Whose Planet Are You On?
Most days I drive the 7 km into Sangkha and most days my Bangkok Post is waiting for me at the minimart. I watch their body language as I go in, waiting for them to say ‘it’s not come yet’ which is a nice way of telling me it ain’t never going to. Then when I’m in luck I go and eat at Fat Ladies’ and read hungrily. We call her Fat Lady because she’s a real charmer, a delightful hostess… a lady indeed.
Back home I go upstairs to my balcony and devour every column inch of the newspaper, eager to have contact with the wider world.
In this my rural world it’s all babies and buffaloes, green rice fields, soporific heat, old crones chewing betel nut and grumbles of distant thunder. It’s about as sleepy as it gets.
My newspaper reveals another world. Reading the headlines, I survey the turmoil in the wider world, perplexed. The American economy is imploding, the consequence of profligate lending on over-priced housing and billions spent on bloody warfare. Meanwhile the bank CEOs have pocketed billions of corporate cash, undue reward for massive failure, a subtle though legal corruption of the system. Yes, this really is a crisis and a half.
Meanwhile Thai politics simmer angrily as elected prime ministers continue to fall. Two years ago Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was removed by military coup and Samak Sundaravej, his successor and admitted nominee has instead been removed by the courts for violating the constitution. His heinous offence was to host two cooking programmes on TV and accepting money for it, an ‘employment’ which was a conflict of interest. On top of that his conviction for libel has just been confirmed on appeal and he has been sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. (26 September.)
His party, the PPP that heads the ruling coalition is shortly to be disbanded by the courts because one of its senior members was disqualified for electoral wrongdoings. Almost everyone else is under investigation for corruption and it seems the courts are out to nail all those who were elected by the great unwashed from the countryside. Forty seven people including most of the former Thaksin cabinet and some in the new government have been accused of involvement in an illegal lottery and are pictured in court on the front page of the Bangkok Post of 27 September 2008. Many of them are also up in court on fraud charges connected with a scheme to supply free rubber saplings to poor farmers, so it’s a busy time for all concerned.
Corruption is never out of the papers but because of these curious prosecutions of elected representatives Thailand has improved a place or two in the international corruption ratings and this year is only the eightieth least corrupt country. (Bangkok Post, 27 September 2008.)
The Peoples’ Alliance for Democracy (PAD) whose key policy is hating Thaksin are still illegally occupying government house and the functions of government are being carried out by the PM and his new ministers in rooms at the old airport.
Campaigning to bring in the ‘New Politics’, the PAD had a cunning plan that as the farmers sell their votes and can’t be trusted with them, the voters should only appoint thirty percent of the legislature. Some commentators pointed out that this seems to be not ‘for’ but ‘against’ democracy, so ever cunning the PAD have now said that the other seventy percent should be ‘elected’ too but by narrow constituencies of professionals and others.
The ‘new politics’ of this ‘alliance for democracy’ are in reality aimed at reasserting the old feudal politics by doing away with electoral democracy because it enfranchises the great unwashed. They boldly say they’re protesting on behalf of ‘the people’ which seems to mean disenfranchising them.
With Samak gone, a new prime minister had to be quickly pulled out of the hat which wasn’t easy. All three internal candidates for the job, Somchai, Sompong and Surapong all looked much the same to me with hardly a pong to separate them. To assuage the rampaging PAD protesters the aim was to present someone who didn’t look to be puppet of former premier Thaksin, the grey eminence behind the coalition.
The PM they chose therefore was Somchai Wongsawat, a serious looking man who is presented as being rather nice and not half as rude as Samak. But crucially would he be Thaksin’s man?
Of course he wouldn’t they said, though this looks a little thin. He happens to be married to Thaksin’s sister and his brother-in-law’s been phoning from London to tell him who to put in the cabinet.
Thaksin’s reportedly been feeling pretty sorry for himself condemned to exile in Surrey and he’s short of cash too. He’s been ‘forced to sell Manchester City after having his assets frozen as a result of corruption and fraud charges at home.’ (24 September.)
He’ll have a little more spending money now though as it’s just been reported that the sale of the club to interests in Abu Dhabi made him a clear profit of 50 million Pounds, sterling on an investment of ‘significantly less than 80 Million’ not many months earlier. I’m not weeping for him any more.
Newbie prime minister Somchai’s a quiet and dignified man and he’s now preparing the required statement of his government’s policies… though he might as well not bother as he’ll be bumped out of office quite soon. The PAD tried to invade parliament to stop the presentation and there has been much bloodshed.
PM Somchai wasn’t in fact free to choose his ministers even with Thaksin’s help… they were partly thrust upon him by the various parties and factions in the coalition and have not been universally welcomed. As one commentator said, he’s appointed a brewer and a police captain in charge of major portfolios.
The new Minister for Education who has spent his career in telecommunications admitted he knew little of education but said he could ask his wife who’s a former teacher. ‘Many of my cousins work in the teaching field so I know their problems well,’ he told reporters. (27 September.)
The new Foreign Minister who is just off to the UN General Assembly in New York and will have to deal with Thailand’s hosting of a forthcoming ASEAN summit “said he felt ‘uneasy’ working at the ministry because he was still not accustomed to making official contact with foreign countries whose perceptions of Thailand are sometimes little known”. (27 September 2008.)
In the words of a European diplomat, ‘Despite the combination of political clowns and gangsters, which includes nominees and relatives of banned politicians from the defunct Thai Rak Thai party, the Somchai government is the main legitimate political force in Thailand.’ (26 September 2008.) How true that is, if not very diplomatic!
There’s also an election on for Governor of Bangkok. The Bangkok Post explains that there’s always lots of candidates because the city has a huge budget so there’s loads to be creamed off. A new governor therefore starts by cancelling all major projects and then puts them out for tender again.
One candidate’s campaign ran into problems though. Promoting a policy of cleaning up the canals and providing clean water, she was riding a ferry boat on Klong San Saeb, slipped and fell into the dirtiest water in the world. It’s hard to survive such an experience and the next day her campaign adviser didn’t. This time swimming in a canal to demonstrate how dirty the water was, he got into difficulties and tragically drowned while everyone stood around and called the police on their mobiles.
In other news… an official has said that Thai students lack a sense of nationalism and know very little about Thailand’s proud history. (26 September.) It is a ‘great failing of the education system’ that they know nothing of ‘historical figures’ such as barge steersman Norasingh. While steering a royal barge Norasingh hit a tree. ‘Although the king and his courtiers were unhurt, Norasingh insisted on being beheaded on the spot for putting the king’s life in danger. The king was at first reluctant, but finally, impressed by Norasingh’s sincerity he complied.’
Presumably applying such examples of selfless patriotism, ‘schools will boost activities to instill patriotism in students’, a central curriculum will be developed and students must pass an assessment of their ethics and nationalism.
The remains of 500 airport baggage trolleys have been found by police in a Bangkok scrapyard. After a tip-off they ‘staked-out’ the multi-storey car park at the new airport ‘and found two men driving around in a white pickup on the third floor with five trolleys in the back.’ (26 September.) When the airport was opened in September 2006 it had 9,000 trolleys but only 5,000 are still left. As usual it was partly an inside job and two employees have been arrested.
In another news item, ‘Policeman Worapong Thongpaiboon of the Suppression of Crimes Against Children, Juveniles and Women Division has advised women not to get carried away if their boyfriends have a video camera or a mobile phone with built-in camera,’ as the boyfriend or ex-boyfriend might post the pics on the internet. (22 September.) ‘I cannot stop couples having sex,’ he said. ‘I can only warn that by the time their nude photos are exposed on a public network, it’s already too late.’
Can you believe everything you read in the papers though?
Yesterday I was at Fat Ladies’ eating khao pat ghai, totally engrossed, as the Bangkok Post told me how George Bush is presiding over the implosion of Wall Street and the end of civilization as we know it. All stirring stuff and I wasn’t thinking of much else, ignoring both the hum of traffic and the voices around me.
Sitting at the next table were a hunky Thai bloke in shorts and tee shirt with thick, hairy legs and opposite him a typically trim and pretty girl with torrents of black hair and a delicate profile. I don’t think they were arguing as the loud mix of deep guffaws and high tones was usually followed by cascades of laughter.
Their chatter was insistent and began to intrude on my concentration so I glanced up at them over the top of my newspaper. They had briefly fallen silent but as they began talking again I realized that it was the hunk whose voice was shrill and effeminate and the pretty girl’s was as low and husky as a wrestler’s.
In Thailand as in life, all is an illusion and we inhabit different worlds. The city and the rice fields are on different planets, there are Thais and foreigners, male and female and it’s hard to have a foot in more than one world.
Though each world is so different, sometimes they’re same, same… a muddle, a complex confusion. When small disasters strike the Thais all laugh, and politics too is an endless tragedy. Unable to reconcile city with countryside, it’s also a farce.
Meanwhile in our small north eastern town, Fat Lady keeps stirring and frying. And out in the fields there’s work to be done… fertilizer to throw on the rice, weeds to be grubbed out.
Older brother, Lek hasn’t sent Mama her usual 500 baht from his factory work in Samut Prakan, the baby has to be taken to the hospital as he’s got a cold and it’s time to think up some new numbers for the lottery.
Far, far away the financial heavens may be falling in and they’re still protesting in Bangkok, but here life in the village just has to go on.
And I must close my computer and go and get the Bangkok Post.
It would all be hilarious if it weren't for the fact that those you write about the ones charged with running the country!