Leaving Thai-Land: the theme park

 | Fri 8 Nov 2013 15:50 ICT

“If you think peace is a common goal that goes to show how little you know.”  The Smiths, Death of a Disco Dancer

It was 14 years ago this week when I arrived in Thailand, or Thai-Land, the theme park.

Thai-Land with its non-stop, sometimes grand sometimes gaudy attractions was worth every penny I’d paid for the ticket. It won four sensuous stars from someone who became easily depressed without a visible sun…The Land of Smiles, it was a breeze compared to icy, industrial England.

What I quickly figured out was that much of what I conceived to be reality in the land of smiles was actually put on for me. Everyday life was in some ways a reality show. The people that manned and maintained the attractions I used in Thai-Land, my hosts, were less men and women with real lives, than they were people in character, in costume. Behind these people a mysterious board made up of wealthy men and women (mostly men) with veiled hands directed this reality show, they contributed to a story with a kind of mythical LOS narrative, the fairytale quality that every theme park needs in order to amaze visitors and inspirit employees.

But cracks appeared in the magical narrative, as they always do in time, and the theme park became a little bit frustrating. I headed for the Thai-Land turnstiles, or in Platonic allegorical terms, I stepped out of the cave.

It was at about this time that Thaksin Shinawatra, the supremely rich man of the mountains (known mockingly by those affluent and arrogant Bangkokians as meow), was employing populist strategies to gain political momentum, strategies that included the extra-judicial killing of drug dealers and turning-on the agrarian prai with his largesse. It also transpired that he’d evaded paying billions of baht in tax to his beloved Thailand. There’s a lot more dirt on him too, but he was, at the very least, democratically elected.

Thaksin’s sticky fingers and dodgy populism were not very popular at the time within the expat community, not even in the north where Thaksin had a poor stronghold. It was viewed at the time – a notion often powered by The Nation – that only uneducated people backed a Shinawatra, and so fearful of association with the country dullards many expats myopically embraced the other side’s ostensible civilized democracy even though it would prove to be about as civilized as nerve gas. Pheu Thai might not have vastly improved life for the majority of the people, but in their hearts and on paper the Democrats were anything but Democratic. I fell for it too, the bright yellow propaganda telling me that the farmers and factory workers, the backbone of Thailand, were too dumb and self-centered to cast a meaningful vote, that they were exploited wholesale by the wicked square-faced demagogue, a man from Sankampaeng who’d figured out that giving people handouts was a far better tactic than seasonal offers of fuck-all. The hand-outs might have been spent on Mekong as haughty expats would derisively echo, but they were also positive symbolic gestures that would last much longer than a hangover.

Red or yellow it seemed to me that policy was less important than criteria. To stand a chance of standing for the people you must have outlandish wealth. You must be a patrician estranged from the plebeians, the poor you rely for your power, and in spite of your fear of dust and mud and anything earthy you must oblige to occasionally stand in a rice paddy so that you can be photographed looking like you are one of them, The People.

Does that sound cynical? Am I even allowed to pass such a judgment, given what it says in my passport?

A debilitating syndrome that affects a large number of expats is the Go Home Syndrome (GHS), whereby anyone who does not hold Thai citizenship cannot hold political views. As merely a guest in Thailand one should not get involved in anything more serious than responding to a poll about pizzas. If you don’t like what you see, even if it’s people being shot for voicing their political views, just go home.

“I never talk to my neighbours, I’d rather not get involved.”

This is a fashionable apathy, I feel, that needs discrediting. It’s a selfish kind of cheap shot attitude, especially now as tensions in Thailand are at breaking point and we may be on the verge of a political cataclysm. If you live in Thailand right now you should have political views. The political lassitude that us expats are expected to harbour mirrors that of the hopeless Thai education system in the way that thinking critically is seen as a negative thing to do, and by criticizing you are quickly ostracized by those who have been fooled. Our dispassion only perpetuates injustices.

Many of my Thai friends, colleagues, and the strangers I have met, while aware of the centuries of corruption rained down on them from high above, seemed for a long time resigned to the fact they’ll be suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, rather than, taking arms against a sea of troubles. But something has changed, we are undoubtedly entering a period of social and political enlightenment. Some of those that manned and maintained the theme park, those that conspired to create illusions, have gone on strike. We might also be reminded that the bloodiest periods in history have been enlightenment periods.

Thousands of people in Bangkok were demonstrating against the ‘Blanket Amnesty’ this week (more than half a million signed a petition against it), many of whom were railing against a culture of impunity laid on as a birthright for the Thai elite (amart). Others spilled out of soi in Bangkok waving flags spouting hackneyed lines about loving Thailand, and yet at the same time craving another bloody coup.

My friends, due to there being a phenomenon such as social media, now include critics, analysts, journalists, writers, poets, professors, etc. Some of them are living in Thailand, and others are persona non grata because they recorded their political beliefs. This means that daily I’m accosted by a plethora of articles on the subject I’m talking about. Sometimes it feels more like a battle of egos than a war in the name of peace and harmony, but generally the end product of all this information can only be a better understanding of Thailand. It’s a shame that the wisest critics and warmest voices are mostly ensconced in pleasure paradox condos in Bangkok, rather than nailing their views to walls in Khon Kaen. Thailand I feel needs a working class hero.

My bourgeois friends on Facebook likely have no idea how it feels to be working class, and be treated as such. While what they do is noble, if you want to write about oppression then it’s probably better you’ve been oppressed. While it’s grand academics discuss meta-narratives and Article 112 at a safe distance from the slums, our hopes for a fair and equal society rest on the rise of the working class. A working class that feels emboldened enough to demand truth and hopeful enough to act peacefully.

Journalist Andrew McGregor Marshall, who seasonally breaches Article 112, has written about the possible approach of a dark period in Thai history (galee-yud). Various opposing political factions, large networks of powerful people, may not be able to reconcile their differences he writes. The factions are about as symbiotic as toilet cleaner and the digestive tract. Each wants the same thing: power and money. The détente that has held things together for a while can’t hold anymore as we enter this new era, and those with divided interests, who have had no problem sacrificing their loyal supporters (pawns) in the past in order to get their own way, will do anything to secure power. The Amnesty Bill with its sly intervention, soaped-up the enmity of some yellow groups that were dying to topple a democratically elected government.   Yingluck’s dropping of the bill was unavoidable. She faced losing support from all sides, but the bill also resurrected those waiting in the shadows who want nothing more than Thailand to be governed and its future dictated by those who know best; not by those who are chosen by a majority of country bumpkins who have been hoodwinked into voting for a Shinawatra, aka the dumb slut (or stupid bitch).   The professed educated class who have invoked this kind of scatological parlance into the political lexicon wholeheartedly admire old school realpolitik, i.e. appointed leaders, and a muted populace whose future is chained to the dogged past, and freedoms are fettered by the sometimes whimsical sometimes selective rule of law. Democracy is the opposition to these weather-beaten remnants of an age-old status quo who still live in an age of unreason, and until Thailand grows out of this tired, bellicose schism, the country will experience little social progress.   As Songkran Grachangnetara put it in an op-ed for Bangkok Post this week:   All of a sudden, the usual suspects, such as retired generals with empty nest syndrome, senile political has-beens and of course, the perennial ‘one-trick pony’ party, start coming out of the woodwork…   Truth and justice the critics wrote was diametrically opposed to the Blanket Amnesty Bill. Truth and justice doesn’t align with being unaccountable for crimes, it’s more in line with the systematic exposure of those who have exploited and sometimes perfidiously mislead the people. Truth and Justice, as Chiang Mai activist Ricky Ward wrote in a letter this week means “replacing the cruel and violent system of the police, courts, judges and the ‘Corrections Department’. Truth and Justice means the accountability of the entire socio-political system and the bureaucrats that keep the tainted blood pumping, not a private escape pod for a few individuals.   Truth might mean re-writing history, re-education, and that is why those who have controlled the country are not surprisingly shitting themselves at the prospect of a proper education for the eternally disgruntled masses. The prospect of huge crowds of people pushing through the turn-styles gives some people nightmares.   The law must be upheld or “truth will be buried” and a chance to put things right will be lost, wrote Khon Kaen-based academic, David Streckfuss, in The Bangkok Post this week.   A history of atrocities must be unearthed, and those who buried the facts must come under scrutiny. The corpses of all the people massacred must be mentally exhumed, never mind how revolting that may seem to those who want to forget. A democratically elected government is the only platform on which truth can be safely dissected. Without the freedom to discuss our opinions openly finding the truth is a Sisyphean task, like trying to eat soup with a sieve.   The complex web, home to those who have spun fiction as a life’s work, has to be carefully untangled. In this metaphor laden piece I’ll finally invoke a Thai metaphor: We must change our focus from the coriander (pak-chee) on top, and see what’s underneath.