Sunday, December 22, 2013


(Published in China Daily, December 18, 2013)

Philip J Cunningham

Edward Snowden was for a while considered Time magazine’s most likely candidate for “Person of the Year” but in the end the editors yielded the man-of-the-year slot to the Pope, the third pontiff so named. It was a safe, if not a slyly calculated choice, as any pope has millions of cheering followers and a pro-active one, such as Pope Francis, will have many millions more. It is said Snowden came in second, another sly bit of PR finesse, because it speaks to popular sentiment of the moment, implying the rogue patriot actually stood a chance at snagging the top slot, while easing fears in the Beltway, where NSA’s nervous ninnies can console themselves with the hope that runner-ups for such accolades are soon forgotten. Who was the runner up last year?

Over the years, Time has made some strange choices, flipping back and forth between the safely mainstream and flippantly in-your-face. Every elected president has been named since 1930, and foreign favorites of Time’s China-born anti-communist founder, Henry Booth Luce, such as Song Meiling and Chiang Kai-shek were slam-dunks, with a total of 11 covers between them. Nixon got the nod twice, ditto for Obama, and so did Deng Xiaoping, honored in 1978 and again in 1985, something proudly pointed out to me on a wall display when I visited the Time bureau in Beijing.

The most controversial choice in modern times was Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979; the backlash was so ferocious that Time’s choices have been fairly anodyne ever since.

Of course Snowden doesn’t need validation from the US mainstream media, in fact he’s taught us to be suspicious, very suspicious of it because so much of the media is in bed with the government.

Not for nothing did the intelligence-savvy Ed Snowden specifically refuse to deal with the New York Times. The dear old “Gray Lady” has a track record of being the handmaiden to the powers that be, a harridan cheerleader for war (Syria being the latest example, Iraq another) and is quick to dissemble and kill, or at least maim a news story if the feds want it that way, --the case of the CIA agent abandoned in Iran for seven years being just a recent example. Thanks to AP News, where real journalism is on the march, we know about this. No thanks to the whining, finger-pointing “Gray Lady” that dishes out scorn and criticism on others but can’t stand the heat of the kitchen.

Edward Snowden’s soft-spoken contribution to helping Americans and the world become aware of how unfettered US spying poses an existential threat to democracy is a gift that keeps on giving. Through the dogged, determined and amiably combative Glenn Greenwald, we learn something revelatory, often shocking, nearly every week as the voluminous files are vetted and prepped with journalistic diligence.

Snowden is an unlikely hero, a techie and geek who wanted to do something for the US in the wake of 9/11, and, as his history of Internet chats suggests, until recently, politically conservative. This cautious and prudent young man considered trying to correct what he saw as a broken system from within, but seeing how other whistle blowers were pilloried by the government and spurned by the press gave him pause. He collected information quietly, using spy-craft learned on the job to cover his tracks, until he had, by some estimates, over one million sensitive documents.

Last May Snowden made a mad dash for Hong Kong, putting himself at risk in a way that still has analysts scratching their heads. Why Hong Kong?

Once ensconced in a Kowloon Hotel he contacted journalists and privacy advocates who he had long admired from afar, including Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras.  They broke the scoop of the year in the Guardian, which named Snowden its “Person of the Year.”

Readers around the world were surprised at Snowden’s youth, amazed at the value of his loot, and taken aback by his apparent lack of a getaway plan.

There was a modest groundswell of support for Snowden in Hong Kong, but to be safe from the long arm of American law, nothing short of a firm asylum offer from Beijing would have guaranteed his safety. He booked a flight to Moscow with help from Wikileaks. Hong Kong’s refusal to detain him at the airport, though couched in diplomatic language, was a small victory for standing up to US pressure, which under an agitated Obama, was turning into something of a full court press.

Snowden holed up in the Moscow airport’s “sterile zone” for 39 days until an entry into Russia could be arranged. Bereft of his earth-shaking thumb drives, he presumably had little to offer his hosts other than an opportunity to say no to arrogant US arm-twisting.

As University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, himself a victim of White House spying during the war in Iraq has written, Snowden’s revelations make Orwell’s 1984 “look like a lackadaisical libertarian paradise” and Obama’s complaisance makes him look like a front man “for an octopus-like secret government.”

Snowden has changed our understanding of how governments actually work, especially the “Five Eyes” governments who collaboratively spy on everyone all the time without legal safeguards, while solemnly invoking an Anglo-Saxon axis in the name of democracy, dissent and right to privacy.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


(from the Bangkok Post 11/12/13)  
"Amid revolution, students hold key to the country's future"

by Philip J Cunningham

United States democracy was not created in a day, fully thought out and cut of whole cloth. It was for a long time a work in progress, full of trials and plenty of errors, in which strands of experience and theory were taken up and interwoven into a new and novel form of social compact, a tapestry of ideas that resulted in a remarkable written document, the world’s most durable constitution.

The US Constitution has informed the American democratic experiment and has been an inspiration to people around the world ever since, but as the British-influenced US creation itself proves, local conditions have to be taken into account.

Thailand is going through revolutionary change now, not in the sense that the world has become accustomed to since the time of Karl Marx, with the poor seeking to overthrow the rich or the powerless uprising to topple a tyrant, but more like the staid US revolution, where people of all classes, led by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and other well-educated landlords, lawyers and merchants sought to create a new kind of society, free of the predations of a greedy, absentee government.

Only in the current Thai case, the shackles that need breaking are not imposed by a foreign court in London but by a foreign-based tycoon in Dubai armed with a fortune that rivals the GDP of a small country, who has found innovative ways to buy influence and extract wealth in exile, ruling beyond the reach of local law. 

Thaksin Shinawatra sits on top of a well-oiled partisan political machine that makes Tammany Hall look like a small-time con. So well-oiled, in fact, that in recent years it took on the specter of a perpetual motion machine that produced predictable victory at the polls in exchange for predictable payola. Thaksin’s Pheu Thai party, and its antecedents such as Thairakthai, mastered the math for garnering votes through a persuasive mix of region-based populism and proletarian propaganda. The fact that the system reeked of venality hardly reduced the wonder of the accomplishment; it has permitted one man to become the absentee landlord of Thailand, while awakening a poor peasant base. 

The political juggernaut, held together by the clout of one man, has drawn on innovative minds, corporate public relations technique and CEO models of governance to game the system in a way that was borderline legal yet served to elevate one clan and favorites among the electoral base at the expense of all others; a winner-takes-all ethos at odds with the better gods of democracy.

Thaksin’s illusory Midas-touch was such that he was able remake Thai politics with other people’s money. The sums involved were staggering enough to make traditional vote-buying and cash handouts look tame; the scandalous rice price-pledging scheme that devastated rice exports and threatens to bankrupt the nation is only one example; big development projects, the bigger the better, such as the proposed infrastructure budget and the scheme for high speed trains to China, were ultimately seen as easy targets for corrupt insiders with the know-how to extract percentages.  

Corruption is nothing new in Thailand, in fact it’s probably the most consistent complaint I have heard from Thai friends since residing in the country in high school. But the scale of the corruption recently reached a threshold that shocked otherwise complacent Thais and led them to take to the streets. 

Ex-Democrat Party MP Suthep Thaugsuban and his conservative, largely well-heeled comrades have been stirred to risk their privileged positions in a highly unequal society to do what it takes to stop the rot. 

The mercurial rise of the Shinawatra clan during a time of anticipated dynastic succession only adds to the potency of the struggle.

If elections are held in the wake of this week’s dissolution of the government, chances are the Pheu Thai political machine will beat the Democrats, again, perhaps by a margin of roughly four to three votes. If Pheu Thai behaved as a mature political party instead of riding roughshod over the opposition, then a fresh election might bring a degree of calm to the nation. But Pheu Thai’s ill-conceived amnesty bill, hushed and rushed into parliament by the Thaksin-affiliated party in the hopes of garnering an amnesty for their self-exiled leader was so sneakily tailored to erase his criminal record as to erode any sense of fair play that masses of people, including no small number of disenchanted red shirts, gathered to protest, setting off the current round of conflict.

Thaksin’s canny success in politics and business can be traced to his career with the police, and it is not incidental that the second most strident demand of the peaceful, largely middleclass protesters is to reform a police bureaucracy notorious for bribes and looking the other way.

It’s too soon to say if the over-wrought ambition of the Shinawatra political machine will graciously concede to the rising tide of resistance that has occupied the streets and stormed the gates of government buildings in recent weeks; accommodation is possible, so is social breakdown and civil war. 

The Democrat Party, with its own history of Machiavellian moves and political posturing is weak in ideology and does not begin to have all the answers. But it has attracted, for the first time in a generation, the mass involvement of students, and it is their voices, as representatives of the future, that might offer a way out for a nation at an impasse with itself.

Thursday, December 5, 2013


             (published in Bangkok Post as "Suthep's patriotic vision stuck in an imaginary Past")

by Philip J Cunningham    

Anticipating the King’s December 5 birthday, Suthep's protestors and the police have stepped back from the brink, exchanging flowers and hugs on the battle-torn frontlines instead of bullets and tear gas. 

                                    (FT blogs)

It was an extraordinary moment, a photo op for the ages, like one of those fabled World War I Christmas truces, where both the French and Germans shared a bit of comfort food and holiday good cheer before going back at it again. Whatever it was that was really going on is by no means over; the harsh contradictions that have been ripping Thai society apart are still in play, though mercifully dormant for the moment.

(Yahoo News)

The mai pen rai factor in the sudden cessation of tensions is simply mind-boggling.


Nothing is as it seems; either side could win all or lose all, or then again, some sort of face-saving accommodation will see a restoration of the status quo in new clothing. 

The only constant is the defiant Suthep, who has been in high dudgeon during the last few days. On the evening of December 2 an embattled Suthep gave a speech that baffled many while reassuring his base. It’s too soon to say if it will go down as a rhetorical last stand, or if it reflects the emerging manifesto of a new political regime, but Suthep’s December 2 speech, and his follow up announcements since then, amount to a non-violent call to arms.

   (screen grab of December 2, 2013 speech)

Key points of recent Suthep speeches:

-Now is the time to join; it’s fight between good and evil.
-Thailand is suffering because of the predations of an evil capitalist and his police lackeys.
-The way to remove suffering is to drive the clan out of the country and reform the police.
-The Thai media tell only part of the story
-The army is on the side of the people. Neutrality is enough.
-The people must remain committed to peace and non-violent tactics.
-The people should not be goaded into violence by the predations of police and pain of tear gas.
-Having the Prime Minister Yingluck step down solves nothing
-A caretaker government under foreign minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul is no good
-Thailand needs an entirely new leadership team in the form of an appointed "People's Council"
-The metropolitan police did nothing to protect the innocent students at Ramkamhaeng who were killed and injured during a sustained attack
-The police must be confronted by the will of the people and the metropolitan police bureau must be occupied.

Check. The occupation happened, as Suthep said it would, but with a twist. Metropolitan police chief, Khamronwit, (who is an unapologetic supporter of Thaksin) turned a tense crisis into a public relations coup when he invited the protesters in with no resistance. Floral bouquets were offered. It’s possible the police are of two minds about Suthep, it’s possible the military brokered an accommodation, but it also might be a time-buying ploy.

Suthep is not the most popular man around, but he is the beneficiary of unseen dynamics. At a certain level, only crazy people can do what needs to be done when it comes to pulling off a people’s coup. But there is at least some method to the madness if there is tacit support from major players behind the scenes.

The result is a battle for hearts and minds, but it’s not for the faint of heart and the dynamics remains elusive to foreign and domestic media alike. The world is left watching wide-eyed with mouths agape, feeling pressed to rush to judgment on something that is half blood sport, half soap opera.

A real revolution, if it is to take place at all, first takes place in the realm of the spiritual, the realm of self-sacrifice, the realm of belief in a higher cause that makes it possible to transcend the logic of the habitual and put one’s body on the line. But a phony revolution can mimic a real one given sufficient backing of unseen supporters and secret understandings. 

The result so far has been a wild ride; it’s reckless, it’s insane, it’s exciting, it’s dangerous, it’s sickening, it’s hypocritical, it’s Manichean, it’s many, many things.

It has been anything but a dinner party, but it may not be a revolution either.

Suthep speaks to the yearning for a strong leader. He speaks as corrupt, strong-arm politician who has undergone a spiritual conversion; he is operating on a different plane from his former self, he feels himself to be an instrument of history.

The protesters' vision of Thailand is not unlike that sung about in the national anthem. It’s about flag-waving patriotism, courage and determination, but it’s also reactionary. It’s about reform, but it’s also about going back in time, back to an imagined golden age before the current troubles.

In throwing down the gauntlet, Suthep raises the stakes. Now it’s up to the nation, in all its trembling uncertainty, and innate fear of backing the wrong horse, to figure out if it wants to follow the “madman” possessed with a deeply conservative but compelling vision of regaining a lost country.

     (photo downloaded from Twitter, wire services)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


A protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask marches on a main road during an anti-Thaksin demonstration at a
shopping centre last month.  (photo credit EPA/Narong Sangnak)

"The Year of Living Dangerously" (Bangkok Post, July 17, 2013)

Philip J Cunningam

Thailand is one of the world's top tourist destinations, and this success couldn't have come at a worse time, not because the country hasn’t earned it, and not because it isn’t a fun place to visit, but because Thai society is on the brink, entering its year of living dangerously. To the background drumbeat of mounting political pressures, there are endless attractions and distractions and myriad, shimmering sights to see. The food is delicious, the music swings, service is supreme and there are serene temples, street snacks and tempting nightlife. Even the egotistical strutting of local politicos, and the consumerist tail-dancing of hi-so snobs can be viewed as background color for sojourners soaking up the sun and fun and non-stop folly in the kaleidoscopic tropical wonderland.
Unfortunately for tourists, Thailand is not a mind-bending fantasy, but a real, fractured country in crisis, teetering on the edge of a political abyss, facing imminent political implosion. The record-breaking twenty million pleasure-seeking foreign arrivals may suddenly discover that a funland lurching towards civil war in fits and starts is no holiday bargain. Crime against tourists appear to be on the upswing, and while there is no neat correlation between rape, rip-offs, murder and the political descent into madness, the risk of tourists becoming collateral damage is a real one.
Recent volatile events in Cairo are being monitored closely in Bangkok because there are haunting political parallels. Thailand has more experience with electoral democracy, but it also has more experience with coups. Both Egypt and Thailand have been major recipients of US military aid, and each has duly attempted to emulate American-mandated democratic trappings. This has led to the creation of formidable political machines that win at the polls only to gobble up power, cripple the opposition and hoard the ill-begotten goods as ruthlessly as any strong-arm patron would.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood abused a broad electoral mandate, allowing the economy to crumble and crime to soar while trying to cow the courts in the direction of Sharia law, while in Thailand, valuable time has been wasted on schemes designed to pave the way for Thaksin’s return with a get-out-of-jail-free card, distracting the nation’s law-makers from tackling more pressing problems of poverty, crime, corruption and the “fire-in-the-south” communal violence that has claimed almost 5,000 lives.

The ill-conceived amnesty bills range from the anarchic --letting every violent offender since 2006 off the hook-- to the ironic, such as a proposal by coup-maker Sonthi Bunyaratglin to forgive and forget “political” offences.

Now out of power, under an administration where the political opposition is not given its due as part of the game, a very vulnerable Abhisit has been hit with spurious murder charges by PM Yingluck’s Ministry of Justice. Meanwhile, there’s been enough behind-the-scenes-scheming to make Machiavelli blush, a sample of which has emerged in the form of an audio tape documenting Thaksin’s attempts to wheel and deal with the military.

But that’s not all. Former Prime Minister Abhisit recently revealed that he has been offered a deal by an unnamed nemesis, the gist of which was to approve the pro-Thaksin amnesty bill if he wanted capital charges dropped against himself.

So, say what one might about Abhisit’s privileged childhood spent mostly in England, or the disadvantages of behaving like a gentleman when inside the ruthless ring of political combat, it is the rare man who calmly faces legal charges that could result in his execution. Unlike Thaksin, who fled the country in 2008, using a short, court-approved trip to the Beijing Olympics as a pretext to escape justice for economic crimes, Abhisit is willing to face grave, life-and-death charges against him in court and in country.

To those aligned with the Shinawatra bandwagon, Abhisit’s stubborn courage makes him the anti-Thaksin. He was inexplicably portrayed as a ghoulish, long-fanged, bloodthirsty, Dracula by partisan propagandists well before the crackdown in 2011, but that was trash talk and street theatre. From the very outset, pro-Thaksin agitators revealed their darkest desires in a self-fulfilling prophecy of bloody chaos by pouring buckets of donated blood on the gate of Abhisit's home. And it was in keeping with the same desperate, apocalyptic agenda that Thaksin’s negotiators courted a crackdown by refusing a fair and reasonable agreement to hold new elections within six months.

A terrible bloodbath followed on May 19, 2011. There is no disputing the dreadful violence, much of it committed in the course of a clumsy military crackdown, but there were also rogue snipers, police asleep on the job and partisan men in black running interference; factors which made the military dispersal of the crowd at Rajprasong an unmitigated disaster for all sides. 

And yet, if the opportunistic deals with the military and the shameless horse-trading that Abhisit recently alluded to are for real, it just goes to show that the Shinawatra don did not have any skin in the game, and can conveniently distance himself from the bloody battles he praised so highly from the sidelines.

To such a leader there are no permanent friends or enemies, nor any concept of impartial justice or lasting loyalty to the foot-soldiers fallen at the barricades, just opportunism at each and every turn.

What this potent political mix means for holiday-goers soaking up the sun, dancing in the moonlight and cooling in crystalline swimming pools is uncertain, but if the restless Thaksin can’t overcome his heartless lust for power, Thailand loses, and all bets are off.

Millions of visitors may find themselves in unexpected jeopardy, akin to Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver in Peter Weir’s “The Year of Living Dangerously,” set in Indonesia on the eve of social breakdown.  Even the most cosmopolitan and street-wise traveler is at risk when it comes to dealing with the unseen political riptides that deliver periodic terror to the shores of what otherwise may seem a bountiful, steamy tropical paradise.

If the most divisive figure in modern times orchestrates a return to Thailand, by hook or by crook, coups and chaos will follow, and tourists won’t be able get to the airport fast enough.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


(published in the South China Morning Post, April 2, 2013)

Thaksin is busy talking, but is anyone listening?

Philip Cunningham says former premier's manipulation of Thai politics may prove futilescmp_11dec12_ns_thsksin1_wck_1996a_32969091.jpg
Thai politics is never dull but too much excitement is a cause for concern. Just as the mercury starts to soar, political foes are gearing up for a dry season offensive. First, there's the news that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra will be taken to task for financial irregularities that could jeopardise her tenure in office. Then there's Yaowapha Wongsawat, her elder sister, who is being positioned to wait in the wings as a replacement.
The manipulation of these two sisters as political proxies is yet another sign that strings are being pulled to perpetrate the weird and ultimately shameful arrangement by which Thailand has unwittingly permitted its leadership to be hijacked by one unusual, rich and ambitious Thai exile living in Dubai.
Fugitive from justice Thaksin Shinawatra keeps phoning home, appointing leaders and guiding the business of parliament. The opposition Democrats have been quick to criticise him for bending the rules to breaking point in order to win concessions for himself.
And despite the business acumen that has made him a wealthy man, Thaksin has a documented record of clumsily obsessing about himself, and using the instigation and amelioration of civic strife to advance personal aims.
As he reportedly phoned in to the 40,000 red shirts who gathered solemnly in Bangkok last year to commemorate those who died in the street violence of May 19, 2010, they needn't mourn anymore because he was coming home. It turns out he didn't make it back by the end of 2012 as predicted because his amnesty plan provoked opposition and stalled, leaving Thaksin in high dudgeon, trying to retrieve lost time.
Yingluck is also proving more popular than him, which was not part of the script when he installed her in power. Increasingly, when he talks, nobody listens. His much-hyped, much-Skyped amnesty plan has gone nowhere and excites little interest from the public, with only 3 per cent in favour, according to a poll.
In recent months, he has been paying visits to regions bordering Thailand on every side, behaving like an emissary of the Thai government. But his claim is only as good as his ability to rule through a proxy such as his sister, who is increasingly showing signs of independence.
His recent phoned-in laments of impatience about constitutional reform and the stalled amnesty bill indicate he is aching for action, looking for novel ways to show his hand, win attention and further promote his personal agenda.
But guerrilla attacks and violence are an everyday occurrence in the deep south of Thailand, poverty remains grinding and if the reds and the yellows start marching again during this hot anniversary season, all bets are off.
Philip J. Cunningham is a media researcher and freelance writer

Monday, December 2, 2013



The appointment of Caroline Kennedy as US Ambassador to Japan is about as inspired a choice as a non-merit based appointment can be, because the optics work for Americans and Japanese alike. An amiable member of a political clan that enjoys quasi-royal status in the media, Ms. Kennedy recently presented her credentials to the Emperor of Japan, showing up at the palace in a gilded horse-drawn cart with well-wishers lining the streets of Tokyo to get a glimpse.

Japan’s attachment to the Kennedy magic dates to the JFK presidency, when advances in live television and satellite broadcast made it possible to beam to Japan iconic images of the life and death of a uniquely popular president. Part of what made November 22, 1963 poignant was that Kennedy advisors were en route to Japan to prepare for a presidential visit when he was gunned down. The Japan visit of Caroline Kennedy’s uncle Robert  Kennedy, also a victim of US political violence, is fondly remembered even today.

In diplomatic terms, Tokyo is ultra sensitive and as shy as a geisha when it comes to “Japan-passing” which is to say, expect a hissy fit if the US does not give Japan sufficient face, or shows the slightest iota of diplomatic preference for China. As such, the Japan media was non-plussed with President Obama’s back-door appointment for the previous ambassador, John Roos, an unknown, uncharismatic campaign donor who was rewarded with a prestige posting to the detriment of bilateral ties. Caroline Kennedy’s appointment remedies this by speaking to Japan in a language it understands –not Japanese of course, but in the symbolic language of partisan diplomacy, shared elitist values and a charm offensive in the media.

Thus in Japan, the Kennedy legend is alive and well and kicking, arguably more so than anywhere else outside the US except Ireland, where JFK’s sister Jean Kennedy Smith was once appointed ambassador and where the Kennedy clan roots in County Wexford remain a point of pride.

In a more understated way, the appointment of Gary Locke as US Ambassador to China was also a shrewd choice. The optics worked for both sides, a triumph for Chinese-Americans whose long struggle to make it in America saw symbolic vindication, and a tip of the hat to China, the ancestral homeland which evinced some pride and curiosity as well, though not as effusively as in the case of the Kennedys in Ireland.

Although Ambassador Locke’s tenure as ambassador has not been quite the success once imagined, there was still a palpable sense of surprise and quiet disappointment when he announced he was stepping down.

Dispatching a Kennedy to Japan has upped the prestige stakes for soon-to-be-vacant Beijing post, and the stature and qualifications of Locke’s replacement will be studied closely for symbolic cues as to what it says about the Obama administration’s commitment to US-China ties.

The problem with American diplomacy is that it reflects problems at home, where class lines are increasingly sharply drawn and where the “guanxi” of elite lineage and photo-op potential of identity politics often guide the selection of candidates for very serious jobs that require hard-earned knowledge, cross-cultural training, and old-fashioned merit.

It’s been a while since the US appointed an ambassador to Japan who actually knew a thing or two about the country –John Roos went to Tokyo knowing little more of Japan than could be garnered from sushi shops in the Silicon Valley. Several of his predecessors were equally unfamiliar with the culture but otherwise effective, if only because they were political heavyweights that the Japanese elite could relate to, such as Walter Mondale, Howard Baker, and Mike Mansfield.

The appointment of a Kennedy to the Tokyo post is the kind of rum-to-riches legend that PM Abe Shinzo can identify with as he too hails from a political clan that, despite a history of murky historic business dealings and wrong-headed support for the Axis cause, has managed to successfully reinvent itself over and over. Abe's grandfather Kishi Nobusuke, was a wartime minister who exploited Chinese labor in Japan-occupied China, and was arrested on war criminal charges, only to turn around and become a pro-US prime minister, while his father, Abe Shintaro, was an influential foreign minister.

Given Obama’s obsession with the optics of identity, it’s hard to escape the sense that race was not a factor in Gary Locke’s appointment. The US Embassy in Beijing has seen one veritable China hand, J. Stapleton Roy, take the post, while Winston Lord and Clark Randt had at least rudimentary familiarity with diplomacy and the culture. Jim Sasser was no China hand, but a deft diplomat and a gentleman. Jon Huntsman’s purely political appointment was undermined by the perception that Obama had "exiled" him to Beijing in a Machiavellian move to keep him sidelined as a potential presidential contender. 

While there is nothing new about posh jobs being handed out as spoils or political favors, the Obama administration has taken back-door dealing to new heights. As such, the world’s greatest democracy is becoming more feudal in its diplomacy, even as developing nations shake off the vestiges of feudalism and cultivate diplomats through training and meritocratic means.

Not only are Chinese diplomats expected to speak English well, but China can deftly field Japanese-speaking ambassadors to Tokyo and Thai-speaking ambassadors to Bangkok, just to mention two examples.

The problem is, America is not much of a meritocracy anymore. The president has shown himself to have the ear of Wall Street, the Pentagon and the NSA, but is tone-deaf to the plight of the poor and the shocking rise of inequality on his watch. Social mobility is at an all-time low and the working poor cannot obtain a living wage, while the top 1% is filthy rich and getting richer.

Foreign policy closely mirrors domestic values, and Obama’s diplomatic appointments offer a window on how he sees the world; a world reeking of elitism, favoritism, identity politics and big money.

A non-merit based appointment can be inspired, and even a boon to bilateral relations, as the selection of Caroline Kennedy appears to be. But it also says something about the rise of inequality and the miasma of the current American mindset that name and fame and identity continue to trump more practical qualifications for sensitive diplomatic posts.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


 (Cartoon about enjoying peaceful rally by cartoonists Bancha/Khamin,  from Manager)

by Philip J Cunningham

When galaxies collide, strange things happen. Collisions are not inevitable, there’s a lot of empty space in space, but gravitational waves and tidal forces have a way of reshaping two systems in proximity, creating new alignments and novel groupings. The violent rip and tear of colliding systems can  create something new or precipitate sudden collapse.

Looking at the amorphous, color-tinted crowds assembling, expanding, contracting and regrouping in Bangkok from afar, across the chasm of cyberspace, across the
Twitterverse, one is struck by the overall fluidity and order of the chaos and disorder. Thais on all sides of the color divide are skilled and resourceful protesters and it shows.

This time, it’s not the redshirts who have the upper hand. Instead an eclectic mix drawn from factions blue and yellow, multicolor and no color, have donned tricolor flags and whistles to make themselves seen and heard. To the predations and manipulations of a greedy governing clan they are saying, Stop! Time for a change! Enough is enough!

The hard fact about collective demonstrating is that it is binary by nature; either you are with the crowd or you are not. As part of a crowd, you inevitably experience a loss of agency, like a free-standing star rotating around the black hole at the center of a galaxy.

In clusters of protest as in galaxies there are unwritten physical rules of attraction and repulsion that create order and alignment out of chaos, leaders can be found at the gravitational center, followers in the tails and spiral arms. 

Crowds have a way of self-policing, sometimes too harshly, sometimes not enough. Paradoxically, being bound by the unwritten rules of the crowd creates a sense of empowerment that makes it easier to break conventional rules; it’s easier to challenge a police line or takeover a public location when those around you are breaking the same rules at the same time.

Therein lies opportunity for transformative events, therein also lays the danger of otherwise decent people being egged on to do things one knows to be wrong. Self-appointed crowd leaders must keep an ear to the ground even as they reach for the sky. They need to set the tone by humble example, keeping calm and on message. Just as hate speech begets hate speech, non-violence begets non-violence, and small acts of kindness and generosity encourage more of the same.

There’s a time to hold, a time to fold. Cues to action and inaction simmer and circulate through a crowd, nonverbal cues set the mood and keep it cooperative and collective. There’s great strength in unity, until self-preservation comes to the fore, then all bets are off. To walk when others run or run when others walk can rip a crowd apart; patience, harmony and forbearance are key.

People power is powerful because numbers are a force multiplier; citizens who gather in large numbers are vulnerable, yet hard to move, hard to ignore, and hard to predict.

An energized crowd is a harbinger of a paradigm shift, a new galactic alignment that will bring about new constellations of power and new centers of gravity.

(excerpted from Bangkok Post, May 28, 2013)  "Democracy as we know it is being poisoned."

by Philip J Cunningham

Thai democracy has long been in crisis because it consistently produces undemocratic results and  results in an illiberal consolidation of power. The surreptitious four AM attempt by a partisan faction in parliament to impose an dubious amnesty bill on an unsuspecting public earlier this month is just one example of many. The apparent mastery of democratic form has not been matched by statesmanship that is democratic in spirit. 

Surely there is something wrong with a system that allows an ambitious fugitive in Dubai to be the puppet master of parliament, the “remote control” of the prime minister while his clan is the beneficiary of rampant corruption. 

Greedy, outsized schemes, whether it be hiking up the price of rice to unsupportable levels to reward regional allies, or unnecessary big-ticket items like high speed trains from China, a cash cow for those who adept at corruption by percentages, only burdens the Thai populace with debt, while increasing indebtedness to him and his corporate cronies.

Thailand is at a turning point, does it want to be truly democratic or not?

To the inevitable cry, if you don’t like the government you can vote them out, I say, nice textbook answer, but things don’t always work out that way. Tell that the frightened and confused Germans of the 1930’s, tell that to the exploited and oppressed Filipinos of the 1970’s, tell that to broken-hearted Americans frustrated with eight years of George W Bush and the war party, who then took part in a once-in-four-years ritual at the polls to chose between Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, with the result that the new man, as different as he appeared to be at first glance, from both his rivals and his predecessors, turned out to push the same policies, only more so, with a continuation of war, a continued reverence for big corporations and a continued servility to Pentagon and powers that be.

What has been happening on the streets of Bangkok is a necessary venting of pent up frustration, an active expression of democratic yearning, an assertion of minority speech coupled the right of assembly. The non-violent guerilla style tactics of taking temporary control of public property recalls the Occupy protests in the US; the spirit of Zucotti Park is alive at Soi Aree today. The classic marches on Ratchdomnern and other iconic centers draws on the heritage the Bangkok demonstrations of the 1970’s, Black May and the mass mobilizations of recent years.

It takes far more courage and commitment to take to the streets and sit-in at a public place under constant threat of harassment and crackdown than it does to drop a ballot in a box. These huge popular demonstrations are a blunt expression of democracy in action, a wishful manifestation of rule of the people by the people.

There is no saying where the current demonstrations will end, or what wrong turns Suthep and his comrades might take, or when tragedy might befall unlucky people in the wrong place at the wrong time when the inevitable crackdown and Thermidor sets in. But the people out there putting their lives on the line are worth listening to, because they are saying things that would otherwise find scant expression in a system dominated by the ruling party. 

It’s the voice of the disenfranchised opposition, speaking out, shouting out, trying to alter the fate of a nation that they see as being on a path to ruin.  before they lose their rights altogether. They are taking great personal risks and putting up with considerable discomfort to stop the runaway train of unchecked greed and coordinated power grab. They want their country back, they want fair play, they want to live in dignity, not debt.

Sunday, November 10, 2013


(Illustration from Thai Rath, October 22, 2013)

It's Punch and Judy time!

UK Prime Minister David Cameron famously said  “I’m fed up with the Punch and Judy politics,” but the tradition of comic bickering endures, in Britain and elsewhere, and Thailand’s peripatetic Thaksin is very much part of this tradition.

“Step right up, come one, come all. Welcome to Thailand’s very own Punch and Judy show.”

The puppet character named Punch is based on an ancient Italian prototype for the lord of misrule, Punchinello. The eager British adoption of Punch as one of its own dates to 1662 when the London writer and politician Samuel Pepys observed, with delight, a Covent Garden show put on by an itinerant Italian puppeteer. Punch has since been adopted and modified, freely interpreted in different ways in different times, but as a character he is consistently homely and corny, quick to resort to violence, and almost always preening and ridiculous. In one incarnation or another now, he’s been scheming and bamboozling and entertaining audiences for several centuries, falling in and out of favor like the tides of the sea.

While Thailand has a rich puppet tradition of its own, its modern politicians are globetrotters, prone to pick up foreign innovations and quick to borrow things from abroad. The fugitive former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who boasts opulent homes on three continents, including one in London, famously bought and sold Manchester City Football Club. Though Thaksin speaks only halting English and doesn’t seem to “get” the snooty, snobby British values of decorum, self-deprecation and gentlemanly demeanor, but he embodies something close to the hearts of the hoi polloi, something no less essential and quintessentially British, but in an older, earthier way.

He’s Thailand’s answer to Punch, the squawky-voiced, salt of the earth lord of misrule, the wooden-faced troublemaker, the pretender, the trickster who never leaves well enough alone. It’s his way or the highway; “That’s the way I do it” is the refrain.

When Thaksin was Prime Minister, his wife Pojamarn was his Judy, and while any wife is bound to suffer a certain amount of abuse at the hands of a partner with such a big head, Judy is a full-blooded character in her own right and, when the puppeteers are in the mood, she gives as good as she gets. 

In traditional Punch and Judy shows, some of the slapstick humor is derived from the way the cackling Punch and Judy neglect their baby who is put through a sausage-machine of abuse by the haplessly distracted parents. The violent plotlines rightly give pause to the politically correct, but perhaps appeal to deeper, darker instincts, like Grimm’s fairy tales and ghost stories told late at night.

Another key character in the Punch and Judy show is the policeman, friend, confidante, joker and rogue, and it’s not much of a stretch to find high-level Thaksin sidekicks who fit the role of jester cop to a “T”

What really keeps the Punch and Judy show going, however, besides the obvious tomfoolery and malapropisms and bad music and the carnival barker who herds the audience into the show in the first place, is the nonstop action and constant distraction that makes an audience feel they’ve been taken for a ride, perchance gotten their money’s worth.

The Punch and Judy show is nothing if not a resilient tradition, but it would not be nearly as resilient as it is if it were not constantly transmogrifying and reinventing itself.  It is still capable of bringing tears of joy, yawns of boredom and shudders of fear to kids of all ages, from nine to ninety two.

Since Thaksin divorced his wife and installed his sister Yingluck as his self-styled proxy and clone, the Thailand Punch and Judy show has undergone some changes in dramatis personae as well. The drama now puts the kid sister front and center for a whole new season of shenanigans, puns, pranks and punch lines. 

There is much humor and a bit of stage magic in the way Punch gets the new Judy to do his bidding, as if by remote control. He pops up here, he drops in there, upstaging her, controlling her like a zombie, just when she starts to find her stride.

But there’s a time and place for slapstick (a word derived from the Punch and Judy tradition of characters whacking one another to shake, shock and amuse the audience) and there are times when the punch lines (another term derived from the Punch and Judy tradition) cease to amuse or entertain.  When all the vain preening, artless antics, strutting, squawking madcap smacking gets to be a bit too much, the audience loses interest, the road show closes and the characters are retired until they can be brought back by popular demand.

So step right up, buy your tickets now, for the Punch and Judy show of Thailand.

The third act is in high dudgeon, it’s lively and spirited and full of fun and monkeyshines, but crowds are getting restless the show is rumored to be going bust, so run to see it now while you can.

"Stay away! I'm just trying to reset things back to zero!"      (from Komchadluk, Nation Group, November 1, 2013)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013



It’s inspiring to see Thai people from all walks of life and diverse political persuasion assembling peacefully in the streets, rallying against injustice, protesting in record numbers against a phony amnesty bill; a travesty of an amnesty that is but a transparent ploy to exonerate one person regardless the cost to society. Past tragedy cannot be easily forgiven or forgotten, and turning the law upside down to benefit a billionaire fugitive with a besmirched past makes a mockery of justice.

There’s so much that needs to be done, problems of poverty, problems of pollution, problems of miscarried justice and problems of communal violence that one can get the feeling that Thailand’s best days are in the past, that things are breaking at the seams. Does the nation really need to waste more time and more effort to throw up barricades and defenses against the scheming billionaire who seeks to hijack the ship of state for personal purposes?

The psychological roots of this individual’s pathological inability to stop stalking the body politic are difficult to know outside the family, but the damage suffered by the tyrant as a young boy, a hurt boy, a goofy Spongebob Squarepants of a lad, has come back to haunt all who have subsequently come into touch with him.  He’s mercurial climber, a political Pied Piper. He is homely, but not without charisma, and not unlike other charismatic leaders with a tyrannical bent, he wraps himself in the invisibility cloak of democracy while manipulating people with Machiavellian expertise. He has boundless energy for self-promotion, but shows little common sense and zero compassion. 

The damage his psychological issues have wreaked upon the nation is plain for all to see. When behind the reins of power he made a career of violating the peace and private lives of others, whether it was the unnecessarily gruesome drug war, or the unnecessarily cruel and provocative crackdowns on southern militants, whether it was tapping phones and collecting compromising information through telecoms, or the unnecessarily greedy application of political clout to bolster an already huge family fortune.

Even in exile the restless one has been a pest second to none, using his illicit treasure chest to fund and foment divisive social unrest, using his relatives to run interference and his willing co-conspirators to ruin things, by remote control.  Why is it so difficult for such a wealthy man to whom much good fortune has accrued to leave well enough alone? I once asked him, face to face, why he stayed in the hard-knock boxing ring of politics when he seemed to have it all, material wealth, a healthy family and more money in the bank than could be spent in a lifetime?

He said he had a “commitment” to Thailand because Thailand had been good to him.

That much is true. Thailand can be a truly wonderful place, especially if you have some money. But what if the place that has been so good to him needs more than anything else is for him to retire quietly and stop meddling with affairs of state? Can he do that? Does his so-called sense of commitment allow him to recognize that he is part of the problem, not the solution?

As best as one can observe, the pathology is such that the man will never feel that he has enough, even though he has more than most and nothing to complain about. When he sang the song “Let it be” to glad-handling followers in Cambodia, he sang the song poorly, not just because his voice was hoarse from excessive chattering and self-promotion, not just because his ears are incurably tone-deaf, but because he is constitutionally incapable of  “letting it be.”

He’s the kind of guy who always has to poke, to probe and violate. He’s the kind of guy who always to has mess, meddle, and take things that are not his to have. He’s the ultimate drama queen, never content to be ignored, never content to be outdone, and when he is, or thinks someone else might have the upper hand, he’ll try every trick in the book to get back to number one, to be a sty in the public eye, a whine in the public ear. He’s been known to cry, he’s been known to beg, he’s been known to play humble, he’s been known to play dumb. Always playing, always probing, always quick to see the affairs of state as being all about him. Always tooting his own horn, always quick to play victim, always trapped, lost, confounded and confused inside his own gigantic ego.

How much more national attention must wasted on combating the unwanted advances of this pushy, ambitious man? Never has Thailand been more full of promise and more full of peril. A tipping point is near, a sea change that will define politics for generations to come. Will Thailand become one giant hacienda for the rich, the connected and their power-hungry cronies?  Will the staying power of the billionaire's clan usher in an era of multi- generational family rule?

Or will Thailand prove to the world that it really is the land of the free, the independent, the proud and the brave. Will the much put-upon citizenry finally retake the day, retake the night, retake the streets and alleys and farms and fisheries of Thailand to make it even more beautiful, and truly free, free for justice to reign supreme, free for all the people, high and low?

A Reuters photographer recently captured an iconic shot of a truck full of anti-amnesty protesters waving the national flag and Buddhist flags against a blue sky, an uplifting image if there ever was one. The gesture of reaching upward in unison suggests there really is hope, and with hope there is a future again.

May the protests remain peaceful and politicians listen to the people!  Chai chai Chaiyo!