Sunday, March 2, 2014

SUTHEP: WHEN HARD TALK IS HEART TALK




(first published in the Bangkok Post, March 3, 2014)

By Philip J Cunningham


To borrow a formulation often used to describe democracy, a peaceful overthrow of a rotten regime is the worst possible option, except for all the others.

Could the method be any more inefficient? Is it not taking too much effort and heartache to achieve the rather modest stated goal of replacing a problematic prime minister with an interim council?

It’s costing millions in man-hours and millions in cash donations. Worst yet, black hands are combating the peaceful movement with grenade attacks and cold-blooded provocations.

Suthep is a good orator; good enough that listening to his final speech at the Pathumwan stage over the Blue Sky TV link has led me to think he may have turned the corner on the question of incendiary speech.

Things have been said that never should have been said, and every gaffe or poor choice of words is a setback to the movement. But the nature of human conversation, especially among intimates, is to say what is on one’s mind, not hew to the politically correct. 

When the zone of intimacy expands to include a crowd of one hundred thousand and is simultaneously broadcast on the Internet, a perception gap emerges. Who are these vulgar people speaking in ways that one is unaccustomed to hearing on national television?

Talking tough is an art and speaking to the crowd in vernacular is full of pitfalls; not everyone can pull it off.

However, watching Suthep evolve as an orator in recent months, observing him as he becomes a vehicle for something quasi-spiritual that transcends the muddy roots of his own political past, I think he has begun to master the medium.

The measured tone Suthep achieved in his Pathumwan “performance” demonstrates a skillful command of the language of the street. And when you are on the street, why not speak thus? Not just because the street has been the locus of his struggle and temporary home for his stoic followers but because there is wisdom in the linguistic back alleys and slangy by-ways of street talk.

When Suthep talks, he is, first and foremost, talking to followers who appreciate his humour, the avuncular twinkle in his eye, the ability to say the kind of things that many think, and perhaps confide with friends, but dare not enunciate out loud in public.

When engaged in a prolonged war of wills with a wealthy clan that has seized control of the reins of governance, to speak the language of diplomacy would be to play into the hands of one’s nemesis. 

Why deploy a fruity, politically correct term such as “Her Excellency the Prime Minister of Thailand Yingluck Shinawatra” when “Miss Flower” makes the same point, only better? It’s shorthand, but it’s immediately understandable and touches on the politically relevant issue of passive pretty that is absent in the more formal title.

Why lend credence to the off-putting scheming and deceptive diplomatic talk of Shinawatra in-law, “Dr. Surapong Tovichakchaikul, Caretaker Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs” when “Baldy” will suffice? 

Why engage in a linguistic kowtow to the opportunistic “Caretaker Labour Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung, the chief of the Centre for Maintaining Peace and Order”
when the term “Thaksin lackey” gets to the heart of the matter?

Think of it like a battle between tabloids and broadsheet.

Tabloids sell better than broadsheets in Thailand, so if you are a politician engaged in a life and death struggle on the streets, a struggle that requires keeping in tune with, and in touch with the masses of people engaged in peaceful rebellion, why not have a little fun while trying to tell it like it is?

Just as there is no room for hate speech there should be no limits on humor.

Think of it as a choice between using birth names and nicknames. It has been observed that Thais love using nicknames, and will almost always chose a short, snappy term over a polysyllabic one, especially among friends and comrades. 

The anti-Shinawatra forces are good demonstrators. Record-breaking marches, non-violent occupations and sit-ins have been carried off like clockwork. If they keep the discipline of peace, despite the onslaught from hidden hands of terror, they will transform Thailand for the better.

Mr. Suthep says pointblank that the violence comes from Thaksin’s side. I don’t know how he knows this, I don’t even know if he knows this, but if he is right, then dialogue is futile and failure of the popular movement is not an option.

Everyone agrees that Thailand needs some fine-tuning, and a shutdown followed by reset is one way to achieve that. An honorable interim government is another.

Whether or not street protest is the best way to get to where they want to go, the method has been its own best medicine. It harks back to reassuring Thai roots, the walkways and folkways of the village, rather than the mean, machine-dominated streets.

It’s a therapeutic return to the rhythms of communal life, so richly in evidence at sit-ins and demonstration stages, the playful occupations and spirited marches. 

It’s a celebration of a vanishing folk culture in which people still walk and talk together, a world that’s frugal but generous, where people share what they have, and lend a helping hand to strangers; it’s a celebration of shared meals in open air, with music and comic entertainment for all to hear, admission free.

It’s an affirmation of the best in Thai tradition, the hospitality shack in the dusty village where strangers may slake thirst, chat and relax. Living communally is a bulwark against the inroads of turbo-capitalism and acidic CEO style greed; it’s a rejection of the materialistic, atomized world in which the tycoon is king, the billionaire the bossman.

Yes, Square-pants, it’s all about you.

Move over, please. The Muan maha prachachon movement offers a cleaner, greener vision of Thailand, on the road to mending its ways.