Craft, Currencies, and Ritual Orders in a Northern Thai village

Henrik Kloppenborg Møller is an anthropologist and PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology, Lund University. His PhD project examines the organization of the trade in jade between Northern Myanmar and China, and the role of jade in Chinese cosmology. Henrik has done fieldwork among jade traders and carvers in the town of Ruili on China’s border with Myanmar, as well as interviews with jade traders, carvers, and buyers in Shanghai, Kunming, Mandalay, Myitkina, and Chiang Mai for the project. 

 Henrik will share some of his field notes on the InFocus blog. The first blog post discusses economic cycles in a Northern Thai woodcarving village.

The field notes were taken during the PhD course Reading Craft: Itineraries of Culture, Knowledge and Power in the Global Ecumene, organized by the International Institute of Asian Studies in Leiden and Chiang Mai University.

 

We arrive at the village Ban Tawaii, some 20 kilometres from Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, at around 9 am. The car drops us off in the main street, which is dominated by shops offering woodcarvings. The woodcarving craft has gained Baan Tawaii some reputation throughout Northern Thailand, especially as the local tambon (an administrative unit usually comprising around 10 villages) has been promoted as a specialized woodcarving area under the government-organized system of OTOP (‘One Tambon, One Product’). The materials for the carvings vary, but prominently include teak and mahogany. The carvers in a workshop that we visited the previous week were reluctant to talk about the sources of the hardwood, but a large part of it is likely smuggled in from neighbouring Myanmar. The illegal trade in hardwood comprises a vast and highly profitable trade in Myanmar’s borderlands; not the least in Ruili, the border town between China’s Yunnan province and Myanmar’s Shan state, where I conduct my fieldwork. Due to its economic profitability and environmental consequences, it is also one of many sources of the ethnic conflicts permeating these borderlands. Also, one of my informants of the Jingpo minority (a Kachin sub-group) in Ruili says that the traditional authority of ritual specialists, dhumsa, is being eroded partly due to the logging of forests, where spirits (nat) reside.

We stock up with a cup of coffee and head towards the house of Baan Tipmanee. We are all wearing white clothing, as is obligatory in the Ganesh ritual we are about to attend. The temperature is already above 30 degrees Celsius, and a light drizzle dampens our clothes. We walk for about ten minutes, until we arrive to a crowd of 70-100 people standing in a line along the road, all of them dressed in white. A loudspeaker transmits the chant of a male voice. Upon our arrival, we are told to line up alongside the other participants and receive a coconut, which we are instructed to hold with two hands underneath our chin, in a manner similar to the Thai wat greeting gesture. Suddenly, people start to smash their coconuts on the concrete road, the sweet-smelling coconut milk splashing around us. I smash my coconut on the road. Klok! I am immediately given one more coconut, which I smash, then another one, and another one. The street is a mess of people dressed in white, splashing coconut milk, and chirps of brown coconut shells whirling through the air.

Picture1

When all coconuts have been smashed, Salah Kasem enters the street. Dressed in a red garb, he is carrying a small jar containing a red paste. Walking along the line of participants, he draws a vertical line from their forehead to their nose with the red paste. Upon reaching me, he laughs, and draws a red line on my forehead too. He remembers me from last week, when he gave us a guided tour of Baan Tipmanee. The house contains a vast courtyard garden, exhibition room, woodcarving workshop, sales floor, and temple rooms with woodcarvings placed throughout the space. The temple rooms feature pictures of prominent visitors, which include the king of Thailand. A huge woodcarving of Ganesh, Shiva’s son, who is half human, half elephant, is placed centrally in the courtyard on a podium. The deity carries a necklace of flower petals, and is surrounded by a wealth of sacrificial gifts; fresh fruits, flowers, food, and money bills. The other spaces of the house feature woodcarvings in various templates. There are a lot of figurines of Ganesh and of elephants. But also of the last supper of Jesus, and of the smiling, sitting Buddha, Fo, the Bodhisattva Guanyin, and the war god Guang Gong, all of which are commonly worshipped in China. In the exhibition room, these wooden figurines of deities are plastered with money bills from different countries, dominated by Chinese RMB and Thai Baht money notes. The house has a lot of Chinese buyers, who believe their donations will bring them luck. Salah Kasem then uses the donated money to finance this ritual, which he holds once a year.

The house of Baan Tipmanee constitutes a powerful node in a network of woodcarvers from Baan Tawaii and neighbouring villages. A week earlier, we had visited Baan Tawaii’s Buddhist village temple. The wooden temple is built and maintained by donations from village men with certain social positions. One local man can for instance donate a door to the temple. If he is a woodcarver, he will usually make the door by himself. Otherwise, he will hire a local woodcarver to do it. He has a certain liberty regarding the design, but it has to be fit within the overall design of the temple and its components. When woodcarvers carve and donate the temple components by themselves, they will often include their names in the carvings. But even when this is not so, local villagers will know who has donated what. This information is spread throughout the community, and is visibly encapsulated in the styles of the woodcarvings. This way, the temple and its different material components become social confluence points that gather people, while communicating masculine prestige of woodcarvers and donors throughout the village and its surrounding area.

I notice that Salah Kasem is still wearing his large ivory rings. The first time I met him, he immediately said that the rings are made from ‘waste’ ivory material, as if to emphasise his non-complicity in an illegal ivory trade. He said he wears the rings to avoid evil spirits from exiting the wood and entering his body when he is carving wood. This belief hosts a certain analogy to the ways in which Chinese people say that they wear jade jewellery in order to avoid evil forces and spirits entering their body. In both cases, the material – ivory, or jade – functions as a kind of shield blocking the human body from penetration by non-human external forces and agents. Other craftsmen in this area hold a taboo against menstruating women coming near their materials, and in some areas women are not allowed nearby the craftsmen’s workshop at all. But for Salah Kasem, the ivory rings also seem to contain a certain element of self-promotion; they have become part of his image. After all, he is not really a wood carver anymore. He buys and sells woodcarvings made by other carving masters in the area. In some cases, he lends his exhibition room to the carvings of local masters and takes a commission, when they are sold. In other cases, he selects designs and motifs from books, or takes orders on specific designs from customers, and then commissions the work to local master carvers. Salah Kasem’s real talent, it seems to me, consists in his ability to link suppliers and customers by gathering and composing different material components in the impressive frame that is the house of Baan Tipmanee, with himself as its flamboyant face, and probably his wife as the backstage organizer. When I asked about his ivory rings last week, his wife interrupted his explanation, saying that he would have worn the rings no matter whether or not he believed in them shielding him from malignant spirits residing in the wood. He laughed like a schoolboy whose boasting had been called out in the schoolyard.

picture 2

We are aligned into two lines that stretch from the street to the exhibition room inside the courtyard garden, and given a handful of flower petals. A procession walks through the two lines of people from the exhibition room towards the street. Four young women clad in dresses with inlaid gold head the procession. A guy made up as a woman and wearing a golden crown follows. Salah Kasem is the last man in the procession. As the procession walks by, we pour the flower petals over them. They turn left and stop in front of the podium with the Ganesh woodcarving. We follow. People sit down on a red carpet with their legs pointing backwards. It seems that the prohibition against pointing your feet at Buddhist figurines or monks also extends to non-Buddhist figurines. A single red cotton string is unfolded among the audience, who holds the string between their hands, which they form in a wat gesture underneath their chin. The string thus ties all participants together. Salah Kaseem has hired a ritual specialist from neighbouring village, who starts chanting in a microphone. The chanting continues for a very long time. Occasionally, an orchestra joins the chanting. The instruments – wooden xylophones, gongs and drums – and the rhythm remind me of Gamelan-orchestras I have seen in Bali. This is perhaps not so surprising, as the ritual contains several elements of Hinduism, most notably of course the worship of Ganesh. Much more so than in Southern Thailand, Ganesh is an omnipresent figure of worship throughout this region. On his part, Salah Kasem says that Ganesh is the God for craftsmen, as well as for businessmen and for money.

The chanting voice continues, when the orchestra finishes. It just keeps going. The only words I get are “Baan Tipmanee” and “Salah Kasem”, who seem to be praised for arranging the ritual. We have been sitting like this for two hours, and as my legs hurt. Even Carla, a seasoned yoga practitioner, is struggling. We finally give up, and go outside the temple garden to the street, where tables and chairs have been arranged, and food is distributed from large cooking pots. Salah Kaseem is the sponsor. People have come from Baan Tawaii, neighbouring villages, Chiang Mai, and even some Chinese visitors are here. Salah Kaseem says the Chinese participants have been there earlier to buy woodcarvings and have donated money to the woodcarvings inside the exhibition room.

The woodcarving of Ganesh with sacrificial gifts

The woodcarving of Ganesh with sacrificial gifts

A few weeks later, I go back to Baan Tipmanee, where Salah Kaseem is organizing another ritual. But this time, the participants are restricted to the staff of the house and some local carving suppliers. Food is served for everybody, and there is music. Three silver-grey Nissan pick-ups and a large blue truck have been elaborately decorated with flowers, and red and white fabric. The blue truck carries three woodcarvings of Ganesh sitting on wooden podiums. The two pick-up trucks in the back carry neatly organized flower bouquets and piles of coconut, pineapple, papaya, apple, and watermelon. The pick-up truck in front carries sacrifices, which are set on small trees. Most prominent is the money tree, the branches of which hold money bills on sticks ornamented as flowers. Unlike the wood carvings of Fo, Guanying and Guang Gong inside the exhibition room that are stuck with Chinese money bills, there are only Thai Baht bills on the money trees; green 20 Baht below, and the red 100 Baht on the top of the tree. Next to the money trees are small trees with other sacrificial gifts hanging from the branches. These gifts span an impressive range, including toothpaste, a comb, instant noodles, fish oil, salt, sugar, dried chilli, a notebook, sewing thread, incense, washing detergent, garlic, and talcum powder. The four trucks will drive to a temple in a nearby village to donate the sacrifices as a gift from the house of Baan Tipmanee. It is a Buddhist temple, but it does not seem to be a problem to be arriving there in a procession dominated by Ganesh figurines. Here, Salah Kaseem will give back some of the wealth he has attracted to the house of Baan Tipmanee with the help of Ganesh, and he will pray for luck in the coming year for his house, as well as for the craftsmen supplying him with wood carvings.

A ‘tree’ with instant noodles, dried chili, sewing thread, incense, salt and other temple donations

A ‘tree’ with instant noodles, dried chili, sewing thread, incense, salt and other temple donations

 

A ‘tree’ with Thai Baht for temple donation

A ‘tree’ with Thai Baht for temple donation

The two different ritual events seem to support two kinds of cycles. The first cycle ties together carvers, traders, and buyers through the medium of several different monetary currencies. People donate money to the carved wooden figurines that include Jesus, the Fo, Guanyin, Guang Gong commonly worshipped in China, and, most prominently, the Hindu God Ganesh. The monetary donations in the exhibition room manifest the belief in the ability of Ganesh in bringing luck in craftsmanship and in business. The money laid on the woodcarvings includes a variety of bills, including US Dollar, alongside various European, and Asian currencies. But the dominant currencies are Chinese RMB, and Thai Baht, reflecting the largest national bases of customers and worshippers. Salah Kaseem then collects the money bills and uses them to finance the annual Ganesh ritual, which – also quite literally through the string – ties together different people. Seemingly an eclectic gathering of different religious, material, and monetary components, the ritual conjures the local community, while contributing in increasing Salah Kaseem’s prestige and business. This business, in turn, provides an income for woodcarving houses – usually comprised of a master carver and a handful of apprentices – in the region.

The second ritual held a few weeks later constitutes a cycle that is narrower in terms of its social and monetary diversity, but seemingly wider in terms of its temporal extension. The participants are restricted to the employees and core suppliers of carvings of the house of Baan Tipmanee. In the first cycle, money donated by customers is spent on food, decorations, music, and the chanting priest in a singular event of consumption. In the second cycle, money earned through market transactions of woodcarvings are injected into a wider temporal order by being donated to a Buddhist temple, and thus contributes in maintaining throughout time a wider religious order through the temple. In that sense, currencies from donations and market transactions are converted into ritual and market spheres in different ways and temporal stages.

Salah Kaseem himself appears as the confluence point that ties together different social and business relations, masculine prestige, religious components, and flows of woodcarvings and money. Furthermore, in diverting flows between different monetary and religious orders, Salah Kassem upholds money and religion as mutually constituting, rather than mutually exclusive conceptual and effectual orders.

Henrik Kloppenborg Møller
Henrik can be contacted on Email: Henrik.Moller@soc.lu.se


Report from the streets of Bangkok

For safety reasons I am omitting my name from this account. My apologies.

I was in my house, when I heard. A friend messaged me, urging me to turn on the television, and so I did. All channels showed the same thing: Thailand’s General Prayuth Chan-ocha declared a total takeover of the country, Thailand was experiencing it’s 12th coup. A stream of announcements ensued over the next couple of hours.

This was Thursday May 22. I work in the media, so I rushed to the local TV-station to ensure I was there, before the now imposed curfew kicked in at 10 pm. A lot of other people had the same thought – everybody needed to be wherever they were going to sleep before 10, so the traffic was heavy and hectic.

I spent the night at the TV-station, occasionally being called up by journalists at home to give an update on the situation. I left for home in the early morning hours. I did go out during curfew hours, though, just a little bit. I wasn’t the only one – a few cars were cruising the otherwise empty streets. I said hello to a couple of confused tourists. But apart from that, about 11 pm in busy, buzzing Bangkok, the streets looked like this:

Bangkok 1

The next morning, it really sank in. The country was now military run, and in the daylight, a few reflections and reactions started to seep out. Cautious ones, though, due to the new, extensive censorship on media. One reporter of the English-language Bangkok-paper, The Nation, was really outspoken and critical. He used Twitter to express his anger over the sudden censorship and the coup in general.

I spent the day out and about in Bangkok. Most of the city looked normal, even more normal than it has looked for a while because the military cleared the protesters that have been camping out in the streets of Bangkok since November 2013.They’ve had a lot of demands and a specific political agenda, and has had stages and roadblocks in Bangkok for the good part of a year by now. I won’t go into that.

Up in the northern part of town, a small group of anti-coup protesters – maybe 200 – were defying the newly-imposed ban on gathering more than five people. So even though the soldiers were not present in most of the city, they were present up there: several stand-offs and minor scuffles during Friday, but luckily, nobody was hurt.

On Saturday, two days after the coup, a lot happened. A continued stream of different announcements – mainly announcing lists of people who were to report to the military – was on television all day. Late that evening, the military dissolved the Senate, and removed a not unsubstantial amount of public servants, amongst them the Chief of National Police. I started to worry, because many of the listed people, who were to report to the military, were academics and activists and journalists – critical civilians, in other words. It was not long after that the outspoken journalist from The Nation, the one who had been very critical on Twitter, was called in to report to the military.

So I think, by Sunday, the situation had become significantly more serious. Reports of large numbers of people being detained and transferred to unknown destinations were coming in now. A statement from the military declared that democracy in Thailand had “caused losses”, leaving us speculating if that meant they were not prone to re-establish democracy? The Nation’s journalist reported to military, as he was told, and it looked like this:

Bangkok 2

This picture floated social media yesterday. Unknown credit.

I heard that protesters were gathering again next to Victory Monument in Bangkok, and I decided to go up there. Overnight, the protest had grown in size – far more than 200 people were there now. I would estimate at least 1000, but it’s just a guess. Just when I arrived, I saw a lot of people running towards the soldiers that was blocking the street:

Bangkok 3

Upon reaching the ranks, people started shouting at the soldiers. (Who in many cases are young boys, and not necessarily happy with the task they are doing.) It was tense for a little while, especially when some people started throwing bananas at the soldiers.

Bangkok 4
But the situation seemed to diffuse, like it has done many times before. These scuffles happen regularly, because tensions are high. Anyway, the police were able to calm down the protesters, and the army was ordered to pull back, which they did:

Bangkok 5

After that, the anti-coup protesters decided to dissolve and meet again the next day. On my way home I heard that the Nation-journalist had been taken into custody and transferred to an unknown location. Noone has been in contact with him since that picture was taken Sunday morning, as of this writing.

The official explanation for the coup is to keep the peace. The military says it over and over – this extreme measure is to restore and keep the peace. I have a feeling that the new military leadership of Thailand has a very different definition the word “peace” than I do.

 

The author of the article has chosen to be anonymous, but is known to the In Focus editors.

Pictures are by the author, if not otherwise stated.

 


The Creeping Coup

Thailand has an impressive track-record in the department of political coups. There has, in the country’s democratic history (since 1932) been 18 more or less successful coups in Thailand.

For this reason, whenever there is political instability, Thai media and followers of Thai politics very quickly start using the word “coup”. Will there be a coup? Will the military stage a coup?

Bangkok protests at the Democracy Memorial, November 2013. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/maxim303/11468339025/

Bangkok protests at the Democracy Memorial, November 2013. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/maxim303/11468339025/

With the current situation in Thailand, we certainly have all the components:

An angry mob in the streets – since November 2013, anti-government protesters have camped out in the streets of Bangkok, demanding that the government step down and the entire system be reformed. That could cause a coup.

A political divide –the current government and the opposition does not agree even on the basic democratic framework. The current government aims for elections – the opposition will actively obstruct any attempt to hold an election, unless there is a reform first.  That too could cause a coup.

And lastly there is an all-round disrespect for the citizens and their right to co-decide what happens to their own country. What happens on the political scene today in Thailand is entirely a power struggle in between opposing elites. Top dog power struggles are the main ingredient in coups.

But despite all the political factors lining up we won’t have a classic coup in Thailand. Not this time.

What we MAY witness in Thailand right now is a whole new category: The Creeping Coup.

The Creeping Coup is a waiting game. Man, it’s slow!

It started all the way back in November 2013, when anti-government protesters started gathering in the streets of Bangkok, demanding the government step down. The protesters turned out to be surprisingly loud and stubborn – they put up roadblocks, built stages, erected tents everywhere, effectively shutting down most of central Bangkok.

With a capital that was largely ungovernable, and – it seemed – a never-ending stream of critical protesters pouring in from the south of Thailand, the Yingluck-government caved in and stepped down.

But it was already slowly becoming increasingly clear that that wasn’t the only thing the protesters – now formed into a form of political movement named People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) – wanted. They wanted their reform. So they stayed in the streets. And the government, excuse me, now the caretaker government, also stayed. For the next four months.

As the months went by, the numbers of the protesters dwindled. Now left with just a couple of small road-blocks, and an occupied park, the Creeping Coup went into the next phase:

In an impressive display of If-You-Can’t-Beat-Them-Join-Them, the opposition movement now started to use the very same system, they want reformed, to obtain their reform:

They started hurling lawsuits at the government. Lots of them.

The most substantial of those was the accusation of corruption within the government rice-scheme, a failed attempt to rake in additional foreign money by tampering with the global rice market. The National Anti-Corruption Committee just recently decided to impeach Yingluck Shinawatra over the issue, and the Senate will conduct thorough investigations on this matter.

Yingluck Shinawatra, Prime Minister of Thailand is captured during the session 'Women as the Way Forward' at the Annual Meeting 2012 of the World Economic Forum at the congress centre in Davos, Switzerland, January 27, 2012. Copyright by World Economic Forum

Yingluck Shinawatra, Prime Minister of Thailand is captured during the session ‘Women as the Way Forward’ at the Annual Meeting 2012 of the World Economic Forum at the congress centre in Davos, Switzerland, January 27, 2012. Copyright by World Economic Forum

 

Another recent one is the transfer of the chief of the National Security Council in 2011, Thawil Pliensri. A unanimous Constitutional Court voted caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra guilty of looking out for her own interests, when she gave the nod to the transfer, and that’s unconstitutional. She and nine ministers were ousted from government completely over the Thawil-case.

But the thing is, though, that Thailand’s different authorities are not all that impartial. The Constitutional Court, the Senate, the National Anti-Corruption Committee – these institutions are as much political players as the parties themselves are, but with the exception that they have juridical authority.

As of this writing, Thailand does not have an official government. Ten ministers, including the former Prime, have been ousted from their seats, there is no certainty how the next government will be put in place, Bangkok still has frequent mass-demonstrations AND the anti-government protesters still camp out in the streets of Bangkok, demanding their reform.

So there it is. Bit by bit, lawsuit by lawsuit, demonstration by demonstration, verdict by verdict, until there is no other way: The Creeping Coup.

Anya Palm, free-lance journalist based in Bangkok and NIAS Associate.

Palmwrtitings.com


The dice that always land on red

About a week ago, Thailand’s capital Bangkok, saw the largest demonstrations since the political turmoil that gripped the country in 2010. Back then, supporters of Thailand’s exiled former Premier, Thaksin Shinawatra, took the streets. That didn’t end well – when the smoke cleared after the demonstrations, 92 people had lost their lives and over 1000 people were badly wounded. So in these past few weeks, fear of repetition of the black days in spring 2010 has had the city on needles.  

Tuesday last week, police where hurling gas canisters at protesters to stop them from entering the Government House by force. But then everything very suddenly stopped: Thursday was the King’s Birthday, and the fighting parties decided to hold a truce out of respect for the King. 24 hours later, police were receiving flowers and hugs from the very same protesters they just fought and peace befell the city for a little while.

Anyways.

After a short intermission celebrating the King’s Birthday together, Bangkok is now gearing up for a second round of demonstrations.

Demonstration leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, has repeatedly set several deadlines for toppling the government over the course of two weeks now, and calls for Monday to be “do or die” – the Big Battle day. Monday is the day where the protesters once and for all seize control of the Government House and bring down the redshirt-movement, current Prime Minister Yingluck, big brother Thaksin, the government and everyone else affiliated with the powerful siblings.

And once again, the tension rises and the police take their place on street corners and in formations protecting government offices.  With five dead and 200 hurt last week, there is very valid concern of how things may play out now.

But actually that’s not what we need to be concerned about. There is little to do about that, other than keep calm and hope that everyone else does the same.

What we need to be concerned about is this:

There is in Thailand an elite of people with strong conservative, feudalistic values. They are high up, and they are powerful. Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban is one of them. The arch-enemies of the red-shirts – the yellow shirts – are also part of this elite. Several influential families. Parts of the Thai military, generals, decision makers, business leaders. All of them ready to fight for a complete break-down of the current system to rid it of the Shinawatra influence. Those are the people that are represented by 100.000 protesters marching around in Bangkok, taking over government offices these days.

Thaksin Shinawatra, on his side, is the leader of a movement, which has enormous power in Thailand due to a die-hard loyalty from red voters, particularly rural farmers from the North. At the same time, however, he is supported by enough money to keep voters happy and his affiliations are a spider’s web of powerful people reaching very far into the core of the system. Thaksin – or one of his affiliates – have won every single election they’ve ever participated in. If there was to be another election after these protests…they would win it once again. In short: Thaksin has effectively hijacked democracy in Thailand – he and his redshirts not afraid to put any disagreements to the vote, because they will always win.

This is what the protesters are trying to put a stop to, which is arguably a valid point. There is one problem, though: The alternative they present is even worse:

Their point is this: Because of the poor track record of voting in people who are corrupt (and always affiliated with Thaksin), the anti-government protesters argue that voting has to be suspended altogether. The electing must instead be taken care of by other means until the masses are educated enough to they know what they are doing. A minority with “higher moral standards” – presumably appointed by the King – must take care of governing the country instead.

Yup. That’s what the protesters in the street are out there fighting for. And with that fairly extreme stance, the options of what will happen next limit themselves to these three:

  1. If the government survives the current squatters’ siege, an administration with an eerily tight grip on majority – and a habit of taking corruption to a whole new level – will stay in seat.
  2. If there is an election, they will get re-elected.
  3. If the anti-protesters manage to take over, the country will then be led by an elite whose disregard for common people is so monumental they genuinely believe people are too stupid to vote.

Regardless of where the democratic dices land in Thailand this time, one thing is certain: All of these options lead to deeper divide in the nation. The split in between the redshirts and the opposition is only worsening over these re-occurring seemingly endless protests, and when the demands are so far from democracy that they are borderline unconstitutional, there is very little to work with. There has been no dialogue, no resolution, no common ground within the current political turmoil, so there is not really anything to drive the process of reconciliation forward. Well – maybe there is ONE thing: The fact that the entire country just days ago together in peace listened to the King’s annual speech in which he spoke beautifully of Thailand as a united nation of peace and prosperity.

So, Happy Birthday, King. Let’s hope Suthep and other destructive hotheads listened too.

 

By Anya Palm

Freelance journalist focusing on Southeast Asia and NIAS Associate.

www.palmwritings.com

 

 


Lady Gaga and the Fake Rolex Affair

By Anya Palm

This weekend’s big event in Bangkok was a concert with the colorful pop artist, Lady Gaga. The star is doing her “Born This Way Ball” 2012 tour in Asia, and while Lady Gaga is in the region purely to perform and entertain, her visit has stirred quite a bit of political attention.

Most notably, she may be banned from performing in Jakarta, Indonesia next month due to her revealing costumes, which according to the Indonesian police will “corrupt” young fans.  She is currently in a dispute with Indonesian authorities on whether or not she will get a permit to perform there next month.

That was expected though. Indonesia, as well as disturbingly many other places, does have powerful religious hardliners with little understanding of modern pop culture.  And Lady Gaga is no wallflower.

But in Bangkok, something a little more subtle – and in a way considerably more significant – happened.

Upon arriving to Bangkok the night before her show, Lady Gaga tweeted to her 24 million fans on twitter:

“I just landed in Bangkok baby! Ready for 50,000 screaming Thai monsters. I wanna get lost in a lady market and buy fake Rolex.”

The comment offended her Thai fans. A lot.

“She came to our home, but instead of admiring us she insulted us”, said one commenter, while another sarcastically retorted: “I’m sure there are plenty of fake Gaga CDs, too.”

“We are more civilized than you think,” tweeted Surahit Siamwalla, a well-known Thai DJ. He declared that he, despite owning a ticket, would boycott her show.

 Lady Gaga will probably survive that.

But the reaction is interesting – there ARE a lot of fake Rolexes floating around Bangkok, and the city IS famous for counterfeit products. This is no secret. Why can’t she say that out loud?

Not too long ago, it was Angelina Jolie that was the subject of the Thai wrath. She had gotten herself a tattoo in Thailand, a religious symbol, and the Thai authorities felt that the actress disrespected a sacred image by inking up. So they went ahead and banned tourists from getting “sacred images” as tattoos altogether. Before that, the Hollywood blockbuster “Hangover in Bangkok” was scorned for giving Thailand a bad reputation, because the movie revolves around a drunken night, set in Bangkok.

But the reputation that Thailand has – for being a counterfeit haven and for being a party-city with red-light districts a plenty – has nothing to do with Gaga, Hollywood or Jolie.

It has to do with a corrupt and useless police force. It has to do with an incompetent, nepotistic government. It has to do with a collective state of mind of “problems are never MY fault”.

Acting angry and insulted will not stop the sale of fake Rolexes in Bangkok, nor will it do any good to the country’s reputation.

What will then? Putting down the coffee mug and start dealing with problems so obvious that even a passing-through pop star mentions them will.


A Hero with dirty hands by Anya Palm

Friday was the first time for many Thais to hear Yingluck Shinawatra speak in public. The lady, who by the looks of all polls, is going to be Thailand’s Prime Minister by Sunday, has never really spoken to followers before, and the audience for Friday’s speech came to see “what kind of person she is”, as one of the redclad supporters explained.

In a stadium in the outskirts of Bangkok on Friday, she yelled her message in a high pitched and indignate voice, and the response from the crowd was ear deafening. “PUEA THAI! PUEA THAI!”

The fact that she has had to do absolutely nothing – not even speak to her voters – says more about the Thai political situation than anything else.

In Thailand, a young woman running for Prime Minister would have exactly those two things against her. In a country where age equals experience, obviously a young candidate has much to prove. And she is going to be the first female Prime Minister Thailand has ever had. In a patriarchic society like Thailand that would constitute as a major concern. Logically, Yingluck Shinawatra would have spent every waking minute of her campaign assuring that those two things are not issues.

She didn’t and she didn’t have to. Because Yingluck Shinawatra is not running for PM in Thailand; Her big brother is.

Thaksin Shinawatra was couped from power in 2006. Having been in office for five years, and winning four elections in a row – a record in Thailand – the former “CEO” of Thailand has spend the years since then falling out with the elite, the monarchy and the army, and thus, today, he is a fugitive with an arrest order hanging over his head, if he ever returns.

That is, however, not as unfortunate as it sounds. Thaksin’s opposition to the power elite and their continued attempts to keep him out of politics, spotlights his agenda of breaking up the tight grip those three groups – army, rich elite and monarchy – has on the Thai democracy.

They run the country with little attention to the voice of the voters and the everyday problems, the citizens of Thailand struggle with. They run the country, not because they are elected to, but because with their good education, high ranks and superior social statuses, they are naturally entitled to. It is nobody’s place to tell them differently, and particularly it is not common people’s place, be it in vote form or otherwise. Despite the obstruction of rights and equality for the people in this construction, this is not an uncommon view for Thai people, particularly in the older generation.

In that respect, Thaksin Shinawatra stands for democracy in a Western definition – his leadership will be one, where the voice of the people will be heard and where politics to better the situation for the citizens of Thailand will be a priority. He has proven that already, and for that, he has almost endless support. There is just one catch:

He is a complete crook. Voting for Little Sis will also be voting for a man, who has much focus on making himself richer in such a scale that it cannot be defended in any way.

While he was Prime Minister, he made numerous state funded contributions to companies owned by friends and family, several of his relatives were elevated in rank, and the premiership had a direct positive effect on Thaksin Shinawatra’s personal bank account.

Voting for a sincere, democratic candidate, whose sole interest is to be as good a Prime Minister as he or she can be, is not an option in Thailand.

So really, while celebrating Yingluck’s victory, Thai people need to start asking themselves:

How big of a crook is Thaksin Shinawatra really? Because the way the dice landed, Thai democracy is in large part dependant on the answer.

 

Anya Palm,
freelance journalist based in Bangkok, NIAS associate
www.palmwritings.com
http://www.facebook.com/PalmWritings

 


Thai politics costing lives. Again.

Thai politics have been somewhat baffling the past two weeks. So has Cambodian politics. And as always when the two Kingdoms clash and create irrational political atmospheres, people have suffered. In this case, several people have died. But let’s start with the beginning:

About three weeks ago a Thai delegation made a field trip to the disputed temple Preah Vihear. Thailand and Cambodia have been fighting over the temple for decades and despite the temple being awarded to Cambodia in 1962 by the International Court of Justice in Haag, Thailand has never recognized the ownership. The conflict last flared up when the temple was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.

The seven delegates – including an MP and several high profiled politicians – were arrested by Cambodian border police. Shortly after, Thailand’s nationalistic People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) – also known as the yellow shirts – started a demonstration, demanding their government tighten up the policies towards Cambodia.

Actually, they demanded them tightened up quite a bit: They wanted to repeal a Memorandum of Understanding from 2000, they wanted Thailand to withdraw from the UNESCO Committee and all the Cambodians living on the Thai side of the border be expelled.

Yes. The last one was: Kick out all the Cambodians, who happen to live on what Thailand believes to be the Thai side of the border. That will settle the dispute for sure.  

Anyways. That was weeks ago and things have only deterioated from there. PAD has refused to negotiate with the government and is still demonstrating in the streets, causing clogged traffic and general disturbance in the area. Of the seven arrested Thais, five were released, but in an unfortunate and provocating twist, the two remaining detainees were convicted of spying and sentenced to eight years.

The PAD immediately demanded the Government got them released. That is, of course, not possible – Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has no right to extract people, who are accused, prosecuted and convicted on Cambodian soil.

So now they demand he step down or else…

And they are not alone: The arch enemies, The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship – the redshirts – has been gathering bigger and bigger crowds since the state of emergency was lifted in December. They have announced a mass rally this Sunday and their demand echoes the PAD’s: The Government must step down.

However, they have not arrived yet, and PM Abhisit has other concerns as well. In the South, insurgents are fighting for an independent state and that conflict has proved untamable for decades. There are almost daily reports of casualties from the three most Southern provinces of Thailand, and rogue groups of dissidents have recently taken to targeting teachers of the local schools in the area. While the conflict have been there for so long the Government has almost gotten away with just shrugging their shoulders at the on-going violence, the Teachers Unions are weighty voices and stories of attacks on schools are difficult to ignore.

Meanwhile, the Northern border is not much better: Burmese troops have since the election in Burma in November intensified their battle with the local Karen militia, making life for the hundreds of thousands of refugees in camps by the border unstable with frequent battles and intimidation.

And then, four days ago, the troops posted along the Preah Vihear border from both Cambodia and Thailand started to take out the heavy artillery. Reports of casualties vary from five (BBC) to 64 (different local media) and while many have fled the area, some of the villagers have decided to stay. And fight if necessary.

Who can blame them? As the above account reveals, it is very easy to summarize the situation without taking into account how much these situations affect the people living with the violence.  The villagers have lived there for generations and their livelihoods are destroyed by the fighting, yet there are no reports on dialogue with the people in the South, North and now, East.

Of course these days the main focus is on conflict by the Preah Vihear temple, as it rightly should be – there have been armed fighting there for four days  and it does not seem to end anytime soon.

But the focus is on Abhisit and whether he steps down because of it, not on how to solve it or on the people affected by it.

And then, Sunday, something happened that did not get much focus either:

Amidst the fighting a bomb blew up part of the 1100-year-old Preah Vihear temple, the temple this whole conflict is about.  

 

Anya Palm

Freelance journalist based in Bangkok

www.palmwritings.com 

http://www.facebook.com/PalmWritings