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!