Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Manit on Gunboats to 'Free Trade' Jan. 1999


Manit Sriwanichpoom. “From Gunboat Fire to Free Trade Mechanisms (finish),” from the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siam Rath Weekly News magazine. Yr.45, Vol.35, 31 Jan. – 6 Feb., 1999.

I selected news photos from the Vietnam War which I regard as the last colonialist war by America in this region before they turned to develop strategies of free trade (which force every country to accept American goods). The war took place fairly recently, between 1960 and 1970.

The news photos are good because the viewer accepts them as real. (Belief endures – otherwise, the newspapers may as well stop using photos.) Taking history and telling it anew in order to connect the past with the present. Driving in the point and making it clear that these things never change. The search goes on for colonies in order to become more mysterious, wise and legitimate. But what is different now is that the peoples roped into [the colonialist grip] nowadays willingly accept the invisible chains of this new slavery.

The new pictures reiterate and imitate the old ones – only the actors change, the clothing, the setting, the place where the actions occur. This time, it’s in our own country.

Many people will remember the events pictured in these photographs – for example, the five children running screaming away from a blast of napalm which Americans mistakenly dropped on their village. The picture is easy to remember because of the little girl crying out in pain as she runs down the middle of the road. She has been injured in the fire and her clothing has been torn off. (The photo was taken by Huyhh Cong ‘Nick’ Ut, a photographer for AP.)

I have changed to picture to depict young ‘yuppie’ males and females, carrying sacks of luxury label imported goods – Chanel, Louis Vitton, Prada and Versace. But these youths are running from their creditors in black business suits, both Thai and White.

The background setting is the area of the Hopewell elevated train construction, now popularly known as the ‘hopeless’ project, out of money and unable to go on. All that remains are the concrete carcasses, which testify against the greed of the private sector and of the government that skimmed so much off these projects which were supposed to provide basic amenities for the public.

One picture which angered American conservatives very much – they accused the media of bias and of intentionally dishonoring their beloved military – shows two American soldiers dragging the body of a dead Vietnamese soldier behind their tank. Instead of a tank, I use a Mercedes-Benz automobile, a symbol of wealth and high society. The driver and passenger are White and Thai. In suits, smoking cigars, they happily drag their yuppie victim’s body, which still clutches the precious shopping bags.

It may not be fair to critique only the colonialism of the West. One can’t forget the Asian countries: Japan was a leader in this as well. Japan invested in Thailand more than anyone from the West. Japanese goods dominate the markets. This sort of control is rather stealthy, taking hold deeply and softly, not in the rough and rude manner of the Whites.

The Japanese themselves are mad about and Japanese goods go along with the wave of influence of white culture. The whites are international. After the Second World War, the Japanese lost their right to develop their military. Instead, their influence spread via industry – which is much scarier!

One picture I made shows a little kid who represents the future. He sits crying amidst the structures of the old Hopewell (hopeless) project. In the end, the children will be the ones saddled with the burden of debt from the IMF World Bank project. The original photo was of a child in China who cries as Japanese planes bomb Shanghai in 1937. (The photo is H.S.Wong’s.)

I put all these works in a gold frame, as they do with classic images – pictures which people regard as noteworthy and valuable. Instead of showing them in a museum or gallery and waiting for people to come and see them – there are not that many visitors daily – the show is hardly worth the effort – it’s very slow – I decided to go looking for audiences. It was a very direct plan of attack, without walls.

We went out looking for people to come and admire the pictures. We were like the merchants on Silom. We carried the pictures with us. Wherever it was convenient, we did a performance with artist friends in the Ukabat (Meteorite) Group to help present the work. (The group is composed of Wasan Sitthiket, Paisan and Mongkol Plienbangchang, Mana Pupichit, Sompong Tavi, Jittima Ponsawake, Arak Apakas and Noppawan Siriwechakul.) Ukabat is expert in live performances en plein air. The white hospital gowns worn by the artists express the emergency situation in Thai society: it needs immediate surgery on its entire structure.

I chose places to show that have something to do with finance – the root of these problems - such as Government House and the Bank of Thailand (implicated directly in bankrupting the country); in front of the Stock Exchange (where tremendous sums were borrowed and gambled away); on Silom Road (the banking sector), at the World Trade Center, and at Siam Square (a center of luxury imported goods).

It would not be far wrong to call these performance-exhibitions ‘demonstrations.’ Wherever we perform, people are frightened. They see the pictures, read the brochures and listen to speeches accompanying the works till they begin to understand.

Then the listeners ask questions of the performers and express opinions.
There are some lively responses from Thai and foreign audiences. For example, a letter came from a white teacher working in Chiengmai who criticized the show’s point of view as irrational nationalism. I listened to the assessment.

Another person came up and spoke to me in English (with a Scandinavian accent). He put his arm around my shoulder as if I were a very naïve person. “The world is all one now,” he said. “Though our skin color is different, we are all brothers and sisters.” I listened patiently. Another white came up who had lived in Thailand for more than 10 years and said that if I resisted the West, I shouldn’t be using photography because that is a Western thing. That really puzzled me. How could it go that far?

I didn’t argue there and then because I still believe that distance is the test – that time reveals the truth. Have I been proven wrong? What has the IMF done to Thailand? What has happened? This year there are more than three million more people out of work. Factories have collapsed like dominoes.

The IMF was set up by capitalist countries; they have to step in and help their creditor friends. The attempt to force the government to pass the por-ror-bor finance decrees is a familiar sign of their intention. Don’t be naïve. Accept the truth. Take a look at the trade agreements. As far back as the John Bowring Treaty, what has happened? Who got the advantage? Who was taken advantage of?

When someone says, ‘Today the world is one,’ (which seems like an advertisement on a mobile phone) these are dangerous words. They suggest that one group has power over the whole world, de facto, economically, socially and culturally.

At the same time, when one speaks of diversity, one should not emphasize only culture and society. Diversity should mean a varied economy as well. (This seems to be something we seldom talk about in our country.)

I never discriminate on the basis of race. I think that race – ethnicity - the higher, the more developed, the cleverer, the more focus, the better – everything has its good and bad points. One must make distinctions wisely. I oppose exploitation – no matter who does it to whom - if the whites do it to us – if we do it to the Khmer - I say its equally bad.

I’m calling upon us to stand on our own efforts, to stop leaning dependently on outsiders, to search out ways and values in our own lives. Let us understand and be ready so they won’t deceive us, and we won’t deceive each other. We won’t be swept away on the current of the world that only wants to consume itself in madness, to destroy humanity and nature.
If this is ‘mindless, irrational nationalism’, I embrace it.

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