Thursday, 2 October 2008

Whose Planet Are You On?

Children, rice whiskey, buffaloes and more children

Fall in Klong San Saeb and you're a gonner!

Bangkok... traffic jams, glitter and Coke is it?

Most days I drive the seven kilometers into Sangkha and most days my Bangkok Post is waiting for me at the mini mart. I watch their body language as I go in, waiting for them to say ‘it’s not come yet’ which is a nice way of telling me it ain’t never going to. Then when I’m in luck I go and eat at Fat Ladies’ and read hungrily. We call her Fat Lady because she’s a real charmer, a delightful hostess… a lady indeed.

Back home I go upstairs to my balcony and devour every column inch of the news paper, eager to have contact with the wider world.

In this my rural world it’s all babies and buffaloes, green rice fields, soporific heat, old crones chewing betel nut, grumbles of distant thunder, motorbikes that refuse to start. It’s about as sleepy as it comes.

The newspaper reveals another world. Reading the headlines, I survey the turmoil in the wider world, perplexed. The American economy is imploding, the consequence of profligate lending on over-priced housing and billions spent on bloody warfare. And the bank CEOs have pocketed billions of corporate cash, undue reward for massive failure, a subtle yet legal corruption of the system. Yes, this really is a crisis and a half.

Meanwhile Thai politics simmer angrily as elected prime ministers continue to fall. Two years ago Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was removed by military coup and now Samak Sundaravej, his successor and admitted nominee has instead just been removed by the courts for violating the constitution. His heinous offence was to host two cooking programmes on TV for money, an ‘employment’ which amounted to a conflict of interest. On top of that his conviction for libel has also been confirmed on appeal and he has been sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. (26 September.) (When though was libel ever criminal?)

His party, the PPP that heads the ruling coalition is shortly to be disbanded by the courts because one of its senior members was disqualified for electoral wrongdoings. Almost everyone else is under investigation for corruption and it seems the courts are out to nail all those who were elected by the great unwashed from the countryside. Forty seven people including most of the former Thaksin cabinet and some in the new government have been accused of involvement in an illegal lottery and are pictured in court on the front page of the Bangkok Post of 27 September 2008. Many of them are also up in court on fraud charges connected with a scheme to supply free rubber saplings to poor farmers, so it’s a busy time for all concerned.

Corruption is never out of the papers but because of these curious prosecutions of elected representatives Thailand has improved a place or two in the international corruption ratings and this year is only the eightieth least corrupt country. (Bangkok Post, 27 September 2008.)

The Peoples’ Alliance for Democracy (PAD) whose key policy is hating Thaksin are still illegally occupying government house and the functions of government are being carried out by the PM and his new ministers in rooms at the old airport.

Campaigning to bring in the ‘New Politics’, the PAD had a cunning plan that as the farmers sell their votes and can’t be trusted with them, the voters should only appoint thirty percent of the legislature. Some commentators pointed out that this seems to be not ‘for’ but ‘against’ democracy, so ever cunning the PAD have now said that the other seventy percent should be ‘elected’ too but by narrow constituencies of professionals and others.

The ‘new politics’ of this so called ‘alliance for democracy’ are in reality the old politics of the ruling urban elite, and when they say they’re protesting on behalf of ‘the people’, methinks that really they want to disenfranchise them. Paradox is heaped on paradox.

With Samak gone, a new prime minister now had to be quickly pulled out of the hat which wasn’t easy. All three internal candidates for the job, Somchai, Sompong and Surapong all looked much the same to me with hardly a pong between them. To assuage the rampaging PAD protesters the aim was to present someone who didn’t look like a puppet of former premier Thaksin, still the grey eminence behind the coalition.

The PM they chose therefore was Somchai Wongsawat, a serious looking man who has been presented as being rather nice and who wouldn’t be half as rude to people as Samak was. But crucially would he be Thaksin’s man?

Of course he wouldn’t they said, though this looks a little thin… he happens to be married to Thaksin’s sister. And his brother-in-law’s been phoning from London to tell him who to put in the cabinet.

Thaksin’s reportedly been feeling pretty sorry for himself condemned to exile in Surrey and he’s short of cash too. He’s been ‘forced to sell Manchester City after having his assets frozen as a result of corruption and fraud charges at home.’ (24 September.)

He’ll have a little more spending money now though as it’s just been reported that the sale to interests in Abu Dhabi made him a clear profit of 50 million Pounds sterling which, on an investment of ‘significantly less than 80 Million’ not many months earlier isn't bad going. So I’m not weeping for him any more.

Newbie prime minister Somchai’s a quiet and dignified man and he’s now preparing the required statement of his government’s policies… though he might as well not bother as he’ll be bumped out of office quite soon.

In fact he wasn’t free to choose his ministers even with Thaksin’s help… they were partly thrust upon him by the various parties and factions in the coalition and have not been universally welcomed. As one commentator said, he’s appointed a brewer and a police captain in charge of major portfolios.

The new Minister for Education who has spent his career in telecommunications admitted he knew little of education but said he could ask his wife who’s a former teacher. ‘Many of my cousins work in the teaching field so I know their problems well,’ he told reporters. (27 September.)

The new Foreign Minister who's just off to the UN General Assembly in New York and will have to deal with Thailand’s chairmanship of a forthcoming ASEAN summit “said he felt ‘uneasy’ working at the ministry because he was still not accustomed to making official contact with foreign countries whose perceptions of Thailand are sometimes little known”. (27 September 2008.)

‘Despite the combination of political clowns and gangsters, which includes nominees and relatives of banned politicians from the defunct Thai Rak Thai party, the Somchai government is the main legitimate political force in Thailand,’ said a European diplomat. (26 September 2008.) How true that is, if not very diplomatic!

There’s also an election on for Governor of Bangkok. The Bangkok Post explains that there’s always lots of candidates because the city has a huge budget so there’s loads to be creamed off. A new governor therefore starts by cancelling all major projects and then puts them out for tender again.

One candidate’s campaign ran into problems though. Promoting a policy of cleaning up the canals and providing clean water, she was riding a ferry boat on Klong San Saeb, slipped and fell into the dirtiest water in the world. It’s hard to survive such an experience and the next day her campaign adviser didn’t. This time swimming in a canal to demonstrate how dirty the water was, he got into difficulties and tragically drowned while everyone stood around and called the police on their mobiles.

In other news… an official has said that Thai students lack a sense of nationalism and know very little about Thailand’s proud history. (26 September.) It is a ‘great failing of the education system’ that they know nothing of ‘historical figures’ such as barge steersman Norasingh. While steering a royal barge Norasingh hit a tree. ‘Although the king and his courtiers were unhurt, Norasingh insisted on being beheaded on the spot for putting the king’s life in danger. The king was at first reluctant, but finally, impressed by Norasingh’s sincerity he complied.’

Presumably applying such examples of selfless patriotism, ‘schools will boost activities to instill patriotism in students’, a central curriculum will be developed and students must pass an assessment of their ethics and nationalism.

Is it unpatriotic though to steal trolleys from the state of the art new airport?

The remains of 500 airport baggage trolleys have been found by police in a Bangkok scrapyard. After a tip-off they ‘staked-out’ the multi-storey car park at the new airport ‘and found two men driving around in a white pickup on the third floor with five trolleys in the back.’ (26 September.) When the airport was opened in September 2006 it had 9,000 trolleys but only 5,000 are still left. As usual it was partly an inside job and two employees have been arrested.

‘Policeman Worapong Thongpaiboon of the Suppression of Crimes Against Children, Juveniles and Women Division has advised women not to get carried away if their boyfriends have a video camera or a mobile phone with built-in camera,’ as the boyfriend or ex-boyfriend might post the pics on the internet. (22 September.) ‘I cannot stop couples having sex,’ he said. ‘I can only warn that by the time their nude photos are exposed on a public network, it’s already too late.’

Can you believe everything you read in the papers though? Sometimes in Thailand it's hard.

Yesterday I was at Fat Ladies’ eating khao pat ghai, totally engrossed, as the Bangkok Post told me how George Bush is presiding over the implosion of Wall Street and the end of civilization as we know it. All stirring stuff and I wasn’t thinking of much else, ignoring the hum of traffic and the voices around me.

Sitting at the next table were a hunky Thai bloke in shorts and tee shirt with thick, hairy legs and opposite him a typically trim and pretty girl with torrents of black hair and a delicate profile. I don’t think they were arguing as the loud mix of deep guffaws and fine, high tones was usually followed by cascades of laughter.

Their chatter was insistent and began to intrude on my concentration so I glanced up at them over the top of my newspaper. They had briefly fallen silent but as they began talking again I realized that it was the hunk whose voice was shrill and effeminate and the pretty girl’s was as low and husky as a wrestler’s.

In Thailand as in life, all is an illusion and we inhabit different worlds. There's the city and the rice fields, Thais and foreigners, male and female and it’s hard to have a foot in more than one.

Each world is different, though sometimes same, same… a mixed up muddle, a complex confusion. When small disasters strike the Thais all laugh. Unable to reconcile city with countryside, politics too is an ongoing tragedy and also too often a farce.

Meanwhile Fat Lady keeps stirring and frying and out in the fields there’s work to be done… fertilizer to throw on the rice, weeds to be grubbed out.

Older brother, Lek hasn’t sent the usual 500 baht from his factory work in Samut Prakan, the baby has to be taken to the doctor as he’s got a cold, the motorbike mended and it’s time to think up some new numbers for the lottery.

Far, far away the financial heavens may be falling in and they’re still protesting in Bangkok but here life in the village just goes on.

And I must close the computer and get my Bangkok Post.

Copyright Andrew Hicks Thai Girl – The Blog. Life in the fast lane!

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1 comment:

The TEFL Don said...

Hi Andrew. Well that was worth waiting for. We have our own version of the fat lady just down the lane. Oh the bliss of rural tranquility, pity the water pressures gone again!