Wednesday, December 1, 2010


by Philip J Cunningham

Wikileak's online dump of US State Department cables is interesting to peruse but not especially revelatory so far. From what documents have been made public to date, it looks like the messy work of diplomacy as usual. As veteran whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg pointed out on “Democracy Now”, the material comes from a database which has been given a security classification so low in the hierarchy of US intelligence briefings that he wouldn't even have bothered to look at it when he worked as a mid-level intelligence analyst, given the priority accorded to truly secretive and sensitive documents.

That’s not to say the data trove is irrelevant; it's the sort of raw material that makes diplomats cringe and historians intrigued. It's a random, grab-bag snapshot of official US thinking about friends and enemies, diplomatic challenges past and present. It has shed rather more humiliation than light, sort of like a bathroom stall being suddenly kicked open.

The unflattering material ranges from sordid to insightful, from Machiavellian finesse to blunt bullying, but it’s the methods of Hillary Clinton’s State Department, which call on diplomats to cull biometric data and engage in virtual stalking, that really raise eyebrows.

Much of the information is awkward but not at all secret, rather like transcripts of friends talking about friends behind their backs.A significant portion of the “statecraft” described in on-line posts certainly has an odor of hypocrisy and deception, but what foreign ministry could survive without a certain amount of double-speak?

In due time, the sheer volume of data to come may help to better determine as to whether the US government has so lost sight of its espoused ideals as to allow deception, petty thuggery and double standards to be the new norm.

The US State Department is quick to perceive skullduggery when dealing with others but it apparently cannot see the same in its own behavior.

The kind of diplomatic deal-making in which Beijing excels, for example, by agreeing to buy a billion dollars worth of XYZ in return for some political concession, at least has the virtue of drumming up business for Boeing and Airbus and extending the opportunity of air travel to ordinary Chinese.

What can be said about the US frittering away diplomatic goodwill and twisting arms to get allies like Belgium to accept token pariah prisoners who have been kept in legal limbo at Guantanamo, or to pressure Germany to hush up and halt legal proceedings against extraordinary renditions?

Is that the kind of wheeling and dealing the world’s so-called "beacon of democracy" engages in? If so, it’s not just petty but pathetic.

The supposed horror of the unveiled secrets doesn’t begin to compare to the public and documented horrors of aerial bombing, the near-daily use of which has left America’s reputation tarnished and tattered in a way no piece of paper could hope to achieve.

What the data dump offers is a compelling view of the world as seen from Foggy Bottom, the State Department's home base in Washington. It's a Manichean view that reduces the planet earth to a giant game board of friends and enemies, informants and subjects.

Historians know well that America has never been half as idealistic as it likes to see itself; it takes a certain amount of over-arching ego and sustained brutality to seize and secure a continental land mass, however sparsely populated it might have been when the great American experiment got started.

But America was, and still is, in a much-diminished sense, a beacon for immigrants fleeing oppression or simply seeking economic opportunity. The spirit invoked by the Statue of Liberty, embracing the poor and huddled masses, still shines brighter than all the lights in New York City, but somewhere during the transition from an ordinary nation to an over-extended military power, America lost touch with its better angels and set itself on the road to being the new Rome.

In doing so, the US lost what high moral ground it might have possessed after liberating Europe from Nazism and got stuck in a series of murky quagmires that have lead to the slippery slope it treads today.

There’s a temptation to date the fork in the road to the contested election of 2000 that put George W. Bush in the White House, though the roots of imperial rot go way back, back to bombs over Belgrade, bombs over Hanoi, bombs over Pyongyang and of course, back to the fount of US military immorality, bombs over Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

The sudden unexpected airing of cables showing the inner-workings of the US State Department may one day be seen as a moment in Uncle Sam’s imperial history akin to the denouement in the Hollywood classic, "The Wizard of Oz" in which little dog Toto pulls back the curtain on the control room, revealing that the Wizard is not only less omniscient and powerful than was previously believed, but is something of a sham.

(as published in the Bangkok Post)

(illustrations from Wizard of Oz Pictures and Spiegel Online)

Friday, November 5, 2010



China, Japan, Russia and America are vying to assert influence over a handful of disputed isles and islets lying off East Asian shores.

At first glance, the recent China-Japan spat concerning a boat collision followed by a Russia-Japan spat concerning a presidential visit to a remote outpost, seem like much ado about nothing; but they follow in the wake of a smouldering US-Japan conflict over the disposition of US forces in Okinawa.

Disputed islets may appear to be mere points on the map; but depending on which points you lay claim to and how you connect the dots, a nation's outline shrinks or swells far beyond its shores, its periphery defined by vanguard islets that extend territorial waters far out to sea.

The disputed islets are a cacophonous crossroads in the cross-hairs of powerful regional actors. Because the islets have changed hands and flipped political polarity more than once in the past, every claimant has at least a half-convincing story to tell.

The islets and islands in the news are not merely geographic markers staking out bold territorial claims in three dimensions; they are also historical markers staking out the fourth dimension: time.

It's hard to discuss any of the fiercely disputed islets that were once part of Imperial Japan without bringing back divisive memories of a war that took tens of millions of lives.

That places like the Senkaku/Diaoyu turn out to be adjacent to massive undersea oil and mineral deposits; that the Southern Kuriles/Northern Territories are fertile fishing grounds, are both cause enough for tension, but resources are not the root of the problem.

If it were just a matter of figuring out how to best tap natural resources and fishing rights, economic disputes could be settled through negotiation and win-win joint exploitation of underwater riches. But the reality is far more complicated than that. Not only did the Okinawa impasse cause the Asia-leaning Hatoyama government to topple, but it has warped the administration of Naoto Kan, which is currently hamstrung by its provocative, pro-US Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara.

Okinawa, coveted to this day by the US for its commanding position in the West Pacific, could theoretically be a kind of Singapore, a free trade entrepot rather than a sequestered armed camp, were it not for US policy, and Tokyo's willingness toe the line.

The Southern Kuriles, recently visited by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, despite howls of protest from Japan, was not only once under Tokyo's control, but Etorofu islet was the launching point for Admiral Yamamoto's sneak attack on Pearl Harbour.

The protracted war that followed the audacious Dec 7, 1941 attack on Hawaii was, from start to finish, about the control of pinprick points on the map dotting the vast Pacific. Invoking the names of contested islets in the Pacific War -Guam, Wake Island, Midway Atoll, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and Okinawa- is more than a lesson in island geography; it's a reminder of sacrifice and mass suicides, deprivation and death. It's a mournful roll call of the fallen and the dead.

Okinawa was the scene of one of the bloodiest confrontations of World War Two, with battles killing in the many tens of thousands on both sides and one-fourth of the civilian population wiped out.

Memories of past loyalties and hatreds linger while disputed place names bring suppressed emotions to the fore, complicating any straightforward solution based on shared economic opportunity or common sense.

Disputed islets tell the story of the rise and fall of empires, of audacious aggression and shocking reversals of fortune, a series of historical traumas, some of which inconveniently get in the way of present-day claims.

The Japanese right-wing in particular seems to suffer from selective historical amnesia. The warrior wannabes glorify the martial spirit, but overreact to a bump from a Chinese fishing boat, forgetting their country brought untold death and devastation to millions of Chinese. They fume about the Russian occupation of a handful of islets near Hokkaido, but chose not to remember Japan's armed invasion and conquest of Asia.

In fact, Japan emerged remarkably intact despite being the aggressor in a lost war. Had the US not hastened the war's end with the brutal shock and awe of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, essentially freezing Russia out of participation in a joint invasion of the common enemy, Japan would have been divided in two, split down the middle as Germany was, with Tokyo a Berlin of sorts, straddling an uneasy DMZ between Soviet and US zones of influence.

As it turned out, America won the race to occupy Japan, leaving Korea, ever the hapless victim of geopolitics, to be divided instead.

Okinawa too, could easily have slipped from Japanese control, permanently, as a legitimate spoil of war. Although Washington "handed it back" to Tokyo in 1972, and arguably the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets along with it, it was not pre-ordained reversion but rather part of a Nixonian horse-trade involving US domestic politics and a textile tariff dispute.

These and other disputed islets, such as the Paracels and Spratleys, lie in a veritable ring of fire, prone not only to tectonic plate shifts and volcanic activity, but abrupt political eruptions as well.

All it takes is an incident, an accident or a controversial visit and suddenly some little islet on some remote seabed looms large, bursting into public view with pent-up fury, whipping up a storm of incendiary rhetoric and spasms of outraged nationalism. But it's not just hot air; feelings run deep because the stakes are truly high.

Tokyo, under prodding from the Pentagon, is making an awkward return to its former Cold War self, re-affirming its strategic ties with the US and the "free world" in opposition to Russia and China.

A new Cold War is one possible outcome, a hot war is not out of the question. Each of the contesting powers is guilty of the understandable but faulty desire to paint in as much of the map as possible the colour of its own flag, setting the stage for continued conflict.

Vying for control of the islets is not just about resources, it's a battle to reclaim history, to demarcate and delineate for one's children and children's children, national narratives about victims and victors, the wrong and the wronged, injustice and justice.

Given the enduring power of memory, remembrance and retributive narratives of just desserts, any future attempt to settle such geographic disputes must first take history into account.

(Bangkok Post, November 5, 2010)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


by Philip J Cunningham

It's not easy being a propaganda chief these days. What with all the new-fangled technology, and talk of democracy, the spectre of yesterday's suppressed news keeps coming back to haunt you.

You shred a story and throw it down the memory hole and it bounces back with a vengeance - a hundred stories where there was once just one.

Your job is to serve the party, and the secretary-general of the party most of all. All sorts of people, inside and outside the party resent your influence; some even challenge your right to exist.

When you do your job skilfully, nobody notices. When you screw up, it's there for all the world to see.

Take the case of Liu Xiaobo.

You were under the impression it was your job to make the story go away, a mission impossible in PR terms. So, instead, you make yourself look foolish. Failing to suppress the news of a dissident getting the Nobel Peace Prize, you double down and go into over-drive. You attack the poor, imprisoned convicted criminal Liu, of course, but also castigate the arrogant award-givers. Then you attack the small Western country that is home to the handful of old, white men sitting on the committee that made the "blasphemous" award decision. Then you attack the Western world in general.

As was frequently the case during the Mao years, a vilification campaign is as hurtful as it is absurd, but ultimately it makes a mockery of its advocates and legends of those sorry souls it targets.

Those not destroyed by vilification often come back stronger than ever, emerging as influential figures in their own right, thanks to the initial drop-kick that made their name a political football in the first place.

The Maoist vilification of Liu Shaoqi and Peng Dehuai drove both men to early graves, but it turned them into the stuff of legend. Getting whacked by an endless stream of words ultimately enhanced the reputation of two hard-core communist operatives who were, until the moment of their fall, loyal henchmen of the party and Chairman Mao.

Deng Xiaoping, who was dislodged from power three times, and each time duly vilified in the propaganda organs of the day, not only emerged with a "name" but with a body of sayings. Even off-the-cuff quotes such as: "It doesn't matter if it's a white cat or a black cat..." that were once bandied about as supposed proof of Deng's perfidy, have been memorialised and become part of the legend of the man.

Zhao Ziyang was cut from the same cloth as his tough communist colleagues at the pinnacle of state power until his fall from grace, after which he assumed a largely undeserved democratic halo.

The way the Beijing authorities have fumbled the Liu Xiaobo case is enough to ensure that this mild-mannered academic, who was but one of many comparable dissidents, will now stand head and shoulders against the rest, eclipsing rebel elders such as Wei Jingsheng, who endured even greater suffering with even greater equanimity and resolve.

The Nobel Prize committee chose to turn the spotlight on just one man in a collective cause, casting a disproportionately large shadow, but it is China's flummoxed media czars, who, by overplaying their hand, are assuring that Liu Xiaobo will be seen as larger than life.

The Chinese Department of Propaganda hasn't always been so clumsy, nor has it always been on the wrong side of history.

It has played a role in maintaining civility in public discourse, especially in advance of, and in the aftermath of, the poisonous reign of "free" speech known as the Cultural Revolution.

In the early 1960's, one of the main functions of the central propaganda apparatus was to keep the doddering old Mao, and his increasingly insane ideas, in check.

Mao, hungry for some vengeful political action, famously complained that he couldn't get a word in edgewise in Beijing, so he had proxies such as Yao Wenyuan and Zhang Chunqiao publish in Shanghai the first of a long series of veiled vilifications and outright ad hominem attacks that launched the Cultural Revolution.

A wave of suicides, vigilante roundups, public humiliations, torture and extrajudicial killings convulsed the nation for years to come, bringing the life of individuals, and the nation as a whole, to a virtual standstill. Millions died, hundreds of millions were traumatised.

It's enough to make one wish that Beijing's mayor Peng Zhen and the propaganda chiefs had constrained Mao's "right" to free speech, and thus stemmed the tide of invective, winning the day for the silent majority.

While human rights organisations understandably see censorship as a unique threat to them and theirs, an idealistic egotism causes them to miss the point inasmuch as it's really not about them. At least half of the function of the propaganda department is to keep inner-party conflict out of the news, to keep Politburo rivals and wannabes from each other's throats and to prevent insider coups and political campaigns from ripping the country apart at the seams.

In more recent times, the much-maligned department served a stabilising role when the reigns of power were reluctantly handed to Hu Jintao by the ambitious and not-quite-yet-ready-to-retire Jiang Zemin.

By controlling access to the public megaphone, the propaganda department effectively reined in yesterday's leaders, thus enabling the changing of the guard. It's China's equivalent to term limits in US politics.

Were Hu Jintao to completely dismantle the party's propaganda apparatus tomorrow, we would probably learn more about Hu than we know now, but it would likely prove a hollow victory for the free press. Were it not for the restraining hand of the propaganda department, Jiang Zemin and Li Peng would still be in the news, and in the game, using prestige media to advance their coteries and causes.

Other powerful actors, who, by virtue of wealth and position, would come to hog the limelight, making an easy transition to a freewheeling press system that would allow them to exercise power by buying newspapers, TV stations and advertising influence.

But if the opening of the floodgates were so unregulated as to lead to an "anything goes" neglect of media standards, then the vilification, mud-slinging and poisonous hate speech that hurt China so much in the past, would return with a vengeance.

The ensuing chaos would give foreign reporters and local scribes much to report on and write about, but little security or social stability in which to enjoy the fruits of free expression.

Philip J Cunningham is a freelance writer and political commentator.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


(first published in the Bangkok Post, September 25, 2010)

An aerial view of one of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands in the East China Sea, claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan.

by Philip J Cunningham

From the moment a Chinese fishing trawler and pair of Japanese coast guard boats came into contact at sea on Sept 8, 2010, the waters were instantly muddied, not so much by the minor maritime incident itself, but by bouts of mutual recrimination.

Confusion and concerns raised by the incident were ramped up and amplified by the weight of history, fears about the future, and cultural differences.

Sino-Japanese relations remain sensitive and subject to sudden downturns due to the gravity of historical horrors that continue to haunt the present.

Each side's self-righteous response serves to further irk and annoy the other, setting off a chain reaction in the direction of a meltdown, if not outright conflict.

Accidents happen, as do "accidents on purpose". But even when no provocation can be proven, a collision at sea plumbs deep emotions. A calm, rational handling of the matter is elusive because the slightest misstep or chauvinistic statement resonates with painful memories of the past.

Chinese artist's rendition of the sinking of the Kowshing by Captain Togo's Heihachiro's cruiser, the Naniwa

For example, Japanese naval luminary Togo Heihachiro became a "celebrity" in Japan in 1894, when he ordered his cruiser, the Naniwa, to fire upon, and sink, the Kowshing, a British-flagged transport ship chartered by China. The son of a samurai turned naval hero went on to humiliate the Russians at Port Arthur using a strategy of stoic stealth to defeat an over-confident and under-prepared enemy, which decades later inspired Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku to execute the1941 Pearl Harbour attack.

Admiral Togo was widely feted in his lifetime, not only in Japan but also in England and even in America, though he was understandably unpopular in China for having summarily dispatched a thousand Chinese young men to a watery grave.

Divergent cultural norms have a bearing on the disposition of such a case. Not following the rules _ in this case a demonstrable reluctance to surrender _ was a breach of order and propriety sufficient for the Japanese cruiser captain to perfunctorily blow a few big holes in the hull of the uncooperative craft and watch it drop beneath the waves.

One man's war hero, another man's war criminal. Arguably there was a method to Togo's mad lack of compassion, so much so that even the British, infuriated that a ship piloted by one of their own might be treated in such a fashion, reluctantly acknowledged that the Japanese naval man known as "Johnny Chinaman" during his studies in Britain, had scrupulously followed the rulebook the British themselves had written.

When Togo sank the Kowshing, there was no declaration of war between Japan and China, nor was the British-piloted transport ship in any position to attack. Togo, under instructions to intercept, destroyed the defenceless transport ship, not because it posed a palpable threat, but because it didn't follow orders.

Tasked with preventing the Chinese troops from reaching Korea, Togo followed orders with alacrity, offering a choice of sink or surrender, then bailing out of the water only the British captain and a handful of non-Chinese crew.

Japanese troops intent on taking control of Seoul subsequently overcame their woefully undermanned Chinese rivals, paving the way to the eventual takeover of the entire Korean peninsula and Manchuria.

The naval war that ensued ended with China ceding Taiwan and other territory to Japan. Over the next five decades, China and Japan descended gradually but inexorably into a protracted war that cost tens of millions of lives.

Seen from inside the norms of Japanese naval culture, Togo was not a cold-blooded killer, but a discriminating man, both patient and polite, obedient to authority and fanatic about decorum. Certain things simply had to be done a certain way _ hoisting signal flags, issuing formal salutes _ and he could see no two ways about it.

Togo's refusal to save the drowning Chinese was not viewed as a breach of naval etiquette, because the Chinese, growing mutinous, had proven themselves unwilling to follow the most basic rules as they even turned on the hired British captain, whom they suspected to be in collusion with the Japanese.

Protocol trumped emotion and the Japanese won, not just the one-sided battle to sink what was basically an unarmed ship, but the rather more complex trial in the court of Imperial British opinion and jurisprudence, which concluded that Togo had followed the letter of British-style law to a "T", a triumph of form over substance which left little regard for 1,000 human lives lost in the water.

The victims' lack of discipline, order and decorum presumably put them beyond the pale of naval compassion.

China's future strongman Mao Zedong was just a baby at the time, but he and future generations of patriots would find in the long sorry chain of such calamitous events the inspiration to restore China's pride with a vengeance.

The bumps and scratches of the Sept 8, 2010 Sino-Japanese boat collision incident are indeed trivial in comparison, but the subsequent arrest and detention by the book of the Chinese captain has inflamed the emotions of a Chinese public well-educated in the exploits of Imperial Japan and its predations against their homeland.

Once history is invoked, the wild card of public opinion has to be taken into account.

The United States, like England during the heyday of its imperial might, currently enjoys a strategic alliance with Japan.

Although there have been serious frictions in the US-Japan relationship as of late, due to onerous US military demands for operating space in and around Futenma in Okinawa, it is unlikely that the US will show much sympathy for Chinese sentiments about the contested waters around the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islets so long as Japan is an ally that remains largely observant of American-style military protocol.

As Greenpeace anti-whaling activists and other "emotional" opponents of contemporary Japanese maritime behaviour have learned to their detriment, common sense and compassion are not necessarily extended to those who fail to abide by protocol _ the law, as Japan sees it _ when encountering a Japanese vessel on the waters.

Anti-whaling activists have seen a catamaran craft rammed and capsized; the Japanese side claims it was an "accident"; while in 2008 the Lianhe, a Taiwanese fishing vessel, was struck and sunk by the Japanese Coast Guard patrol boat Koshiki, which managed to rescue the crew.

Similar near-clashes have been reported this month involving boats from Taiwan.

The potential wealth of the contested waters, rich in fish, with a seabed underneath that may well prove rich in oil and minerals, adds to the mounting tension.

Given the deep wounds of a past that saw Japan invade and wreak havoc on China, even the most minor of scrapes in contested waters is a critical event that must be managed with political care and cultural sensitivity.

Given the Japanese tendency to play it by its own rulebook and the Chinese penchant to play it out in public, each side predictably thwarts and infuriates the other.

If the two dominant powers of East Asia once again find themselves on a collision course, history suggests that things will get much worse before they get better _ and no one wins in the end.

Still, it's not too late for all claimants to the contested waters to step back, put aside seemingly intractable claims, and take the long view.

Instead of shedding blood over rocky islets, give back to nature the sea and the seabed until future generations can equitably sort out what belongs to whom.

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

Friday, August 20, 2010


(published in the Bangkok Post, August 21, 2010)

There is the story of a provincial politician, unique to his time and place but universal in resonance, who came to electoral prominence by rousing the poor and trampled-upon into a veritable political army.

He talked the provocative talk of the populist, if not the demagogue; one could even say he talked his way into power, but he made good on some of the promises. He recognised the latent power of the poor, though not always in good ways or with the best of intentions.

Neither handsome nor heroic, he was likeable in a corny, folksy way.

Despite his gift of gab, he was not a good listener, but he didn't drink and he worked hard and went to great lengths to get his name in the paper. From the start, he treated rural areas as his rear base and the media as a hand-maiden to personal ambition.

When he first announced his desire to lead, he was ridiculed and scorned by the established elite and their henchmen. When he vowed to deliver free health care and access to education for all, he caused panic among vested interests.

He had his lucky breaks, but was also supported by powerful establishment figures who did not see the bold maverick as a threat. He had a crack staff of assistants, including media minds, paid agents and security muscle.

He travelled the hinterland by train, bringing the drama of government to remote places where a face-to-face between leaders and the led was known primarily by its absence.

"Make 'em cry, make 'em laugh, make 'em hate you," his advisers urged, anything to keep him at the centre of public attention. He wanted fame and power badly, yet acknowledged it was something deep inside him that even he did not fully understand.

As his circle of power and influence spread, flames of populism were fanned. There were fiery speeches, huge gatherings in public places, torches being waved in the night.

He ran a modern, media-savvy campaign, and liked to have journalists in his pocket, not just to dominate the newspapers and airwaves but to conduct "research" on his political foes. He kept a black book on the vulnerabilities of others to keep them in line. Some could be bought simply with money, as in absolving a bank debt; others could be gradually entrapped in the web of their dreams, by exploiting their passion for ideals.

He could be generous, bestowing wealth, privilege and power on his loyal crew, and he could take it away at whim.

Posters bearing his likeness were everywhere, his witty slogans distributed widely. At rallies one could expect a carnival atmosphere with free food, giveaways and entertainment.

Established politicians were not amused. They saw him getting too big for his breeches, and in what was perhaps an unintended consequence of mobilising the masses to serve his never-ending campaign for himself, the "hicks" started getting too smart.

With power, came criticism. If he was only doing good, why was the media his first target, and why was he so afraid of the truth? The press not in his pocked found him hypocritical, for he was always making deals, deals with the very shady operators he claimed to be rallying against. He tried to explain that "good comes out of bad", revealing a willingness to "deal with the devil" if it helped him carry out his programme.

A few principled characters quit his entourage, or found themselves marginalised, while corrupt officials got a second lease on life. When threatened with censure, he was willing to drop to his knees, to plead and beg on behalf of "the people" who he claimed he wanted to serve. At other times he could be cold and brutal. He lacked a consistent ideology and just sort of made things up as he went along. His politics proved divisive, soon families were arguing and breaking up over conflicting perceptions; was he savior or dictator? His own family was not immune. His son was deeply conflicted due to unrealistic expectations, frequently finding solace in inebriation.

The judiciary was one last pocket of resistance to his rule. He could play the electoral process like a fiddle, controlling votes enough to deflect censure or impeachment, but didn't have an easy way out when he was found to have broken the law.

Soon "spontaneous" demonstrations, erupted. He gave the signal to "turn the yokels out" and break some heads. Overnight, the streets of the capital were filled with outraged supporters. He instructed them to remain in place, not leave or go home, even as tensions mounted. "Stay here till the fight is over, stay where you are."

He made his cause the people's cause in order to further his personal cause. In the end, he was brought down by his limitless ambitions. As a close associate wryly noted, "You're pretty good at talking... well, the words are still good, but you aren't, and I don't believe you ever were."

The above story is fiction. Any similarity to real persons or events is purely coincidental.

But it is superlative fiction. Robert Penn Warren won the Pulitzer Prize for his telling of the mythic tale, and the subsequent film, from which the above outline is sketched, won the Academy Award for Best Film in 1949.

Based on the corrupt politics in Louisiana and the American South over half a century ago, the story is infused with the idea that all actions have consequences and that the human will shapes destiny.

The Academy Award Best Picture All the King's Men is a classic that transcends the time and place of its origin, to inform and enlighten even today.

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

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


(from the Bangkok Post, Published: 29/06/2010)


Populism pits the "people" against the "elite" in order to foment change. Demagogues use half-truths, truisms and outright lies to make it happen.

For better or worse, populism has been on the upswing in Thailand in the last 10 years, roughly corresponding to the rise and fall of Thaksin Shinawatra's rule.

Although Thailand has seen populist behaviour before, most especially under the boot of Plaek Phibulsonggram who was a contemporary of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, and who was to some extent influenced by the rabid populism that transmuted into fascism at the time, it wasn't until Thaksin's arrival on the national stage that the Thai term prachaniyom was coined to replace the English-loan word for populism.

The good news for a Bangkok establishment fearful of red shirts taking to the streets again is that populist movements tend to fall apart rather quickly, typically due to the lack of sustainable infrastructure and hard-to-resolve internal contradictions, or, more simply, just by becoming unpopular.

Even populist leaders such as Thaksin who managed to scale the heights of power tend to fall, and fail, rather quickly, because taking over the top slot instantly converts them into a symbol of a new, unjust elite, an easy target for a fresh wave of resentment on the part of those who feel betrayed or excluded from the spoils of power.

The bad news for the establishment is this. Populism isn't conjured up out of thin air or pulled out of the ether. It is rooted to the earth, a reflection of real and perceived problems on the ground. It clings to pre-existing fault lines, makes claim to them, manipulates them, exacerbates and explodes them, in the hopes of triggering a seismic shift in power.

Once the cat is out of the bag, indeed even if the cat has run away, the underlying fault lines and rifts, are right there in the open for all to see. If such a social rift is neglected, it will produce new populists to replace the old ones.

Conditions on the ground, such as the vivid rich-poor gap in Thailand, which seemed in recent memory to be a tolerably exotic if not particularly likeable aspect of Thai society, and may indeed be no worse than other places where no protest is evident, now suddenly seems terribly unjust.

And it should, to the degree it is a reflection of an unpalatable truth, large or small, which many would prefer to ignore than countenance.

Fingering such fault lines is what populists do, and if that were the alpha and omega of populism, it would not be a precursor to fascism.

But then the demagogue comes marching in, the truth gets mangled, and the victims of injustice become unwitting enablers of a wily politician's fame and fortune.

As Henry Louis Mencken famously said, the demagogue preaches "doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots".

As such, the fortunes of demagogic politicians who seek to ride the wave of public indignation depend in large part on media reach, rhetorical persuasion and the ability to amplify complaints in a way that aggrandises the speaker and personifies the cause, until the two are seen as inseparable.

Populism would be less troubling if there was a way to lose the demagogue, but it is precisely the demagogue, who breathes fear and fire into the mix, using lies, half-truths and shrill identity politics, who sways sentiment and moves people to action.

Demagoguery is a project to rid reality of nuance, irony, complexity and even the truth, while casting things in high-contrast black and white. Populist leaders need the polarising, Manichaean divide to get traction, even if it means widening a fragile fissure or ruthlessly exploiting existing cracks in the social edifice. If they can't meet the people in person, they use the media, especially television, and nowadays the internet, while employing proxies and sycophants to do the up close and personal.

It is telling that so much UDD air-time and stage time at the Ratchaprasong red shirt rallies was frittered away ranting not about poverty, not about unemployment, not about health care or police abuse or minimum wage or slum conditions, but about a horrible, fanged, foaming, blood-thirsty death and destruction-obsessed psycho-killer subhuman monster who goes by the uppity name of Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Everyone's entitled to their opinion of the prime minister; I for one happen to find him intelligent, thoughtful, polite and almost mild-mannered to a fault, though I'd like to see him reach out more to the poor and dispossessed.

But say what you will about the PM's policies, his questionable actions to date and - perhaps more pertinently - a certain degree of ill-timed non-action, the man is no Dracula.

Populists, even when not under threat, are ever in search of enemies, the more dastardly, stark and cartoon-like the better. If they can't find the Dracula of their dreams, they paint fangs on political rivals.

At Ratchaprasong, the red shirts, in both word and deed, betrayed a desperate desire for a truly convincing enemy to whip up the degree of incendiary hatred necessary to provoke fighting in the streets that would in turn set the stage for a rescue from their very own personalised knight in shining armour. They daily portrayed their patron's rival as the devil incarnate, but failed to convince their own political base, let alone society at large.

Thai populism today does not paint a pretty picture of the legendary "land of smiles", let alone a believable and balanced one, because it conceals ruthless political ambition and thrives on manipulative lies and ill will.

But it cannot be dismissed out of hand, either. The yellow shirts used populist technique, not just vilifying their political foes, but initiating the divisive politics of shirt colour to create a destabilising we-them divide in the first place. While Sondhi Limthongkul and Chamlong Srimuang were not strictly populist in the sense that they chose to uphold the status quo and embrace the elite rather than challenge it, they nonetheless introduced a troubling kind of more-Thai-than-thou attitude which edged society closer to the slippery slope of loyalty tests and prosecution of "unThai" activities.

It was at red shirt-controlled Ratchaprasong this past May where a rather more earthy populism briefly blossomed, and subsequently withered, as the core leadership abandoned the crowd and the absent patron went shopping at a pricy boutique in Paris.

The message of red shirt propaganda, however badly twisted, smoke-screened and distorted, however opportunistically hitched to a desperate tycoon trying to regain fame and fortune, was not just hot air.

A bleak, borderline subversive vision of Thailand as a country split into two classes was shrewdly introduced, branded and marketed, court jester-style, on the red stage in which credible singers, emcees, comedians and political hacks all chimed in and tried to stay on message.

They can claim some success to the degree that a trumped up we-them divide deepened and spread around the country, but it wouldn't have taken wing if it did not contain at least a kernel of truth.

While material conditions in the countryside have generally improved, there truly is a stark divide between rich and poor that goes far beyond unequal bank accounts and extends to the social sphere, an endemic divide that offends democratic sensibilities.

If the red shirts have anything worthwhile to say, it is a truism that predates them and will outlast their demise.

There is injustice in the land and it needs urgent tending to.

Philip J Cunningham is a freelance writer and political commentator.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


This essay was first published in the Bangkok Post on May 24, 2010 as "The pain and sorrow of two cities in crisis"

September 11, 2001 might well have been the worst day ever in the history of New York, but it was pretty much just another day in Bangkok.

I was riding in a taxi from Soi Aree to Sukhumvit when I first got news that my hometown had been struck by some kind of shocking attack. The Thai driver, who had his radio on, was upset. Then he told me, in a kind and commiserating way, that a plane had hit New York's World Trade Center. I understood every word he said, but somehow it didn't add up. I tried to convince myself that I had misheard, so shocking was the news.

A short time later I was with a group of mostly American friends, watching TV in horror as the second tower came down. We found what scant comfort could be had at a time of a great human tragedy by obsessively searching for information on TV and online, commiserating quietly.

The next day I had to teach even though my mind was numb, still in mourning for my hometown, the news full of apocalyptic images. I took the skytrain from Soi Aree to Siam and walked to the faculty of communication arts at Chulalongkorn University. Before class, I heard some students chatting to one another in the hallway.

"Did you hear about the World Trade?"

"No. What happened?"

"A plane crashed into it."

"Taay leao! Right there in Ratchaprasong?"

"No, silly, World Trade Center in New York."

"Oh, you had me worried for a minute."

I said nothing, but the ignorance and apathy of the second speaker left me feeling sick. I went to the dark, air-conditioned faculty meeting room, where a group of students was gathered, watching TV. Finally I thought, someone who will understand. But they were watching a badminton match broadcast from Malaysia and were reluctant to change channels. Again, I felt a silent pain I couldn't express.

On my way back to my office, I saw a fellow ajarn in the hallway, choked up, with tears in his eyes. He said how sorry he was to hear the news from New York. He didn't say much, he didn't have to; he understood.

I felt reconnected with the human condition.

In the days that followed, I carried a sense of inner pain that wasn't easily translated. I was offended by what was and wasn't on Thai TV, at once not enough news, but too much sensationalism. But what really riled me was seeing a televised report of a hair styling contest in which one of the Thai contestants had her hair done up in a double beehive, representing two towers, complete with a toy plane crashing into one of them.

I stopped watching TV. But the newspapers by then were all reporting the callous words of then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who, when asked about the terror attacks on America, replied thus.

"Mai pen rai," said the prime minister, "rao pen klang." (We are neutral).

He said Thailand was neutral so it was no matter of concern.


Neutral between what two sides? Killing and being killed? Terrorists and victims of terror? What was there to be neutral about?

And even if Thailand didn't happen to be a close ally of the United States, wouldn't a word or two of sympathy be in order, just on humanitarian grounds?

Now Bangkok has been struck with a huge tragedy and in an odd parallel to 9/11, Bangkok's "World Trade Center", now renamed CentralWorld, has been hit so bad by arsonists it looks like the Pentagon after a jet crashed into it.

If my own feelings about New York, and my adopted home of Bangkok are any guide, it's not just a hole in a building, but a hole in the heart of the city. And the photo of a tattered Thai flag and wide-eyed modernist statue backed by the gutted building will no doubt become an icon of the shock and pain for many.

What has happened in Bangkok in recent weeks has created an open, gaping wound that will take years to repair.

For many Thais, foreign news coverage of domestic turmoil rubs salt in an open wound, especially when it is rife with error, lacks balance, makes sensational claims and tries to fit Thailand's tragedy into simplistic narrative frames in between frequent commercials. CNN, which seems to work on the assumption that anti-government forces are always right, even during riots (except in the US), gives undue airtime to overly made-up, puffy-haired announcers with fancy graphics tools who make ignorant comments about Thailand.

No better are the surprisingly insensitive comments about the torching of Bangkok made by famous academics, such as "All of this is justified", or "The farmers of Thailand have stood up!"

Just what farmers would that be in reference to?

Much of the academic comment to date reeks more of intramural red versus yellow intrigue akin to a heated sports match than a heartfelt concern for people on the ground.

As I came to understand after 9/11, even trivial comments hurt people when they are down.

There was a sense then, and now, of disbelief. If only it were a dream, or if one could turn back the hands of time, but you wake up each day and the hard truth is still there.

But time does heal, and facing the truth squarely does help. New Yorkers were distraught, at times riven with rage and riled up by callous comments made by cavalier commentators who chose to see 9/11 as just desserts or as someone else's problem.

US President Barack Obama has been prudently silent, despite the efforts of Thaksin's lawyer/PR flack who is angling to extract a trumped up "human rights" condemnation of Thailand at a time when the country that offered to come to Lincoln's help with a supply of elephants during the US Civil War requires the understanding of an old friend.

After 9/11, New Yorkers got back to their lives and eventually the tragedy was put into perspective and taken in stride.

Best of all, New Yorkers emerged from the political crisis as open and big-hearted, tolerant and as cosmopolitan as ever.

New Yorkers discovered that terror ceases to intimidate and divide when hatred and fear are let go of and people instead come to grips with the problem in a way that allows them to fortify their spirit while getting on with their lives.

At a time in the life of my country when I required quiet commiseration and understanding, many individuals in Thailand, including a taxi driver, my students and my colleagues at Chula, reached out with quiet understanding.

I wish to share the same sentiment with the good citizens of Bangkok and the provinces who have been hurt by recent events and are still reeling with shock, sadness and disbelief.

Philip J Cunningham is a freelance writer and political commentator

Sunday, May 23, 2010


by philip j cunningham

In retrospect, red shirt calls for free speech and unfettered television access were as deceptive as the big red banner behind their stage at Ratchaprasong, which proclaimed in English for all the world to see:


That unforgettable banner, background to a vitriolic karaoke show and some unforgettable hate-laden banter held in the middle of a barricaded intersection, points to an image problem that was never really resolved. Were the reds peaceful and democratic at heart, betrayed by a militant fringe, or was violence and intimidation part of the overall red program from the start?

Not entirely surprising for a movement that enjoyed funding and policy guidance from a media-savvy-Machiavellian-ex-prime minister in exile, the reds used modern communications and advertising technique to create a compelling but ultimately deceptive brand image.

Having a banner proclaim peace in English, while spewing out militant thoughts in Thai is just one example, a kind of niche marketing. Having your touts, front men and impresarios wearing shirts with subtle, if not subliminal, non-verbal messaging is another. Ditto for singing songs with harsh words and haunting, uplifting melodies, such as "nak su thuli din," which was the high point of a memorial service to the slain militant Seh Daeng. The mood was always shifting, almost dizzyingly so, and song selection could jump from bouncy paeans to Thaksin to time-honored ballads commemorating past democracy struggles in rapid succession.

The Mahatma Gandhi shirt worn by rebel leader Jatuporn Promphan raised a few eyebrows, but what about other days, and other leaders? There was radical chic (Che T-shirt) at a defiant moment but also mellow image mending on the day when UDD strategy switched to seeking foreign intervention (jacket with American flag) and so on. Some of the clothing choices were no doubt random, but there also appears to have been a coordinated, if at times contradictory, effort to control word and wardrobe for the select few allowed to face the camera’s eye.

Red shirt speakers at one point stopped to explain to their listeners that peaceful protests played better in the foreign press than violence, so the crowd was urged to remain peaceful, admirably enough. But by now who in the "core" could have failed to notice the militant boasts of Seh Daeng and the taciturn black-shirted guards guarding the perimeter?

If the rank and file protesters were fooled about the allegedly peaceful nature of the movement when violent thoughts were openly expressed on stage, (taunts ranged from suggesting the Prime Minister should be strung up to inviting the army to bring it on and fight to the death) it is because they weren't listening carefully or had started to tune out the high decibel announcements. And if the rank and file failed to observe the black-shirted guards who enjoyed freedom of movement on the perimeter of the red zone, it was in part because they didn't want to see, one eye open, the other eye closed.

A red shirt spokesman tellingly denied knowledge of who the black shirts were but indicated that the reds were appreciative of their support. While he later claimed that the red shirts at Ratchaprasong had no weapons but the bamboo used for defense, he then qualified it with a semi-truth, saying there were “no visible weapons.” The weapons only became visible towards the end, hidden along the periphery in places like Lumpini Park among other places.

Other reports, detailing the forceful confiscation of ID cards and rude behavior of roughneck guards, suggest the peaceful wing of the movement was somewhat less than appreciative, and rather more in awe of, if not afraid of, their mysterious protectors.

While there’s room to debate whether the rank and file reds, said to be mostly middle-aged women, were rural innocents, callously placed on the streets of Bangkok to dignify a basically indecent political campaign aimed at restoring Thaksin to his wealth and power, or willing participants in the same, the result was the same. They were a captive, if not captivated, audience for the stage show of a sham democracy movement crafted to bring a corrupt, lying autocrat back to power.

Cloaking the largely clandestine militant wing of an openly hateful and resentment-fueled movement under incessant bromides and platitudes about democracy, Gandhian non-violence and equality might have served to fool some observers. It also helped to reduce cognitive dissonance on the part of wavering supporters, who at times appeared as drugged out and lacking in individual agency as members of a malevolent cult, but it is surprising to see how many in the foreign media and halls of academe also fell for the same sleight of hand. But then again, there were academics who cheered for the Cultural Revolution, and even the Khmer Rouge, not to mention the legions of Stalinists in an earlier era.

Still, the prevalence of red shirt fever in the academy is disconcerting. What is it about audacious hate and violence hitched to the fortune of a billionaire that certain Doctors of Philosophy find so find attractive?

A detailed media analysis of foreign coverage is a topic for another day, but it is not too soon to make a few preliminary observations.

Most foreign reporters cannot read or speak Thai which meant that the often charming non-verbal aspects of the rally at Ratchaprasong got better coverage than the acidic vitriol that was spoken from the stage in rapid-fire Thai.

Not surprisingly, the TV coverage was generally more superficial and misleading than print coverage. Al Jazeera was much better than CNN however, while the New York Times and the American wire service AP proved wiser and more sober in their coverage than the more sensationalist reports from newspapers based in the UK and Australia.

Suffice to say, a handful of reporters, Thai and foreign, and a number of extraordinary photographers were on the front line covering the story in a truly heroic manner. They showed us the human side of pro-government and anti-government forces alike, unflinching when either side engaged in violence. Their hard-earned record, --a Japanese photographer and an Italian photographer tragically paid with their lives-- not only recorded history in the making but contribute to the exposure of hidden hands and deeper appreciation of the complexity of the conflict.

And then there were the bobbleheads on CNN in studios in Hong Kong and Atlanta who took greater care to get their make-up, hair-gel and informal banter in good order rather than the facts; a triumph of snazzy media graphics, studio lighting and precisely-timed commercial breaks over the raw truth, on touchy topics such as political bloodshed and monarchical intervention.

Even though banned from England and banned from talking to the press in France, it is not hard to hear the tin-eared Thaksin proclaiming his innocence very, very loudly, either in his own shrill voice or through the nasal voice of his newly hired Canadian publicist. That he can keep himself in the news every day is a deft accomplishment. He is at once famous and infamous, outrageous and repentant, and highly contradictory, but it doesn't really matter if everlasting fame is the goal. His aggressive media strategy deliberately muddies the waters, effectively making the media outlets who swallow his rough, off-the-cuff comments and smoothly crafted corporate PR releases hook, line and sinker an extension of his red media machine.

Still, it is troubling the way some print media who ought to know better uncritically absorbed and repeated, often without attribution, the paper storm of professionally crafted PR, op-eds and press releases released by hired flacks, Canadian lawyer/publicist Robert Amsterdam being a case in point.

Melbourne’s Herald Sun ran a piece called “Thaksin calls for both sides to step back from abyss,” on May 17, 2010, making use of ghost-written quotes provided by Amsterdam's office, all the more devious because unattributed.

“Red Shirts had good reason to protest” was published in The Australian on May 20, 2010, when Bangkok was still choked with smoke. The timing was awful, but at least it was attributed to Thaksin’s hired alter-ego Amsterdam.

Arrested red shirt leader Veera Musikapong, who indicated displeasure with the armed wing of the reds and was keen on negotiating until negotiations were reportedly nixed by Thaksin, was correct in saying that anger does not produce democracy. Ditto for propaganda, advertising and crafty press releases disseminated by PR flacks.

As Veera and some of the more sensible red shirt leaders have acknowledged, a time-out is called for, but not at the expense of truth and transparency.

Vigilance is needed to guard against the audaciously mendacious.

It’s one thing to use TV, magazines and the internet to spread propaganda, quite another to incite violence. The red shirts have proven themselves eloquent, and almost touching in terms of crowd rapport at times, and a number of them sing reasonably well, though even the songs were lies in the sense that some good traditional melodies were hijacked and stuffed with pro-Thaksin lyrics.

But for every good entertainer or engaging speaker there was another speaker who spewed vile, ad hominem attacks, or racist jokes or hate speech as a matter of course. And then there were the snipers, arson specialists and bombers lurking murkily in the shadows.

Human rights groups and media freedom groups take note: UDD and other Red Shirt channels and websites do not uphold the responsibility inherent to freedom of the press if they purvey hate speech, use the medium to transmit coded militant commands or in plain speech tell people to go out and burn and kill.

No serious free speech advocate upholds the right to scream “fire” in a movie theatre.

Yet the red core leaders, including Arisman Pongruangrong and Nattawut Saikua, have been caught on tape saying things along the lines of, “If we don’t get our way, it’s burn, baby, burn.”

The red stage and its broadcast arm was a key nerve center for followers outside of the protest zone, some hundreds of miles away. In order not to alert listeners who were not supporters, some important communications were undoubtedly conveyed in code words, much as US fundamentalists do with right-wing talk radio and militant Islamists do on the internet.

But near the end, even the pretense of code was stripped away. When the self-styled DJ Om, who sounded like an overeager Red Guard on a bad day, took to the stage to face the UDD camera during the last hours of the Ratchaprasong protest, she spoke in terms that needed little decoding for followers around the country.

“Brothers and sisters! Get revenge! Do what you have to do!” she screamed in blood-curdling tones. “Go to the provincial government halls! Go now! Get revenge!”

Shortly after that, there was a “spontaneous” decision of red shirt sympathizers (downtrodden farmers?) in Ubol, Udon, Khonkaen, and Mukdahan to torch their own local government offices. A number of beautiful and historic buildings were burned and innocent rural folk intimidated, but fortunately the “sparks” didn’t light a “prairie fire.”

In fact, the key leaders of the so-called “core” including Nattawut and Jatuporn achieved a soft landing of sorts, just as tensions were building to a crescendo in the crowd, by turning themselves in to police as the army moved slowly north. The army may have hoped to lessen confrontation by moving at a snail's pace, but they also had to contend with M79 hand grenades intermittent sniper fire on the part of rebels, before closing in on Ratchaprasong intersection. Most of the brief, bloody skirmishes on May 19, 2010 were near or around Lumpini Park.

The red leaders got off light, spared both the anger of the army and the fury of the abandoned crowd, and not long after that, Bangkok was hit hard with a shockwave of concerted violence. Since talk of “burning the city” was a documented feature of red rhetoric in earlier rallies, the periodic volleys of incendiary rhetoric launched from the stage at Ratchaprasong raises troubling questions about the ethics of the UDD leadership and the sincerity of their followers.

The word terrorist is a problematic, over-used term in contemporary political discourse, and it is almost invariably used to describe what the other side does. It is a such a loaded term it is probably better not used, but oddly enough, the red shirts used "phu kor kan rai," the Thai term for terrorist, incessantly, often in mocking self-reference, which begs the question whether or not there was a kernel of contradictory truth in their loud, adamant denials. Where the peaceful protesters covering up, diverting attention from, or obscuring something less savory below?

Sort of like a banner that puts two irreconcilable ideas in uncomfortable proximity;


Monday, May 17, 2010



(published in the Asia-Pacific Journal on May 17, 2010 as "The Long Winding Red Road to Ratchaprasong and Thailand’s Future")


The sniper shooting of Seh Daeng, Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol, on May 13, 2010 by an unknown assailant while chatting with foreign reporters has brought to rupture the standoff between Reds and Yellows in the heart of Bangkok and signals a new stage in the movement and its repression. Seh Daeng, whose nickname means “red commander”, was the reddest of the red shirts. His daughter, who sat at his bedside in the hospital until he succumbed to his grievous wounds on May 17, 2010, has been a staunch supporter of the yellow shirts, illustrative of the convoluted politics of the era. To better put in context the convoluted color-coded politics of the present day, and to identify some of the key heroes and villains and historic reference points being talked about on both sides of the barricades in Bangkok, a brief review of Thai political activism over the years will follow.

The road to the red-shirt takeover of the Ratchaprasong intersection in the heart of Bangkok’s busiest shopping district is a long and winding one. Political activists are not unlike historians in that they frequently point to events in the past to understand what is happening in the present. Key milestones on Thailand’s winding, bloody road to democracy are introduced to illuminate the democratic and revolutionary claims and historic pretensions of the red and yellow shirted activists today.

The bloodless coup of 1932 marked the end of absolute monarchy and is regarded as the birthdate of Thai democracy. Pridi Panomyong, later forced into exile to China by co-conspirator Pibun Songkhram, remains a hero wronged by history to Thai leftists, while Pibun, who yielded top-down authoritarian power for much of the 1940’s and 1950’s is viewed as a bulwark of establishment power.

Bhumibol Adulyadej, the present king, was coronated while Pibun was prime minister, but given Pibun’s republican leanings and history of participation in the 1932 coup, he was not particularly supportive of the monarchy.

Thanks in part to the US-stoked hysteria of the Cold War, the chameleon-like Pibun, who welcomed the Japanese with open arms in World War II, and then welcomed the US with open arms in 1945, was not perceived as anti-communist enough and was replaced in a 1957 coup by the self-styled “royalist” strongman Sarit Thanarat.

Sarit, ruthless, authoritarian and exceedingly rich, was succeeded by his close associate Thanom Kittakachorn, another staunch anti-communist who likewise enjoyed generous US support.

The 1960’s saw Thailand grow under authoritarian rule, with a concomitant rise in the countryside of the Thai communist party, especially in the Isan region, which ironically was the homeland of Sarit.

One of Thailand’s brightest thinkers, an independent scholar named Jit Phumisak, who was hired by the US embassy in Bangkok to translate the Communist Manifesto, but more importantly was the author of numerous tracts on Thai feudalism and lyricist/composer of songs that are still sung by protesters today, was threatened, jailed and hounded by the Sarit regime until he joined the newly formed Thai communist guerilla movement in the mountains of northeastern Thailand in the province of Sakol Nakorn.

Jit was shot to death in the ricefields of a contested area on the side of a dirt road on May 5, 1966, an event memorialized in the haunting and melancholy song, Jit Phumisak, sung by the folk rock group Caravan. Simply put, Jit Phumisak is the Che Guevera of Thailand.

On October 14, 1973 student demonstrations erupted over corruption and the constitution, leading to the fall of the hated Thanom government which inaugurated a three-year freewheeling hiatus in which US troops were asked to leave and a home-grown democracy was tested and attempted but failed to sink deep roots.

In the case of 1973 the King intervened on the side of the students, but when the military staged a coup three years later in the face of Thammasat University student demonstrations protesting the return of Thanom from exile, the monarch sided with the military.

After the brutal crackdown of October 1976, many students went into exile or joined guerillas in the Communist Party of Thailand in the “jungle.” Typical of this generation, Caravan lead singer Surachai Chantimatorn and his fellow band members who started out as bards of the 1970’s protests, then radicalized and went into exile in China and Laos where they joined the United Front of the Thai Communist Party after the October 6, 1976 military crackdown. Things had gotten so bad in Bangkok that for Caravan, and hundreds of other “Ocotober people,” the hardship of life in the jungle seemed a reasonable choice.

Chamlong Srimuang and Samak Sundaravej, both of whom later served respective terms as mayor of Bangkok, and eventually became bitter archrivals during the Thaksin years, were on the wrong side of history, the military side, in 1976.

General Prem Tinsulanonda, who ruled Thailand with a steady hand for much of the 1980’s after replacing military factions directly responsible for the 1976 coup, bought peace and a measure of prosperity through a successful amnesty deal that brought the activist youth of the 1970’s back into the fold of society. Since then, Prem has come to represent the pinnacle of a supple establishment, serving as an elder statesman and a leading member of the Privy Council serving the monarchy.

Seventies activists dropped the revolution as the CPT withered as a result of the Sino-Soviet split within the fledgling movement and amnesty offers from General Prem. Theirs is a lost generation, characterized by wild extremes. Many willingly gave up the armed struggle, which did not suit Bangkok’s best and brightest student leaders anyway, but they had nowhere to go. Some gave up hope and idled in drugs or drink, others reinvented themselves and became academics, poets and writers. Others still, with input from the 1976 class student leaders such as Sutham Saengpratum, who were imprisoned until amnesty was offered by Prime Minister Kriangsak Chomanon under the urging of Jimmy Carter, became politicians in their own right.

Perhaps to atone for this historic misjudgment, Chamlong studied Buddhism, lived an ascetic lifestyle and became a key activist in the anti- coup and anti General Suchinda Kraprayong demonstrations of 1992, which culminated in the Ratchadamnern street killings of “Black May.”

Again the monarchy intervened, reprimanding both parties. Chamlong and Suchinda crouched for the cameras at the King’s feet, then withdrew from the struggle. A royalist interim PM was appointed, and eventually elections were held, effectively neutralizing Suchinda’s military faction, which, after all, had been entirely responsible for massacre of the demonstrators. Neutralized, perhaps, but not accounted for. The disgraced General Suchinda took a profitable sinecure position in the telecoms industry.

The interim PM, Anand Panyarachun, helped restore normalcy, especially to jittery markets, and willingly stepped down as soon as elections were scheduled. But the democratic period that followed has been full of fits and starts, resulting in a series of short-lived coalition governments, the most accomplished of which was led by Chuan Leekpai of the Democrat Party, where the young Abhisit was being groomed for a future leadership role.

During the Chuan years, and then the Thaksin years, there were scattered protests, most of them peaceful and some involving sustained camp-outs in public places. Many leftists of the October generation (1970’s activists) and the veteran activists of Black May (1992) were supportive of such street activism regardless of who was premier. Caravan, in particular, has a decades-old tradition of supporting demonstrations, especially on behalf of the poor, and they have played tirelessly at student commemorations of democratic milestones and at countless street gatherings, including mass demonstrations of the Assembly of the Poor, held in front of Government House, which created the template for long-term protests at public intersections, complete with food service, stage and security. The predominantly rural demonstrators adapted quickly to life in the open, and created vital tent cities of the kind that yellow shirts and red shirts have since emulated.

To say the red-yellow divide represents a class struggle is fundamentally inaccurate, a willful interpretation that plays into the hands of a divisive populism, though accusations of class bias do indeed resonate in Thailand’s deeply unequal, hierarchical society which keeps alive, through music and memory and a free press, the dream of equality and justice.

Many grassroots members of the red shirts happen to be Northeasterners from Isan, but that is not to say that Isan people are red-shirts. It has long been the poorest part of the country, but some poor people turn out to be extremely conservative politically, dictator Sarit was from Isan and popular in the way that fascists sometimes are, but for the most part the people of Isan have been pragmatic and tend to show support for the status quo just to keep their heads above water.

The Northeast today might better be described as a mosaic, with huge yellowshirt strongholds, such as Ubon city, though right across the river on the rural side of the bridge, one can find a red hotbed. Similar complexities can be found in most of the provinces rimming Cambodia, including Buriram, a pro-government “blue shirt” stronghold who finds its patron in Thaksin-turncoat Newin Chitchob, while the more northerly Isan towns such as Udon and Khonkhaen in the north can be more fairly described as redshirt strongholds.

There is ample evidence of vote-buying and rent-a-mob activity, but there is also compelling evidence of poor people getting sick and tired of the status quo and joining the fray, which in recent years means putting on a color coded shirt and joining a demonstration.

Isan has a rebel tradition which goes back at least to the 1950’s, when its politicians, at the risk of their careers and very life, opposed the Bangkok dictators, a pattern repeated in the 1960’s with Jit Phumisak’s generation of guerilla activists (he was born in what is now Cambodia but most of the guerillas were from Isan) and in the 1970’s with the students who went into the jungle along with the Caravan generation. Not surprisingly, Caravan’s lead singer is from Khorat province in Isan, and the lyrics for Jit Phumisak were penned with the help of Khamsing Srinawk, a writer from Isan who focused on the poor and disenfranchised of the region.

Folk-rockers Caravan, and a band influenced by Caravan known as Carabao, whose lead singer was educated in the Philippines but served briefly as a messenger for the CPT, have produced dozens of songs about social injustice and the plight of the poor, setting the stage for the mix of politics and music today.

Prominent, pro-Isan leftists such as Therdphum Jaidee, and Kraisak Chunhawan, son of the elected prime minister deposed by General Suchinda in the events leading up to Bloody May, are outright anti-Thaksin, if not yellow shirt supporters, and many of the rank and file led by the socially prominent newspaperman Sondhi and the ascetic Chamlong were drawn from both former activists and Bangkok’s poor and middle classes.

Thus October people can be found on both sides of the red/yellow divide, as can poor people from Bangkok and Isan people. This is not surprising, as divisive color-coded politics have divided many a family right down the middle.

As noted earlier Seh Daeng, was the reddest of the red shirts, while his daughter, who kept vigil at his side in the hospital following the attempt on his life, is considered a yellow shirt. Seh Daeng died on May 17, 2010 just as this article was being posted.

Another example of shifting alliances is the founder of the yellow shirts himself. Sondhi Limthongkul was a business associate and political ally of Thaksin before turning against him and organizing the potent yellow shirt demonstrations. Sondhi, who survived a still-unsolved assassination attempt that took place just after red shirt demonstrations of April 2009 were quashed, has come out of political silence to express sympathy for the more grievously injured Seh Daeng, briefly bridging, through shared tragedy, a sharp political divide.

In recent years, some well-known October people and former jungle fighters have become Thaksin supporters and MPs under his tutelage.

Although many of the red shirts like to draw a direct line between 1973 and 1976 and 1992 with the red cause, and there is some continuity of personnel, the same could be said for the yellow cause which was also influenced by earlier waves of social activism.

Furthermore, some very prominent democracy activists will have no truck with either camp. Just to mention two, October 14 heroes Seksan Prasertkul and Thirayut Boonmee, both respected academics, have been conspicuous by their absence from activities both red and yellow.

But more surprising is the absence of the new generation of students. Where are the young people today? The red crowd is distinctly middle aged, if not middle class, and students are few and far between.

The presence of older demonstrators, especially from rural areas, on the streets of Bangkok is hailed in some quarters as a new kind of political consciousness, but there is also opportunism at play.

This year, as last, the red shirt rallies were crucially timed for the March-April-May period which coincides with the dry season. Soaring temperatures alone make this choice seem odd, until one considers the labor pool. This is the one time of the year the countryside becomes truly idle, and rural folk have some time on their hands due to the temporary halt in agricultural activity. This year, as in other years, all sorts of rural people descended on Bangkok in March, for all sorts of reasons. Many were seeking to supplement their meager incomes, which for some means work as day laborers or driving a tuk-tuk or taxi. For a few thousand others, there’s been the novel opportunity of joining a demonstration that says the peasants and poor are the heroes of the nation. For many, this means an all expense paid song and food gala at Ratchaprasong intersection, where the only price of admission is to sit and listen to speeches until the crackdown comes.

Then there are red leaders, and Puea Thai party members who are loyalists to a billionaire in exile. They include core leaders Veera Musikapong, Nattawut Saikua, Jatuporn Promphan, along with others such as Chaturon Chaisaeng and Jaran Ditta-apichai, the latter two “October People,” former communist guerillas with close ties to Thaksin.

“Nak su, thuli din” a rousing anthem attributed to Jan Kamachon can be heard when red shirts die and their deaths are memorialized. When the death of Seh Daeng was announced on May 17, it immediately brought the militant crowd to its feet, and to tears.

“We are treated like dust on the ground,
but fortune will reverse itself...
Don’t give in to them, that’s all that matters...
We will die side by side…
Use blood to wipe away social decay…
Ahead of us, a future that is beautiful...
the fire has been lit, it will spread…”

The tragic visions of fire and blood ring all too true. And sadly, the hierarchical habit of treating other people like dirt and dust underfoot will persist long after the smoke finally clears at Ratchaprasong.

What has been happening in the streets of Bangkok will be an open wound for some time to come, but selected elements of the struggle will no doubt coalesce to become not just the stuff of legend, but different legends, for different camps, for different reasons.

It is almost certain that Bloody May 2010 at Ratchaprasong will remain divisive and controversial in a way that contrasts with the one-sided military massacres memorialized by earlier generations of peaceful activists. For all its claims to the moral high ground as peace-loving democratic movement, the red shirt program is in certain respects more akin to fascist populism, influenced by modern media technique and traditional barrel of the gun tactics of the Thai communist guerillas.

In April and May 2010 a significant number of red shirt demonstrators and sympathizers were armed and belligerent, and if their techniques were traditional and low tech—everything from slingshots to bamboo spears and Molotov cocktails—there also were armed agents in the shadows, standing on red-held ground, using handguns, rifles and hand grenades to create mayhem and new cycles of violence and rage. It should be stressed that the identity and provenance of the “black-shirt” provocateurs remains murky.

In any case, the “Seh Daengs” and the known militant wing of the red shirts have much to answer for, as do the moneymen and policy makers directing events from a distance.

There is so much blame to go around on both sides of the barricades. Army crackdowns in the name of law and order almost invariably take innocent life, deepening the tragedy. General Anupong Paochinda in particular, was outspoken in favor of a political solution and demonstrably reluctant to use force against the protesters.

Thai folklore, future history, future poetry and song, will no doubt be replete with new-arch villains, people’s heroes and unforgettable martyrs, as has been the pattern in the past.

Like the Taiping rebellion in the late years of the Qing Dynasty, the red shirt uprising may best be understood not just as a cause of a nation’s distress but as a symptom of suppressed rage, unrest and unease in a deeply divided society that is groping unsteadily towards the future.

Thailand will continue to examine its past, and attempt to put into historic perspective current troubles, in order to better map out a new kind of future.

Philip Cunningham is a professor of media studies who has taught at Chulalongkorn University and Doshisha University. He is the author of Tiananmen Moon: Inside the Chinese Student Uprising of 1989. A long-time student of Chinese and Thai affairs, his blogspot is here:

He wrote this article for The Asia-Pacific Journal.

Recommended citation.
The Long Winding Red Road to Ratchaprasong and Thailand’s Future

Tuesday, May 11, 2010



by philip j cunningham

Thanks to internet technology and the media savvy of the money people backing Thailand’s combative red shirts, it is possible to take a virtual seat right in front of the rebel stage at Ratchaprasong and listen to speeches, live music and public service announcements morning, noon and night.

The camera focus is steady and tight, making it impossible for the virtual observer to judge the size, mood or makeup of the crowd, let alone sense the heat, chaos, confusion and odors of the gathering, but one gets a good sense of performer personality and talent, with varied gifts of gab and occasional leaps of inspiring rhetoric.

The key speakers are mostly red celebrities whose fame as activists precedes them. Nattawut Saikua and Jatuporn Promphan and Wisa Khanthap are among best word-slingers and deservedly get the prime time slots.

Other orators drone on, often shrill and humorless, as they repeat the rote, but ever shifting, party line espoused by the "Core.” One day it might be a call to end martial law, another day an absurd complaint about Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban going to have a coffee with the police instead of putting himself under arrest.

The linguistically gifted Wisa Khanthap has a reassuring stage presence; relaxed, avuncular and easy on the ear. On recent evenings he has taken to reading news highlights from Thai Rath, Matichon and Daily News to a largely rural crowd, adopting a gentle, explanatory tone akin to a teacher reading aloud to his students.

But then there’s a hothead now and then who by some twisted conviction, or the desire to play to crowd prejudices, utters thoughts so intolerant, illogical and ill-considered that one wishes he or she would just shut-up. For example,

“Aphisit is a “Yuan” his family came from Vietnam, you know that, don’t you?”

“And what about Sondhi, “Lim the Chink” where did he run away to?”

“And the yellow shirt rallies, they pay Cambodians 500 baht a day to demonstrate, they can’t even speak Thai!”

Other red shirts have made homosexual jokes about leading government figures and routinely describe cowardly actions as “gay.”

Several of the singers are talented, and they convey something akin to transcendental love during the rapture of performing a song, but sadly turn strident, shrill and full of hate when they start to pontificate like politicians.

I rather liked the pluck of one singer, though, who urged fellow demonstrators to buy her CD as a souvenir to take home after the “victory,” until she, like the other “nak rong” wiped the smile off her face and started to parrot the party line. Second-tier speakers frequently fumble the slippery talking points cobbled together by the “Core,” who use a backstage container room as their congress hall.

Worst of all are the Thaksin clones, who like their chatty mentor, speak incessantly out of both sides of mouth, making the ill-mannered billionaire fugitive sound like Mahatma Gandhi, while portraying genuinely good-mannered and gentlemanly Abhisit as a demon foaming at the mouth with blood dripping from his fangs.

Nattawut gives good rhetoric, though as with many of the red speakers, sophistry, not logic is the strong card. In fact, his combative style is reminiscent of George W. Bush.

“Send in your army divisions, send in your police, bring in the tanks, grenades, the AK 47s and kill the people, there will blood everywhere,” he goads, “Or use two men and two guns to arrest one man, that’s it.”

“If you crackdown at three AM, by nine or ten in the morning red shirts will descend on Bangkok, the nation will rise up.”

“Bring it on! Come on, come on!”

“And now, for a song…O Democracy, brothers and sisters mowed down…O Democracy!”

Nattawut does for “democracy” what Bush did for “freedom.” It’s enough to make you hate a good word as it is warped to be synonymous with killing, conflict, and war.

The single most inspiring, and disconcerting performance I happened to catch online, however, came on Monday evening around nine as pressure for the reds to disperse was met head-on by a stubborn unwillingness to leave.

Red leader Jatuporn took to the stage and mesmerized the crowd with earthy incantations and rousing rhythms. He had all of Ratchaprasong in his hand for a timeless moment, making the warm-up speakers look like hack comedians on a bad night in a half empty club.

The heavy-set Jatuporn displays a rare élan on stage, and when he finds his groove it’s unexpectedly inspiring, sort of like seeing the serene poker face of an ancient bas-relief king come alive with the rousing jazzy voice of Louis Armstrong. Here, some excerpts:

“Struggle is only way to survive. Once you decide to fight, losing is nothing, winning is all.”

“How dare you bargain with us? We're not here for the living, we're here for the dead.”

“Ratchaprasong is haunted by the souls of the dead denied justice. We are men, we are human, we love our friends, when our friends die for us, we will stay on, fighting for the martyrs.”

Resounding in rhythm or not, red rhetoric is hot and full of spin, sometimes outright incendiary, but it is generally unmoored from the truth and any sense of fair play.

Seeing how belligerent and gleefully confrontational the Red Shirts have been for several weeks now, --what with slingshots, rocks, sharpened sticks, mass vigilante actions, along with a parallel but unattributed campaign of horrific violence from the shadows, the most recent media makeover making the reds out to be modern-day adherents of Hinduistic “ahimsa” rings hollow.

“We won't surrender,” says Nattawut. “To give in is death, struggle is survival. They died for us so we fight for them, nothing is higher than their sacrifice, we will not surrender, we will die, nothing is more beautiful than this struggle in the whole world.”

There is more than a nascent fascism lurking in the hearts of the hardliners, but there are also moderates who mean well. From the stage one hears a headache-inducing jumble of nihilistic populism, Thaksin hero worship, dated CPT propaganda and banal CEO platitudes.

Perhaps more telling, some of the tired, hoarse Core activists are running out of things to say.

The production values of the Ratchaprasong show are professional, with competent camera work, decent lighting, crack editing, theme-coordinated stage props and soaring, overhead crane shots. Big screens and a sound system on the site suggest a rock concert experience.

But the language of hate and divisiveness is at odds with the sound and light spectacle. This potent video mix of bad politics and good art brings to mind Leni Riefenstahl’s film classic, “Triumph of the Will.”

Bangkok’s red rally is animated by the politics of rage, but it’s not the outgrowth of a grungy beer-hall putsch.

Call this show “Triumph of the Shrill,” a tinny, tropical gala with only the faintest echoes of the frighteningly photogenic Nuremberg mass rally.

If Thailand goes down the road to perdition, there’s no saying if the trains will run on time, but the road to social collapse, a glimpse of which we can get at Ratchaprasong today, will be almost certainly be graced with clever talk, tasty food and bouncy music.

(published in the Bangkok Post as "Triumph of the Shrill, the Rhetoric of the Reds")

Monday, May 3, 2010


Red Shirts: The Audacity of Mendacity

(first published in the Bangkok Post, May 3, 2010)

I watch the unfolding of massive street protests in Bangkok from a geographic distance, but not without emotional identification as I work from a library, putting the finishing touches on a paperback version of a book about the Tiananmen student protests of 1989.

Flamboyant Maj-Gen Khattiya Sawasdipol has compared the red shirts to the students at Tiananmen, one of many careless comments that serves to obscure rather than illuminate what is really motivating the protesters.

Suffice to say the Beijing students, provocative though they were, relied entirely on peaceful expression and carried no weapons --not slingshots, not M79 grenades, not spears, not clubs-- and though agents provocateurs did appear as if from nowhere during the orgy of violence of the June 4 crackdown itself, there were no black-clad Ninja hiding behind civilian shields, aiming their guns and rifles at military targets.

It's a terrible challenge to understand what's happening on the streets of Bangkok, and there's scant comfort in noting that almost no observer, whether on the scene, in the academy, in the newsroom or barracks or halls of governance seems to have a clear grasp of what's going on either.

Impatience for a crackdown is palpable, though there is still a chance for patient, peaceful measures to work. A bloodbath cannot be entirely discounted, especially if the  military acts peremptorily in reaction to perceived divisions within its ranks or simply by being goaded into a merciless show of force.

The only on-the-scene observers who  profess to get the whole picture are the most prejudiced voices of all --the partisans who wear shirts of contrasting colour-- and while there may be some important truths in what each of the battling factions have to say, they deliberately leave gaps in their logic and holes in their reporting that are filled instead with hot air and hate speech.

One can spend all day and night looking at everything in English and Thai on the "red shirts" on the internet, and end up feeling one knows even less than before, and that may be by design.

The way the wayward reds daily douse the media with more than it can handle is reminiscent of the days when Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister kept the media off-balance by constantly changing the topic, saying outrageous things and taking the initiative with bold schemes.

Given that hardly a day passes without some shocking new street action on the part of the reds, one begins to sense a continuity of propaganda, if not personnel, as if some of Thaksin's would-be Rasputins were among the arthritic revolutionaries advising the rebel reds.

The seductive paraphernalia of the yellows and the reds --the colour schemes, the slogans, the anthems, the songs of Caravan and Jit Phumisak, the headbands, the daredevil esprit de corps, the appealing folkways of street food and elemental living in the open-- all serve to invoke the ghosts of protests past, especially Oct 14, 1973, Oct 6, 1976 and Black May 1992.

And comparison with those events is not as easy to dismiss as the awkward comparison to Tiananmen, because they are part of Thai social history and inform actions in the present, both in terms of living memory and a received knowledge of, and nostalgia for fighting the good fight.

Though "not learning'" from history has its perils, fighting the last war or "learning" the wrong lesson is also  fraught with risk.

The people on the wrong side of the barricades are not always on the right side of history, even if there is an appealing narrative that suggests it should be so.

This is especially true in fluid Thai society where individuals sometimes find themselves not only on opposite sides of the barricades from former classmates and comrades, but even on the opposite side from where they last stood themselves; and they may change sides yet again.

Such ironies abound.

We see men of "peace" calling for war and men of war reluctant to unleash  the terrible power that society has entrusted to them. Gen Anupong Paojinda, at the time of this writing, is under criticism for being too calm, too cautious and too circumspect. His reluctance to kill is willfully misinterpreted to mean he is either utterly ineffective, or, worse yet, one of "them".

The yellow shirts, themselves veterans of prolonged streets protests and a startling and disruptive airport takeover, show no tolerance, let alone the recognition of a kindred spirit, for rival protesters blocking a street full of hotels and high-end shops.

While Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is under pressure to act ruthlessly against his own better judgment, members of his party muddle the waters further and lower themselves to the level of the mob by making imprudent and insupportable accusations about the "loyalty'" of the reds.

It's a cheap shot, akin to the nasty red-baiting of US anti-communist demagogues in the 1950s, and not unlike the attitude that Arizona has more recently taken towards people who look like "immigrants''.

There is no place for a loyalty test, for who is to judge the mental state of others and by what impeccable criteria?

On the other hand there is a growing body of physical evidence for violent crimes committed, and violence should be prosecuted by law.

As someone who experienced the Tiananmen protests in Beijing in 1989, I can understand the power of defiance in the face of great odds, even the irrational desire to sacrifice comfort, common sense and safety in the name of a cause. There is a real, though transient and volatile, camaraderie on the street that creates a false sense of invulnerability.

But there are few causes worth sacrificing lives for, and none that come to mind in the current conflict. If there is a non-violent way out, every last effort should be made for a peaceful resolution.

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

About the author
Writer: Philip J Cunningham
Position: Writer