Saturday, November 30, 2013

Hatred is a Force that Gives Us Meaning

As I write this post, mobs of anti-government protestors are invading and occupying government offices throughout Bangkok.  Their leader, a former MP named Suthep, has vowed to bring down Thailand's elected government by tomorrow night.  For the past week, marches and demonstrations, marked by the screeching taunt of blowing whistles, have blocked streets and caused chaos in the capital.  Tens of thousands of Thais from Bangkok and the southern provinces have gathered around the Democracy Monument to listen to fiery speeches denouncing the "tyranny of the majority" and calling for an end to elections, and an appointed government under the authority of the king.  They are allied with the Democratic Party which has not won an election since 1992.  What unifies the protestors is hatred bordering on mass hysteria of one man, Thaksin Shinawatra, as well as his sister, Yingluck, currently the country's prime minister.

When I arrived in 2007, Thaksin was already in exile, having been deposed by a military coup the previous year that had been provoked by similar street protests organized by his enemies.  During my first months there was a referendum on a new constitution written by the military junta that passed narrowly.  It was designed to prevent the executive branch excesses of which it believed Thaksin was guilty.  I read the biography by well-respected academics Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit and learned that Thaksin had mixed business and politics in an unethical and sometimes illegal way, a practice common among Thai politicians in the past.  He built the country's first mass political party with populist policies that increased his popularity in the rural north and northeast.  Opposition to his power arose among the traditional elites centered in Bangkok and the 2006 coup, a much used technique in Thailand, cut short his reign.

At the next election, despite the junta, a party allied to Thaksin won easily.  Thaksin haters, now called "yellow shirts,"  put pressure on the government in 2008 by shutting down the international airport for a week.  And when the prime minister was deposed by a court decision because he accepted money to appear on a TV cooking show, his replacement, Thaksin's brother-in-law, was also removed by what has been called a "judicial coup."  After a few MPs changed their allegiance, Abhisit Vejjijiva, leader of the Democratic Party, was declared an unelected PM.  In 2010, supporters of Thaksin and the voters whose decisions had been overturned three times, now called "red shirts," occupied a section of central Bangkok for two months, their goal to force a new election.  Abhisit, with the assistance of Suthep, ejected the demonstrators with brutal force resulting in nearly 100 deaths and a thousand injuries.  Irony of ironies, in the election Abhisit finally agreed to call, he was overwhelmingly defeated by a new party led by Thaksin's sister, Yingluk Shinawatra.

The present crisis began when Yingluk's party foolishly tried to pass an amnesty bill that would have allowed her brother back in the country and able to claim his confiscated fortune, but would not have punished Abhisit and Suthep for ordering the killing of red shirt protestors in 2010.  It galvanized the resistance of all factions. However, after the amnesty bill was withdrawn, Suthep declared his intention was now to rid Thailand of the "Thaksin regime," and a week of marches and takeovers at numerous government ministries resulted. The huge government complex at Chiang Wattana in the northern suburbs of Bangkok besieged by over by an estimated 20,000 and most operations shut down, including Immigration where thousands of expats and tourists come daily to apply for visas.  Their pain will cause international grumbles.  But of course Thailand's present troubles are already major news in the world's press and social media.

While discussion of the monarchy is prohibited in Thailand with stringent laws punishing the slightest slip of the tongue, any talk about Thaksin is difficult if not impossible because of the implacable sides.  No one straddles the fence. Yesterday a German expat I've known for some time tried to convince me that Thaksin was the equivalent of Hitler.  When I said he was only a typical corrupt politician whose sins were shared by many others, he shouted at me: "You've been brainwashed!  On Facebook my opinions have been challenged by other expats who believe Thaksin's approval of extra-judicial killings of drug dealers puts him behind the pale.  When I suggested that most Thais accepted this violence at the time, as well as that of Muslims killed while in custody in the south where an insurrection has been ongoing for years, my views were ridiculed.

I borrowed the title of this post from Chris Hedges' book about his experience as a war correspondent, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.  He tells about becoming addicted to hatred of the other and of the eruption of rage at inappropriate times.  Veterans talk of their experiences in warfare as an intense meaningful time when everything made sense, when good was defending your own and bad was the enemy.  Hatred is a primal emotion that distinguished our side from theirs at a time when territory meant survival and loss of it death.  Today the other may be just like us but for something that sets them apart (religion is a powerful dividing force, but support of different sports teams will suffice). Shared hatred can promote group adhesion and identity.  But psychologists also tell us that what he hate in the other might be what we most fear in ourselves (confused sexual identity can be a problem here). And hatred is a bitter pill that often can hurt the hater more than the one hated.

Unlike other large protests in the past, which can be colorful and carnivalesque, I've stayed away from big gatherings during the past week as much as possible.  I see the masses of naive and utopian protestors as riding on a speeding train that is sure to crash, and soon. Given Suthep's uncompromising goal of total victory over the government, there cannot be a peaceful outcome.  Eventually the authorities, police and military, will have to confront the mobs occupying government offices and I'm sure there will be considerable violence. There was a protest in my neighborhood a few days ago at the Ministry of Culture and I walked up to see what was going on. A large police presence prevented anyone from entering the building, and the crowd was largely boisterous but not angry.  They were blowing whistles, snacking from the food carts, and taking selfies against the police background.  Apparently 14 ministries have been targeted like this one.  The anti-government protestors appeared to be mostly white collar and middle class with women in their office uniforms on lunch break.  As I write this, fights have broken out between pro and anti government protestors.

Thais enjoy life and sanuk (fun) is often the standard. Demonstrations, whether of red or yellow shirts, are not unlike a rock concert with lots of music and even dancing between the rip-roaring speeches that never mince words (according to translations I've seen). Even my sister-in-law went last night to sample the excitement.  The yellow-shirt PAD and the Democratic Party have tried numerous times in the last two years to rouse their supporters to come out in the streets to protest against Thaksin and Yingluk but nothing until now has achieved traction.  The amnesty bill did the trick, and now the mobilization has achieved critical mass, enabling Suthep to aim high, the end of democracy as it is commonly manifested in the west and the inauguration of a new form of absolute monarchy.  They may have as many as 50,000 troops to achieve this objective in Bangkok.  But an equal number of red shirts are gathering on the outskirts of Bangkok who will strongly oppose any regime change.  At the last election, over 15 million voted for Yingluk even though most knew her brother might pull her strings.  I doubt that these voters will appreciate being disenfranchised by a street mob unified only by hatred of the man in Dubai.

Until the hatred of Thaksin is discussed, debated, resolved and put to rest, Thailand can never advance beyond the political crises that have paralyzed it over for over a dozen years.

Below: I happened on this mob outside the Royal Thai Police headquarters.  Later it was learned that protestors had cut electricity to the facility and also to the hospital next door.  Soon there will be a response to such vandalism and it won't be pretty.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The First Reality Show

Fifty years ago this week, my first wife and I were staying at my parents' house in western North Carolina.  We were recovering from a train crash a few days before on the border between Texas and Louisiana.  A woman in a pickup with her son and dog had driven into the third car back and derailed Southern Pacific's Sunset Limited from Los Angeles.  We were in the lounge car talking with new traveling friends on a sunny Sunday morning when the train car started jerking and tipping over. Aside from a few cuts and bruises, the passengers survived, but the occupants of the truck were killed instantly.

It's a peculiarly modern custom to celebrate milestones, like "fifty years," which mean little in the grand scheme of things.  We especially mark decades and quarter centuries as worthy of note to cheer or mourn.  Next summer I will turn 75 and I suppose there will have to be fireworks. The current generation now counts off the years from September 11th, 2001, when "everything changed."  But of course everything changes every day for somebody.  Two months ago we recalled the March on Washington fifty years ago that meant so much for the move of America away from its era of segregation. A week ago it was Armistice (or Veterans) Day when World War One ended. That date will get more fireworks next year on its 100th anniversary.

And yet...1963 is inescapably etched in my memory and in that of others in my cohort who remember what they were doing the day President Kennedy was killed.  My wife and I were moving from Berkeley to New York City to begin a new adventure.  Eventually we would continue on to Europe.  We were in our early 20s and relatively fearless.  The comfortable Fifties were giving way to new possibilities, and the symbol for the Sixties was our young president from Massachusetts and his fashionable wife.  I had chosen Kennedy when I voted in my first election two years before.

My parents were not particularly happy with my choice of a wife.  We'd gotten married earlier that summer by a Justice of the Peace in Laguna Beach.  "Living in sin" at our Berkeley apartment, where we pretended otherwise, made her insecure to the point of hysteria, and I imagined that legitimizing our relationship might help (it did, but only for a while).  My mother, who got up daily at dawn to mop the kitchen floor, would stand outside our bedroom door talking loudly in hopes that her new daughter-in-law would awake and join her.  But that was not to be.

I went out in the afternoon of the 22nd of November to do some errands with my mother.  We were returning from her dressmaker's and listening to the radio in the car when an announcement was made about Kennedy being shot.  It did not make sense.  When we got home, my wife, brother and father were in the living room watching our small black-and-white TV. There we stayed glued to our chairs and the screen for the next week.  Walter Cronkite (our announcer of choice) tearfully confirmed the president's death.  We learned about the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald.  And two days later, in a live broadcast from the Dallas jail, we saw strip club owner Jack Ruby shoot and kill Oswald in a room full of police in full view of the news cameras. That too did not immediately sink in. A murder live on TV in our living room.

There have since been other significant events shown live on TV. But for me the killing of Oswald by Ruby in front of millions of viewers was the first reality show.  Though I missed the first plane, I saw the second strike the World Trade Center as I drank my early morning coffee.  Now that we have YouTube, there are horrendous videos posted daily, most taken down quickly if they disturb the sensibilities of viewers (like the recent video of a beheading that I mercifully avoided).  In some ways, seeing IS believing.  We know who killed Oswald because we saw it with our own eyes.  But there is still doubt that Oswald killed Kennedy, at least not without help, and a significant portion of the population believes the collapse of the Twin Towers was an inside job.  Of course, there were many who thought the moon landing was a fake despite the live telecasts from space -- "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."  Seeing is not always believing.

There's no denying that fifty years is a long time.  I've already lived out the three score and ten years allotted to me in the book of Psalms.  The difficult part is making sense of it as a whole. Like the simplistic definition of history, it was just one damn thing after another.  A friend recently asked me to play the game of posting some little known facts about my life; her's were all fascinating.  I couldn't come up with any. One's life is never a singular event when it is contemplated from within.  We're the only animal that can stand outside itself and see how it measures up to an imaginary standard.  I can chart the distance by comparing points in time and noting the difference.  Sometimes I fear that the outcome is rigged.

In November of 1963 I was a skinny lad of 24 with a bit of experience as a journalist ready to scale the ladder of success in Manhattan (my second attempt).  By the spring we were living in a garrett apartment in Greenwich Village on Christopher Street.  I was writing for a broadcasting trade journal and my wife was a copy girl for Women's Wear Daily.  She was friends with Eric Van Lustbader who was on the staff a dozen years before his first fantasy novel.  A year later we were living in London where our son was born.  I wrote about TV shows for a regional magazine and she stayed at home as an unhappy, unfulfilled mom.

Fast forward to November 2013, fifty years later.  When I look at myself in the mirror I see past the fat, the wrinkles and the sparse white hair to the callow youth I once was.  Have I progressed? Have I learned anything about myself or about the world to justify the time spent at living?  My home is in Bangkok on the 9th floor of an apartment building with an expansive view of the city's central skyline. Sunrise is a continual joy.  Social Security from the U.S. allows me to live comfortably and I supplement this income with part-time teaching of English to monks at a large Buddhist university.  I only work one day a week but the interaction with young and enthusiastic students from a half-dozen Southeast Asian countries gives me great pleasure.  Married for the third and happiest time, my wife cares for me with a respect and love I've never deserved.  She works at an upscale hotel and on her days off we play together, eating out, shopping, going to films. On extended holidays we've traveled to a number of Thai islands as well as to the Asian capitals of Singapore, Hong Kong and Seoul.

I can write easily about now and then, but it's the in-between years that escape the thread.  How did I get from there to here?  Were the choices I made at the time random and accidental, or was there a purpose to it all?  Often it's the harm I've done to family and friends that stops all thinking in its tracks.  If karma is real then punishment must be delayed for it seems I've lived a charmed life.

Now I'm an old man counting out his life in cappuccino spoons.  My two ex-wives despise me and most of my children as well as my brother no longer speak to me (or maybe I don't want to hear the judgements they have about me).  I go about my life halfway around the world from the California where I spent most of my years.  Sufficient funds and a marvelously developed social technology enable me to exist at a comfort level I could not imagine when I was younger.  Of course the sky could fall tomorrow.  The medical insurance I kept when I retired from UC is no longer sufficient to stave off emergencies, so health is the great x-factor. But until it's time to go I can enjoy my reality.  It's even documented with photos and videos on Facebook.