Thursday, December 29, 2011

LM trials in Thailand are reminiscent of Moscow show trials

In the years 1936, 1937 and 1938, a number of Lenin’s companions – Kamenev, Zinoviev, Toukhatchevski, Boukharine and others - were tried before courts under control of the totalitarian state being established by Stalin. They were accused of having betrayed the cause of Socialism ; History remembers these events, which led to harsh prison sentences in detention camps for all the accused, as the “Moscow trials”. Some features of these twisted judicial processes are strikingly similar to the LM trials which have taken place recently in Thailand. The aim here is not to say that the LM trials in Thailand are remakes of the Moscow trials – of course, they are not -, but rather to emphasize a few aspects which seem alike, in order to be able to get an idea of the mindset behind judicial processes intending to create fear in a given society.

One feature of the Moscow trial – in which all the evidences were fabricated and all the witnesses were fake witnesses – was the quality of the accusation. Even the slightest deviation from the orthodoxy, in this case Stalin’s version of socialism, was considered a betrayal of the cause. Fervent communists who had opposed Stalin on some aspects of the policies, like the collectivization of agriculture, were branded traitors and castigated as enemies. There was no middle way, no possible criticism in the public interest or for the good of the cause. This kind of accusation led unavoidably to extremely harsh sentences – death or long term detentions -, because the goal of these fake judicial processes was to inspire an intense fear so that even the slightest criticisms would be prevented. Once sentenced, the accused was excluded from the “orthodox community” and considered forever as an outcast.

Another feature of these 1930’s trials was that the central power considered it was necessary for the accused to admit to his crimes. It was not possible that he would fight the accusation with ideological, rational or legal arguments. He had to plead guilty, to recognize that he had betrayed the community. It appears that even the evocation of a counter-argument to confront the accusation would constitute, in the eyes of the totalitarian State, a risk of instilling a doubt in the Soviet Union population about the absolute perfection of the orthodox ideology.
At the time of the Moscow trials, there was a wide gap between the promised ideal, the proletarian paradise, and the crude reality of a life in an extremely repressive society. This gap was so wide that it was not possible for anyone to miss it, and, of course, Stalin and his henchmen were acutely aware of this. Thus, it seems that the trials and the harsh sentences delivered were also a way to “fill the gap”, an awkward attempt to patch the ever growing disconnection between the “ideal world” and the “real world”. The fakeness of the accusations and the set-up of the procedures were well known by those ordering the trials, but the rule was that the orthodox could never recognize it publicly : he had, as Raymond Aron wrote, “to follow a discipline of language”, for “the history told by the Party is true, of a higher truth than the mere truth of the material truth of facts” (1).

Arnaud Dubus

(1) L’opium des intellectuels, par Raymond Aron, Hachette Littératures, 2002

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tul Sittisomwong : « Behind the calls for reform of the LM law, there is a hidden agenda”

Question : What do you think about the call for reforming article 112 ?

Tul Sittisomwong : The group which asked for reform of article 112 claims that the punishment is too severe, with a minimum sentence of three years and a maximum sentence of 15 years, which is different from other countries with a monarchy. I agree with some reforms, because some actions should not be punished by three years in jail. But for some other actions, if they are only punished by three years, it is too little. It is a little bit weird that the law covers dirty talk about the king as well as not standing up during the royal anthem. But some people are telling lies about the king, they should be punished more strongly.
So for myself, I think there should be a distinction : if you act like this, you get one, two or three years ; if you act like this, you are punished five to ten years ; if it is something which disturbs national security, it should be higher than ten years. It should be proportionate to the action.
Another thing is when somebody is personally defamed, he usually file charges at the police station by himself. But because the king is the Head of State, he can not be involved with the criminal court. Now, anyone can file charges if there is offense to the king. So, I also agree that there must be some control system, like a committee to consider the complaints. If some Thai knows about someone who did something wrong in connection with LM, he has to send the complaint to that committee first. And if the committee considers that there is a case, he would send it to the attorney general.

People calling for reform of article 112 are also focusing on these two points : the severity of the law, and the fact that anyone can file a case. So, in a way, you agree with them ?

Yes, I agree with that. Now the Peua Thai party is the government, but most of the supporters are Red Shirts and they ask for abolishment of article 112. So we are afraid that if there is a reform of this article, it is going to be eliminated instead of being reformed in order to become more appropriate. That is why I think it is better right now not to do anything about article 112. Even if the punishment would be life sentence or death sentence, I would like to ask anyone willing to commit LM, why are you doing it ? Why ordinary people would tell lies about the king ? It is not about freedom of expression. And the fact is : the Thai King serves Thai people. He has never makes anyone suffer. But because of some broadcast program or internet stories saying “He is doing that, he is involved in this”, and the people believe it. And they talk about the freedom of expression ? Ok, it is freedom if you dislike him, if you dislike the monarchy, but if you announce it publicly, it is going to be punished as in other countries all over the world. The US, Japan, England, every country has a law to protect the Head of State ; it is a question of national security. If you say it is LM, another term is “protecting the Head of State”, but the range of punishments is different from country to country.
Fifty years ago, the punishment was zero to seven years imprisonment. At that time, the LM act in Thailand said, if you infringe upon this act, you should be punished not more than seven years. But in 1975, there was an expansion of communism, and communism tried to get rid of the monarchy system in Thailand. That is why a dictatorial regime appeared. The head of the dictators group changed the punishment from less than seven years to three to fifteen years, and we used it since then.

In the case of Ah Kong, it seems that he did not intend to do anything bad. Still, he was sentenced to 20 years in jail.

First of all, I think that for ordinary people, if they do their job normally, no one would be punished. Secondly, I recognized it was used for political means, but there are very few cases. But after the Thaksin Era and the Red Shirts movement, they give more and more thought to pure or total democracy without the monarchy system. So it is not because more and more people all over the country dislike the king or the monarchy. It is because some political groups try to be number one in Thailand. There is a plan. The number one of Thailand is not the Prime minister, but the King. So they try to get rid of … I think it is a plot. They claim that now the number is surprisingly high, but I think it is not the true number, it is a plot. And the effect is incorrect quotes or lies about the king, it is incorrect information, but some people believe it.
OK, the monarchy or the royal family is not totally correct. There is something… It is not 100 % correct. So if you pick up something wrong to overrule the good side of the monarchy, I think it is not fair. And I think the monarchy is still important for Thai lifestyle and culture.
You know, I think Thai people are not strong enough to stand on their own feet. Especially for politics, they are manipulated by politicians. If some politicians help them with money and other things in life, it is Thai style to pay back by paying respect to them. So the vote is not a free vote, it is different from your country. So we can not get the appropriate representatives through the Thai elections. Many modernized countries ask for free vote, free elections, democracy without monarchy… I and many Thai still believe that democracy with monarchy is suitable and appropriate for Thailand, because it fits Thai people. Thai people are different from French, from British, if Thai would be strong enough like French or British, OK, we may change by still keeping monarchy but differently from now, through a gradual change, not an abrupt change. But the situation now is that some are asking for abrupt change just to support their leader Thaksin Shinawatra… If it would happen anywhere else in the world, in France, in Europe, in the US, these supporters would be jailed.

Do you think the Thai monarchy has to modernize, to become more transparent, more accountable ?

Are you asking if the monarchy has to adapt by itself or through peoples’ suggestions ?

By anyway. Isn't it an old institution which has to adapt as anything else ?

Maybe, you have missed the 2005 King’s speech. He talked about this issue and said that he did not want anyone to be punished for lèse-majesté. And he said he can do wrong and he can be criticized. But on the other hand, in my opinion, the criticisms must be reasonable, not telling lies or trying to provoke abrupt changes like they are doing. If these criticisms are reasonable and aiming at improving monarchy and the country, I agree with that. We have to consider these criticisms on a case by case basis, looking at what is their objective : do they want political change or do they want to make things better ? The ones who want to improve, I think they are not going to be punished. Even if you have to fight the case in court, you can talk to the judge and tell your beliefs and your proposals to make things better, I think everybody can consider it.
Uncle SMS was sentenced on four counts, each with five years, which give a total of 20 years. Many countries and organizations consider that it is too severe. They only look at the punishment but never consider why some ordinary people are doing that. It is not because they have hatred for the king. It is an anti-monarchy team who sent the SMS to the secretary of the former PM Abhisit. Why ? I am sure there is some conspiracy. If one person dislikes the monarchic system, he will not act this way. He would send the message to everybody, on internet.

What do you think of General Prayuth Chan-Ocha remark that people calling for reform of the LM law should go to live outside of Thailand ?

Many people who love the king and the royal family say this for a long time. They are ordinary people. But when the Army Chief says that, it is something, a big thing. I understand what he thinks, his objective. He has no right to push these people away from the country. The objective is not according to the words. You should not put too much into his words. What he tried to say is that the royal family is important and inspire respect in Thailand. He means : instead of speaking about the harshness of the punishment, why are you not trying to avoid committing offenses ? I think it is what he has in his mind, but his personality is straightforward. He thought about this for a long time. Journalist asked him many times this question, so he said : OK, if you talk about this, go away !
About the Freedom of expression, in international agreement, you have some mention that this freedom has to go along with accountability and that your expressions of opinion should not defame other persons or destroy society, national security or the morals. There are some limitations because you live in a society. You are not alone in the world or in the country. This LM law is clearly written for a long time, everybody knows it. So those who ask for reform or to eliminate the law, most of them are not looking to improve things. There is a hidden agenda of getting rid of the monarchy. It is against international agreements.
I think the way to solve this problem is that it is widely discussed, not emotionally, but rationally. But it never happened, like during a seminar in Thammasat, there was a Red Shirts group asking “Get rid of this LM law”. Peaceful talks never happened.

Interview done by Arnaud Dubus

David Streckfuss : « There is a broad consensus in Thailand that the LM law is prone to abuse”

Question : We could have expected the current government to be more lenient on the issue of lèse-majesté. It does not seem to be the case.

David Streckfuss : I am not sure that we can say at this point that the current government has been harsher in the use of the lèse-majesté law, because there are statistics for this year that show that there has been a decrease in the number of cases compared to last year, but it does not break it down month by month. It is probably going to end up with a third of the cases that there was in 2010, for the charges coming before the lower court. So I think it is too early to say what the Peua Thai has been doing with this law until we see more details.
But on the face of it, it seems that the Peua Thai has chosen to distance itself from Red Shirts elements who have been either critical of the institution or critical of the 112 law itself. So that they don’t become themselves accused of being uninterested in the institution, they have to appear even more loyal than the opposition.

Can we say that the lèse-majesté law is not only to protect the royal family, but also a tool to protect a system of power ?

It is reasonable to say at this point that the law itself has come to define the institution, which means that if it were merely a law to protect certain personages we would have one thing. But now, there is a general understanding that the law is there to protect the institution of the monarchy and to protect whatever power system has built up around it. So it is doing a lot more than what a normal defamation law would be doing.

Tul Sittisomwong, a member of Siam Samakki, uses the conspiracy argument against people calling for reform or article 112. Is it a way to undermine any reasonable arguments for reform ?

The idea that there is some sort of conspiracy out there helps to delegitimize and to clothe in negative terms any calls for reform of the law. I would imagine that ultimately yellow shirts groups or multicolor shirts groups or the Siam Samakki group are fearful of what would happen if the law were touched. I think that they feel that the only way the institution can be maintained is by having a very severe law to make sure that it is respected in a certain way.
But I think that there is more and more public awareness of the issue and that this awareness is leading to criticism of at least the law and its continuing threats to basic democratic values and freedoms like freedom of expression. So there has been at some point a delinking between the idea that someone is being worried by the effects of a very harsh law on the state of democracy in Thailand and any sort of position they might have on the institution itself. And before that delinking can happen there will be a lot of accusations of conspiracy theory.
But at the end of the day, that Thailand monarchy becomes more transparent and more accountable to the public is a normal aspect of any constitutional monarchy anywhere else. It is not even clear to me, looking at the law, that it would be necessarily illegal to say that you are a republican and be Thai, to say that : “Nothing personal, but I don’t care for this kind of institution”. That is the common experience of what happens with constitutional monarchies in Europe. There is always between 10 and 20 %, depending on what is going on, who are opposed to the monarchy and want to abolish it. And that is normal. So the day that Sweden for instance has a poll and 74 % of the people decide that they want to keep the institution and the institution will remain in Sweden or somewhere else in Europe, if it would change it would be the end of the institution, but it would be done democratically and that is the main thing.
But in Thailand of course, republican sentiment is thought to be against the law and has been for a long long time.

There is this argument that Thailand is unique, an exception, and it justifies that there should be no change to the institution ?

Yes, the Thai monarchy is very unique in the sense that it gets incredibly harsh laws for modern times and for Thailand aspirations to be a democratic country. So yes, it is very unique in that sense. But in the sense that Thailand has some sorts of unique system of ideas, a unique kind of culture that causes Thai people to be like this or that is a way of isolating Thailand in a sense that many people would not want to do. That kind of thought leads to where Burma was before, or North Korea or nations like that. Thailand has the aspiration of being part of the community of modern nation-states, just like the US who does not listen very much and sees itself sometimes through exceptionalism as well but as some level accepts that there are some rules that should be observed if you want to be called democratic… And I think they are enough people that want Thailand to be democratic and also a monarchy, that are willing to see Thailand open to criticisms for its human rights records in this respect. They don’t want Thailand to be an exception in that sense.

General Prayuth Chan-Ocha said a few days ago that the people who want to reform article 112 should go to live abroad, meaning if you don’t love the King you are not Thai. What do you see behind this linkage between loving the monarchy and being a Thai ?

This is one of the most common aspect of the lèse-majesté charge. It has been around for a long time and it is often part of the lèse-majesté accusation. It seems very ill-advised to set up this kind of dichotomy. There are a lot of things in the news these days that are moving us and becoming very helpful for Thailand to be able to respect and tolerate differences and create a dialogue around it. That statement by General Prayuth was not one of those things.

Thailand is going through a transition from a traditional status-based society to a more participatory society. One of the elements of this transition is the controversy around lèse-majesté. Why is there so much focus on this element and not on other issues, like the financial transparency of the royal family or the obligation to prostate oneself in front of the royals ?

The way that Thainess has been constructed for now a century has, in the last fifty years, involved some aspects of how the institution would play in people’s lives. And I think that there is probably a fear on the side of those who are opposed to any changes of the lèse-majesté law, a fear of what is left then. Because once that factor is taken out, can Thailand unite around, whether rhetorically or not, for instance respect for the constitution or rule of law or democratic values ? It is a quite different thing. I am guessing that those opposed to the reform of the law don’t have any way of conceiving Thainess in a way that would seem to hold the whole thing together. They expect chaos to happen.
I think it will take a big step for everybody to approach the issue. And it has been lucky, because in the last couples of weeks, it is clear that there is a fairly broad consensus in Thai society that the law is prone to abuses. To address it as a rights issue helps a lot to try to fix that, then who knows what happen after that ? Sure it is a big question mark. If the lèse-majesté law were changed, I think there would be a shift in Thai society that no one can exactly predict, especially when the question of succession is so much on people’s minds. So, it is a volatile issue that, I think, scares a lot of people.

Interview done by Arnaud Dubus

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

« Le maître des aveux », par Thierry Cruvellier : plume acérée, regard pertinent

Il est un grave reproche que l’on doit faire à Thierry Cruvellier, auteur du livre “Le maître des aveux », c’est qu’il n’écrira pas un second volume sur le procès actuellement en cours des trois hauts dirigeants khmers rouges Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary et Khieu Samphan. « Le maître des aveux », qui porte sur le jugement en 2009-2010 de Kaing Guek Eav, alias Douch, chef du centre d’interrogatoire S-21, restera probablement le livre incontournable sur ce procès, comme l’a été le livre d’Hannah Arendt sur le procès d’Eichmann. Il y a plusieurs raisons à cela. D’abord, le fait que l’auteur est un observateur de longue date des tribunaux internationaux. Son œil aguerri n’est pas dupe, il décortique les manœuvres des procureurs, des témoins et des avocats, compare et met en perspective, analyse les meurtriers de masse du Cambodge vis-à-vis des génocidaires d’Arusha. Et il en tire des conclusions importantes sur le fonctionnement de la justice internationale.

Ensuite, l’auteur a suivi sur la longueur, avec sérieux et sens critique les longs mois de cette procédure, tour à tour intense et lassante, historique et prosaïque. Il ne s’invente pas des « face à face, yeux dans les yeux, avec le bourreau », mais s’évertue à comprendre, à décrypter, avec une intelligence souple et un humour souvent corrosif, les complexités de ces débats où les récits s’entrechoquent et les personnalités guerroient. Les grands moments du procès – des témoignages de l’épouse et de la fille du professeur Phung Ton, mort en 1977 à S-21, ou de l’écrivain François Bizot au coup de théâtre final où l’avocat François Roux se trouve trahi à la fois par son co-avocat et son client – sont restitués avec justesse. Comme l’est l’atmosphère si particulière du petit monde qui gravite autour d’un tribunal international et qui n’est pas sans rappeler la communauté se formant autour du tournage d’un film, avant de se dissoudre.

Bien sûr, « Le maître des aveux » ne livre pas toutes les clés, mais il met le doigt sur des points cruciaux pour ceux qui veulent mieux comprendre la dynamique des jugements de crimes contre l’humanité. Ainsi, l’inévitable choc culturel entre les approches des juristes et témoins de différents horizons (pensée circulaire contre pensée linéaire), le cheminement psychologique qui mène un enseignant apprécié de ses élèves à devenir un meurtrier de masse, l’obsession de la pureté qui entraine le régime dans une dynamique paranoïaque… Contrairement à Douch, deux des trois leaders khmers rouges actuellement en cours de jugement – Nuon Chea et Ieng Sary – refusent de coopérer avec le tribunal. La seconde audience lors de laquelle Nuon Chea a rejeté la responsabilité des atrocités sur le « frère ennemi » vietnamien donne une idée de l’impasse dans lequel ce second procès pourrait aboutir. Quant à Khieu Samphan, il est à craindre que ses réponses ne différeront pas beaucoup de son opuscule « l’histoire récente du Cambodge et les raisons derrière les décisions que j’ai prises » publié au début des années 2000. A la fin de cet ouvrage, il affirmait : « dans la hiérarchie rigide du Kampuchéa Démocratique (le régime khmer rouge), j’étais une sorte de subalterne ».

Arnaud Dubus

Friday, October 14, 2011

Don’t miss it on your favorite channel : The Floods, the watery soap opera

Forget Dok Som Si Thong (Golden Orange Blossom) and Roi Mai (silk thread), the soap opera not to be missed these days is Naam Tuom (The Floods), which is played on all channels and will bring you all the usual ingredients – the heroes, the drama, the tears, the monsters…- plus the thrill of watching a non-stop reality show. The hero or Phra Aek is the veteran actor Sorayuth, a kind of massive demi-god whose voice resonates like thunder as he crisscrosses the country on boat with a cryptic encircled diagram on his breast : 3. Surrounded by supporting casting, feet in the water, he gives his oracles and predictions as provincial figurants are floating in the background. He is a real Phra Aek, fearless and generous, distributing thousands of rescue bags marked with his diagram, but there are also failed heroes in the drama, like Plodprasob Suraswadee, the billionaire minister of Science, who unsuccessfully tried to take the centre stage by triggering an ill-advised full scale floods alert for the residents of Northern Bangkok on 13th October.
Every keen lakorn watcher knows that a good soap must have a lot of tears, salty water drops rolling down the cheeks for minutes and minutes which express a state of intense internal dismay. The Floods is no exception, and it was a poignant moment to see Kittirat na Ranong, the Deputy Prime Minister, bursting into tears in the arms of a puzzled Japanese investor. Kittirat had stoically contained his emotions for a number of weeks in face of thousands of provincial villagers whose houses half disappeared in flood waters. But the water invading the Hi Tech industrial estate in Ayuthaya was to much to bear. The wall this sensible man had built within himself in order to perform his duty to the best of his abilities burst out with the dyke.
Then who are the bad guys in the story ? Those who sport a moustache of course ! Actually, Chuwit Kamolvisit, again, pointed at the nasty characters lurking in the (flooded) sideways : pirates who raid empty houses and money thirsty boat owners who racket helpless flood victims. Another tempting question is to ask if Yingluck is the nang aek of the drama. It is maybe too early to say ; in any case, she had better be careful nobody else steal the show.

Arnaud Dubus

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Who killed ... ?

Who killed king Ananda Mahidol in June 1946 ? We don’t know.

Who killed Muslim leaders Haji Sulong and Ahmad Tohmeena in 1954 ? We don’t know.

Who killed the protesters in October 1973 ? We don’t know.

Who killed Socialist party leader Boonsanong Punyodyana in February 1976 ? We don’t know.

Who killed the students in Thammasart university in October 1976 ? We don’t know.

Who killed Union leader Tanong Po-arn in 1991 ? We don’t know.

Who killed the protesters in May 1992 ? We don’t know.

Who killed muslim lawyer Somchai Neelaipajitr in March 2004 ? We don’t know.

Who killed the Tak Bai protestors in October 2004 ? We don't know.

Who killed Japanese journalist Hiroyuki Muramoto in April 2010 ? We don’t know.

Who killed Italian journalist Fabio Polenghi in May 210 ? We don’t know.

Who killed assistant-nurse Kate Akahad and fiver other persons in Wat Pathum Wanaram in May 2010 ? We don’t know.

What is doing the Royal Thai Police ? They are busy filing lèse-majesté charges against journalist Chiranuch Premchaiporn.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The unbearable lightness of Thai culture

The ownership claim by Thailand of the jeeb gesture, a gracious hand movement of the Ramakien epic, and of the shadow theater using large leather figures (nang yai) is considered as a priority for Mrs Sukumol Kunplome, the new minister of culture. It is hard not to spot an hint of nationalism behind this move as it is a reaction to the registration by Cambodia of the Royal Khmer Ballet and of their own version of shadow theater on the Intangible cultural heritage list of UNESCO in 2008. But more importantly, it allows us to dig into this notion of “Thai culture” which is continuously emphasized by various government agencies as a supposed pillar of the Thai way of being.

In this official format, Thai culture is rather restrictive. It includes mostly the court culture (royal rituals, khon, ramakien, buddhist ceremonies) and some aspects of the commoners culture, as Thai boxing or regional dances. Curiously, some villagers’ traditions are discarded and never presented by officials as part of the Thai heritage, as for instance betel chewing or cock fighting, even if the carrying of betel boxes was, in the past, a sign of rank. This bureaucratic approach to culture divides cultural behaviors and habits into “proper” and “improper” : wearing a sarong is improper but joining palms to wai is proper ; speaking the ratchasap (royal language) is proper but speaking the earthy northeastern Lao dialect is improper. This narrow idea of culture also tends to ignore various creative ventures by young and old artists, who are deemed too uncontrollable to fit the rigid framework. It is not an all-encompassing notion of culture, aiming to celebrate the diversity and creativity of the multiple groups and talents belonging to the country, but a defensive culture, choosy about its picks and always weary of opening up and sharing. In 2002, the minister of Culture, Pongphol Adireksarn, famously proposed a draft law aiming to ban the teaching of Thai boxing and Thai massage to foreigners so that “Thai wisdom stays in the hands of the Thais”.

By claiming ownership of the jeeb gesture and the shadow theatre, the official Thai culture is on its ground : what has been integrated formally in Thai culture has become sacred and inviolable. In face of such dogmatism, it is tempting to hint at the Indian origin of Ramakien - a reality sometimes ignored, as showed by an upper-class lady telling me : “Oh, do they also have Ramayana in India ?” - or at the popularity of shadow theater in the Malay world. Such ownership claims asserted by the Thai minister of culture are a little bit like saying that Celtic music belongs to French Britanny. The same twisted logic explains why some Thai archeologists use the category “Lopburi style” to speak about Angkor style monuments. There is a process of Thai-isation of foreign inputs, which is perfectly fine as long as cultural history is not denied. Nobody owns culture.

Going further, the world of Thai culture is mired in contradictions. As i was asking in a large book store for a copy in Thai of the classic Khun Chang Khun Paen, an employee took a long time to painfully retrieve a unique copy hidden on a shelf. But no less than four different Thai versions of the Chinese epic “Three Kingdoms” (sam kok) were exhibited behind the main cashier counter. Chineseness is an important part of the Thai way of being, especially in large urban areas, but why such a fundamental Thai classic as Khun Chang Khun Paen is not widely available in bookstores ? Should this book be the Jewell of Thai culture ? It is not particular to Thailand. In Indonesia, the great javanese epic “The Book of Centhini”, store of much of the island's ancient culture, had never been translated in bahasa indonesia until a few years ago. It was translated into Indonesian and then French at the end of the 1990s under a project coordinated by writer Elisabeth Inandiak.

Arnaud Dubus

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Beyond the call of duty

For some time i have been intrigued by the Thai expression pathibat natee (ปฏิบัติ หน้าที่) or “accomplishing his duty”. Repeatedly said by politicians and bureaucrats during discourses, in front of courts of justice and in reply to embarrassing questions, it has a mantra-like quality that is found in many other overused Thai expressions. In the last few weeks, I found this expression in various news items. One was quoting the current army chief, general Prayuth Chan-Ocha, explaining that military officers and rank and file military should not be worried by the coming change of government, in regard to the brutal repression of the Red shirts demonstrations of April-May last year. “Why should we be worried, because we have accomplished our duty ?”, he said. In another article, it was said that the policemen who killed a seven year old boy during an operation to catch a drug trafficker in the course of the infamous “war on drugs” in 2003, had received reduced sentences of a few months in jail by the court, because they killed the boy “while accomplishing their duty”.

Obviously, something was amiss. Can we say that a taxi driver who crush a passer-by on the road can be forgiven because he was “accomplishing his duty” - driving his car in quest of customers ? In which country the killing of tenth of mostly unarmed civilians by security forces would be considered as part of their duties ? There seems to be, here, a play on the words, a semantic trick to justify the unjustifiable.

Of course, much depends on what meaning you give to “duty” ? When I was a conscript in the French army in the mid-eighties, a young officer made a speech during the very first day of our training period. He said that, if an officer gave us an order to shoot into a crowd of civilians, he hoped that we would have the common sense and determination to refuse to follow the order “because the French army is a citizens’ army”. Obviously, for this officer, duty included something else that the blind obedience to whatever command was received from the hierarchy. So there is a sense of duty which is wider than the narrow focus on “doing his job” without any considerations of the broader implications. This higher sense of duty is based on the respect of the right of others, on some basic moral principles, on the use of the brain and on the will to be not only a mechanical part of a larger machine. In Thailand, the narrow focus on “duty” appears to be mostly a corporatist protective tool for the bureaucracy : whatever wrong is done, there is always a way to land back on his feet by saying “Well, there was a large loss of life, but I stuck to the bureaucratic rules”. To the letter of the rules, that is, but not to the spirit, because you can always manipulate the letter the way you want.

Another element is the absence of a built-in punishment system in case of wrong doing. A journalist who distorts facts will be fired. A businessman who invests in loosing ventures will be ruined. He won’t be able to cover his failure by saying that he “did his duty”. “Accomplishing his duty” has then to be seen as the fig leaf of bureaucrats. And every time we hear this expression, we should enter rebellion.

Arnaud Dubus

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The imagined world of Thai soap operas

A striking feature of most of the Thai soap operas is the extremely stereotyped social milieu they represent. 90 % of the soap operas are set in upper bourgeois milieu, displaying very wealthy families living in palatial homes surrounded by a bevy of maids and servants. It does not actually represent an existing social milieu, but is more an imagined high class-society, where young men and women devote their whole time to romantic intrigues and, seemingly, are disencumbered from the contingencies of professional life. This idealization of the social setting is reinforced by the endless reproduction of the same features from one series to another. The wide diversity of the life situations in the country is obliterated and replaced by a narrow range of models.

Another trait is the constant reminder of the rules of social hierarchy. There are often two sets of people, the “masters” and the “servants”. Within the masters’ world, there is strife and competition, joy and tears, unions and break up. The servants are only shown as a reflection of their masters’ world : they gossip about them, assess their behavior with a childish naivety in the secret confines of the kitchen, but their own life and destiny have no interest in the plot. There is only one kind of interaction between the two groups : the servants are attending, with submissiveness and obedience, their masters. They cater to their every whim and never revolt. They are there to enhance the social greatness of their masters.

The characters are as much stereotyped as the social milieu. There is the mother, sporting a khunying-style hairdo, wise and protective, who has long accepted the vagaries of her husband. There are the daughters - either the dutiful one, pride of her parents, who has only one aspiration : to lead a quiet and moral life with her husband ; either the bitch-type, inclined on stealing husbands and destroying the life of harmonious couples. The sons follow a similar dual pattern.

The locations in which the plot is developing are also limited : the splendid living rooms where discussions within the families or with a few selected visitors – often prospective fiancés – take place in the comfort of leather sofas or mother-of-pearl inlaid Chinese furniture at the foot of extravagant neo-classical winding staircases, the VVIP hospital rooms where one of the character will recover from some ailment, the sport cars where the trendy teenagers will tease each other or quarrel… You won’t see them walking in a normal street among normal people, or shop at Big C. They are living on a higher plane, like demi-gods on the flanks of Mount Meru.

One of the messages of these series is that the existing social hierarchy is a fact of life, a natural evidence which does not need to be justified. The idealized setting is presented as a model to get inspiration from or even to copy. Verbal expressions, physical attitudes, type of furniture and indoor design, dressing style and life situations are being reproduced in real life, not by the actual upper middle classes, but more by a petty and middle bourgeoisie avid to project the image of them playing in a superior category.

Interestingly, the few series which are taking place in the “countryside” are also set in a unreal, idealized world : sprawling traditional wooden mansions where the up-country masters would wear traditional costumes. Servants in Rama IV clothing style would prostrate themselves at their feet. Probably nowhere in today Thailand you can see such scenes outside of theaters and cultural centers. Don’t expect here to have a glimpse of the half urbanized provincial small towns where rice fields are fast replaced by housing villages, and which constitute the current reality of much of Thai countryside. Again, reflecting the real world is not the aim, but rather to influence the real worlds with imagined models.

Perhaps, the creators of these series consider that they have to make their audiences dream or aspire to higher materialistic success and that they must not be reminded of their real situation in life. Perhaps, the words of the consumer products companies which sponsor these series are dictating the rules of the game. The extreme focus on syrupy romantic intrigues leave no space for hints of social issues (drugs, inequality, poverty, aids, relation between various ethnic communities, between Thai and Farangs…) and even less for political content. Nobody expects a soap opera to deal with being and nothingness, but it would be imaginable that it stays enjoyable and, at the same time, treats his viewers as more adult.

Arnaud Dubus