Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Prai-Amaht, Peasants and Lords

Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘Peasants – Lords,’ in Silpa Wattanatham, Siam Rath Weekly News, 9 – 15 April, 2010.

“I see the red shirts are coming here to Silom. Have they arrived yet?” I ask the Chinese lady shopkeeper at FotoFast after handing her son a CD with an order for some enlargements.

“Not see any.” In her sixties, with grey hair cut short, she speaks Thai with a Chinese accent. The old amah takes off her spectacles and folds the newspaper she is reading, smiling with an ironic gleam in her eye. “Wha’you tink tos ‘lords’?”

Amah is playing with heavy stuff this morning. She catches me off guard. I had completely forgotten how opposed this particular FotoFast is to Aphisit’s government. It’s not hard to understand: the equipment for the on-line lottery which this family acquired at great expense has been gathering dust for two years, taking up no little space in the shop. And the prime minister has now discontinued the plan to do the on-line lottery.

“ You mean the monarchy that Taksin wanted to do away with?”

“ Uh!” she nods.

“What would you like Thailand to be like? England? Japan? France? America? China?”

“America very good,” she replies. “They leader stay not long. Then get new one. Here, no.”

I glace at the royal photo of H.M. the King surrounded by royals from various countries who came to join in the celebration of the sixtieth year of the reign.

The 8” x 10” framed photo is set out for sale on a shelf behind the counter. Propped on a shelf in the back is a 24” x 20” image in a teak frame of the Fourth King in the costume of a Chinese emperor.

I never expected I would have to discuss with a Chinese amah born and raised in Thailand the question of whether we should or should not have a monarchy. The typical image of the Chinese who immigrated to Thailand in search of a new life, who built their lives and fortunes here, and who became rich, is always an expression of loyalty to the Crown and the royal family.

The problem of Taksin - just one greedy person - is taking the country and the Thai system of government to a critical point if it has come near to the point of asking whether we will keep the monarchy or not. The ignition point is the issue of prai-amaht, peasants and lords. You can believe that this is the handiwork of the old boys who served Taksin from the very start, and who set afire the issues of ‘double standards,’ injustice and corruption – issues which please one sector of the middle class and the grass roots.

It has been queried as to why these red shirts who are demanding an accounting of ‘double standards,’ injustice and corruption have a leader who is the epitome of cheating and larceny – someone under sentence for being so unusually wealthy that the highest court which deals with persons holding political office handed down a decision confiscating from his fortune 40 billion baht which actually belongs to the nation.

Over 200 scholars and intellectuals signed a statement calling for the Aphisit government to disband the parliament within three months. (Though they knew all too well that doing so would not solve the problem - there was a hidden agenda.) Some persons in that group tried to explain or excuse the red shirts by calling Taksin a symbol of the people’s movement. The poor and the grassroots have been taken advantage of, have been oppressed, carrying the heaviest burden for a long time. Dissatisfied with the structure of society, they made Taksin their middle ground.
Using ‘Taksin’ (and his corrupt money), the old left and some scholars hoped for a great change, i.e. to bring down the monarchy. It becomes ever clearer till one wants to deny it.

Even Taksin may not have thought it through that far. He just wanted to replace the individuals who stood in his way. He may have wanted to carry on the Institution as a mere political tool – for good or ill. They speak jokingly of the ‘Shinawatr Dynasty.’ It may be true if they bring down the government and the constitution. When it reaches that point it may become clear who is manipulating whom…Taksin…the old friends…intellectuals…red shirts.

I don’t deny the need for social change. I know that nothing stays for very long. But before tearing down a house, a society, please explain a bit what the new house or the new society will be like. What will they look like? Will it be like America? Like England, France or China? Say it clearly. Don’t be concealing things. Tell the red peasants and the yellow peasants and the pink and rainbow colored peasants so they all know very clearly. Then they can decide if they want it or not. Don’t lie evasively and pretend to respect the Institution and then say things quite to the contrary on a red stage or a website. People who fear being jailed for lèse majesté should have the courage of their convictions. Then they would be considered true activists.

No matter how hard I try, I can’t imagine that Thailand would really be better off by choosing a symbolic leader who is a cheater, whose mind becomes unbalanced, who would do anything – even burning up his homeland – hiring people to die for him, because he hopes to gain power and wealth in return.
How can something good come from such evil raw materials?

I try not to see the red shirted people in a bad light, try not to think of them as stupid and greedy for believing Taksin’s false promises. I don’t want to think that the tail reflects what is in the head. But if that is not true, why have they come back to demonstrate again?

Actually, political gatherings are no different from other kinds of gatherings, but politics is a matter of reason. If people lack reason, then they are no different from the disciples of some faith. If you can’t use reason with red shirted people, they are no different from members of a red cult. The video link of Taksin looks like a meeting with the cult leader. Whatever the cult leader says, his red disciples will cheer for in support and joyfully rattle their plastic clappers. They can endure the heat of the day. They forget their suffering because the video link is the vital heart connecting the disciples and followers with their lord. On the day that there is no video link, the disciples look bored and sluggish.

One of my friends is the owner of a company which produces printed materials. He told me that one of his customer service employees, a native of the North of Thailand, gets angry quickly if his fellow employees criticize the red shirts. (Most of the office is yellow shirt sympathizers.) The reason he gives for his anger is that he loves Taksin; he loves him and that is all there is to be said. He doesn’t want to talk further than that. It’s forbidden to say anything bad about Taksin and the red shirts. Right or wrong, he doesn’t want to discuss it. In order to keep the peace, my friend ordered his employees not to discuss politics in front of this fellow.

This case shows that even well-educated persons with more than a bachelor’s degree are not able to use reason beyond ‘love is blind.’ Thai society has a serious problem.

Something else happened to this friend of mine involving another person rather close to him – the daughter of his housekeeper. This girl was dissembling about money collected from a client. She said that the client had not yet paid. Many months passed by, and whenever he asked, she insisted that the client had not sent the money in. At last he decided to check it out himself. He almost came to blows with his client till they faxed him the evidence to show that the girl had in fact already taken their payment. Faced with the evidence, the girl admitted it was true. My friend was furious. He fired her and dismissed her from his household. It was not the first time this had happened. She had been excused once before and had been forbidden to do such a thing again. The housekeeper was heartbroken that her daughter had been caught doing such a thing again.

Two days later, my friend saw the housekeeper’s daughter waiting upon her mother with uncharacteristic attentiveness. Then he realized that the child he had dismissed was playing psychological games with her mother. He decided to call the woman in to speak with her directly. He worried that the problem might get out of hand, and that the housekeeper might end up blaming him, calling him an ‘outsider.’ (The housekeeper had worked for his wife’s family for many years.) She might complain that he had acted too harshly, chasing the girl out like a dog or a pig. Everyone in the lane knew about it. The matter was so embarrassing she was ashamed to leave the house. And the daughter was in deep trouble, having to rent her own place, not well and not safe.

It turned out as he had surmised. He was turning into the villain in the mother’s eyes. So he had to explain that he was not at all happy that he had to make that decision; it wasn’t easy. He had to do it because, otherwise, things could get out of control and they wouldn’t be able to stay together. If he failed to act, others in the house would think that stealing money was not such a serious crime. They might follow the girl’s example. My friend explained that he understood the instinctive bond, and a parent’s need to protect her child. But people live not just by instinct but also by reason. They separate right from wrong. Therefore, we don’t solve our problems on the basis of instinct alone. He told the housekeeper she needed to help her daughter to know that she had done something wrong and that she needed to correct herself. The mother had to teach her child, not just from love but also from reason. Otherwise, a home would not really be a home.

The housekeeper was a yellow-shirt sympathizer, and she at last accepted my friend’s persuasive reasoning. “Well,” he said, “if you oppose Taksin and the red shirts, why are you trying to do what they do?”

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