Tuesday, June 29, 2010

An Anarchist History of Civilization

The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

According to conventional understanding, hill tribe peoples in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia are seen as living museums of prehistoric life, the way we were before becoming civilized. The Virtual Hilltribe Museum Online, from whom I borrowed this photo of their staff members, describes them as immigrants, highland ethnic minorities who "have been entering Thailand for more than a century." But political historian James C. Scott, in a new paradigm-shattering book, argues that "wave" theories of migration have been discredited for lack of evidence and that these are non-state rather than pre-state peoples who have lived in a large region he calls "Zomia" for over two millennia in tension with the various dominant states. Most Thai, he says, are ex-hill people. "The "just-so" story of civilization confounds "civilization" with what was, in fact, state-making."

Civilization is not all it's cracked up to be, we learn in Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. The Yale professor has written numerous books about state formation and resistance to its predatory practices in which he stresses the agency, or choices, of the poor. In his latest book, he claims that "ethnic identity was more a political choice than a genealogical given" as people fled to safe upland refuges to evade incorporation into valley states. They became "barbarians by design." Once we accept that many people might decline to accept the blessings of servitude, taxation, forced labor, military conscription, and disease, "the standard civilizational story of social evolution collapses utterly." For Scott, today's named hill tribes -- the Wa, Hmong, Karen, Kachin, Lahu, Akha, Yao/Mien, Palaung, Lisu/Lisaw and others -- are political identities chosen in the past from a portfolio of cultural possibilities by fugitives fleeing oppressive states. These identities have come over time to acquire their own history, Scott explains. "The longer and deeper this history is, the more it will resemble the mythmaking and forgetting of nationalism."

For most of known history, states were exceptions rather than the rule. "Living in the absence of state structures has been the standard human condition," Scott writes. States in Southeast Asia developed 3,000 years ago when the invention of wet rice cultivation in the valleys enabled the powerful to concentrate people and production in a small area where the surplus could be appropriated to support an elite. Rulers borrowed the trappings and rituals of their Chinese and Indic neighbors (what the author calls "cosmological bluster") to establish an identity and attempt to secure loyalty from their subjects. Scott cites extensive evidence to show constant flight from state cores due to the intolerable conditions that threatened to destabilize these early states. Since the region was land rich but people poor, states relied on warfare to seize captives, and slavery, "the most important 'cash crop' of pre-colonial Southeast Asia," to replace those who had run away to the hills where they could not be easily found. This picture is "radically at odds with older prevailing assumptions of a primeval population in the hills abandoned by those who moved downhill and developed civilizations..an aboriginal population that had failed, for one reason or another, to make the transition to a more civilized way of life."

"Zomia" is the name coined a few years ago by a Dutch scholar to describe the Southeast Asian massif above 250-300 meters which stretches from the Vietnam highlands to the Tibetan plateau and contains 80-100 million people. At 2.5 million square meters, it is the size of Europe, and was at one time, according to Scott, the "largest mosaic of relatively stateless people in the world," a region of "bewildering ethnic and linguistic complexity." He calls it a "shatter zone" comparable to similar stateless areas in the Caucasus, Balkans, highland West Africa and South America, as well as Appalachia, the Great Dismal Swamp and the Iraq marshlands. These fugitives became non-sedentary by choice to avoid capture and came up with various escape strategies. First was the location in inaccessible terrain and second was mobility. For subsistence, they practiced swidden "slash-and-burn" agriculture and planted root crops that were easily hidden. Their social structures were small, dispersed, egalitarian and non-hierarchical. Religious practices were in opposition to the culture they had left, animist and Taoist rather than the Theravada Buddhism that legitimized the large states. Only a few tribal peoples have writing and most have legends about how they lost it. Scott believes the abandonment of literacy might have been one escape strategy when writing is seen as a form of state control and enforced orthodoxy. The Gypsies, he recalls, have no writing, history, shrines, ruins, anthems or monuments. "They are the ultimate bobbing and weaving people."

The relation between valley and hill people invariably involved a to-ing and fro-ing. "Lowland states have always existed in symbiosis with hill society," Scott writes. "It is crucial to understand that what is being evaded is not a relationship per se with the state but an evasion of subject status." From the beginning of state formation, states captured and coerced some people while others got away. Each group, however, depended on the other for trade in valued commodities. While valley systems were centripetal, gathering people together, hill systems were centrifugal and fragmented them, multiplying identities as they pursued different varieties of escape strategies. As Scott writes several times for emphasis: "Ethnicity and 'tribe' begin exactly where taxes and sovereignty end." Scott's work will make it harder to ground histories in nation-states, and even in regions like "Southeast Asia" without considering cross-border ecological and social relations, and his radical construction view of ethnic identities no doubt will trouble anthropologists.
The entities represented as "tribes" seldom exist with anything like the substantiality of state imaginings. This misrepresentation is due not only to the official identities cooked up by the state but also to the need of ethnographers and historians for social identities that can serve as a coherent object of description and analysis. It is hard to produce an account of, let alone govern, a social organism that is continually going in and out of focus.
Scott is not the first to invert the "civilization/barbarism" binary opposition and show the ideology behind it; environmental philosophers like John Muir have used it to score points against the destructive dominant culture. But the charge that hill people are backward still carries weight in Thailand. Nan, who comes from a northern province where many live, often in resettlement villages, believes they are dirty and deal drugs (some supported themselves by growing opium poppies, a practice now outlawed and relatively controlled). I am sure this is what she has been taught. During the Vietnam War, many hill people were killed by Thai troops looking for communists and homegrown liberals who had fled into the hills from Bangkok after bloody anti-government demonstrations in the 1970s. Because Thai identity is predicated on loyalty to King, Buddhism and the nation, hill people (as well as Muslim insurgents in the South) are excluded from most definitions of "Thainess." They are sometimes classed with migrants and refugees, housed in camps and denied the all important identification card required for most national services. Even when included as citizens, their schools and infrastructure do not receive equal funding. As Hjorleifur Jonsson pointed out in Mien Relations: Mountain People and State Control in Thailand (a book Scott considers an influence on his work), hill people nevertheless revere the King, play football, celebrate Thai festivals and worship the same pop icons as their valley counterparts, while retaining some traditions that distance themselves from full control of the state.

The history of Zomia and those who got away ends after World War Two, Scott admits, when states embarked on a conscious strategy of engulfment and eventual absorption of the hills. To extend control completely to its geographical borders, states employed "distance-demolishing technologies": railroads, surfaced roads, bridges, airplanes and helicopters, telegraph and telephone, forest-felling, defoliation, modern weapons, satellite photography and GPS, as well as the internet. Thongchai Winichakul's insightful Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation, tells the story of how the imaginary nation of Siam became geographically solidified. The "entire globe," Scott writes, is now "administered space." The future, he says, lies in the "daunting task of taming Leviathan, not evading it."

Scott's work has been criticized for the usual reasons, over-generalization and use of secondary resources in English to buttress his arguments. One thorough critique is by Mandy Sadan from the School of Oriental and African Studies whose research focus is the Kachin people. She sees the book as a paradigm for thinking rather than an accurate history about the hill people. Because of it, "it will be impossible to discuss the uplands of Southeast Asia in the same way again, and some who had never discussed them before will be discussing them for the first time." She will be a participant and Scott will be the keynote speaker at a conference in Chiang Mai next November on "Enclosure, Interaction and Transformation," sponsored by the Asian Borderlands Research Network, which takes it's theme from Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed. I'd like to attend.

Almost all graduate schools ask their students in history to choose a field of study from a nation state or a region composed of several states, a requirement that can hold them back from exploring interconnected issues in politics, agriculture and history, as Scott does. I hope (but doubt) his challenge will be heard by university history departments. Finally, his work denaturalizes the state (Benedict Anderson did the same with the nation state in Imagined Communities), and it should no longer be possible to blindly assume that this method of exercising power and organizing people is the final stage of social and political evolution. The only alternatives now to the nation state are cross-border associations and regional governments like Catalonia, and they should be investigated. Anarchism today, or what might be called coordination and cooperation without the hierarchy of a state, no longer seems possible under the prevailing regime of control. Civilization, in its national and ethnic guise, reigns supreme.

Gandhi, when asked what he thought of western civilization, replied: "I think it would be a good idea."

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Absence of Angst

"Kathy, I'm lost," I said, though I knew she was sleeping.
"I'm empty and aching and I don't know why."

The monks listened carefully as I played "America" for them, Simon & Garfunkel's ode to existential angst, Their task was to fill in the blanks with ten missing English words and mine was to explain what drove the two young people in the song to leave their homes and seek fulfillment on the road. It wasn't easy without cultural points of reference. I decided against mentioning Kerouac and instead talked about the backpackers they've seen in Bangkok, young wanderers from America and Europe in search of something in the mysterious East far from home. In Paul Simon's telling of the mythic journey, two companions decide to "marry our fortunes together" and, carrying "some real estate here in my bag," set out to look for America. More likely, they were looking for themselves, far away from the place where they felt they did not fit. Joseph Campbell popularized this undertaking as a "hero's journey," and seekers in the West have come to see life as a journey or pilgrimage which requires leaving home in order to achieve their goal.

My students were polite but uncomprehending. Why would anyone want to leave home and family other than to get an education or a job? All but one of the three dozen monks come from small villages in Thailand, Cambodia, Burma and Laos. The lesson that day from the American Headway 2 text I use was "The Way We Live," and for their weekly oral presentation I asked them to speak about their experience coming to Bangkok to study and what they missed from home. While they appreciated the conveniences of Bangkok, with a 7-11 on every corner and technological gadgets easily obtainable, they missed everything from their parents and childhood friends to their rice fields and buffalo. I'm learning about Southeast Asian culture through their stories and nothing is more different than the way children are raised. I was taught to be independent and to leave home in order to make my way in the world. Asians are taught to be interdependent and, at least metaphorically, to never leave home and family. I suspect that these young men, rooted in place, have never felt either lost, empty or aching.

I attempted to explain these feelings, so common in the west (the Dalai Lama was reportedly amazed to learn of the widespread condition of alienation in the West), with reference to the presence of dukkha, often mistranslated as "suffering," which begins the Buddha's analysis of the human condition. Suggested translations of the Pali word range from "dis-ease" to "angst" and "pain." The difficulties caused by birth, illness, aging and death are universal, but the numerous disstisfactions created by our minds I suspect are culturally varied. Asians truly care about, and for, their parents, even when they're gone. (Nan recently dreamt about her grandmother who died six months ago and we went to the temple the next Sunday to make a gift in her memory.) Westerners celebrate the cutting of family ties and rarely look back. After I left home, my parents were reluctant to invade my privacy, even by phone, and I was careless about keeping in touch with them. We want to create ourselves anew without any debts to the past, orphans in deed if not in geneology. Asians, on the other hand, embrace that debt to the pair who gave them birth, even when (I've heard of this often) their parenting was not very admirable.

I know well the mind-forged manacles of existential angst. My life has been a journey, often a flight, from stability and respectability, lured by the siren's call to adventure and occasional disgrace. Success I usually interpreted as a call to move on. My father lamented the fact that I switched jobs frequently (he grew up at a time when employee loyalty was expected). My two wives and four children suffered from the many unrealistic dreams I pursued, often under the cover of a spiritual pilgrimage. I've turned icons into idols and held on to ideas as if my life depended on them being correct. And I've frequently felt lost, aching and empty, unable to determine why. At my lowest point, I turned to drink and drugs to mask the pain. This misguided strategy killed my son Luke last year.

Despite all the wrong moves, all the fruitless seeking in the wrong places, and all the self-centered justifications that make friendship and interdependence difficult, I have someone managed to end up amazingly in Thailand. I thought about calling this blog post "Found in Translation" to indicate that different languages and experiences need not separate us (as in Sofia Coppola's movie "Lost in Translation" set in Japan), because I've found a home here in this Southeast Asian country, thousands of miles from the land of my birth, despite and maybe even because of the exotic strangeness that surrounds me every day. A month shy of my 71st birthday, and two months before I celebrate three years in Bangkok, I am reminded daily, every time I walk out of my apartment building into the blooming, buzzing confusion of the street, how blessed I am to be here.

I'd like to write a love letter to Bangkok and to Thailand, but too often I get distracted by philosophy, psychology or politics. Besides, I could never top Janet Brown's wonderful Tone Deaf in Thailand for its earthy appreciation of the city that has charmed us both. Now that I seem to have burnt all bridges leading back to the place that produced me, I want to sing of the wonders of my new home and how every stroll through the streets and the shops and the byways of the city reveals some unfamiliar truth that enlightens my life, how even the messy sadness of urban poverty can inspire the very interdependence and compassion that escaped me before. If I were the poet that I wished I were, I would sing about the fluttering flocks of school kids in their uniforms (all in white shirts with boys in dark short pants, girls in short-short skirts), the waves of pastel-colored taxis, the slow saunter of pedestrians dodging motorbikes on the sidewalks, movable carts selling fruit and barbecued meat on a stick, vendors on the overpass with their small selections of flip-flops and phone chargers, the smelly canals that once ferried travelers but now collect garbage, multicolored buses disgorging and accepting passengers in the middle of traffic, flower sellers stringing garlands for Monk's Day, territorial soi dogs badly in need of a cleanup and a vet, indecipherable signs (for me at least) in that incredibly graceful Thai script, the broad waters of the Chao Phraya River clogged with the invasive water hyacinth and styrofoam, and toothpicks on every restaurant table. Failing that, I take pictures.

My life here is full to bursting. It's hard to remember that it once felt temporary. While I encounter the strange and mysterious every day, my apartment now is home and Bangkok is a place as familiar as anywhere I've lived. Nan has begun her classes at Bansomdejchaopraya Rajabhat University three days a week in the late afternoon and early evening. She is delighted to be a student again. This term she's taking an English class (of course I'll be her tutor) and one, I think, in Thai and global sociology. I'm not sure about the third, perhaps business computing which is her major. She's made new friends, and last weekend we bought her a desk and a bookcase for her study corner (mine is in the bedroom and we share a printer). I am teaching the same group of students for the second term and have been awarded with an air-conditioned classroom, one of the few in the temple building where I teach. But it's on the fourth floor, a sturdy climb, which almost cancels out the advantage. I could use additional work and have been contacting people at Mahachula and other schools, but I fear my age now is a disadvantage despite how much my current students seem to like me (and I them). Dr. Sman, a Thai man my age with whom I taught a Saturday class last term, has signed us up for a four Sundays English class at a temple south of the city in August. And at the Day of Vesak conference last month I met an Englishman who volunteers as a teacher at MCU's campus in Chiang Rai. He told me there is a bigger campus in Phayao near Nan's village that might like an English program. Now Nan and I are thinking that in the not too distant future we may leave Bangkok for northern Thailand and a much different experience of my new home.

The curious saga of Nan's cousins continues. To recap, Nan's late grandmother's sister, Sa, has two wayward granddaughters, Ben and Bo (far right in photo). Ben has a son named Bag, now two, , fathered by a boy five years younger than she. Ben's father has worked for many years in Taiwan, and while Sa and Ben's mom raise Bag, she's been working as a bar girl in Chiang Rai, and recently suffered a miscarriage. Her 17-year-old sister Bo ran away last September to Bangkok to become a lesbian, but Sa and Ben came to fetch her back (when this photo was taken) after Nan alerted them. A month ago Bo ran away again, stealing a selling a valuable necklace of her grandmother's, and the lesbian friend got her a job as a prostitute in a bar not far from our apartment. She told Nan was was taking ya ba (speed) and living above the bar. Her father called Nan in distress for help, and a couple of days ago Sa and Ben returned on the overnight bus from Phayao. They confronted Bo who had that day learned she was pregnant. She's certain the father is a 19-year-old boy from Ubon who works in another bar. Bo came back to our room with Sa and Ben for a tearful night of talking and little sleep. Yesterday, however, Sa was unable to talk Bo into returning to their village. She wants to stay with the father who said he wants her to have the baby. "Bo's life is very dark," Nan told me. Some people, I added, are just self destructive and no one can figure out why (thinking of Luke).

Monday, June 07, 2010

Looking for My Self

Long ago I concluded that the most important questions in life were: "Who am I?" and "What am I to do"? The second is pretty much a closed book now in old age as I slide toward oblivion. Cleaning up the messes I've made is certainly a high priority. But the first question still has me stumped. You'd think, after writing over 400 blog posts here in the past four years, that I'd have a clue. I can think up long lists of attributes and accomplishments to go with the name my parents gave me. But when I compare my sense of self, of who I am, with the feedback I receive from others, cognitive dissonance arises.

The Buddhists have the notion of no self, anattā in the Pali, which denies the existence of an unchanging essential or metaphysical self, a soul, that transcends the body, although there is a certain something that accumulates kamma through good and bad actions and determines consequences, usually after rebirth (if you believe in that sort of thing). This empirical self is personal but not eternal. The self that lives in this world attached to this body is the the product of sensory input, mental intentions (mind is one of the six senses for Buddhists) and actions taken, a veritable stew of individuality with nothing left over at death.

These philosophical ideas, however, provide little comfort from the slings and arrows of judgment and rejection. Someone my age is bound to have accumulated a few enemies. The little boy I hit with a pipe when I was five probably never forgave me. I've had my share of disagreements. My friends have possessed many and varied temperaments, some so different from mine that I've had to juggle my reactions and dissemble my thoughts in order not to offend them. But finding compromise in a relationship is like dancing; sometimes we step on each other toes. I learned at an early age to avoid confrontation as best I could, and have gone to great lengths to placate and pacify my opponents. Much of my stubbornness unfortunately oozes out in a passive aggressive manner. I do lose my temper, frequently, but the best I can say of it is that it soon passes and I am quick to beg forgiveness. I have been a faithful friend, loyal to those I made in my youth with a fierce possessiveness. Facebook has reunited me with quite a few.

What of the people closest to us, those as near as our jugular vein (to misuse a Koranic verse)? From long familiarity, it seems they should know us as well as we know ourselves. They've been there through thick and thin. Often, though, it is they who are most judgmental, holding us to a standard from their past we can no longer achieve. The fact is, we are not transparent to others. All they have to go by are our words and deeds. The complicated mental gyrations we spin, the moral intentions we intend, are invisible to them, and our attempts to explain are often misunderstood. How can we articulate our mental representations, often resembling dreams or even nightmares, to another person? In the end, all we are left with are misconstrued hunches and guesses.

I think I'm a good person, but I'm hard put to prove it. My intentions are ever kind and generous. I seek to avoid doing harm to anyone. The five precepts of Buddhism are a good guide, better than the God-centered Judeo-Christian 10 Commandments with obedience is the key. Buddhists pledge to avoid killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, and indulging in mind-altering drugs and alcohol. When I was 10 I killed a bird with my BB gun and swore off hunting forever. I've never killed a person; thankfully asthma kept me out of the war in Vietnam. In Thailand eating meat is accepted so long as you don't kill your dinner. Lying and stealing are more complicated when you think about not telling the truth to avoid hurting someone, or violating copyright laws on the internet. As for sexual misconduct and use of intoxicants, I am guilty as charged, but sorry as hell. It's clear to me that my offenses are largely attributable to selfishness and self-centeredness, not to mention ignorance, greed and anger, and now that I'm in my twilight years I want to change that.

It hurts to discover that my intentions are misunderstood and sometimes only my faults illuminate my persona. When criticized, I can immediately churn out a whole raft of justifications. Because I am a word person, I'm pretty good at it. I can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, as my mother would say. My shit can smell as sweet as the output from my Oregon cousin's compost toilet. But those who know me best see quickest through my verbal disguise. Or at least they deny the truth of the justification, no matter how true it might seem to the inner me. Who knows me better than I know myself? And this gets back to the original question: "Who am I?" Do I really know? Can I ever completely know? For of course Freud and a host of followers and innovators of the discipline of psychology have discovered innumerable ways in which we are a mystery to ourselves.

Since I no longer have any faith in metaphysical answers to unanswerable questions, I am on the lookout for a moral grounding to my actions, one that will give me confidence to say I am a good man. My friend Jim subscribes to a "do the right thing" philosophy which affirms the findings of cognitive psychologists that children intuit at an early age in their culture how to tell right from wrong. In Spike Lee's film of the same name, a violent confrontation in a minority neighborhood reveals two separate answers to the problem of racism, the ideas of Martin Luther King and those of Malcolm X. On violence, they are incompatible. I think Lee's answer is that morality is messy, like life, and there are no perfect actions to use in every situation.

I know the times in my life when I did wrong. I also understand most of the inexcusable reasons for what I did. I've asked forgiveness, and sometimes have gotten it. Christianity has an edge on forgiveness, claiming that the divine offers to forgive everything if you ask for it (and believe). There are people I've hurt in my life who can't forgive me. And there are others whom I can't forgive for what they did to me. I think forgiving and forgiveness go together and unless and until I can give up my own judgments I will be subject to the judgments of others. But I can't prove this.

This blog post I've discovered is really about the lack of forgiveness I feel in my life. And the response I think is in how I live the rest of my life.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Pattaya: A Boneyard for Old Men

"We lust until we die," conclude two of the personas in Lawrence Osborne's travel memoir, Bangkok Days. Accompanied by their IV drips, the protagonist, recovering from a serious throat infection, and his German companion, whose cancerous testicle will be removed the next day, are dining in an upscale Italian restaurant off the lobby of the luxurious Bumrungrad Hospital, ground zero for medical tourism in Thailand. Osborne observes the fellow patients that surround him:
Women on crutches with face masks flirted openly with men suffering from epileptic fits and sciatica. Hobbling, limping, squinting, this injured mass proved that the sex drive is the supreme of all instincts and cannot be suppressed even by terminal cancer.
I visited Pattaya last weekend and saw "Sin City" this time through the lens of Osborne's bittersweet recollection of numerous trips over a number of years to Bangkok (it should more accurately be titled Bangkok Nights given his colorful descriptions of nocturnal wanderings). While sex in many forms pervades the pages, it is rarely vulgar (the writer occasionally comes off as prudish) and is never used as a weapon to whip a Thai culture more libertine than libidinous, a country that a friend of mine (who had never visited here) once termed "the brothel to the world." Writing about the Nana Entertainment Complex, four floors of bars staffed with hundreds of prostitutes, Osborne says that "what characterizes this entire operation is the absence of any atmosphere of brimstone or anger, its clumsy naïveté and lack of self-consciousness which has not yet toppled over into sin." One of the many expats the author encounters is a retired Australian widower named Dennis, “an elderly man with skin as white as fine library dust, with a fop of dyed blond hair falling between his eyes,” who is visited regularly by a student moonlighting as a provider of sex. "I like to paint and to make love to Porntit," he tells Osborne. "I am thankful that you can buy generic Viagra without a prescription at any Thai pharmacy. It works out to two dollars a hit. It's pleasure, not happiness, but I am happy with that -- If you see what I mean. My wife, God bless her, would never have understood."

Pattaya is peopled with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of aging Caucasian men like Dennis who refuse to fade away in their home countries. I remember my grandfather who wasted away pointlessly in an easy chair in front of the TV after the death of his wife. In the Bible, the Deuteronomist records God as saying, "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live." On this, my third trip to the overblown city that began as a comfort station for young GIs on R&R from the American war in Vietnam, I saw that the gray-haired and bald men on Walking Street and along the beach boardwalk had made a choice for life in coming to the sex capital of the world. They were there in the mornings at the Lek Hotel's 110-baht breakfast buffet, many with their ladies and others, like this man, alone with his cigarettes and an emphysemic cough. Another man with an artificial leg lounged by the pool and watched his girlfriend's two children play in the water. Of course it's hard to distinguish the lifers from the short-time holidaying sexpats, but certainly a large number of elderly men have chosen Pattaya as their boneyard, the final home where they seek to live every moment until their last. I only hope this is possible for women as well, but you see very few Western women with Thai men in either Pattaya or Bangkok. We did see a single farang woman with white hair on Jomtien beach accompanied by a younger Thai lady who appeared to be a close friend, but who knows?

I'm not sure why so many of Pattaya's male visitors feel compelled to take their shirts off, but perhaps it is the heat which enfolds one like a cocoon. And I dislike the drunks who wander down the sidewalk with open containers of beer almost as much as the European men who insist on wearing tiny bikini briefs (both equally impolite in Thai eyes). But I do not criticize the "girlfriend experience" that draws men here to the range of services provided by businesswomen struggling to survive in the world's oldest profession. I do not intend to praise every aspect of this cross-cultural copulating. Alcohol and drugs accompany the business of sex and claim many victims. Bar girls have a brief span in which to accumulate savings for a shop back home or find a wealthy farang for a husband. Not many of their customers are granted the bliss of dying in flagrante delicto (a la Nelson Rockefeller). These men, however, will "not go gentle into that good night," but in their attempts to drink the last dregs of life they will show their "rage against the dying of the light" (thank you, Dylan Thomas). Back in America or Germany, Sweden or perhaps in Russia, their former colleagues are dying the death of a million cuts in rest homes anesthetized by TV and pharmaceuticals. How much better to lust until we die!

Nan and I went to Pattaya for the three-day weekend occasioned by the holiday of Vesak which celebrates the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and death. We were also celebrating the successful renewal of a visa and work permit which will allow me to teach English for another year. It was a nostalgic journey for Nan, 11 years after a memorable trip there with her aunt, Banyen. They stayed at the Lek Hotel, and visited Mini Siam, a large park where wonders of the world are reproduced in miniature. Nan played in the surf at Jomtien Beach while her aunt, who did not like the water, and her boyfriend watched. We visited the same places and took photos to compare with the earlier trip. We also had a delicious creole dinner at Café New Orleans and fresh scallops, squid and sea bass at King Sea Food on Walking Street. At Ma Maison, our boutique hotel with a pool, energetic construction, with loud drilling not unlike a dental office, made any vacation naps impossible. Since Friday was an alcohol-free religious holiday, glum-faced tourists were forced to drink Cokes and water at the outdoor bars. At one end of the street a large group of international Christians were singing a rousing version of "I love God." "Do you?" asked one Thai woman of me. "Nope," I said, ungenerously; "he's just a fiction." I preferred the songs of a lounge trio at the outdoor restaurant nearby who were doing the Carpenters songbook. Saturday night was more lively in the neon zone, but a heavy shower confined pleasure seekers indoors (where the action really is). We eye-shopped at the new Central Festival mall and I noted the Russia presence, judging by signs, to have increased in the last year and a half. We took a pickup truck taxi to Jomtien and found the beach much nicer than Pattaya where speed boats and jet skis outnumber bathers. By late Sunday afternoon we were back in Bangkok, rested and refreshed.

The first part of last week was the Day of Vesak Conference at my university and at UN headquarters in Bangkok. It was attended by 3,000 Buddhist monks and professors from over 80 countries. I was the secretary for a panel of speakers on "Global Recovery through Buddhist Ecology" which brought back my years of studying environmental history and philosophy. On Friday I traveled to Ayuthaya where guests were housed at the Krunsri River Hotel and met fellow secretaries, panels and moderators for the academic portion of the conference. Sunday, the event was inaugurated by the Crown Prince and his princess in the ceremonial splendor of the new auditorium at the Wangnoi campus of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya Buddhist University. I worked closely with our panel's chief moderator, Colin Butler, a professor of public health at Australian National University as well as an environmental activist, and all went smoothly at the three sessions the next day. Our speakers were from India, Indonesia, Bangladesh and South Korea (one from the U.S. and two from China canceled, no doubt due to the troubles in Bangkok which probably cut attendance by a third). Perks included excellent food and a river tour around the island of Ayuthaya. The hotel's bowling alley and karaoke parlor never seemed open. On Sunday everyone convened at the mammoth UN building in Bangkok for a round of speeches. The Prime Minister sent a flunky in his place. Dr. Butler's report on our panel, among other insights, pointed out the links and parallels between attitudes to the Earth and attitudes toward women, a bit of wisdom that did not make it into the final Bangkok Declaration, perhaps because the role of women in Thai Buddhism is notoriously subservient.

Yesterday I visited the Siam district for the first time since the brutal end of the red shirt occupation of the Ratchaprasong intersection 12 days before. Most traces of the thousands of anti-government protesters who had occupied the area of five-star hotels and luxury shopping malls have been scrubbed clean. But the fire-damaged ruins of Central World, once Bangkok's largest mall, particular the end that contained the department store strangely called Zen, remain to symbolized the "terrorism" of the mostly rural and poor demonstrators for middle-class and elite Bangkok residents appalled by the two-month standoff. Love notes to Central World and dried flowers have been left behind by shoppers grieving over the demise of their favorite palace of consumption. I tried to imagine the anger and rage of the red shirts pursued by soldiers and snipers firing at them who torched this store and over three dozen other buildings in the city. Most of the protesters probably never dreamt of entering such a store, much less buying anything in it. For them it symbolized the arrogance of the wealthy who valued shopping over the lives of Thais taken in several street battles (more than 80 died, and nearly 2000 were injured, almost all civilians). I walked around the corner to Wat Pathum Wanaram, a large temple situated between Central World and Siam Paragon, a place where six people were killed by snipers, including a nurse trying to save someone else, and many were injured, journalists as well as demonstrators fleeing soldiers. I expected to find flowers or a shrine of some sort at the temple, but there was nothing to commemorate this atrocity. The government refuses to take responsibility, making up incredible stories that beggar belief.

As I write this I am watching a televised censure debate in the House called by the opposition Pheu Thai party. Of course I understand nothing said in Thai, except for the passion of those accusing the government of masterminding the horrors of April-May 2010 which will go down in infamy, and the calm demeanor of Prime Minister Abhisit who now appears to be firmly in charge. Hundreds of red shirts, now all tarred with the "terrorist" brush, are being rounded up and imprisoned. (For a good historical perspective on this, see scholar Michael Montesano's article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal.) Censorship is tightening and any support of fugitive Thaksin and the army of ignorant savages from the north he allegedly bought and manipulated is suspect. There appear to be no attempts at reconciliation and the divide between the wealthy monarchists and militarists who run this country and the majority of voters in the provinces is wider and deeper than ever. While I do not feel at all personally unsafe, the future of this poor country is more uncertain than ever. Tourism, and the economy that depends on it, is in shambles. And as the unspoken comes closer, there is less and less said of it.

In Bangkok Days, Lawrence Osborne points out that one of the paradoxical attractions of Thailand is this uncertainty and mystery, apparent to anyone trying to decipher the language or understand the seemingly contradictory values of the culture. It is definitely one of the reasons that I love this country and its people.