Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Manit on Gunboats to 'Free Trade' January, 1999

Manit Sriwanichpoom. “From Gunboat Fire to Free Trade Mechanisms (1),” from the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siam Rath Weekly News magazine. Yr.45, Vol.34, 24 – 30 January, 1999.

I’m both happy and sad at the New Year, 1999.

I’m happy and honored because I have a chance to write for this distinguished old art forum in Siam Rath Weekly. But I’m sad, as well, because while it is great fun to critique ones own works, or among friends to berate, tease, and tear into the works of fellow artists, actually writing up and recording that criticism is something else again: I know I will have to be very careful indeed.

With documented criticism, rude phrases just don’t dissolve away into thin air. One must treat ones friends in the artworld carefully. (This is one of the weaknesses of Thai culture.)

One has to think very carefully, first of all, about whom one is writing for, and about the purpose of the writing – is it useful or not? It’s very important: the opinions expressed must be creative, pure and true. One must not be overpowered with ones own intellectual desires. One mustn’t foul the paper with that kind of ink.

Being free from prejudice and egoism – that alone will enable one to see truth, beauty and goodness.

It will not be easy for me, because I will have to prove myself in every line, every letter I write, like a lawyer interpreting an article of law. No one enjoys doing things when he can’t have his own way.

The rules and protocols of good manners of which I speak are always on my mind when I make art. I always get angry when I go to see an art exhibition and find it wasn’t worth the effort of braving traffic jams for hours. Money was also wasted in order to see a show that didn’t merit the attention. What was the artist trying to communicate? There’s no point to it, no beauty.

Many people feel like this. People don’t want to go to an art exhibition. Artists are irresponsible toward society, not taking their audience’s feelings into consideration. Too often, artists just want to give their egos plenty of room to play. The art becomes thin and scarce under such circumstances. I don’t want to experience that with my own work. When I make an artwork, I think it over very carefully.

“The Bloodless War,’ is a work of six black and white photos which were created in October, 1997, after the July crash of the baht. Many people remember well what happened at that time.

The baht collapsed because of currency speculators and the naïve response of the Bank of Thailand. In the end, the Bank was defeated and forced to announce the devaluation of the baht. As a result the nation’s economy went into a coma and was in the emergency room of the IMF hospital. In an instant, all our pocketbooks were lightened and we were poorer by 40%.

The economy of burst bubbles and crazy dreams: for ten years politicians and economists, businessmen and industrialists, and all kinds of people ‘in the know’ dreamed that Thailand was emerging as an economic ‘tiger,’ one of Asia’s Newly Industrialized Countries (NICs). But that dream foundered.

Banks and finance companies borrowed money from abroad and used it badly, hoping to make quick fortunes. They encouraged business debts where no goods were being produced. Stock market speculation, land speculation, the construction of condominiums, golf courses and resorts, the destruction of forests and the nation’s resources, the encouragement of wasteful spending and so many abuses. These evils were created by the government and by some in the private sector.

They created the problems; why must the people bear the burden of their debts?

This is the evil which they euphemistically refer to as ‘globalization,’ which is another way of saying ‘colonialism legitimized under the form of capitalism.’

These things the leaders and upper classes of Thailand blindly take pride in, revere and think that Thai society should emulate. Then they drag the common people and the nation’s resources down with them to share their bitter fate.

At this point, no one knows where the cruel conclusion of this social and economic disaster will be, or when it will bottom out. Every day, we rise together to face the bad news, full of anger and bitterness. The result is depression in the endless trial and feelings of hopelessness.

Is this justice?

Since the announcement of the devaluation of the baht, everything becomes more expensive. There is inflation. The country is drowning in debt. We learn of the loss of 700,000 million baht, squandered mindlessly by the Bank of Thailand in the blink of an eye.

The value of the baht. One hears Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudt discoursing in jovial tones about firm principles, raising value added taxes by 10% and news of new taxes being squeezed out of the common people who did not get even a taste of the previous economic boom. Now the poor have to pay for the excesses of those who caused the problem.

This is a state of bloodless war. It’s different from nuclear war, from the Vietnam War, and from previous wars generally because it is an economic war being waged from abroad. People seem to go on living as usual. Houses and neighborhoods are all in order. But the state of mind of the people is wrecked, depressed, despairing and hopeless.

Some information is passed out in brochures to viewers on the street about the ideas that gave birth to this set of pictures. These pictures reflect similarities with the situation on our country and our society, my own feelings and the feelings of people about that time.

Globalization: I plant my flag. It’s a new form of colonialism – neo-colonialism. But this time, the Western colonialists don’t put their frigates at the mouth of the river as they did in the eras of Rama III and Rama IV. They no longer use horse cavalry: they dress in business suits. They look clean and have a new name, ‘investors.’ They develop ways of gaining control of resources quickly by modern means. They use the stock and currency markets. They don’t need guns anymore. The power and the rules of colonialism are still there in the hands of some old colonialists - Europe, America and Japan - just like before!

And there may be new faces among them in Asia, for example Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia – who are new at the game, just learning. (In the end, they got the tom yum koong disease in droves.) Colonizing used to take place in the name of the emperor or the kingdom of god, but now it happens for The Corporation (Inc.)

They use funds rather than bullets, holding down the wages of workers and the cost of raw materials. When it becomes expensive, they move somewhere else. (Or they devalue the money: the cost of debt doubles and bankruptcy opens the way for takeovers. That is what has happened in Thailand today.) Money from abroad has no fixed location and no heart. It only focuses on profit. Countries which are weak and unprepared or which have only the appearance and not the reality of wealth will be finished.

Ask if the rulers and governors, the economists, the intellectuals or academics of our country see these problems or not. I’m not sure. I’ll have to ask the painters!

I went back and looked through old war photos, both paintings and news photos: images of people, suffering and sad, screaming and crying, frightened and alarmed, shocked, terrorized, running for their lives.

They were like the situation in Thai society when the baht was overthrown and devalued.

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