Thai politicians sure know how to enjoy the finer things in life. I’ve not been hearing much news from Thailand lately, but what I do know is that the ousted Prime Minister Thaksin, supposedly facing some trials of corruption, has simply been enjoying the victory of the Manchester football club famously owned by him, while the man currently taking his seat – Samak Sundaravej, a celebrity chef with his own cooking show – has made a friendly visit to Singapore to compare the wet market prices of prawns and tomatoes between the two countries. Fortunately, I just got to enjoy some other juicy story from a different perspective in Thailand, thanks to a little screening at the Singapore Film Festival of an independent documentary film, The Truth Be Told: The Cases Against Supinya Klangnarong. It’s about this media rights activist with a salary of 14,000 baht who was sued by Shin Corporation for libel demanding 400 million baht in compensation from her, all because she made comments to the Thai Post newspaper in 2003 that the corporation then owned by Thaksin’s family had benefited from favourable policies by his government. It’s a film with a subject matter that certainly can interest any Singaporean with some political consciousness, for obvious reasons. Incidentally, just a couple of weeks ago there was a ‘private’ screening here of Singapore political films, organised by independent journalists and activists who are mostly not new to police investigations for their civil activities. Interesting to know that even in Thailand, makers of a film like this do not live completely without fear either.
While the filmmaker is naturally not able to immortalise the trials themselves on film, the documentary does manage to capture the tension of the three years’ legal battle by following the activist Supinya around in casual moments at home and so on, interviewing not just her but also her parents. The enemy she was fighting on the other hand was an invisible one, for she had never seen Thaksin in person and had no dealing with the Shin Corporation personally. It is a formidable battle for an ideal that her own parents and relatives as everyday people would not fully grasp; even she herself would feel torn between her ideal and the worries her parents suffer for her, a very Asian thing. She comes across as a lonely fighter in the film if not for the occasional scenes of protests and rallies conveying some sense of strength in numbers. Where is the face of justice to be found in all this? Perhaps only in the figure of Chinese folklore Justice Bao. There was a rally scene where a satire was staged in the form of Chinese opera with Justice Bao confronting a ‘shameless face’ who was propagating a ‘democracy of Shin, by Shin, for Shin’. Man, that is so entertaining, Singapore political rallies in comparison must look like a, well, black-out. Miraculously, Supinya eventually survived the ordeal as the criminal court threw out the criminal lawsuit while the civil lawsuit was also withdrawn eventually. There is however a dramatic twist – for this is apparently a country that can have not just judiciary powers separate from legislative and executive, but also military powers at play independently (not to mention the monarchy). Just as the documentary was already in the editing room, the September 2006 coup took place and the film had to evolve in a different direction. Perhaps the filmmaker should even do a sequel now, as the old powers are returning to haunt. Politics in Thailand seem to be going round and round. (But then I should qualify as a Singaporean: at least it does move.)
(Below is a revisit of an old post written at the time of the Bangkok coup)
Tanks were rolled out in the streets of Bangkok on 19th September 2006. That night, as an old general was appearing on television to make a solemn announcement, those old enough to remember already had an inkling of what was in store, for it’s to be the 4th time in 20 years that this familiar face is announcing a coup d’etat in Thailand. And this would now be the 18th coup in Thai history since 1932, when a bloodless coup replaced absolute monarchy with a parliamentary government and constitutional monarchy. But if the latest coup causes any alarm at all, the Thai people seem to be losing sleep for just a night or two. In no time at all, the land of a thousand smiles is back to its normal cheery self. The only difference is they are now busy smiling into the camera with a tank in the backdrop. Parents take photos of their children in front of a tank, ladies pose next to soldiers for pictures, all eager to take away their share of the historical moment. Roses presented to soldiers, yellow ribbons tied on tank guns, all are frozen in time as they become part of harmonious compositions in colour photos.
As the coup passed the midway point of the two-week window period, some people might be getting jittery or impatient, there were protests here and there. But not to worry, the army brought in female soldiers to entertain the public. For those who can’t get enough of women with guns like Chai-Lai Angels, here are now women dancing in camouflage. Perhaps that will be a new draw for tourists being scared away by the coup. Unfortunately, from the photo alone I cannot tell if they are playing dance tunes of the north-eastern variety, I imagine that may help win over some regional support from Thaksin’s voters. A bloodless coup like this seems surreally like a calm before a storm, the news media are just watching intently for temperature rising like El Nino, and whatever spark turning into real fire that may change the perspective suddenly. Will this coup truly be a positive one, different from those before it? So far, the most remarkable difference is that the coup has been led by the Buddhist country’s first ever Muslim to be commander-in-chief, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin. Quite an interesting cultural phenomenon he is, especially if you look elsewhere in Southeast Asia these few weeks – Malaysia and Singapore, the old sparring partners they are, have just been bickering over which ethnic group has been marginalised in which country.
Western media are condemning the coup as a sign of Thailand stepping back in time. Well the West have always suffered from this burden of being the only ones in the world who actually believe in ‘democracy’. Perhaps they would believe in democractic elections even when there is obviously no fair play in the process; in fact they seem to have such faith in democractic elections, they are known to tolerate when a batch of ballot boxes go missing, and even when they resort to military means to install regime change in another country, hey, it’s all in the name of democracy. The West also have a fixed idea of mankind’s common progress in history, that is equal to democracy, equal to capitalism, equal to secularisation, equal to globalisation. One day when all countries in the world look the same, then it will be the end of history for them, like God would finally take a look at it all and be pleased with what man has done for himself. But the oriental people have a different idea of history. History is simply one dynasty rising and falling or one power giving way to another, it’s a never-ending cycle like reincarnation, all you have to answer to as an individual is your karma, for you reap what you sow. And in the Thai world view, the King is at the centre of the world much like the Mount Meru in Buddhist belief, no matter what earth-shaking news there may be, his presence makes a reassuring factor. With his blessings, life just goes on. Two weeks after the coup, the Thai people have already forgotten about the tanks and have taken their cameras instead for an exciting picnic in the ‘golden land’ – the new Suvarnabhumi Airport. Meanwhile, more than 100 members of the Thai Ruk Thai have quit the party, but not a sign of their infidelity they say, it is rather to prevent the party from being banned, so it is all out of love for the party. Well the past is best forgotten now, nothing more to talk about. Anyway a friend working in a human rights organisation in Bangkok just told me, in times like this, the policy is to keep mum.
Anybody still remembers the last coup in 1991? Man, that’s like such a long time ago, MTV’s current femme fatale Tata Young was so young then, she was only 11 and only qualified for children’s singing contests, yet to launch her career as a teenage pop singer with a mushroom hairstyle, and certainly a far cry from her new ‘sexy, naughty, bitchy’ image singing English songs. But maybe things don’t change so much in Thailand within 15 years. OK, the Bangkok metro system is finally up after the long wait. But if I’m not wrong, bus fares have remained the same all this while (hard to imagine for people living in a place like Singapore with constant price hikes). What else? Bird Thongchai is still the number one superstar, while countless teenage idols have come and gone. Many a politician have also come and gone. So how will someone like Thaksin be judged 10 or 15 years from now? Let the historians be the judge. Perhaps he will best be remembered for the death toll of 2,200 in a war against drugs and 1,700 in a war against insurgency in southern Thailand. It may also depend on whether future leaders will have as much business acumen to run the country’s economy (and his own family’s enterprise too, in this case). But perhaps as the new interim prime minister says, Thailand will find its own form of happiness not measured by GDP – the popular benchmark all over the world? Or perhaps real life has to be some form of compromise, like the new Suvarnabhumi Airport (oh poor Thaksin, he didn’t manage to take off from the swamp that he was turning into a symbol of his glory). Designed by Chicago-based architect Helmut Jahn, it is cold and modern on the exterior with a shell of glass, steel and concrete, but when you get to the inside, it is a showcase of Thai art works, all there for a sense of identity.
From “The Art of Corruption” art exhibition held at the TPI Building in Bangkok from Dec 2007 to Jan 2008. Sutee Kunavichayanont’s installation Great Cheat Great Cheat: Children of “Srithanonchai” is a room filled with many typical Thai-style writing canvasses covered with words conveying corruption.