Posted on Dooneyscafe.com on October 1, 2001
Daniel Gawthrop explores why Thai people haven’t responded to America’s tragedy with candlelight vigils.
BANGKOK—Some time late in August, as the clouds moved in and the monsoon rains began their annual sweep of the Kingdom, a new form of political protest was born. Impoverished Thai villagers, led by a man from the western border province of Kanchanaburi named Chuay Kochasit, began smearing themselves in excrement–usually swine feces but in Chuay’s case, his own shit–to protest government and banking system injustice.
I was all set to tackle this phenomenon for my first “letter from Bangkok”, by way of explaining some of the peculiarities of Thai culture and politics. But then those jumbo jet planes hit the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, and I suddenly lost my sense of narrative. I mean, how could I begin to explain the complexities of human problems in a Southeast Asian country so steeped in its own traditions to an audience still recovering from the Greatest American Tragedy of the media age, complete with all the rhetorical baggage of military industrial jingoism that was bound to follow it?
On the night of September 11—the morning of September 11 in New York City and Washington—I was at my desk at The Nation, one of two English language daily newspapers in Bangkok, where I’ve been living for more than a year. A few minutes after nine o’clock I was going about my usual routine, rewriting and editing sloppily translated news and business stories for the next day’s edition, when a group of Thai employees gathered around a television set suddenly burst out in a collective shriek.
I ignored them. Thai people spend a lot of time around television sets, even when there’s work to be done. They like their sports, and nothing can tear them away from an international match involving the national team. When I heard the shriek I figured it was just another losing moment at the Southeast Asian Games in Malaysia, which had been going on for more than a week.
In fact, whatever they were watching had been interrupted by a live broadcast of CNN that instantly cut off all local programming. The crowd around the TV set grew larger over the next five minutes as Thai news anchors scurried to translate the running commentary by CNN. Just as my colleagues were learning what that plume of smoke was about and what building was on fire, a jumbo jet suddenly appeared on the screen, flew toward the neighbouring skyscraper, and … BOOM! That’s when I heard the shriek.
Like everyone else who learned about the tragedy while it was still unfolding (“a plane just hit the Pentagon”… “a fourth plane is headed toward Washington” … “the fourth plane just crashed in a field”), I thought it was all too much like a Tom Clancy novel-cum-Hollywood vehicle for Harrison Ford. That the plane crashes were orchestrated kamikaze attacks and that global terrorism had just graduated to a frightening new level were facts I greeted with an odd sense of detachment. In the coming days, the closest I would get to a personal connection to the horror was knowing that Garnet “Ace” Bailey–a retired, Stanley Cup-winning hockey player whose bubble gum cards I traded as a kid—was on that second jumbo jet, whose explosion (and thus Bailey’s instant death) my Thai colleagues had witnessed on live television the moment it occurred thousands of miles away.
Making it all even harder to grasp from Bangkok were some of the reactions of those around me. A few of the Thai employees giggled as they watched replays of the exploding fireball in New York, a scene repeated throughout the night on the five or six TV sets throughout the newsroom. Others joked that the terrorists should have aimed for the Nation tower instead. There was lots of excited chatter—too much, I thought. When cataclysmic events of this scale happen before our very eyes, the first words that come out of our mouths are seldom of the intelligence that demands posterity.
The next day at work I opened up the file for “Streetwise”, a business gossip column it’s my job to make readable every day. The first of the two items concerned the immediate reaction of the local business community to the terrorist attacks. Thai exports to the US would suffer, we were told, but the only “casualty” so far–get it?–was a company whose initial public offering scheduled for that day had been cancelled. (I removed the word “casualty”.) The second item was about CNN. The network’s ratings had plummeted lately, but its on-the-spot coverage of the terrorist attack was bound to lift its ratings to 1991 levels, when its coverage of the Gulf War turned it into an instant global phenomenon. The argument could have been a clever critique of the “If it bleeds, it leads” mentality. But it was completely devoid of irony, so the piece read more like gushing, promotional copy produced by CNN’s head office in Atlanta.
A day or two later, our business section ran a story about a mobile phone company that was making a mint off a new product. The gimmick? The cel phone’s liquid crystal display screen showed digitalised “footage” of a jet plane slamming into a skyscraper. The story’s accompanying photo showed a teenaged Thai girl, beaming for the camera as she shows off her trendy new gadget. Meanwhile, the Bangkok Post ran a story about a Sukhumvit Road flower vendor who was worried his business would suffer because Americans–the bulk of his customers–were unlikely to be in a flower-buying mood for a long time. Another story in the Post featured an interview with a Thai restaurant owner in a closed area of Manhattan. The woman expressed relief because now her landlord was unlikely to increase the rent.
Since September 11, more than one taxi driver in Bangkok noting my North American appearance has greeted me by saying “Boom!” followed by “World Trade Centre” and more giggles. And just last week, a member of Parliament was kicked out of the ruling Thai Rak Thai (“Thais love Thai”) Party caucus for suggesting that the Americans bomb Kabul with missiles loaded with pig fat.
To those of us from the West who bring to Thailand our own culturally ingrained assumptions of what is decent and appropriate, it’s hard not to get the impression from such behaviour that Thai people are either totally callous or a bunch of selfish, overgrown children. After all, you don’t have to be a flag-waving, Yankee Doodle patriot—or even a supporter of American foreign policy—to have been seriously shaken by the atrocities in New York and Washington. But apart from relatives concerned about loved ones still missing in the smoking rubble, the gatherings of monks whose prayers for the victims were accompanied by calls for the US not to launch air strikes, and the predictable appeals by Southern Muslims not to equate Islam with terrorism, it was difficult in the final weeks of September for a Westerner with limited Thai language skills to locate a common emotional response to the tragedy among the Thai public. Unlike Singapore and other Asian nations, Thailand held no official memorial gathering. And Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s response has wavered from an initial declaration of neutrality to qualified support for the so-called “war on terrorism”.
Many expats have been puzzled by this seeming indifference, especially given America’s longstanding support for the Kingdom. But then, Thai people don’t like talking about politics with foreigners at the best of times, so gauging their true response to September 11 is a mug’s game. In a non-confrontational, Buddhist society where the first thing foreigners learn to say is mai pen rai (“never mind” or, “it doesn’t matter”), disturbing events are better left alone, smoothened over with laughter because it is easier to respond that way, or—as in the case of Thailand’s own tragic, violent legacies—forgotten altogether.
October 6 marks the 25th anniversary of the Thammasat University massacre. On that day in 1976, a nationwide democracy movement led by students was brutally crushed by the military dictatorship in a crackdown not unlike the Tiananmen Square massacre 13 years later. Tension was high in the country, as three of its neighbours had fallen to the Communists the year before. When rumours spread that a play put on by a leftist student group featured the burning in effigy of the crown prince, hard right wingers in the government went berserk. Some students were crushed to death by tanks. Many were mowed down by bullets. Others were chased by mobs and lynched.
Westerners who visit Thailand these days are inundated with tourist propaganda about the “Land of Smiles” and its peaceful, friendly people. Their attention is directed to an odd breed of expat writers whose accounts of “Amazing Thailand” make it sound impossibly Utopian: beautiful and available young women (with a small, niche marketing nod to gorgeous young men), charming Buddhist tradition, spontaneous acts of kindness everywhere you go, and never a discouraging word.
What they don’t tell you about is Thailand’s authoritarian streak. A recent exhibit at Chulalongkorn University commemorating the Thammasat massacre included a series of photos taken at the campus on October 6, 1976. One of them is a real study in the social dynamics of mob rule. In it, a large crowd of mostly male students–their faces lit up in smiles of excited amazement–looks on as a middle-aged soldier wielding a wooden fold-up chair winds up to flog the limp, lifeless body of a young student whose bloodied corpse dangles from a rope hanging on a tree. “Amazing Thailand”, indeed.
It is images like these that today’s Thai activists want the public to remember. Many people here are still grieving over young relatives who disappeared that day and whose bodies have never been recovered. After 1976, Thailand’s government experienced several more years of instability and military coups that culminated with another bloody crackdown in May 1992. This one prompted the intervention of His Majesty the King, who forced the two generals responsible to bow before him on bended knee and apologize before giving up their jobs, their humiliation captured on national television. Since then, the country has hobbled toward democracy while maintaining an American-style capitalist system from which the usual minority has prospered.
For a large number of Thailand’s people, life is an endless cycle of grinding poverty in which the value of human life itself is negotiable. Shooting deaths and contract killings resulting from business disputes, jilted lovers or domestic abuse happen all the time. Hordes of people in the Isaan region of the Northeast, or the lowland areas of the Central north whose forests have been strip-mined by greedy timber barons, are annually swept away by seasonal floods. AIDS continues to infect thousands in the northern provinces of Chiang Rai. And methamphetamines produced on the Burmese side of the border are quickly replacing opium as the indigenous killer-drug of choice. All of which brings me to Chuay Kochasit, the villager from Kanchanaburi I mentioned at the beginning.
One day back in August, Mr. Chuay walked into a branch of the Government Savings Bank, pulled out a plastic bag and dumped a pile of his own shit over his head, smearing it all over his body. Then he demanded his money back, saying this is what the bank had done to him by losing his investment in a mutual fund. Chuay had sunk four million baht into a fund the bank had promised him carried “no risk” because it was government-run. But in the end, he could only withdraw 200,000 baht because the bulk of his investment had disappeared as a result of the 1997 financial crisis.
Chuay became an overnight sensation in Thailand. The following week, a pig farmer copied his protest by smearing his body with swine feces to pressure the Bank of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives to extend his loan repayment term. And several other customers with grievances against the Government Savings Bank joined Chuay’s campaign to expose it. Police finally had to intervene when a crowd of 300 people demonstrating at Government House threatened to pelt the country’s legislature with excrement.
Such protests are hard to imagine in Canada. Apart from being a middle class nation of good Christians who don’t even like talking about shit (never mind looking at or touching it), our idea of disenfranchisement is somewhat more privileged than the Thai variety. Our poor and jobless have welfare and unemployment insurance; theirs live in garbage dumps. Ours can elect an MP or two who might actually receive them in their constituency office, if not actually lobby to solve their problem; theirs have long since given up on an establishment dominated by cronyism, fraud and various forms of graft that have made Thailand one of the most politically corrupt nations in the world.
So whenever I’ve felt a little offended in the past few weeks about tasteless jokes or seeming indifference toward the terrorist atrocities on US soil, I think about Chuay Kochasit. Or, I think about some of those farmers who recently turned down the government’s one-million-baht “village fund” development scheme, despite living on only 5,000 baht a year, which is one-twelfth of what I earn in a month. And I think about how September 11 must look to them.
I don’t think Thai people would ever wish any harm to come upon Americans. Nor do I think that some of their strange reactions of the past few weeks are part of some anti-globalisation, They-Had-It-Coming poetic justice theory that’s currently chic among the Western campus elite. In fact, many Thais before September 11 believed that nothing bad could ever happen to the United States. Most of the time they can only look on in quiet humility as American tourists traipse through their country and spend more money in 10 minutes than most Thais spend in 10 years.
They’re as shocked as we are by September 11. And all those tasteless jokes, or the nervous twittering about the Thai economy, are their way of showing it, however much it offends or disappoints our sensibilities.