Friday, January 23, 2009

PROTECTING DISSENTERS AND ECCENTRICS

By: Philip J Cunningham
(published in the Bangkok Post 24/01/2009)

Anyone familiar with the dangers of nationalistic group-think - especially in Japan where a weakness to such thinking once led to a militant rampage across Asia that left 20 million dead on the mainland and eventually took Japan itself as victim - will appreciate that little acts of civil disobedience and the airing of contrary, disrespectful, even insolent, views are signs of a healthy system.

The power of the state is ever in danger of becoming overwrought and corrupted. As such, it needs a panoply of checks and balances, not just those provided by a neutral judiciary, not just the see-saw balance provided by the dynamics of a ruling party wrestling with the opposition, not just the clamour of self-interest from vested interest groups, but on the part of rugged individuals who buck the popular tide, and even outright eccentrics.

In any society it is the rare individual who chooses to sit down when everyone else stands up, or vice versa, because peer pressure is one of the most powerful and ubiquitous social control mechanisms known. Anyone with the temerity to march to their own drummer when everyone else is marching the other way, is apt to be seen as an obstruction to traffic, if not a menace to the glory of mass delusion.

Not all individuals who stake out unpopular positions are politically minded or intellectually savvy; some are gadflies who revel in being different, others seek to bring attention upon themselves, others yet may act for reasons unknowable not only to others but even to themselves.

But society is better off for its dissenters, cranks and eccentrics; most especially when calls for conformity of thinking reach high pitch.

Compassion for - or at least benign tolerance of - non-conformists helps fend off fascistic tendencies and makes society more fully human and humane.

Even when an act of civil disobedience is committed with every intent to challenge a taboo or make a pointedly politically incorrect statement, one does not have to agree with the implied statement to support the right of the individual to such idiosyncratic expression.

Looking through the long lens of history, lone dissenters and gadflies who challenge mainstream thinking have as much a role to play in keeping society balanced, stable and viable in the long run as upholders of the status quo, revered institutions and enforcers of the law.

Consider a headline from Japan this week: "Court rules refusal to rehire teacher who didn't stand for national anthem was illegal."

Mainichi Shimbun reports that a Tokyo teacher who refused to stand when the Kimigayo anthem was played at his school, was awarded over 2 million yen as compensation for the unfair punitive actions of the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education which refused his application for continued employment.

The Saruya Yuji case is a small victory, not so much for free expression, or more specifically in this case, the freedom not to stand - a thorny issue which was not technically addressed - but rather as a slap against the over-reaching hand of the city authorities eager to punish dissenters.

Hundreds of Tokyo teachers have been disciplined since 2003 when arch-nationalist Mayor Ishihara Shintaro made mandatory the previously controversial and sporadically observed flag and national anthem rituals in Tokyo schools. The school teachers who expressed themselves by refusing to stand - many close to retirement, with pensions and post-retirement options at stake - were punished in irregular and ad hoc ways by zealous city bureaucrats who acted in concert with Mayor Ishihara's uncompromising stance.

Deliberately refusing to comply with what might fairly be construed as obligatory state worship, the teachers who refused to stand made themselves stand out all the more.

Subject to the national glare, they clung to their convictions as stubborn individuals in the best sense of the word, hardy individualists in a society where following the crowd is the norm.

Nezu Kimiko, a junior high school teacher in Tokyo, told John Spiri in Japan Focus that her refusal to stand was an act of defiance against militarism, imperialism and authoritarian edicts everywhere.

The Rising Sun flag has a complex political pedigree; it adorned Japanese fighting vessels and kamikaze craft during the war and was planted in conquered territory to mark Japanese rule. Likewise, the mournful Kimigayo, which means "In Your Majesty's Reign," was thoroughly associated with Emperor Hirohito, though the simple lyrics are sufficiently ancient and ambiguous to construe other meanings. More to the point, both these national symbols survived World War Two intact, unlike the hated flags and anthems of Nazi Germany.

That might explain the palpable ambivalence of many Japanese citizens who, either out of reticence or hard-learned lessons of the lost war, are rather diffident about their flag.

Still, judicial opinion and public opinion continue to be split on the issue. Previous court challenges in June 2007 and February 2008, one of which ruled in favour of the Tokyo administration's position, are still under appeal.

For what it's worth, the liberal-minded Emperor Akihito himself has indirectly expressed sympathy for the dissenters, not that militant defenders of the Emperor system necessarily care what the real Emperor actually thinks or feels.

Beware of those who punish others in the name of the nation's most revered symbols, for they are often hewing to their own vindictive agendas.

The January 18, 2009 Tokyo court ruling is not the last word on the matter, but it shows the health of Japanese democracy; there remains ample room for dissent against mandatory rituals of allegiance, even regarding the potent and highly-revered symbols of nation and emperor.

Philip J Cunningham is a free-lance writer and political commentator.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

ONE NIGHT AT SIAM'S GROUND ZERO


PULSE OF THE NATION

One night at ground zero: Sanam Luang

By: PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

Published in the Bangkok Post, 14/01/2009 at 12:00 AM




I had a vision of the future of Thailand the other night at Sanam Luang, and though the picture wasn't a pretty one, it gives cause for both hope and despair.

Sanam Luang, clockwise, from top: This public ground is a venue for all sorts of activities, from royal ceremonies to political demonstrations; a university student feeds pigeons; homeless people spend the night amid the cold weather; fortune-tellers also offer their services in the park.

Ever since the world economy was sent into a tailspin by the collapse of Lehman Brothers and Wall Street's Black September, the spectre of massive unemployment and economic depression has haunted the world from Iceland and Poland to America and Russia; no major economy is likely to be spared, not even manufacturing heavyweights China and Japan, certainly not tourism and export-dependent Thailand.

Sanam Luang, as the ground zero for revolutionary upsurge and reactionary crackdown, has seen its share of tragedy and transformation, from the rise and fall of political fortunes and from free speech and peaceful demonstrations to blood-curdling violence.

Like Beijing's Tiananmen Square, it is an open place where people can gather, surrounded by architectural icons of state power and memorials to populist uprising.

Like the Mall in Washington DC, the semi-enclosed space is an uplifting tourist photo opportunity spot by day, while it becomes a rather more sordid and spooky site at night.

But Bangkok's traditional central plaza is both more exotic and down-to-earth than its heavyweight counterparts overseas, its rounded curves more on a human scale, its scrawny lawns and stained footpaths more alive with people round the clock.

Over the years, it has seen petty markets ebb and flow, from the glory day of fruit stalls and used book stalls to the current state as a modest market for used goods that doesn't really come alive till after sunset.

Midnight merchants man the sidewalks, paying fees of 5 or 10 baht a day to unofficial protectors, swelling the sidewalks, selling inexpensive food and recycled goods.

In recent months they have seen their ranks swell, joined by newly arrived homeless men and women who sit huddled around small fires or wrapped up in blankets to fend off the unusually cool seasonal winds.

The midnight market might be shabby and dark but not without warm smiles and occasional laughter. Life, conducted out in the open, for everyone to see, is life stripped free of fashion and narrow pretences of social propriety.

Existence is focused on the here and now, making enough to eat another day, getting through another night, an existence reduced to bare necessities - food, drink, a modicum of protection from the elements, and what safety and comfort can be found in the company of friends and relatives.

The spectre of poverty enveloping the nation is frightening enough, especially to those too young or too rich to know the pain of loss, but everyone can learn from the example of people who have already been hit by calamity, everyone has something to learn from the resourcefulness of those already poor.

Their example, easily neglected in boom times, teaches the important lesson that life goes on, with or without fancy cars, clothes and shopping malls; life goes on, with or without brand names and designer goods and canned entertainment.

In the simpler, harder life long known to those eking out a living in city slums or a dry patch of land in a rural province, there may even be an upside unknown to those made unhappy by excessive consumption and alienation: the possibility of shared grief and joy, of community and fellowship.

When times were good, Bangkok's poor and downtrodden were the ultimate "others", their human needs somehow less pressing, their poverty a problem apart from our lives.

When times get bad, which most indicators suggest to be the trend, the callous social distinctions between the poor and the middle-class begin to collapse. Increasingly, we are them and they are us.

Only the rich are different - entrenched, cushioned and cocooned by the generational accumulation of wealth and an inherited ruthlessness that permits them to think they are somehow entitled to much, much more than their share.

The economic downturn has only just begun; more unemployment, broken contracts and broken dreams are to be expected. Those people who are poor already know a few things about what the rest of us will be learning with time.

Life is tough, lived one day at a time. Poverty is ugly, but the wit and persistence of those with nothing left to lose has its lessons for all of us; life lived on the streets is not without moments of inspiration and beauty.

As money grows scarce and incomes shrink, homes and cars are abandoned, so too will the range and radius of "normal" activities be reduced.

Jetting off on vacation, staying at fancy spas and partying at five-star hotels will fade, big luxury malls are bound to go bankrupt, even the automobile-centric lifestyle, with its waste of oil and ruination of the air itself will come to be questioned.

One reason why an abysmally weak tourist season looked okay on the surface over the New Year's holiday was a sudden surge in travelling closer to home. Neighbourhood hotels saw increased bookings even as luxury giants grew as empty as echo chambers. Instead of travelling abroad, Thais went to visit relatives or domestic resorts in the mountains and by the sea.

Of course, if Thais are thinking that way, it should not be surprising that Europeans and Americans and Japanese are thinking in similar terms - staying close to home to tide themselves through tough times - and if so, then the tourism boom is over.

Instead of looking forward to tourist arrivals increasing each year by a million, it may be a million fewer each year for several years to come.

Political disturbances and gnawing uncertainty indeed may reduce the attractiveness of Thailand on a month-by-month basis, but bigger downshift factors are at play, factors beyond the control or ken of any political actor.

Sanam Luang has a pointed political history and rumours have it that it will soon be flooded with armies of the poor of another sort: mobs for hire, idle and angry youths, dispossessed workers. Whether their shirts be red, yellow, purple or green, the fraying of Thailand's legendary civility, the gullibility in following false prophets and the readiness to put lives on the line, is underwritten by frustrations of increasingly impoverished and besieged lives.

In good times, when cash is flush and there is fun to be had, getting people to demonstrate in the streets day and night, a provisional form of homelessness, would be a hard sell to all but the most desperate. The harsh life once endured only by hardy and wizened activists such as the Assembly of the Poor, is now becoming routine; increasingly, people from all walks of life willingly walk the line of civil disobedience.

Most of Thailand's leadership comes from a small political oligarchy of extremely well-to-do families with deeply vested interests.

Those leaders who are serious about healing the nation's ills should spend a night or two at Sanam Luang to better get the pulse of a nation both proud and fearful. The Thai social fabric is being torn asunder, brother and sister citizens have been abandoned like the detritus of a civilisation in decline. There is all the more reason to be anxious for the future if people can't learn from the hard lessons of the present and the recent past.

Philip J Cunningham is a free-lance writer and political commentator.