Thursday, October 29, 2009

Manit Sriwanichpoom on a year of protests before Government House, Bangkok


Manit Sriwanichpoom. ‘A Year of Protesting Before Government House – Every Tuesday,’ Yr.50, Vol. 20, 10 – 16 Oct. 2003.

I’m opening an exhibition of black and white photos at the 14 Oct. Memorial on Saturday, 18 Oct.(2003) next week. I invite my readers to the show, which is entitled Protest. (It took a year to make this photo record – Apr.2002 – 2003.) By chance, it just coincides with the atmosphere of repression of ‘basic freedoms’ of people in society, especially in this hour of cordially hosting the ‘Great Leaders of APEC.’

Beginning from the clearing away of homeless people (like stray dogs) and collecting up unsightly city garbage, as well as the forbidding of any kind of protest in any form (with the stated objective of bringing in foreign money) – even forbidding the celebration of the 30th anniversary of 14 October, the day of democracy. (That ban seems aimed at suspiciously more than the stated, ‘Prevent the lawns from being trampled.’)

A period of meaningless distortion like this is quite nerve-wracking, as if Thai society is entering a period of dictatorship like that of our neighbors - Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore or Dr. Mahathir in Malaysia.

I offer the introduction of my book of photos, Protest,to show how these pictures happened.

The idea for the photos in Protest came about because I happened to drive past Government House around noon on 9 April, 2002.

That day there was a group of communities, or as politicians, police and reporters call them, a ‘mob’ (The word has a negative meaning: a group hired or conscripted to protest or riot. It doesn’t signify a protest by real people actually protesting their real suffering.) There were two groups that day – some enthusiastic supporters of Buddhism in Thailand and the labor union of Srinakorn Bank. They had taken over both sides of the footpath for their protest.

The area opposite from Government House was occupied by pious supporters of Buddhism in Thailand. There were about 100 monks and 1,000 nuns and faithful, many carrying posters calling for the government to pass the latest por-ror-bor.

On the side nearer Government House were ex-bank employees – men in white shirts and neckties and women in bank uniforms. They held the space with banners of protest, calling for a rescinding of the order to close the Srinakorn Bank, merging it with the Nakorn Luang Thai (Siam City) Bank.

In the midst of traffic jams, blazing heat and the sound of protestors screaming into microphones – so many protesters they overflowed into the street – I was intrigued and couldn’t help but ask myself, “What is happening in Thailand? Why are the monks not in the temple? Why must they come out to protest with the people?

I stopped my car, took my camera, and climbed down to record the event, with no idea of what I would do with the components of the situation.

I remember when I was a newspaper reporter more than 10 years ago, my photographer friends used to say that if you wanted pictures of people protesting at Government House, the day to go there was Tuesday, for that is the day the Cabinet meets.

When I gave up being a newspaper photographer and became a protester, I also remember my friends who were skilled at organizing such demonstrations. They also said that protests to the government should take place on Tuesday because Government House would be full of reporters waiting for the results of the Cabinet meeting. The chance that one’s grievance would make the news was very high, much better than on other days when the number of reporters would be much smaller.

I have to admit I usually don’t picture Thailand or the world as having a bright future, contrary to government propaganda. Nor do I sympathize with those who rejoice that the Thai economy is surviving the present crisis because they want to go back to creating another soap-bubble economy.

Especially seeing the disciples of Siddhartha protesting - that gave me pause to reflect soberly about what has been happening in Thai society.

From then on, I tried hard to photograph the demonstrations in front of Government House every Tuesday for a whole year. It was my hope that this might, at least, say something about social problems, politics, and government in Thailand.

I did not know who I would meet and which people would tell me their stories and their grievances. It was uncertain what would happen each Tuesday, what would happen. On some days no one came to protest and the front of Government House seemed as lonely as a graveyard – for example on Tuesday 18 June; 9 July; 20 August; 3 September and 15 October in 2002.

But on some days there were three or four big issues being protested, with hundreds, even thousands of people protesting. It was like a “Grand Sale” of people’s problems.

Some of the things being protested I really found very shocking; they left me speechless. For example, the case of Mae Hai Kanjanta and her family who were calling for compensation for the loss of their farms when the Huay Laha Dam flooded the land. They had been asking for compensation for more than 20 years.

I couldn’t believe that the state would play games like this, kicking the problem around for so long! If it were me, I might have killed myself or someone in authority to make myself heard. I wouldn’t sit on the pavement wasting all that time.

Nonetheless, on that Tuesday (14 May, 2002) I saw Mae Hai lying there, reading Buddhist scripture in a voice so loud it was numbing – like someone learning to read – but so peacefully and with such concentration. I was deeply moved – can’t explain it. I just wondered if that Dhamma book served only to comfort the distressed. Was that all it could do? Then what do the people who create these problems read?

On Wednesday morning, I checked many newspapers to see if there were reports of demonstrations or not.
So many times, in so many cases, there was no coverage. At most, it might be the photo that made the news. That is, there were no details of the problems, even though the demonstrators had tried to be colorful and provocative in their demonstrations, for example, covering themselves in pig shit, burning figures in effigy, threatening to immolate themselves or to release water monitor lizards into the grounds of Government House. The papers had nothing but window dressing since the protests were of no real value to the modern business of news coverage.

When the mass media doesn’t do their job, protesting on Tuesday has no effect, no matter how hard the people scream. They cannot get over the wall of Government House or into the ear of the press to communicate their problems and suffering. Though they hope the press will be their voice to the public, putting on pressure to help get their problems solved, such protests seem to have reached a bottleneck.

I thought of Elder Uncle Chorm Sakon who hung himself before Government House. He had protested for many years. And I thought of Uncle Sakon Onchan, who was cheated of his land (Tuesday, 11 June, 2002).
As he told me bitterly:“ I don’t want to come and sit here [in front of Government House]. I feel ashamed. I can’t face the stares of people passing by in cars. Some look at us with contempt. But my wife (Mrs.Sataporn) and I have no choice. At first we planned to cut ourselves and let our blood flow, but they said not to. The big-shots will look down at such violence and call us barbarians.”

I tried telephoning to the ‘Center for Complaints’ at Government House to ask for statistics about how many people come there to protest each year. Does the number increase or decrease?
The person on the other end of the line asked: do you want to write a letter to the prime minister’s office to ask permission to release this information and pass the letter to that office?
This was a familiar response: floating. Better let me give it to you, personally, and I can check with you later. Oh, no! You have to mail it. That’s the rule!
This is Thai government service – a useless waste of time.

This simply story about trying to communicate with the prime minister’s office reflects something about government service and Thai politics. I have nothing to report to readers about how the sufferings of Thai people are being alleviated, or how they are getting worse, or by how much.

The numbers on paper and the human suffering of even one person – they do not communicate in a letter sitting on someone’s desk.
At this point, I can only hope that, when you see the pictures [I present with this column], you will see the problem a bit more clearly. See a fellow human being who has had the misfortune to fall into difficulty. Please have some sympathy. Try to understand. Don’t just look at these people as trouble-makers. Because in the end, for every problem we are part of one side [the problem] or the other [the solution].

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