Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘Thai People Don’t Abandon One Another,’ in Silpa Wattanatham column of Siamrath Weekly news magazine, 30 Dec. 2011 – 5 Jan 2012
Chamlong Boonsong was formerly a senior news photographer with the Nation Group. He was with them from the beginning of that newspaper. Today he is travel editor of the Post Today, which is part of the Bangkok Post group. He brought his own photographs to show in an exhibition titled ‘แพะรับน้ำ’. (roughly, paa rup narm) [This is a play on the Thai word for ‘scapegoat’ (แพะรับบาป): but instead of the goat (แพะ) being the carrier of sins (บาป), The Goat must Carry the (Flood)water (น้ำ)] The show was on this past 2 – 6 Dec. 2011.
The exhibition venue was not far away, not in a gallery or the lobby of some glamorous downtown hotel. It was at the entrance to a Teacher’s Cooperative Association Housing Estate on Sorngprapah Road, Don Muang, where the photographer lived.
The name of the exhibition is direct and tells the story clearly: it’s about the flood. But this flooding is due to the actions of some human beings who seem to think of themselves as gods. They made the decisions for the people living in this housing estate, deciding that these residents were to be the scapegoats. They would be sacrificed by taking on the flood waters that would otherwise flow into central Bangkok. They had no choice [about having to take Bangkok’s punishment on themselves.]
Chamlong’s uses the art of photography to make an ironic comment on the world. When one cannot respond and strike back or argue with the power of the state, the power of the government of Yingluck Shinawatr and the Bangkok Municipality under M.R. Sukhumphan Boriphat about having to receive massive floodwater – something no one wants – they had no choice.
On the day I drove my car there to look at the exhibition, the water had begun to recede. Sorngprapah Road was clearing in front of the Teacher’s Cooperative Association Housing Estate, though the water was still ankle deep. I was able to see Chamlong’s photos through the windows of my car. He had hung them along the exterior wall of one of the buildings. I could see the pictures of people who had the terribly difficult battle of fighting with floodwaters as high as 2 – 3 meters. And I saw the real thing – conditions inside the housing estate where the residents had begun to return for the cleanup. They were returning to their homes to live. It was a very sad and depressing sight.
As I drove past the art exhibition and entered the estate, I saw an elderly couple entering a house. A ripple of water weeds drifted into the house along with stinking floodwater as they entered. The old couple looked up and smiled a greeting, choking down the pain in their hearts as they saw the destruction of their home and the beloved possessions which they had worked hard all their lives to gather together. In their old age, at the end of their physical strength, their feelings would be beyond description.
Chamlong Boonsong put forward a point of challenge to society. Who decided where it would be dry and where it would flood? The results of water management by Mrs. Yingluck Shinawatr, the Prime Minister, and Company were complete disaster. Are we going to have to leave the management of such things in the hands of her and her associates?
The mistakes surrounding this disaster cost 693 lives (according to the Center for Disaster Relief and Management..ศอส, Thai Rath newspaper, 12 Dec. 2011) Economic losses are in the range of hundreds of thousands of millions of baht. This is not counting losses in terms of morale, which is hard to assess. We should ask the Prime Minister to reflect upon [the statistics]: Yingluck: 693 floating bodies; Aphisit: 91 bodies. In this comparison, Yingluck’s numbers are out of sight.
We should be seeing the Democratic Party launching a no-confidence debate to consider [the work of] ผล. ต.อ. Pracha Promnok, Minister of Justice, and director of the ศปภ ( Center for Support /Relief of Victims of Disaster). We know and see the country. We see the Puer Thai government and leadership of the red shirts for what they are. Not only are they ineffective in water management; they are dishonest. They stole donations and put on them the names of their clueless, shameless leaders. For this work, no one is going to take responsibility. From the head of the line, ‘taking,’ such as Mrs. Yingluck, พล. ต.อ. Pracha, รมว Kaset, the head of the Irrigation Department, all the way to the end of the line. And the government hurries to adopt a fighting stance to ‘revive’ or rebuild the country, even while there are still some places under water. Those local people closed the roads in protest, calling for the government to hurry and begin pumping the stinking water out of their communities.
To be in tune with the state, to unwind and to get into the government’s ‘revival’ mode, a photography exhibition from 9 – 30 December has been launched by the Ministry of Culture, the Photography Association of Thailand, the BMA and the Tourist Organization of Thailand: ‘Water and Empathy.’ The show tells the audience that the worst of it was a ‘bad dream’ for the country, and that nightmare is now a thing of the past. And we pulled through because ‘Thai People Don’t Abandon Each Other.’
The Thai title of the exhibition, น้ำ + ใจ [literally, water + heart ] a play on the Thai word for good will, น้ำใจ, was all that was needed for the imagination of professional and amateur photographers, both foreign and Thai. It ensured what kind of pictures they would sent to the selection committee. So we saw the photos – all taking a positive point of view of Thai society in the midst of a disaster : people helping each other, along with state agencies, soldiers, police and private social welfare agencies such as the Kratanyu Foundation. Small acts of kindness by individuals. Seeing these pictures is sure to bring a tear to the eye and make one feel lucky to be Thai because we are such a kind-hearted society, especially when there is a crisis.
It is undeniable that these hundred photos show the history of a natural disaster that has to be recorded. As you look at the exhibition, your ears may by chance hear the song, ‘Thai people don’t abandon each other,” by Ad Carabao striking up. These images go well with the propaganda music video that was playing on TV every 5 or 10 minutes, especially during the period of the heaviest flooding.
The MV pictures for this presentation in some parts showed images of the president and managing director of a large animal feed company helping toss emergency rations down from a helicopter to victims of the flood below whose homes were flooded. The pictures were edited to show clearly the logo of the company to the accompaniment of Ad Carabao singing.
‘However much it floods, the kindness and good will of Thai people is more than that. We Thai people never abandoned each other. We face the crisis of these floods together…’
The Ministry of Culture is always clever and able to search out ‘Thai-ness’ to use as a selling point in a crisis. This time they use น้ำใจ [good will / water + heart] as a celebration and self-congratulation, without which Thai society might just fall apart. Because if the question of selfishness was considered too deeply; the anxieties over holding onto power; the need to protect ones own clique (until some houses had to put up a red flag on their roof for fear they might not receive aid); the corruption and cheating and theft of donated money and goods by government politicians and their underlings: the perception and mind of Thai people are controlled. [Otherwise] the sickness of sadness and depression might turn into rioting and murder if Thai people were to actually see it. ‘Goodness,’ the things we hold to and depend on cannot be depended on. Whichever way you turn, you find only ‘flooding and criminality.’
If you look at it this way, celebrating a little goodness and beauty, looking for a bit of fun, for entertainment, to blow off steam, such as a photo of a transvestite dressed as a ‘Mermaid Fleeing the Water,’ by Sutathinan Panhorm. It gives rise to a few smiles and laughs. Or if you see the picture of a movie star like Bin Banleurit carrying a newborn child and an old person, one does regain some hope.
In any crisis there is a chance - in the midst of the flooding we see the intelligence of the Thai people when they have to live with the water. The picture of ‘Tuk Tuk and Flood’ by Trevor Paul Grant was funny and compassionate.
Maybe it’s a bit strange that no one took pictures for the exhibition of the ‘Big Bag,’ the giant bag hero of the ศปภ. This monster was an innovation born during the flooding this time. Someone should speak up and take out a patent on it. There’s nothing like ‘the Big Bag’ for successfully stopping flood water until people on the two sides of the flood wall are at each others' throats, with one side trying to tear it down right before the eyes of police and local officials. But there were no pictures of Big Bag in the show.
(It seemed that the organizers had forgotten the most dangerous animal of another kind, i.e. government MPs. This type of animal is totally voracious, ‘eating’ [euphemism for corrupt dealing] floating toilets and fiberglass boats. Just a warning about such animals in case you happen to meet up with one of them.)
As historical pictures of this major calamity, the 2011 น้ำใจ [‘narm-jii’] exhibition is extremely flat and limited in scope. .. Those born in later generations who were not around when this happened are going to misunderstand. They will think the flood was fun – like when we see black and white news photos of the big flood of 1942. You see people paddling boats at the Royal Plaza at the equestrian statue of the 5th King near the Ananta Samakom Palace.
There was some attempt to analyze this great flood we have had, that it was ‘holy’ water, actually a good thing, because it made us see how the real core of Thai society has rotted and fallen into disorder. We see the greed, the selfishness, the desperation, from the level of government to the level of individuals in communities.
Especially the images in ‘Thai People Don’t Abandon One Another,’ the roots of which are in the idea of a welfare society. People are always waiting obsequiously for a handout, waiting for the state, for the powerful, the MPs, or Mafia overlords to come to the rescue, rather than depending on themselves.
Thai politics is like a populist welfare state. It is not strange that we see pictures of PM Yingluck going around, handing out packages of items to alleviate suffering and monk’s alms bowls filled with EM balls(a locally concocted product said to reduce water pollution). She did this in preference to sitting somewhere doing administrative tasks to manage the flood crisis herself. She seems to understand that [wandering about handing out charity] is the role and function of Thailand’s prime minister.