhere, on the stage backdrop and at improvised shrines throughout the encampment; the one of the woman with half her head blown off is especially gruesome. But, as before, I found the protesters to be friendly and high-spirited. Thais do everything in a spirit of sanuk (fun), even what some have called the beginnings of a civil or class war. Food and revolutionary artifacts were on sale everywhere. And although the demonstrators no longer exclusively wear red, that color was dominant in the landscape.

I walked from Rajaprasong, the intersection where the main stage is located (and an area filled with five-star hotels and luxury shopping malls, all closed now) down Rajadamri Road, past Lumpini Park where many reds were resting under the shady trees, to Rama IV Road where a large "Mad Max" barricade with tires and sharpened bamboo sticks separates another red encampment surrounding the Rama VI statue from the business district of Silom. All of the long road is occupied, a virtual tent city, with many people resting in the shade of the overhead Skytrain track. I saw people selling food and eating it, playing checkers, getting their photos taken for official red ID cards, and selling souvenirs like sandals bearing the photos of government enemies. There were slingshots for sale with bags of marbles for amunition, and piles of rocks on the sidewalk ready for throwing when necessary. There were monks in a portable temple receiving tam boon, and I saw another monk hosing off a hospital tent to keep the patients inside cool. Walls and signs everywhere were covered with graffiti I couldn't read as well as personal photos, photos of the martyrs, and of Saint Thaksin and his nemesis, Abhisit, looking a lot like Hitler. A demonstration this large must take incredible organization. I saw large containers of potable water and enough basic provisions for an army. And I saw a pile of portable toilet seats, apparently unused, and long lines of port-o-potties to take care of the needs of this small city. I also noticed there were many elderly people and numerous children which must give pause to the authorities who wish to forcebly remove this revolutionary installation.

Last night the Prime Minister announced that he would call for elections in six months, on Nov. 14. It's a slight compromise from previous statements and indicates that negotiations might be continuing in secret despite recent bellicose pronouncements of government agents warning that a crackdown was imminent. Also worrying is the government's claim to have uncovered a conspiracy to overthrow the monarchy, a desperate maneuver reminiscent of McCarthyism in America. Even so, there is some small sign of hope that the current impasse may be resolved. Today I am going to a luncheon meeting at the Foreign Correspondents Club to hear a discussion about the current crisis led by Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a respected scholar whose newspaper columns have been impartial and insightful. He is returning from a stint at Stanford. The FCCT clubhouse is high above the Rajaprasong intersection so I'll get another look at the encampment this afternoon.