Thursday, January 31, 2013

THAILAND: FIRE IN THE SOUTH



BANGKOK POST               January 31, 2013       
Fire in the South poses existential threat to the nation



Violence returns to Ban Tanyong School in Narathiwat’sBacho district. In 2008, two buildings at the school were reduced to ruins in an arson attack. Earlier this month, Chonlathee Charoenchol, a teacher, was shot dead in front of his students during lunch.
Perhaps one day there will be a monument to all the brave teachers who sacrificed their lives trying to keep alive the light of education in Thailand's strife-ridden southern provinces.

But who could blame a teacher for not wanting to teach there now?
The latest victim is Chonlathee Charoenchol, who was shot dead in front of his students during lunch at Ban Tanyong School in Narathiwat province on Jan 23.
The Malay border area is indeed distant from Bangkok, but what transpires there is ignored at the peril of the nation as a whole. Pak tai has a strong regional identity with unique problems near the border. There have been tensions between ethnic Thais and ethnic Malays ever since the Sultanate of Pattani was incorporated into Thailand proper in 1909, but for the most part, social tensions were low-level and manageable.
The shocking upsurge in the cycle of violence that has cut down over 5,000 lives since 2004 is a blight on the nation. The systemic cruelty of insurgents who deliberately single out teachers and representatives of civil society is abhorrent. It is hard to find anything to say much about such cold-blooded insurgents, except perhaps to note that they too were once children and if they went to school, they owe a debt to teachers, whether they recognise it or not.
The war in the South is an existential threat to the nation's coherence as a whole. It puts the "Land of Smiles" in the top ten terror-ridden destinations in the world.
Journalistic wits have been calling Thailand the Thai-tanic ever since the economic crisis of 1997. Despite a total breakdown in navigation and a badly listing ship of state, Thai parliamentary politics still seems to consist of nothing more than the shuffling and reshuffling of lounge chairs on the deck of a doomed boat. The only new twist is that deck chairs are now being sorted by colour, the ship is captained by a Skype link, gangs roam the corridors and turf battles are breaking out as the water silently rushes in below.
If elected officials have been too busy playing power games to notice that the nation is in peril, one might at least expect bureaucrats and career professionals in the army and police to be focused on the job, but they too are caught up in Thailand's colour frenzy.
Chuan Leekpai is the last prime minister of Thailand under whose leadership the South was more or less at peace with the rest of the country. Things did not tumble out of control until the Thaksin war on drugs.
The currently "hot" border provinces of Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani (but not Trang for reasons worth researching) have been the locus of resistance against Bangkok. This is not just about Islamism; the border area was also a stronghold for the Communist Party of Thailand and their Malay allies.
In the South, it would seem, crimes of the state are more likely to be met with organised resistance than other regions, but the technique of fighting back is in itself brutal. The separatist resistance has been warped and distorted into the perfidy we see today, in the form of an insane insurgency that shoots teachers in front of kids.
If the Thai-tanic is listing, the Tai-tanic, the southernmost tip, is just about sunk.
The fuse for the fai-tai or "fire in the South" was ignited during the cruel and capricious campaign of provincial violence in 2003 in a so-called "war on drugs". Extrajudicial killings were the norm, and arbitrary provincial quotas came into play in an orchestrated orgy of violence. Those actions can be traced to the careless and cavalier political machinations of the man prosecuting the drug war, a man whose name, Thaksin, just happens to mean "South".
This was the first, and the most rotten, plank in the now-famed Shinawatra populism. Thaksin's 2003 war on drugs, diabolical though it was, found a ready and supportive audience among a frustrated public worried about the drug scourge in society at the time. High and low alike cheered him on in callous disregard to due process, legal rights and victim's lives, as long as government actions fed the perception that drug dealers were being snuffed out.
The poor and disenfranchised in Isan were easy targets, disproportionately, in the war on drugs, as they lacked effective redress or links to power. In contrast, radical underground organisations in the deep South, already practiced in skirmishes with the army, easily stoked by race hatred and a militant disposition, openly challenged the Thaksin administration with a call to arms.
Jan 4, 2004 saw the long-simmering discontent break out into open hatred and violence in the form of a deadly Muslim insurgent raid on an ammo depot in Narathiwat. Thaksin's first response was to say the negligent army guards who were killed in the raid "deserved to die".
Over the next two years, Thaksin called in the troops and the police and provided lots of ammo as he presided over a hot conflict that saw senseless killing on both sides.
Krue Se mosque in Pattani was stormed by Thaksin subordinates in April 2004, despite calls for restraint by veteran politician and Defence Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who was later denied a meaningful role in the South. Senator Kraisak Choonhavan and human rights groups cried foul play, but there was no accountability.
Half a year later, 84 young men died in the Tak Bai incident, not in the heat of battle, but after arrest, due to brutal and inhumane treatment as suspects were tied up and stacked in trucks and left, cold-heartedly or carelessly, to die in the heat of the sun.
Thaksin defended the army, saying the protesters were "weak from Ramadan fasting".
The disappearance and suspected murder of human rights activist and lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit also happened on Thaksin's watch that same year, a disgrace to the quality of justice in the realm. Thaksin's remark at the time? "Don't worry, I understand he had a fight with his wife. He'll be back in a day or two."
Thaksin personally took "control" of the conflict zone in 2005, suspending constitutional rights in the region and directing a crackdown.
The effect was like putting oil on fire. Ever since, the conflict has raged out of control, violence engendering more violence, revenge engendering more revenge. Subsequent prime ministers have tried and failed to put out the flames. Once the fuse was lit, the fire continued to burn, out of control, as it does today.
One cannot blame PM Yingluck for the smouldering situation she inherited in the South, but one can blame her for allowing her discredited and fugitive brother to run her administration long distance. If she is content to be a "proxy" and a "remote control" (Thaksin's words) then she has no self-respect, nor does the nation, and she should be replaced in a no-confidence motion.
The devastation wrought by bad policy in the South is tragic, almost beyond repair, but the killing has to stop and an accommodation reached. It is disappointing that prominent Thai Muslims such as Wan Mohamad Noor Matha and Sonthi Boonyaratglin have been no more successful than their Buddhist colleagues in cracking the problem, but perhaps something useful can be learned from that. Maybe the fire in the South is not primarily about religion, but something else. After all, millions of Thais who follow the Muslim faith live contentedly and peaceably in Bangkok and just about every province in Thailand.
The insurgents, meanwhile, kill Muslims who refuse to toe their line with the same alacrity as they target Buddhists; the most recent victim of a teacher shooting, Khru Chonlathee, was a Muslim.
The Thai press is repeatedly filled with indignant rumblings about the great injustice of the Preah Vihear case. That an old temple straddling the Isan border be internationally recognised as Cambodian territory has long rankled, and continues to rankle.
Thai patriots hate to see the beloved nation lose a single blade of grass, let along a stone temple and a few square kilometres.
What, then, of the Thai South? Are three entire provinces to be ignored, neglected and jettisoned just like that? Where is the outrage? Where are the demonstrations in solidarity with fallen teachers, monks, soldiers, shopkeepers and villagers?
The ruins at Preah Vihear are magnificent and inspiring, but their builders have been dead for a thousand years. The temple, patiently perched on a cliff in the wilderness, can wait.
What about the living? What about the infants, the children of the South, the innocent civilians, the courageous teachers? What about the Muslims loyal to the state, the peaceful practitioners of Buddhism? Where's the concern? Where's the humanity?

Philip J Cunningham is media researcher covering Asian politics.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

SELF-CENSORING SIAMESE SOAP OPERA


(Published in the Bangkok Post, January 9, 2013 as 

"NO MATTER THE DRAMA, THE JOKER'S OUT TO PLAY"




Two of the actors in and a poster of in the ‘Nua Mek 2’ drama series, whose ban is causing a social stir and threatening to implicate the Yingluck government and the ruling Pheu Thai Party.

The case of the popular soap opera Nua Mek is unusual because it's not everyday a powerful TV station suddenly self-censors, unilaterally banning its own popular show, without a plausible explanation.Spokesmen for the government headed by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra have been quick to deny political interference in the programming schedule at Channel 3. If that is true, then the wooden-headed, tone deaf whisperer who discreetly suggested that the popular TV show be banned is not technically a member of the government.
But the whisperer is clearly not a nobody either, but rather a person with the power to influence. Anyone with a voice compelling enough to stop a powerful, politically connected TV station dead in its tracks, causing it to lose masses of revenue and masses of viewer support is a contender. Such a fiat carries a kind of quasi-governmental authority.
Who could it be? The brass at Channel 3 are not talking, for reasons known best to them, but their silence and lack of transparency lend credence to the notion that the source of political interference is a gloved hand that doesn't want to be ungloved just yet.
A commercial TV licence is not unlike a permit to print money; it's a booming business when left to do what it does best, doling out commercial propaganda while entertaining the masses. TV stations are not without political influence either, any corporation which combines a healthy cash flow with the power to influence via the media and news delivery is a contender in its own right. But even a commercial powerhouse like Channel 3 has an Achilles' heel when it comes to getting its permit renewed. It is the prospect of losing the permit that makes a proud TV station humble, and ultimately beholden to a very small handful of individuals who are in a position to influence the granting and denying of permits.
Viewers of TV are not without a voice, though. The unspoken arrangement is for the viewer to subject him or herself to annoying adverts in exchange for information and entertainment. The adverts, even the less-than-annoying ones, need to result in ka-ching at the cash register, or sooner or later, the sponsors, looking at the bottom line, will pull out. Channel 3 is well within its rights to disappoint its viewers, but it's a two-way street. TV viewers are well within their rights to stop watching it, or more to the point, to boycott products advertised on that station.
In business terms, what Channel 3 did makes no sense, unless it was a very dumb and daring gimmick designed to shock and disappoint with the long-term goal of winning back a wider audience.
But from the best information available at the moment, it appears the TV station is not bold but rather timid. It paid for the drama, and was prepared to air one or more penultimate episodes, until a word from somewhere instilled a fear of going forward with the programme. There are only a handful of people whose whisper is forbidding enough to give a major moneymaker like Channel 3 cold feet.
There need not be a paper trail; word of mouth or an unmonitored phone call is sufficient to put the fix in, especially if the person doing the talking is in the habit of thinking for others.
Although the banning of the show is a political embarrassment that threatens to implicate the Yingluck government and the ruling Pheu Thai Party, the voice could very well have come from the margins of the Thai political world.
If so, it allows those in power to claim with a straight face, and at least superficial honesty, that "the government had nothing to do with it".
Let's assume the government didn't do it. So who's left?
Quite a few people, it turns out, because the quadrophenia of the Thai political system works in strange and unpredictable ways.
The multipolar quality of the system can be likened to the four suits in a deck of cards, in which the government is but one of four suits. To say the government didn't do it is merely to acknowledge that the government is not playing with a full deck.
There are other suits and other nuances that need to be taken into account.
Hearts - Ms Yingluck and the Pheu Thai Party might be charitably described as the hearts of the system. After all, her party is the natural successor to the Thai Rak Thai political machine, which for a brief, fleeting moment, hijacked the heart symbol as a political icon.
Diamonds - The financiers, unelected and perhaps unelectable, are wealthy, well-heeled and want influence. What suits them better than diamonds?
Clubs - The grassroot activists, modest and close to the earth, constitute the suit of clubs. Jatuporn Prompan, Prompong Nopparit and Korkaew Pikulthong are among the face cards in this suit. Nattawut Saikuar used to be a club, but he moved over to hearts in a reshuffle.
Spades - The Shinawatra clan, which has power in spades, yes, why not call a spade a spade? They and other in-country intimates are the colour cards at the top.
No matter how you shuffle the deck it's a compound government, no matter how you cut the deck, high cards beat low cards.
Needless to say, in this particular game, spades trumps the other suits.
But wait? Isn't there something that trumps even spades?
Yes, there is. It's the joker, the jester, the wild card, the trickster. Strictly speaking, he's not in the deck, but he would like to be, and until his card is drawn, he'll try every trick in the book to get back in the game.


Philip J Cunningham is media researcher covering Asian politics.