Thailand was never really democratic. When I lived there (1996 -2000), elections were rigged; bribery and intimidation commonplace. “Influential figures” (whose names everyone knew) were totally above the law, controlling the drugs trade, illegal teak logging and trade with Burma. The millitary controlled the state-run TV, censorship was common and government corruption and patronage not just ignored, but regarded as legitimate behaviour.
It is also no loss to Thailand that Thaksin Shinawatra has been removed as Prime Minister. He approved a campaign of extra-judicial murder of 2,500 alleged drug dealers. His stupidly crass comments when 78 Southern Thai muslims died in police custody of asphyixiation (“they were weakened because of Ramadam fasting”) fuelled disquiet in the muslim southern states. He attempted to intimidate the press, expelling journalists from The Economist, and earned the rebuke of the much-revered King for elevating himself too high. He was becoming more and more authoritarian, and dangerous.
It is to be hoped that democracy will be restored (instituted?) soon. But I can’t help feeling that it’s good that Thaksin has gone.
To Thais, the King is the father of the Thai nation. He’s been King longer than India has been independent, and has seen the country change from a rural backwater to a major developing economy. Through fascist military coups and brutal repression, he’s been the steadfast figurehead and is genuinely loved by the entire Thai population. You expect portraits of monarch and presidents in government buildings – but in Thailand, every private home has a portrait of the King, high on the wall so that his head is higher than anyone else’s. This is my favourite picture; he’s hiked into the countryside to visit some remote village, and he’s wiping sweat off his face. Thais love this picture, too; it shows how he cares about his subjects.
Ratchadamnoen Avenue will be thronged with hundreds of thousands of Thai people, sweltering but glad to be there to wish him happy birthday.
Behind the celebrations, however, is a worry that every Thai feels but few discuss. The King is 78, and a heavy smoker and can’t last forever. An old prophesy says that the Chakri dynasty, of which this king is King Rama 9, will end when its ninth member dies. And the problem is the succession. Continue reading Happy Birthday, King Bhumibol
Bangkok is a mass of homogenous concrete, having been built largely in the last 30 years and subject to two property speculation bubbles when buildings were thrown up as fast as the architects could scribble. It’s metaphorically a very colourful city, but physically drab and grey. When you travel by bus as a newbie, it’s terribly difficult to orient yourself, as all but the old Rattanakosin area looks exactly the same.
But the Bangkok that our students at Amnuay Silpa School made from cardboard and Plasticine is much more vibrant:
Note the BTS skytrain in rakish purple running above the road, and the daringly pink Baiyoke
Tower with its tinfoil satellite dish. Wish it had really been like that ….
It was my birthday a few days ago, and so Nongyow made me one of my favourite dishes – a big plate of spare ribs. As I sat munching my way through them, kitchen roll next to me to mop up my chin, shirt, hands, back of my neck – anywhere and everywhere splattered by the sauce – I remembered a time in 1999 in Bangkok when I had a meal of Spare Ribs at Suan Dusit Royal Palace with the wife of the Crown Prince, Her Royal Highness Princess Somsawali.
The boss of Amnuay Silpa School where I worked had been asked to provide private lesson to the Princess’ adopted 8 year old daughter, BaiPhlu, and I’d been asked to do the teaching. I was picked up by a car driven by a military man, and taken to the Palace, and asked to wait in a beautiful old room before meeting the Princess. When she appeared, my boss got down on the floor and gave the ceremonial wai greeting; being a westerner (and completely overwhelmed) I stuck out my hand to shake her hand – a major breach of etiquette.
Anyhow, she was great; completely without pretension and asked us to stay for dinner. Staggeringly, I managed to mind my Ps and Qs, even with BaiPhlu under the table trying to goad me into a funny-face competition. The hardest part of the whole meal was trying to eat spare ribs quietly with a knife and fork. I challenge you to try it; it’s impossible. The racket I made didn’t deter the Princess, who had me teach BaiPhlu for a couple of terms.
The picture above is me, by BaiPhlu. I had different hair, then. And I was red. Here’s Her Royal Highness Princess Somsawali when she came to the school to inaugurate our language centre. In Thai she’s called “Phra Ong Jow Somsawali Phra Wora Racha Ti Daa-Maat” or “Phra Ong Som” for short.