Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

We Interrupt This Program….

I had no intention of writing about the political situation in Bangkok. I had nothing to add to what I had written last year and was deeply engrossed in creating a retreat space for myself in which to contemplate my fifty-second birthday and reassess my ongoing apocalyptic perspective of the future, further informed as it was by my utter dread that the oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico had no means of being stopped.

The day before my birthday I was immersed in these thoughts, in a tiny used bookstore on the coast, when I asked myself this question "Does this future mean the end of dreams?"

And up surfaced a little revelation that went something like this. If the future is filled with environmental disasters, diminishing resources and financial mayhem, that will indeed limit certain soon-to-be obsolete dreams, by the same token the present that I am now living is a pre-disaster time of abundance filled with potential. How liberating. What would people do differently if they knew that?

I then promptly set out to build a project that would embody my apocalyptic perspective in a kind of performance art exhibit that I would report on in my next essay. Then along comes a political apocalypse that leaves the city of my childhood burning and a whole sector of my social network in emotional upheaval all over my Facebook page. I could not ignore it. I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning trying to make sense of all the commentary and imagery as it was uploaded. I was even able to "chat" with a close friend in real time, as I commented on her photos, which she happened to be uploading just at that moment.

Facebook As Single Serving News Portal

My Thai contacts were using Facebook to express their concerns for each other's safety, their horror, their rage and finally their eloquence when those who turned to writing their feelings and analysis did so in English, allowing me to pick up the thread of information they were sharing among themselves and that the Western newsmedia had missed.

And this was that the Red Shirt protestors were not peaceful, the city was under siege. This was not a question of democracy; democracy had not gone missing despite the coup that ousted Thaksin, the former Prime Minister, a demagogue who happened to be democratically elected—twice. (Hate when that happens.)

It was commonly understood among Thais in Bangkok, that the now exiled Thaksin was funding these protests, coaching their disruptive actions in hopes of regaining power. He could be seen on youtube speaking to his followers with affectionate honorifics reserved for family, assuring them that he would be with them in spirit as they rode into Bangkok. He also gave interviews on CNN in English, sweetly proclaiming that he was an honest man and denying that he was a red shirt leader. I was enraged listening to him and his lies.

I still must be, at my core, a Thai, because I felt so viscerally that there was something terribly wrong with these Red Shirts. Once I saw their tactics unfold in their demonstration at the ASEAN summit, last year, I understood how intensely rabid they were. They knew nothing about the democratic process of compromise and negotiation. It was all about getting in your face and disrupting things in an adolescent gang like manner, leaving a trail of destruction.

When Is A Protester A Terrorist?

I was now in the interesting position of defending my feelings about these protesters to my own history of street marching, slogan shouting, in-your-face activism that was my youth and my coming of age as a Gay rights advocate in America and later as a peace activist in anti-war marches.

My American friends would certainly question and did question my desire to rid Thailand of these demonstrators by the usual police state means. Unable to read Thai, all I could do was chalk my feelings up to my birthright as a member of the wealthy elite in Thailand, the very group that was, now, under siege in the tony shopping district of Bangkok two miles or so up the main drag from my family home.

In our globalized world of video driven news, all a dissenting group has to do, now, to get the sympathy of the West, is to write their own headlines in English on banners large enough for the TV cameras to see it and the celebrity journalists would take the bait. The banner at the Red Shirt encampment had two feet high letters that said "Welcome to Thailand; We Just Want Democracy" hanging over a stage rigged with a sound system.

The cadence of voices booming through microphones was not unlike the ones I had listened to coming from the main stage at my own protests at city hall in San Francisco. I have felt some of that same frustrated rage and have not forgotten that the political movement that I cut my teeth on, had, at one time, spent a night burning police cars in San Francisco and trashing city hall (following the Dan White verdict in the shooting of Harvey Milk). The footage reported on the TV, of police cars burning, remains with me, as does my Thai father's comment. "That will be the end of it for the Gays".

Who Were These People Anyway?

Meanwhile nothing would be reported in English of the rhetoric actually coming from the main stage in Bangkok; the hate filled, vile goading by protest leaders to their followers to fight for their cause. A sort of "fascist populism" as one university professor, familiar with Thai politics, put it. "Tea baggers" said my friend Martine, who had heard an interview on our non-mainstream, progressive radio. Yes, radical wingnuts similar in spirit to our own gun toting, anti-Gay, anti-immigrant, anti-Obama, Sarah Palin supporters.

Encamped together behind barricades of tires, barbed wire and bamboo poles, they were building on their energy, fueled by alcohol (reported my housekeeper) and a martyr's sense of purpose, egged on by provocateur leaders at the microphone. They were that classic bogeyman of democratic process—a mob. Their angry rallies uploaded on youtube, only it's all in Thai. So simply did this language barrier keep the West from the truth.

Our national security would not, for a moment have tolerated such protestors actually camping out on public plazas let alone assembling on the private property of shopping malls. I know this, not because I agree with this stringency, but because a protest I had a part in orchestrating (demanding electric cars) ran into a little skirmish with police when The Raging Grannies assembled at the Santana Row shopping mall. (The Grannies with their characteristic humorous presentation, charmed their way onto the 10 0'clock news.)

So why did the Thai police and military stay back so long? Probably it feared that a show of military force would make them look bad in light of past history suppressing the student democracy movement of the 70s or, more fresh in the minds of image saturated TV audiences, Myanamar and the spectacular show of Buddhist monks marching in protest there.

One Facebook contact reported that Thailand had been warned by Amnesty International and other NGO's that they were in danger of violating human rights should they try to send these protestors on their way. And yes, there was a presence of monks in the Thai demonstration too. But all is not what it looks like in this land of contradictions.

Confusing the matter for me, further, was the snarky responses of my peers in the besieged city (shared on Facebook by a childhood friend I hadn't talked to in 42 years). Amusing photoshopped posters showing the head of Thaksin on the body of a primitive warrior and his wife's head on the body of a lizard. We had such cartoons during our Bush years, but the lizard had a visceral sting of disrespect I reacted to as a Thai. One of the posted signs, simple enough for me to sound out with my first grade Thai, read "We're Bored Already". Hardly a mature analysis of the conflict plus many references to buffalos appeared to add the insult of classicism.

Democracy As Weapon of Mass Muddling

As the news evolved and the word "democracy", that sacred cow word of Western discourse, surfaced in every report from the Western news media, I saw that I was now a link in the chain of information from the front lines to my American friends and sometimes back again and even between sets of friends across Bangkok. All from the comfort of my own home 3,000 miles away. Such is the nature of this social-networking phenomena, that we can now report our own news to our tapestry of intersecting interest groups. How cool is that?

I felt I was witnessing the disillusionment and outrage of an emerging political consciousness on the part of the Thais, who were discovering, for the first time, that the news on CNN, the one that had before been taken as the gospel truth, was not in actuality any sort of truth at all but a biased storytelling looking for corresponding pictures. So outraged were my contacts at the one sided reporting by CNN that some were now speaking out, in English, outside of their own circle of friends and circulating a petition to CNN, demanding that reporter Dan Rivers, be replaced with someone who would actually bother to understand what was going on.

I once had a fellow Gay activist instruct me on how to handle a news interview. You prepare what message it is that you want to deliver and whatever question the reporter asks you, you deflect the question so that you can give your prepared statement. This has served me well through the years, from Gay rights to electric cars to global warming and peak oil. I am a walking, talking protest movement all by myself, the constant research to back up my views taking up most of my reading time. My immediate family has requested that I not get up on my soapbox quite so early in the morning to practice my outrage. At least not before proper coffee intake. Ironically, part of the reason I found my visits to Thailand so restful was that I was assured no one would ask my opinion about anything.

In the end, the Red Shirt leaders, as reported on youtube (and finally captioned in English after the fact), could be heard instructing their followers to kill soldiers and their leader, assuring them it was perfectly legal to do so because the present government was criminal. At large rallies pre-dating the Bangkok demonstration, their leaders instructed the demonstrators to each bring a liter of gasoline in glass bottles, urging them to burn the city down if they were met with force. And so they did even as their leaders were stepping down.

With Bangkok on fire, I felt a deep sadness and an underlying rage at what this mob had done, not only to my city, but to the goodwill of public protest, as well as the shredding of Thai custom that had upheld a sacrosanct respect for life and each other. Where once loyalty to king and country had insured that peace would prevail, this new political sensibility demanded a serious reassessment.

I was surprised to feel regret for shopping malls being destroyed—those palaces of fashion and consumerism, beautiful sterile refuges of imported designer goods—what a waste. I knew they would be rebuilt as quickly as possible now that they had become a symbol of a lifestyle in need of protection. The destroyed shopping mall, Central World, was Bangkok's largest, taking up a full block. Ironically it was first named the World Trade Center until 9/11. Now it could become Bangkok's own martyr building of terrorism.

A Singapore style, vigilant monitoring of public behavior will probably follow, while those in the rural areas who thought they found a voice with the Red Shirts, may well remain disenfranchised.

Between late nights spent looking at pictures of smoke filling the sky over Bangkok and Catherine following the oil spill on TV, it was strange to step out into our quiet, normal neighborhood, sunny now after a season of unprecedented rainstorms (likely caused by global warming of the oceans). And as I was helping my mother take a load of items to the Goodwill, she included her old cassette tape deck. I took it home and plugged my headset into it. Immediately, I felt an enormous sense of peace, listening to a music tape made by a friend in the 90s, for this box could not give me the latest news or Facebook update. How I longed for the peace of such isolation. But I could not turn away. It was better to see than not see even as it shredded my peace of mind. Our interconnectivity was here to stay and by the same token our ability to participate.

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