Thursday, 20 May 2010

Bangkok in Tears

The news and pictures have gone around the world. Bangkok has been "reclaimed" by the military and the reds have torched a number of buildings, especially around Siam.

Siam used to be my home in BKK, where I would go every evening. Now it is a very different place. But unless some of my Bangkok friends, I dont loose a lot of time worrying about buildings.

I am more worried about the people, the ones who have been hurt, and I am sad about the ones who have lost their lives. The rifts in Thailand will take years to heal and the anger of the lower class will only grow.

I would like to leave you with some pictures. They are graphic. But then again, what happened in BKK WAS very graphic.

The picture of the year.

BKK in flames.

Soldiers in front of MK restaurant.

An Italian photographer sadly lost his life...

Red shirts handcuffed

The mess...

Zen burning.

An injured soldier.

Injured soldier and Canadian photographer...

A red shirt protester who lost his life.

BKK in flames.

A very strong picture, a handcuffed monk.

Soldiers advancing into Lumphini.

Soldiers followed by photographers.

No comment.


Sunday, 16 May 2010

Bangkok as a War Zone

Since the last time I wrote, the situation in Thailand has turned for the worse. Where a month ago, an army attack on the demonstrators near Khao San Road and the Democracy Monument left about two dozen dead and several hundred injured, violence has now greatly spread.

It seems beyond belief but here I am looking at pictures, reading articles, messages, and maps, which all talk about Central Bangkok as a war zone. In fact, it IS now a war zone. The Army's plan is to encircle the demonstrators into a tight area from which people can not flee and into which supplies can not be brought. In the last couple of days, we have seemingly seen no positive results from the army side at all.

On the opposite: areas, which used to be considered safe are now extremely dangerous. Victory Monument and the close-by entertainment road Soi Rangnam (including the impressive King Power duty free complex) are now no-go zones. I am including a video of what is happening on this street.

The Army has positioned snipers on rooftops of strategic buildings. Red demonstrators get shot but no one knows why particular people get shot. (except the prominent shooting of Reds Army General Seh Daeng) Clearly however, all the dead are hit in the head with sniper rifles from above.

To be honest, I am confused about both sides and their motivations and actions. The Red Shirts had a deal on the table, presented by a conciliatory PM Abhisit a few days ago. It would have meant the dissolution of the Parliament within a matter of weeks and elections within months. This is what the reds wanted...they would have won the elections and been back in power. They could have rewritten the constitution and perhaps even given Thaksin a window to come back....but then they declined and started to demand silly things.

Why did they suddenly stop the cooperation and why didnt they take a reasonably good deal they could have agreed to? Do they want to motivate the countryside? Do they want to fire up their symphatisers in the rest of Bangkok? Did someone sell them out for personal gain? All I know is that the ones who have died and will die are not the ones who are leading the reds.

Abhisit on the other hand seems to have no other option. The centre of Bangkok has been occupied for weeks and the shopping malls, which belong to important people in the country want to sell goods again. After the refusal of the reds to cooperate, the PM had to act and send in troops.

But, do they have to place snipers on rooftops, where they can indiscriminately kill people? I have a feeling the Army isnt serious about taking back the main area of the demonstrators around Rajprasong because it would probably mean hundreds of deaths, including women and children.

At this stage, I cannot imagine what is going to happen next. The area of fighting is now so large and includes so many important buildings that it would seem impossible to conquer for the Army. Additionally, groups of protesters are forming again outside of the military ring, which makes the Army much more vulnerable.

While I hope for an agreement, or anything similar, which could stop at least the immediate fighting in Bangkok, I would like to share some of my thoughts and what should happen now:

-An outside team must be allowed into Thailand either under UN or under ASEAN leadership to negotiate an immediate ceasefire and a new roadmap to elections and.

-This team might have to be supported by a UN mission (military).

-In the longer term, a special envoy (see Aceh) could bring together the parties and negotiate a long-term peace deal.

-As a part of that, the constitution will have to be re-written. Thailand should become a federal state. Regional Governments should be elected by the local people. These governments will have the power to raise their own taxes and decide autonomously in policy areas such as education. There will be a national plan to redistribute tax income according to the wealth of provinces.

Unfortunately this is not what is going to happen. The Thai people, especially the Bangkok elite are too proud to let foreign people help them find a solution in this impossible situation. They still have the feeling that Thailand, as a "sovereign country" can control its situation internally. Romantic and naive notions of the Country of Smiles and the great City of Angels are still circulating. Unfortunately, we need to look at the reality and there, I think that the notion of a functioning state with rule of law does not apply to Thailand/Bangkok anymore.

I have seen pictures of people who got arrested and read twits of people who said they are being imprisoned for 6 months without parole. (unfortunately hardly anything is written about what happens to the imprisoned...) Now, Abhisit threatens the demonstrators in Rajprasong that they will be imprisoned for terroristic acts for two years.

Here, the Western world has of course set a wonderful precedence with its terrorism laws and the ubiquitous American rhetoric of “terrorism”. In fact, most people camping in central Bangkok would hardly be terrorists. Paralysing the centre of your capital for two months is hardly acceptable and setting fire to banks and other buildings is also not a noble act. Someone should be held accountable for such actions.

But someone also should have been held accountable for the airport blockade in late December 2008. Those who shout the loudest now and triumphantly argue that the “poor reds” lose work because of their protests would have proudly supported the “yellows” when they shut down air travel in Bangkok.

All in all, this shows that the Thai state is NOT able to guarantee that lawfulness, fairness and equality are practiced. There are too many actors with interests and too many people who primarily look for themselves, and in that, I think I can understand the frustration of many Thais.

The real damage to the society and country however will only surface after the dust over Central Bangkok will have settled and the last rounds will be fired. If the military is successful in suppressing the demonstrators and many more people die, I fear we will see large-scale uprisings, mostly in the countryside (Isan and North). Millions of red shirt supporters also live in Bangkok...It would be devastating and a parallel state (a very fragile one) could develop. This opens the door to all sorts of violence and irregularities. Policing would be impossible, travel would be difficult and trading too.

Whatever happens, the ruptures that run through the Thai society are larger than ever. The mistrust is so large I doubt people can live together peacefully anytime soon. I have also been shocked at the hateful and radical words which friends of mine (mostly middle-to-upper class Bangkokians) have been using. “Hate” is widely spread and is a common word for describing “the other side”. It’s all black and white.

The red shirts threaten the middle-to-upper class Bangkokian's lifestyle of superiority, nonchalance and arrogance. Whoever has been to Bangkok or lived there will know what is meant. Thailand is a class-based society and the top has done all it could to suppress the bottom. It is ironic then that the Reds have chosen to occupy the space next to Centralworld, the largest mall of BKK…

In a way then, none of what is happening is surprising. The price however will have to be paid by the commoner...and I fear THAT is not going to change, even after the current situation.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Thailand in Tatters

Thailand is in the news again, day in and day out. And as always in the last couple of years, it’s not for the good reasons. I moved to Bangkok post-coup and post-election so I saw Samak, the elected prime minister being chased away by the courts for cooking on TV and his successor, Somchai Wongsawat being chased away by the PAD yellow shirts and the courts essentially for being Thaksin’s brother-in-law.

I was in Bangkok when the airport was closed for over a week and suddenly, the streets were full of tourists and the shelves on the supermarket started to thin out slightly. I was also in Bangkok when the red shirts burnt tyres throughout the Bangkok old town and had their little stand-off with the military on Songkran last year.

Through all these times, whenever BBC started their news at the top of the hour with another “anti-government protesters in Bangkok…” snippet I felt a bit honoured to be so close to world-news but also increasingly uneasy that my adapted home, Bangkok and Thailand’s reputation as a whole had slowly been falling. Thailand continued to be a popular destination for travelling, a reputation that is hard to lose.

But now, I feel, things are slowly changing. What we have been seeing in the recent days (me from the distance in Australia) is a different ballgame. This time around, it’s serious. This is not about a few hundred or thousand people being paid by Thaksin to attend a rally anymore, this is about a much bigger issue.

To explain the issues that lie at the heart of all problems, I need to write about some basic issues of Thai history and identity. I take my information from some books and articles by academics, but most of all from my personal experience in Thailand.
Firstly, it needs to be said that Thailand is not alone in its struggle. Throughout Southeast Asia, indeed also Northeast Asia and other parts of the world, there has been civilian unrest during the time of democratisation, often to do with class, religion or ethnicity-based discrimination.

Basically, Thailand is still a feudal state. Very few own very much and the great majority own rather little. When the economy is going well and Thailand can export and gets a lot of incoming tourists, the great majority can also benefit, but the great beneficiaries are the very few rich people.

But the very few rich people do not just enjoy economic benefits, they also enjoy other privileges. The great majority of people and the small minority of people live totally different lives. For the great majority, a step up the ladder of wealth is unthinkable and vice versa too. You are born into a class and that’s it. Les jeux sont faits.

The Thai state however is not only rigid in terms of class but it is also an extremely nationalist and unitary state. Early in the 20th century, Thai nationalism was spurred by proclaiming the three pillars of religion, language and the monarchy as the basis of the Thai nation. Understanding these three pillars, and understanding certain limits of the pillars is at the base of understanding parts of the crisis Thailand is currently in.

The Thai nation, as is commonly taught in schools and shown in the National Museum has never existed as such. The Thai people are originally a mix of different tribes from Southwest and South China, Khmer, Malays and many others. As such, they not only look very differently, but they speak different languages, eat different foods and believe different things.

The Thai state however has for decades lulled everyone under the same tent and given everyone the same identity. It has done so quite successfully and Thailand today, is what social scientists would call a model of an “imagined community”. The great majority of things that hold Thailand together have been artificially created by the state. On top of that, myths are being created, to make everyone believe the common history. This results in people being made into someone they aren’t.

Another factor is education. Education in Thailand never teaches a student to be critical. Instead they are taught to believe what a person of authority tells them. This then applies to practically all situations in life. Responsibility is given away quietly and people who carry more respect (due to age, ethnicity or other social standing) are followed blindly. (in Thai: pu yai)

Even at Chulalongkorn University, the self-proclaimed “pillar of the nation” , the development of own thoughts and processes of reasoning are not taught and as a result of that, not even the brightest of the nation can question the status-quo.

Unless serious changes in the Thai nation occur, and unless Thai people, especially the so-called “elite” starts to learn to question societal norms, Thailand, in my opinion, cannot come to a peaceful and lasting solution.

I don't think however that Thaksin can be the answer. He is again a person of respect, to whom everyone can easily give his or her responsibility. He is an ersatz pu yai to whom people can look up to. Additionally, his motivations are far from clear and there is at least a little bit (if not a lot) of selfish thought being his bid to come back to Thailand.

The current situation in Thailand then, with the reds blocking the Rajaprasong intersection in the centre of Bangkok and having erected a bamboo-guarded camp at Lumphini park vis-à-vis Silom is not a good one. The reds want elections, and soon. But who will ensure that once a “red” candidate wins, the royalist PAD will not come out and block Bangkok again? After all, the reds would have secured an election by paralysing Bangkok. This would serve as precedence for years to come (as the airport blockade by PAD already did).

The military in the meantime is torn and cannot afford a bloodbath or a coup if it wants to remain a credible actor. The government finally cannot afford a blockade that will last much longer either and if elections are held, will probably lose. Were it to launch a violent attack on the demonstrators with the help of the military, it would be even more popular and the reds would regroup in the northeast and north, not only making a fair election impossible but seriously challenging the territorial unity and legitimacy of the Thai state.

The situation is very tense, but is further aggravated by the fact that Thais can be very emotional people, who can from one moment to another, lose all reasoning and engage in foolish acts of brinkmanship. It might only take one silly person throwing a stone or a grenade and more people die, triggering an uncontrollable chain reaction.

I am afraid to say but there is no face-saving solutions for everyone in sight. A pawn will be sacrificed and whether that is Abhisit and his government or dozens, or even hundreds of red shirts remains to be seen in a very near future.
Neither however is what should happen. Change starts in the minds of the people and what needs to happen, is more than just an election (Abhisit said this too, but I am not sure he means what I mean).

A matter of fact is that most Thais feel that they have no power and no say whatsoever in their lives. Deals are struck behind their backs, involving the police, politicians or even other actors in the political and partly outside the political field. The principles of the rule of law are simply not strong enough in Thailand. Matters of law are politicised and important matters of politics are secret.

Unless the institutions become more open, more democratically legitimised and honestly start working for the people, the population is going to continue to feel alienated by the state. And unless centralised Thailand will devolve some of its power to the regions, the rural population will continue to feel distant and powerless.

On the other side, the “elite” must realise that it cannot continue to differentiate themselves from the “commoners”, the people from the regions, farmers, dark-skinned people by treating them with contempt. The privileged must understand that Thailand will become a fairer society and part of that is recognising each and every citizen as an equal, whether poor, black, Muslim or rich, Chinese and white.

As much as I hope for a peaceful solution beneficial for all Thais, I fear that we are still very far from such a solution.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Australians are racist?

It seems like whether we are in Europe, North America or here in Australia, Asia has not just been knocking on our door, it has actually already come to our living room.

Asia, especially China has actually entered our daily lives here in Australia quite decisively, and a lot of the "locals" are not liking it. Recently, there have been some opportunities for the China-bashers to voice their dissent with China's role here in Australia.

Stern Hu, an Australian-Chinese working for an Australian mining company has been sentenced to 10 years in prison by the Chinese authorities for stealing commercial secrets and receiving bribes. Australians were outraged. A large Chinese oil tanker has just recently been stranded just near the Great Barrier Reef and is now slowly losing its oil. The Australians are outraged.

And this last example really goes to the heart of the Australian psyche. Chinese buyers are increasingly buying property here in Australia. Often, the properties concerned are very up-market and perhaps just used by the buyer's children, studying or going to high school in Australia.

In Australia, more than perhaps in any other country of the world, the land and your property defines you and your life. As a young professional, you are taught to aim to own your own house as soon as you can. Currently, this is getting harder and harder as the housing supply is not catching up with the demand. This means, prices are going up!

That is good for the ones who own, but not so good for the ones who aspire to own. Young families and singles are forced to move to the outer suburbs, where cheaper patches can be had. It is of course very easy to blame immigration for this "crowding out" of low income earners...

About 100 years ago, the picture was much different. Chinese workers, often well-educated, literate and humble people were discriminated and humiliated. They were simply mistreated for the colour of their skin. If a white woman would do the unthinkable and fall in love with a Chinese man, the couple would be banished, curses would be thrown and them and sometimes even eggs too.

Then came the White Australia Policy. This was the ultimate racist policy, where Asiatics were not allowed into Australia anymore.

Now however, the tables are turning. So much so, that the Chinese are now starting to be hated for being rich. I am reading that Chinese buyers are not very welcome at auctions. I wonder if Australians would show the same reaction if a British or an American person would snap the property away before their eyes...?

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

(Almost) no Asia in Melbourne Suburbs

Last weekend I was lucky to be able to combine a business trip to Melbourne with a personal visit to my aunt.

The business trip was about an academic network, of which I am the secretary. Therefore I needed to know what is going on, what are the priorities of the network and what issues I needed to push. The second part was far more interesting and included a visit to the National Gallery of Victoria, where our Embassy (represented by me) is trying to set up a joint photo exhibition about our country's darker sides. Exciting!

Luckily, my auntie also lives in Melbourne. Although, strictly speaking she lives right on the northern edges of the city, where the suburban sprawl gives way to small hills, valleys, sprinkled farms and ever-sprawling housing developments.

I stayed with my lovely aunt for 3 days, during which we visited malls, visited more malls, visited a museum and the Dandenong Hills on the East of Melbourne, and some more malls.

Perhaps I had been living in a too urban place (Chatswood) in Sydney, where a pan-Asian population transplant life onto the streets and into Asian shops. Now, living in Canberra in the diplomatic area, I do not get to see much urban life at all. In fact, hardly any life at all. Leafy streets, Australian Federal Police Cars (I live near the US and Israeli Embassy) and quiet dark houses is all I see here in Canberra.

The suburban life in Melbourne was a bit of a shock for me then. When you want to go out and do something indoors you either take the 60 minute train ride to the city or you take a 10 minute car ride to the mall. Actually, there were about 4 or so malls right near where my aunty lives.

On Saturday afternoon, we went to a supposedly upmarket mall in the suburb of Doncaster. This was white young upper-middle class centre. There were hundreds of young suburban families with kids munching on chips and McDonalds burgers. But not only that, Thai, Chinese and also Japanese food was very popular with these "average Australians".

I was disgusted by the food because I could see how tasteless and dull the Thai food was and how old and cheap the Sushi looked. This is the totally watered down version of Asia that the average Australian gets in his every day life.

These observations from a flat endless suburbs with endless straight streets with similar-looking houses, interrupted only by huge multi-storey malls only confirmed my previous thoughts. Namely that the Asianisation of Australia is perhaps only applicable to very limited areas.

The suburban north of Melbourne however is clearly white Australian middle-class territory. This also is a strong indication that a majority of Australians perhaps think of Asia as little more than a few Sushi rolls, Pad Thai and Chinese Noodles. In these massive suburban areas Australia not only resembles but actually looks exactly like America, only with different brands of cars, which run on the opposite sides of the street.

These observations however are by no means representative of Melbourne. Melbourne also has its patches of Asian community and traditions. It has a large Vietnamese community and a tradition of Chinese residents dating back to two centuries ago, when Chinese gold diggers flocked to Melbourne and the surrounding cities of Victoria.

I hope I can have another visit to Melbourne reasonably soon so I can document this city's Asianisation a bit more. In the meantime however, the stale and boring taste of suburbia is still numbing my senses...

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Australia and Indonesia. Two very different neighbours? (part 3)

First of all, Indonesia has come a long way. Just a few years ago (until 1998), it was trundling along under the heavy hand of Soeharto. Dictatorships don't just neglect people’s basic rights, but they also establish a tightly knit elite, which in turn entrench a culture of cronyism and nepotism, corruption and then eventually social unrest.
Besides the numerous internal problems, dictatorships tend to also give the country a very bad reputation. It will be perceived as backward, perhaps violent and dangerous.

Indonesia used to be seen as exactly this. It was seen as a dangerous country, on the verge of disintegrating. Indonesia made itself no favour by violently acting against separatism, especially in Timor.
This is the political side, but perhaps far more important is the personal side. Indonesia is still seen as a somewhat savage place, where Australians sometimes get mugged, catch diseases and even get killed.
But the strongest images, which are engrained in almost all Australian people’s minds are firstly, images of fellow country people locked up and eventually killed for the use of minor drugs and secondly, boats full of poor refugees being intercepted at sea or even arriving on Australian shores from Indonesia.

The issue of the boat people is dominating in Australia’s relations with Indonesia, and that by itself is an absolutely overblown issue, which is also hardly discussed on the Indonesian side. Interestingly, most of the boat people are in fact legitimate refugees, mostly from Sri Lanka, which eventually get residence in Australia. This is exactly what a country like Australia should do. We are a rich and open country and we should be welcoming to refugees, whose homes have been destroyed.

Indonesia has recently caught a lot of spotlight as the star of Southeast Asia in terms of democratic reform and economic growth. The country is now a vibrant democracy with a burgeoning civil society. Even though still poor, many people are lifted from poverty and become part of a growing middle class.

Because Australia has been busy with China, America (as always), Japan and itself, only few people have noticed the successes in Indonesia. Typically, Australia is trading far more with New Zealand, a country of 4 million with a far smaller economy than Indonesia, than with the 220 million archipelago to the north.

This doesn't just tell us an economic story, it also tells us a story of identity. The reason is relatively simple. Australia feels much more at ease dealing, trading and working together with New Zealanders. Hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders have moved to Australia and vice versa too. They speak the same language (nearly) and have a similar past – and also present.
Indonesians on the other hand are perceived as very different. I am actually not even sure if the people as such have a bad reputation, I moreover think they have NO reputation. The knowledge and interest of Australia in Indonesia is very limited. The official Australia, even though always ready to emphasise its importance, sees Indonesia through a lense of problems: people smuggling, terrorism, religious extremism, thereby hugely patronizing its neighbour.

Indonesia in the meantime now wants to be recognized as an equal partner, and recently, the Australia media have taken up this point, with some even arguing that Australia may even become the weaker link.

Lets see if Australia can start to tackle the ghosts of the past and get used to its new role, not as THE leader of the region but as one of two leaders.

Australia and Indonesia. Two very different neighbours? (part 2)

Australia, having a much larger landmass than Indonesia, actually is home to much fewer people. Roughly 22 million live in Australia, compared with an enormous sum of over 230 million in Indonesia.

Australia’s history is clearly defined by its primarily British heritage and colonization. For decades, it was basically a piece of Britain somewhere in the South Pacific. Its identity is shaped by the notion of “distance”. Distance from its “motherland” but also distance between places within the country. People who moved to Australia (including some of my ancestors) were pioneers, people who were seeking for a refuge, far away from their home, but still among people who look, speak and are alike.

In a way, they lived far, far away from the worries of the world, and Australia was the richest country of the world for some time. Then came the wars. On the one hand, Australia asserted its own identity, detached from the motherland. On the other hand though, the wars firmly put Australia’s alignment where it is now: very closely attached to America.

The wars and the ensuing decades didn't just entrench Australia’s alignment with America and still to a certain degree with Europe (and later during the Cold War also with Japan) but also arose fears of invasion from the north.
My grandma, when she was a young girl in Perth still remembers the sirens going off in anticipation of Japanese air attacks in World War 2. People were scared of the masses of Asians to the north. First they were scared of the Japanese, who colonized nearly all of Asia during WWII, but then later also China and Korea during the recent immigration waves, and of course also the giant and wobbly neighbour, Indonesia.

So, a certain fear of Asians is somewhat engrained in parts of Australia’s identity. Unforgotten is also the success of Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party, which campaigned under a single issue, immigration from Asia. She gave this fear a legitimate and political makeover, and was quite successful for a while with this strategy.

Unlike fears of Japan or China however, Australia’s fears of Indonesia don't necessarily stem from the fear of an aggressive push by a great amount of people to conquer Australia, but rather from the fear of disintegration and “Balkanisation” of Indonesia.
Such disintegration would ensue in chaos, insecurity would reign over the Archipelago and supposedly, millions of Indonesians would seek refuge in Australia. This is the ultimate fear and a definite the worst-case scenario for Australia.

These days, a push by the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, to increase the population of Australia from 22 million to 35 million in a few decades is met with stern criticism.
Warning voices like to remind other Australians that the country is already now hardly coping with infrastructure (traffic, housing), water supply is critical and the arable land areas are shrinking.

Thus, these conservative and defensive voices try to remind Australians of their old Asian fears, being run over by these millions of “yellow people”, with their old (white) Australia in tatters.
In reality, conservative white supremacists have already lost. Australia’s engagement with its northern neighbours, although not in full bloom yet, is blossoming. Increasing amounts of Asians are studying in Australia, and subsequently make Australia their home.
A lot of what has previously been written on this blog is a testimony to the changed face of (primarily urban) Australia.

But whereas Australia’s relations with Japan, China, Korea and also Singapore have not only seen growth in trade and investment but also an explosion in people-to-people links, relations with Indonesia have somewhat stagnated.
Why is that? Why are the official Australia, the business community, and the people at large so enthusiastic about Australia’s relations with China, Japan and Korea but not necessarily with Indonesia?