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Blog Archive June 2010

Culture of Complaining

Everyone, it seems, has a complaint. Now and again. Some people complain more than others. You likely know someone who fits the bill. We all do. No matter how we trim back our relationships, Facebook pages, and socializing, we find ourselves in a situation or next to a person who complains bitterly about not getting a backstage pass to Lady Gaga’s dressing room.

Some cultures are complaint infested. Other cultures are complaint adverse. Men complain about women. Women complain about men. People complain about restaurant service, hotel rooms, the size of airline econ seats, their boss, their spouse, their neighbors, their weight, their hair, their teeth, small dogs, religion, cold food, sex, bad diets, boredom, dating, noise, taxes, the weather, the government, TV news, foreigners, genital warts and, of course, other drivers.

Read more: http://www.internationalcrimeauthors.com/

Posted: 7/2/2010 1:30:26 AM 


Saying of the Day

"We should read to give our minds a chance to breathe the oxygen of ideas."
—Christopher G. Moore

Posted: 6/30/2010 11:57:04 PM 



Four of the Vincent Calvino series: Spirit House, Asia Hand, The Risk of Infidelity Index and Paying Back Jack are widely available in the United States, Britain and the Commonwealth. That would also include the second-hand market, too. You won’t have to search high and low in your city to find a copy published by Grove/Atlantic.

The problem readers have is finding other titles in the Vincent Calvino series or anyone of my 10 standalone novels. That means English language editions for 17 of my novels, outside of Thailand, are not available through bookstores. Online vendors, seeing an opportunity, often quote staggering prices of up to $483.00 for a copy of A Bewitching Smile. A fair number of the backlist of my books are on offer for over $100.

My Thai publisher sells online my books for less than the Thai retail price found in any bookshop in Bangkok. Have a look at my publisher’s website. http://www.heavenlakepress.com/buybooks.htm

The fly in the ointment—there’s always one—is the cost of international shipping.

Getting the books shipped to readers across the world at an affordable price has been a challenge as there is a high shipping cost. The publisher passes 70% of that cost to the buyer and absorbs the other 30%. The actual shipping costs include the cost to register the shipment. That cost isn’t cheap.

My publisher in Thailand has come up with a way to further reduce shipping cost and pass along that saving to readers. Also there is an incentive to buy more than one book, including a free copy of a signed first UK edition of Asia Hand (while the quantity last) by ordering 5 or 10 copies of any of my titles.

After you finish reading one of my books, you can put it on ebay and pay for the next half-dozen books.

I hope that you’ll give one of these new plans a try.

Posted: 6/29/2010 12:11:24 AM 


Barry Eisler, Inside Out


I place a lot of stock in authenticity when it comes to fiction. The best novels are written by authors who aren’t only talented writers but draw upon first hand experience, bringing to the reader insight into matters that are largely hidden from the general public.

Barry Eisler is such an author. He’s a former CIA agent who has become a best selling novelist. Inside Out, is his most recent novel. It will be released on Tuesday 29th June 2010. It is the kind of book that only someone with Eisler’s background could write. And it is a book that should be read not only as a first-rate thriller but a testimony from an author who has seen inside the cage and understand the nature of violence that goes on inside.

The basic story is the theft of 92 tapes showing CIA torture sessions. The tapes have recorded the kind of explosive images that would punch a huge hole through American creditability and accountability. A jailed black operations agent is offered freedom if he agrees to find and return the lost tapes to the CIA. But he’s not alone in the quest. It is this competition that keeps the reader turning the pages.

Eisler balances a high wire act of the covert operation with the consummate skill of a true pro who knows what the inside looks like. You enter into the world of black op soldiers, agents, handlers, hustlers, and officials who live and work inside that murky world. Inside Out, also is one of the best descriptions of modern day torture chambers and those who work inside them.

In an era where torture is justified in terms of larger political goals, Barry Eisler’s thriller raises many of the unsettling issues that surround torture, its victims, and the political systems that use it. Inside Out will have you questioning the nature of violence, how it is used, abused and justified.

Posted: 6/28/2010 3:26:07 AM 


ASIA HAND (2010)

The Black Cat (Grove imprint) edition of Asia Hand is now on sale at amazon.com for $9.45. This is the fourth novel in the Vincent Calvino series to be published by Grove/Atlantic. Copies should be (or soon be) in an American, Canadian or British bookstore near you.

Asia Hand had good reviews when first published by White Lotus in 1993.
The Black Cat edition is also getting good press.

Asia Hand is a skillfully crafted, addictive ride through one of the planet's most raw and vivid cities. Moore and Calvino define the dark pungent cocktail that is Asian noir.”
—Eliot Pattison, author of the “Inspector Shan” series

Posted: 6/25/2010 10:38:07 AM 


The Monopoly of Violence: The case for firing General Stanley McChrystal

As an author of crime fiction, my literary world is thoroughly salted with violence. Like a good miner, I spend a great deal of time in the mine examining the ore, picking off a murder, a mugging, or a robbery from the walls of the community where I live. Bangkok. Violence isn’t so much a theme of literature as a way of life for most people around the world. In pre-historical times, violence was much worse. Authors of crime fiction like myself study the causes of violence. We are always alert for stumbling on the hidden trap door where, once opened, we can explore why violence happens.

Localized, individual acts of violence we class as crimes. The police handle the offenders and the suspects are processed through a civilian court system with certain safeguards and determined to be guilty or innocent depending on the evidence the government produces. This is how a society dispenses justice. And justice matters if a modern political system is to remain stable. Notions of crime, police and justice are recent in our history.

Read more: http://www.internationalcrimeauthors.com/

Posted: 6/25/2010 10:37:26 AM 


The Monopoly of Violence

Tomorrow 25 June I'll be blogging about the dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal. Below is the start of the essay:

The Monopoly of Violence
The case for firing General Stanley McChrystal

As a author of crime fiction, my literary world is thoroughly salted with violence. Like a good miner, I spend a great deal of time in the mine examining the ore, picking off a murder, a mugging, or a robbery from the walls of the community where I live.

Posted: 6/24/2010 3:33:02 PM 


Winston Churchill

Don't worry about avoiding temptation. As you grow older, it will avoid you.

—Winston Churchill

Posted: 6/23/2010 10:49:11 AM 


Boston Globe looks at anonymous posters

"Who are these people who spend so much of their days posting anonymous comments, and what is motivating them?" The Boston Globe weighs in, "After years of letting anonymity rule online, many media heavyweights, from The Washington Post to The Huffington Post, have begun to modify their policies. The goal is ...to take the playground back from anonymous bullies and give greater weight to those willing to offer, in addition to strong views, their real names." Link: http://is.gd/cYU4Y

Posted: 6/22/2010 5:30:07 PM 



This question lies at the heart of a recent Guardian essay “The human heart of the matter” by Geoff Dyer. Dyer, himself a novelist, looks at recent books set in Afghanistan and Iraq including David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers and Sebastian Junger’s War and finds that non-fiction has relatively more strength than fiction. And that American journalists, whose companies provide them with real luxury more able than their British counterparts.

The Good Soldiers


It’s not just the money, according to Dyer, but the American journalists benefit from the “all-round flexibility and versatility of American English” while their British cousins struggle inside the language cocoon of class. The sharing of real-life characters in a number of the non-fiction book has Dyer hitting a high note as such ‘real’ characters interconnect into some grand epic as if all these non-fiction were a multi-volume work.

As for past novelists who later wrote about a war they had fought in, Dyer mentions: Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. But their timing was all off for our modern, faster-than-a-speeding-bullet world. So only non-fiction can come to grips with the material in the time needed to make a mark.

There is so much wrong with much of what Dyer wrote and implied that it is difficult to know where to start. The essay has the fingerprints of David Shields and his Reality Hunger, an anti-novel screed, all over the essay. Like a lot of other people in publishing, Dyer has drunk the Kool-Aid, nodding that Shields is right about uselessness of reading a Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq war novel. Not, now in 2010.

Donkey is a concept Dyer borrows from one of the non-fiction authors. The characters in the book, drawn from real life, are have referred to as their “donkey” – a real flesh and blood character and like a good vampire, the duty of the non-fiction author is to suck every last noun, adjective and verb out of the victim, assemble them into a pattern, making the donkey seem more or less suitably complex, before moving on to another ‘real life’ character and a new chain of events. Like Shields, Dyer is a convert to the idea books are data dumps, mineshafts from educated miners, who go down the shaft, watching the donkeys rather than looking for the gold. The other seduction is the non-fiction author’s personal journey into the terror zone of war. The implication being that unless your own ass has been on the line in a fire-fight what right do you have to write about one? This is a point of view for sure.

With a little working this idea could be adapted and extended to abolish historical, horror and science fiction. War is organized, state sponsored violence. But, at its core, is the ugly coil of violence, hissing, lunging, fangs showing. Crime is more ad hoc. Perhaps only police reporters should write fiction about crime. Though they might not be as well paid as their foreign correspondent counterparts, but, if American, would speak the lingo of the donkeys running drugs, numbers and prostitutes. The fact is the overwhelming number of crime authors aren’t working or ex-cops, judges, prosecutors and public defenders who see a steady parade of these donkeys and their acts of violence throughout their working day. Most working crime authors come from outside the circle where violence is an organic part of their daily life.

That tells me, that in terms of violence on the micro level, readers value the gift of a vivid and sustained imagination, rooted in reality, rather than demand that the author has undergone a series of similar experiences.

It’s a mistake to cage your imagination and dreams in the razor wire of actual characters and real events of violence. Following an imaginary donkey, won’t win you the non-fiction author’s ‘reality’ cup, but it may be your fictive character’s point of view is more salient and perceptive than any real donkey in the field.

Let’s start with some novels that Dyer doesn’t mention. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American is (last time I looked) a novel set in the Vietnam War. The French War. A novel that the State Department might have wished to flip through, taken few notes, had a couple of interior seminars before landing troops. That novel is still in print, read and studied 56 years after it was published. It didn’t take years and years after French defeat to be published either. Neither Graham Greene’s deficiencies (being British) in pay nor the anchor of his upper class, privileged education failed to sabotage The Quiet American and it might be argued because he wasn’t an American that he saw them more clearly than they saw themselves. If Graham Greene had written The Quiet American as a non-fiction account of his time as a journalist covering the war, the cool stuff from the front lines, the deaths, the horror, the boredom, would that have been a better way to handle the material?

Dyer also believes that the professional journalist/author is the best person to tell the non-fiction tale and not the soldiers who, as donkeys, provide the material for their betters. Dyer gives a couple of examples of poor warrior accounts of Iraq. No doubt that many soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan will write their personal accounts and with modern publishing online, those accounts will circulate in a way that wouldn’t have happened in previous wars. A lot of those accounts while of great release and interest for the author, along with his or her family, friends and neighbors, by commercial standards, the writing is repetitive, clumsy, distracting the reader. The quality of any book is the delicate entanglement of story, pacing, turn of phrase, the embedded magical moments when meaning and insight leap like a flame on a dark night from the words of a professional who skillfully lights them. That said, it doesn’t follow that a soldier who isn’t a writer can produce a brilliant war novel. And for the same reason Raymond Chandler, who was an oil company executive, could write powerful novels about crime and violence in Los Angeles without ever being a cop or private investigator.

Try reading, for example, The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam by Bao Ninh. It is hard to believe that a professional journalist at the top of his game could have written a non-fiction account as powerful and moving as this novel. Bao Ninh shows the fundamental weakness of the David Shields cult. Lurking behind the reality, the shadows beyond the donkeys, are the larger truths of what does to people, their hearts, expectations, and attitudes.

The more daunting task is for an author’s to use introspection and insight to make sense of the reality of the mess, the hopelessness, fear and despair spawned by violence. That is also the goal in a non-fiction war book. Read Bao Ninh’s novel about his Vietnam War and ask yourself if this soldier’s story would have been more effective as a non-fiction book. The non-fiction book, should take over the literary war scene by bringing in some of these novelistic techniques to explain the futility and mess of murder. There is the heat of battle and there are the long nights of doubt and reflection. Dyer is on the side of non-fiction authors who wish to occupy this high ground alone. I wouldn’t bet all of my money on non-fiction of war to satisfy my literary need.

George Orwell wrote the splendid Homage to Catalonia, a non-fiction account of his Spanish Civil War experience in Barcelona. I suspect most people have forgotten about this book if they ever had heard about it in the first place. But mention 1984 or Animal Farm—novels that, may in their own way have absurdity of war and violence as a theme—and most people would heard about these books. Orwell’s essays are also still read and studied around the world. But Dyer’s essay is about non-fiction books about war; and on that score, Homage to Catalonia, a first hand account of the politics, personalities, ideologies, and combat, written shortly after the events, has almost no modern audience.

Emotional choices matter as does the collateral damage that spreads far beyond the immediate wounds and sudden deaths. Certainly non-fiction war accounts do and have charted the deep psychological and emotional issues arising out of combat. But is a non-fiction account the best vehicle to satisfy this hunger? Or does fiction allow for a much deeper explanation of the mental make up of the donkey reality on the battlefield? The hunger is to understand how men in war are all of us under great stress that comes with being shot at.

The answer to the above questions is: it depends. Graham Greene and Bao Ninh are powerful examples against the Reality Hunger fundamentalism. Another example is William E. Holland, a helicopter fighter pilot, Ph.D. English Literature Stanford University, Rhodes Scholar, and author, wrote a Vietnam war book: Let A Soldier Die. This was one of the first Vietnam novels published in the States and by someone who becme a professional author. Holland served as a combat helicopter pilot in Vietnam. Holland demonstrates you can, if lucky, read about a reality donkey in combat written by such donkey. There were many Vietnam War novels but Holland’s Vietnam War was one of the first that filtered the reality of combat through a novelistic sensibility that heightened the impact of violence and unrivaled the coded language of men at war.

This website is called The International Crime Authos Reality Check, which means we take ‘reality’ seriously, and we take it seriously within the context of crime fiction that we create. If Dyer’s analysis is correct, we have no business writing about violence. Though given our backgrounds, a number of us have been near or in battle zones only means we should be using those experiences to write non-fiction books.

Novels (and to call them non-fiction novels is like calling a ladyboy a girl.) I come down on the side that writing off the war novel as inferior doesn’t square with the past, and I don’t think that present non-fiction authors have seized the high ground for their exclusive use. There will always be a Graham Greene, Bao Ninh, George Orwell and William E. Holland who bring us the experience of war that we can never forget, and one that will live when much of their non-fiction accounts set in Afghanistan and Iraq is food for worms. Or compost for new sources of oil millions of years into the future, providing the basis for yet more wars, more accounts, and more forgetting. It’s not witnessing the violence and mess, it is writing a framework where the meaning of ruined lives, destroyed lives can be redeemed. Fiction or non-fiction, the hardest connection is the link between that literary ‘there, there’ aspect of a character’s mind with that part of your reader’s mind and heart, the place where you quietly puzzle together the nature of suffering and loss.

Posted: 6/18/2010 1:35:51 AM 


Bangkok gets noirer

From the

Bangkok gets noirer

In the latest in the Vincent Calvino series, crime writer Christopher G. Moore does what he does best: kill someone and let the brash, unsuave, unpretentious Calvino unearth the dirty details. In Asia Hand, Vinnie — along with the sophisticated Thai cop Colonel Prachai (Pratt), his partner in solving crimes — sets off to find the murderers of a farang cameraman. What follows is a journey into the big, bad, dark world of Bangkok politics and double-dealings. The stakes are high when luck forsakes the duo. A happy-ending? Surprise us!"

Posted: 6/16/2010 5:34:49 AM 


Hollywood Movie for Vincent Calvino Series Moves One Step Ahead

The Hollywood Reporter says, “Screenwriter Chase Palmer has been hired to adapt the mystery novel “Spirit House,” written by Christopher G. Moore, for FilmNation Entertainment.”

On the question of the Calvino movie Franchise, Killer Film reports:

“Palmer is also putting together a draft for the upcoming movie Dune. Production for Spirit House is still in the baby stages at this moment, so nobody else is reported to be attached. It’s pretty easy to assume that they want to make a franchise out of this, given the plain fact that this novel is one of eleven books that center on the same private eye character and his dangerous adventures. It’s now merely a matter of whether or not the execution will be good enough to boost that kind of revenue, as is the risk with every other potential franchise film out there nowadays.”

Posted: 6/15/2010 1:22:35 AM 


The Quantum Curator of images

At the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on Thursday evening 10 June 2010 a large audience turned out to watch a series of videos shot during the May 14th to 19th period when violence erupted in parts of Bangkok. The panelists were photographers and cameramen (no women on the panel) who had, often at great personal risk, shot compelling images. After watching almost one hour of the events unfold through these images, I had the question as to what to make of what I saw on the TV monitors.

I suspect that I wasn’t alone in feeling the powerful emotions that images of being dead bodies, the wounded, soldiers firing M16s and armed demonstrators throwing firecrackers, Molotov cocktails. There were also images of the Men In Black (MiB), the name given to a group of men who wore (mostly) black and were armed with handguns or M16s or other weapons. Those on the panel contradicted the government’s claim that there were 500 hundred such MiB. It is likely to be exceedingly difficult to find out the exact number, who these mystery were, their affiliations with outsiders, their connection to the Red Shirt demonstrators, and who financed, organized and led these men. Or if indeed there were multiple groups of MiB. These MiB moved like particles in a quantum system. Everyone sought to collapse the quantum state and measure what was inside the war zone.

There were images of MiB. We saw photographs and video footage of the MiB on the streets of Bangkok. But any video or photograph is limited to place and time. A snapshot of time and place doesn’t always reveal the context or provide perspective. We see through the camera’s eye. We can’t see beyond what is being shown. We can only guess what had occurred a few minutes or hours before the photograph or video was shot, and similarly from such images we had no way of knowing what happened after the photographer or cameramen moved on.

I have previously written about the dangers of false memories. This sets limits on how memories work, can be manipulated, altered, edited and controlled. With visual images, there is also the danger of filtering which leads to blindness in the brain’s ability to capture what is in the picture. In a recent article, the BBC calls this ‘change blindness.’ A photograph can be altered in such a way that our mind filters out the change. We simply ‘can’t’ see from how one photograph contents different information from the previous one. The color of a butterfly’s wings may go unnoticed as it changes between two shots. It’s not that we can’t see obviously, unless visually impaired we can. But even though we have sight, we are in significant ways blind to what is before us. Illusionists make a good living in finding our ‘blind spots’ and using them to their advantage. We are tempted to believe the illusionist has used ‘magic’ because we wish not to believe that we can’t see what is before our eyes.

Our visual reception is more fragile than we wish to believe.

Please follow this set of simple rules.

Watch this short video. And stop watching at 38 seconds! Watch it to that point. We will come back to it. Seriously, do not cheat! In the video you will see a group of basketball players, some in white and some in black passing two balls around. Your goal is to count how many times the ball is passed by those wearing white shirts. It’s that simple. Remember, count just the passes of the ball by those wearing white. Once the movie is over, write down the number of passes you have counted, Do not watch the video after 38 seconds until instructed.”

At the end of the essay, I’ll give you another link. Before going to that link, I’d like to discuss the idea that the way our visual memory is processed in the brain is just good enough for evolutionary purposes. Evolution rarely achieves perfection. Good enough makes all the difference to fitness needed to survive. That is true of your brain. My brain. Everyone’s brain. Regardless of political affiliation, ethnic background, education, gender, we are running the same basic hardware system. The fact it operates inside our skulls isn’t something we think very much about. Nor do we care to admit that brains are far from foolproof in processing reality. Our mind if filled with visual holes and blind spots and open to suggestions that makes us see what isn’t there. We need to understand our limitations with a sense of humility or we will fall into traps and not what has happened.

Returning to the visual images I saw at the FCCT, I suspect these videos and photos are just the tip of the iceberg. There are likely hundreds, if not thousands, of video clips and photographs inside cameras, on computer hard drives, floating around the Internet on blogs, Facebook, and other social networks—including some still photographs and video footage that I shot on Rama IV Road between May 14th thru 17th. In other words, a virtual, digital mountain of potential evidence, thousands of stories, mostly short stories, captured by thousands of ‘authors.’ How does anyone go about evaluating and analyzing such widely covered series of related or unconnected events?

The government has set up a Truth Commission to find out what happened in Bangkok during April and May 2010. That is one way of creating a process to examine what happened. But as in the recent no-confidence parliamentary debate, there are bound to be  images that the parties in conflict will show to ‘prove beyond doubt’ that the other side acted irrationally as the clear aggressor and that their side suffered as victim. That is human nature. We tend to look for evidence that supports (rather than contradicts) what we believe happened.

A Truth Commission is mandated to find the ‘true’ story of what happened. That means going through and weighing the authenticity, reliability and accuracy of eyewitness testimony, photographs, images, and physical evidence from forensic experts, police, doctors, and others. But it is the pull of images that draws us to making judgments, forming opinions, making findings of fact. The process, on the surfaces, seems to reassuringly objective, neutral, and rational. In fact, a truth commission operates not unlike a museum curator who must decide what best represents the exhibit. Choosing some images over others as ‘better’ evidence will raise controversy. This is true of a museum, too. But in the political realm the stakes are much higher, the emotions more raw and on the surface, and the outcome has wide-reaching and long-lasting implications.

Recall the video that you watched (remember only once)?
Then proceed to step two.

Once you have finished with step two, return to the video. Pick up from 38 second and finish watching the video.

By not paying attention, we miss important elements before our eyes. By paying too much attention, our eyes trick our brain as to what is before us. What happened in Bangkok on 10th April 2010 and between 14th to 19th May 2010 will be debated for years to come. What makes these images important is the way ‘violence’ has been recorded, preserved, and displayed. Acts of violence happen quickly; in seconds or minutes. The visual recording freezes that act, taking it outside of time and space.

No matter what ‘truths’ the Truth Commission finds about the sources and causes of the violence, there will be those who accuse others of ‘blindness’ or of focusing on the wrong things. That means finding the truth won’t end the conflict or satisfy the factions at war with one another as to the meaning, extend, and cause of the violence.

The only way to end a war and stop a repeat of the violence is to find a way for both sides to claim some part of their own truth, to extend a gesture of respect for truth of the other side, and a willingness to find a peace where these truths can co-exist. That’s should be part of any roadmap toward the elusive goal of harmony. This roadmap has much more to do with a change in mindset of those in conflict than with finding the absolute truth of who did what to do to whom and why they did what they did.

Remember if you didn’t see the man in the gorilla suit, neither did the next person. He was there all the time. Only you were focused on something else. Counting. Getting to peace is to stop counting so you can win the prize of being right. It is admitting that we all got it wrong. Then we can start to understand how our cherished senses often let us down.
A number of scientists have argued that brain activity creates a quantum state. And we know from Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger that the notion of uncertainty is embedded in physical properties at the quantum level. The mere observation and measurement of a particle at the quantum level alters it within the system. You can measure the position or velocity of a particle but you can’t do both.

We may be up against similar limitations when we observe and process information from pictures, videos, and other evidence. We do this in the name of ‘truth.’ But we may pay a price for finding this ‘truth.’ By measuring and judging the truth of the image, we have fixed it in time and profoundly altered the possibility of other truths emerging. The uncertainty principle teaches that ‘uncertainty’ describes the nature of the system where the physical properties and measuring occur. We, for better or worst, may discover that our exploration for facts, truth and objectivity is also dictated by the limitations that exist inside a quantum system.

Posted: 6/13/2010 10:31:21 PM 


Bandwidth, Social Networks and Political Dissent

Politics in Thailand, as in most countries, is a tug of war between the past and the future. The constitution and institutions function as setting the ground rules for the tug of war and assign referees who show a red card when one side violates the rules. That is the theory. Nation states arose as way to exercise on sovereignty over geographic borders. The idea of exercise of that sovereignty as the internal affairs of states within those borders is an old, established one.

It is hard to let go of the idea that geographic borders will matter less in the future. Borders are in the processing of diminishing in importance with collateral consequences for sovereignty, constitutions and political institutions. Place matters less than it once did. Place is analogue. We have entered a digital world that, for communications purposes, makes geographic borders irrelevant.

For hundreds of years the British parliamentary system has been a model for establishing and enforcing the ground rules. It has functioned successfully in many countries including my own, Canada. That functionality, along with the underlying idea of secure geographical borders, aren’t often discussed. Not because they are off limits for political discussion, but because people has assumed that the present is pretty much a reflection of the past.

What is the game changer? What is making the old political paradigm shaky in Thailand and elsewhere? Part of the answer can be traced to the amount, speed, and nature of the information along a new distribution system. The torrid of words, videos, opinions, articles, and images delivers a megaton of information into a system that was geared for the days of the self-loading musket.

The Red Shirts in Thailand are a case study in how this change is working through a political system. Think of the Red shirts as the canary in the Thailand political coal mine, and Thailand as the canary in the global political coal mine. By and large the rural population in the North and Northeast of Thailand (the South is a different story to be dealt with another time) has a much higher standard of living than was enjoyed twenty years ago. Traveling in Isan in the 1980s, I found villages where most houses didn’t have electricity or TV. Neighbors exchanged information with neighbors, and the visitors who came into the village brought in ideas and information. But those ideas and information were not significant to the overall attitude or to the image of the villagers.

Political commentators have a variety of explanations for the Red Shirt movement, the demonstrations in Bangkok, and the resentment and anger that has been said to be the cause, by some, and the effect, by others. The question I have is with the improved standard of living, why did all of this happen in 2010? Commentators are divided over the significance of urban elites as opposed to rural populist, ethnic divisions, regional difference including language and historical variations underpinning the regions, economic grievances, distribution of wealth and so forth. There is an element of truth in each. But there is something still missing in the analysis. The role of how new information sources and networks have come together to shape expectations and drive behavior.

One wild card has been the role of the Internet, SMS, Twitter, Facebook and other online social networks. These forces have been building for some time. Thus it is reasonable to ask the question, “Why now?”

There is a considerable audience, including the government, which answers this question by tracing the organization and financing of the Red Shirts to ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Let’s examine this answer by going back in time. In ancient times, when someone was exiled that was the end of that person’s influence. They no longer officially existed, and they could be forgotten simply because no reminder was left behind. Information about them was ‘lost’ in the system. People ‘forgot’ about the exile. But in modern times, the Internet has made this kind of ‘forgetting’ obsolete. Exile no longer works to cut off the exiled person’s influence as the flow of words, sound bites, and images continue giving the exile a virtual presence.

To the frustration of the authorities, the exile is not physically present but is able to finance and lead from a distance with nearly same efficiency. Being absent no longer matters. This is the age of drone warfare. The government has reacted with vilification and censorship. Neither approach has been particularly effective to drive a wedge between the exiled and his followers (paid for or otherwise). This approach of enforced forgetting worked well in the past. But that time has passed. Now no one can be forced to forget. Especially when a digital presence can’t be erased. Exile no longer has the same meaning as in the past. Indeed a case can be made that such an approach undermines the institutions that referee the tug of war between the past and future.

Why has that time passed not just in Thailand but everywhere else?

The governments and institutions they control are no longer in full control of the message. The villages no longer are limited to TV and radio controlled by the government. The authorities could control what people knew about political activities and institutions of power and authority. And just as important, they could limit the amount of information about how such power and authority was exercised.

Over the next 20 to 50 years, all of this will change dramatically. Not just for Thailand but for governance around the world. What the Red Shirts are showing us is the desire to reallocate power even though those who are upset about political arrangements are materially better off than their parents and grandparents. It is not just about who has the money. Governments have been accustomed to setting rules about monitoring its citizens but have not been forthcoming about monitoring the people who exercise power. In the past, people accepted this unequal monitoring as the normal order of things.

That has changed and the change will accelerate as the bandwidth expands. It is the expansion of the bandwidth to the countryside and slums of large cities that allows vast amounts of information to be pumped into the collective consciousness. Information is also cheap. You no longer need to be rich to be informed. Use Skype and make international calls for free. Post your latest fashions, opinions, and rants on your Facebook page. Twitter your friends when you are happy, or when you are sad. The images and opinions and dreams of the world are alive and in your face twenty-four hours a day.

We are close to the day when the bandwidth will allow everyone (and I choose that word carefully) to monitor every heart beat, every activity, conversation, opinion, association twenty-four hours a day. This is abhorrent to most of us. But the future doesn’t belong to us; it belongs to a generation that will have different concepts of privacy than us. A new generation of political leaders will run on platforms that include a commitment to ‘life-blogging’. They will pledge to not turn the camera off during the tenure of their office. Every room, every meal, every person they meet, when they sleep, who they sleep with, will be recorded.

In Thailand there is a 24/7 TV Channel called Panda Channel. The camera is always on Lin Ping and her mother. A Panda’s life watched in ‘real time’ on TV has modeling potential for where we are going with the new technology. The CCTV cameras are the start. Life will be led in front of such cameras. The public record will account for all time, all conversations, and activities. The standby arguments of national security will no longer carry the day to turn the camera off. The kind of deception, trickery, corruption and deceits of the past will be viewed by future generations as a primitive system that led to wars, massacres, starvations, and related nastiness our species is noted for. The most monitored class will become the political class. The arrival of Panda Channel for the political class, of course, might never happen. But that’s the direction politicians will head because most of them want attention twenty-four an hour before an audiences. Meaning, PM TV could catch on. One day. Whatever the distribution, the possibility that their activity is audited twenty-four hours a day would alter significantly alter politics.

We occupy the very beginning of great political change. No one can predict how the existing institutions will change to accompany a networked information system that puts those in power inside a fish bowl. All the signs point to the big fish of the ocean being forced inside an aquarium. Communication technologies, storage and retrieval system will continue to become cheaper and more powerful, with more demands for a changed political arrangement. The Red Shirts in Thailand are an example of how the early days in this transition when the existing power structures react to build a moat to protect against a digital communications revolution. In the telecommunications tug of war, governments around the world will be pulled kicking and screaming into the future.

Posted: 6/10/2010 11:59:26 PM 


Bandwidth, Social Networks and Political Dissent

Tomorrow Friday, 11 June 2010, I'll post a blog on Bandwidth, Social Networks and Political Dissent.
What is happens when geographic borders collide with the digital world?

Posted: 6/10/2010 12:34:21 AM 



Who we are, how we feel about ourselves, not to mention how we organize our life is contingent on what we remember. Without our memory, our world collapses not unlike a black hole where all information is lost (or at least inaccessible).

Writing fiction is an actively engagement of memory. The characters’ memories, the way they are affected and deal with memories is an essential part of the story. In real life, when there is a trial, a witness is asked to recall what she or he saw. By recalling events, we engage in memory recall.

In the political realm, as people in Thailand comb their memories of recent events, we find that memories don’t always line up. People disagree as to what they saw or heard. Everyone has experienced the moment when someone else at an event gives a completely different description of what happened. You think that you are losing your mind or the other person has lost theirs.

Truth commissions, investigations and inquiries into government actions and those of protestors or demonstrators—as we recently the case in Thailand—relies upon the evidence of what happened and crucial to this process, are the memories of those who witnessed events. This raises questions as to how successful we are in avoiding ‘false memories’ in reaching the elusive goal of the truth. Can memories be shaped and altered by the images, speculations, and opinions of others? Any trial lawyer will tell you that this happens on a fairly frequent basis.

Memories are recalled from the brain. And each time they are accessed, there is the possibility of some changes that are caused outside of the consciousness of the person who remembers. Memory is not a pristine and pure process. It is colored by many different factors, including ideology, values, education, alcohol or drugs, the time of day (night time memories have its own set of issues), etc.

Not all memories are equal in the way they are acquired or processed. Highly traumatic experiences such as being shot, being shot at, beaten-up, or threatened, abused, or terrorized have a common thread. The events and actions induce fear. The memories that flood back re-create that sense of dread and fear.

If there were a pill that erased or reduced such a memory, would you take it?

“In 2002 and 2003, studies indicated that another drug, propranolol, could prevent or reduce post-traumatic stress disorder in humans. *** [Elizabeth Loftus] started with attitudinal research, asking people whether they would take a memory-dampening drug after being mugged and beaten. Nearly half wanted the right to take the drug, but only 14 percent said they would do it. She was surprised. If she had endured such an assault, she decided, she would take the drug.”
Link: http://www.slate.com/id/2251888

Should governments prescribe such drugs for those who have gone through a crackdown that has resulted in the lost of life and injuries? This is the ‘blue pill’ from the Matrix situation. You take the offered pill and soon you are able to forget the reality and cruise on with a wonderful life. Loftus says it all comes down to a matter of freedom of choice. Do you wish to remember or forget the things that cause you feel dread and fear?

Is the loss of such memory a good thing for society? If we people choose to take the pill, does that dispense with the need to find the truth of what happened, how it happened, and who was responsible?

Bad memories have always played an important role in our evolution. If we find a way to purge those memories, aren’t we empowering the more thoughtless, dangerous elements in society a free pass? After all, we can forget the fear they have caused.

The other side, is such “memories, Loftus and her coauthors noted, caused ‘significant costs to sufferers, their families, and society,’ such as traffic deaths and reduced productivity.”

This threatens to become an exercise in social and political engineering, controlling the fear of others is often the first step along the road to tyranny. To see someone killed in a car crash has a different ramification than seeing someone shot during a demonstration. Fear and outrage might be eliminated by taking a pill, and that is humane in the case of a single individual, but what about the interests of the larger society? As a collective group, is the public interests advanced by erasing bad memories? Or is it advanced by coming to terms with events and adjusting policies to prevent such events from recurring.

Memories, false memories, ways to induce forgetting, and the kinds of memories that cause harm raise many difficult questions. Elizabeth Loftus came to this conclusion: “When we have mastered the false memory recipes, we will need to worry about who controls them. What brakes should be imposed on police, lawyers, advertisers? More than ever, we'll need to constantly keep in mind that memory, like liberty, is a fragile thing.”

Posted: 6/8/2010 11:13:13 PM 


Making A New Thai Movie: A Messy Script War

The demonstrations have ended in Bangkok, but the Thai script wars continue. This reflects the fact that both the government and the Reds Shirts are deeply divided. There is one thing that binds them. There are certain universal tropes used to silence or dismiss their critics (Thailand isn’t unique in using them). In waging the propaganda wars, the advantage is to the government as they have more resources to bring to bear to censor their critics. For example blocking websites for not telling what they deem to be truth.

There is the rub. The truth. How it is told and who tells it and what is to be done with those who seek to tell a different truth? Different truths like ambiguous heroes can cause confusion. Thus the official justification for bans, censorship and detentions.

This is not a time of tolerance for differing views and opinions in Thailand. The consensus is that if you follow one side or the other, then you show your loyalty by following the official script of received truth.  

To go off script or raise questions about the truthfulness of the official script of either side is only done by various ‘troublemakers’ who are like wannabe film makers who see a different movie from the one the director, writer and producer have envisioned, follow the pathway.

This monopoly of truth model works off an officially sanctioned script. During Thaksin Shinawatra’s term as prime minister, the government used a similar process and tropes to silence critics. Thai governments have a history of guarding the script of the movie they want others to see and believe about Thailand.

As with any big feature film, resources are allocated to ensuring that approved script is the one that gets made. In the political realm, the censor is like an assistant director whose job is given to see that the cast is on script and outsiders trying to alter the script are marched off the set. 

So who are these troublemakers, those wanting to question the script, the director’s decision about a scene, and details of who is the hero and who is the villain? If you watch enough movies and live in Thailand for twenty years, you understand that one man’s hero is another man’s villain. And politics becomes a kind of ‘casting’ war.

I’ll like to share my observations about these critics of another side’s cast and script.

Bangkok Chattering Class. The middle-class in Bangkok and Thailand is quite large. But it is only a segment of this class that you find the influential chattering class. These are Thais who are willing to publicly express their political views publicly. This chattering class is, itself, divided. A large number believe that the government has a brilliant, truthful script that goes to the heart of the matter. These are supporters (not critics) and they have no problem getting airtime and print media exposure to sing the praises of the government’s script. They wouldn’t change a word. The heroes and villains emerge with clarity and conviction. They believe in the movie being made like film financiers. If they have doubts, they kept them to themselves.

Then there are critics of the second group who want to overrun the set and make a different movie.

The second group of the Bangkok Chattering Class who nest among the intellectuals, academics, journalists, NGOs – the same educational background as first group. But the second, smaller, group from this pool wants to rewrite or tear up the government’s script and substitute it with their own script. They support those who want to shoot a movie with a different cast of heroes and villains. The government resents the interference, dismisses the alternative script as shoddy and dishonest, and brands it as dangerous heresy.  The government does everything in its power to make sure that its supporters come out to sing the praises of their script and demonize the alternative one.
While government censorship follows a similar pattern the world over, there are cultural specific techniques that each government employs. How does the Thai government sideline the unaccommodating Bangkok Chattering Class whose members are on the opposite side of the script wars?

More often than not, when a member of the critical member of Bangkok Chattering Class was educated abroad, his/her views are ignored. This foreign exposure means they really can’t understand the Thai script. Such a critic is dismissed as not being a ‘real’ Thai and so he or she has no business commenting on a script that only a true Thai would understand. It is an excellent mechanism for exclusion of another’s opinion or evidence, and it is often effective. The foreign educated Thai critic may be tolerated as a maverick suitable to make a small budget art house film, but nothing about the big budget, big audience film that has been written and in the process of being shot.

Bangkok isn’t Thailand.

Upcountry Chattering Class. As we have learned from recent events, the Upcountry Chattering Class have found their political voice. Given that the Upcountry Chattering Class is substantially larger than the Bangkok Chattering Class, there is a constant battle to patrol what the Upcountry Chattering Class is saying, where they are saying it, who is saying it and who is listening. Not just in Bangkok but for the entire country. They have laid their cards on the table. They don’t like the government’s script. They don’t believe that is a movie that works. Like the foreign educated Bangkok Chattering Class, these critics need to be sidelined. The justification is that the Upcountry Chattering Class is too uneducated and therefore their opinions and ideas should be dismissed. These people shouldn’t get ideas that they know how to make a movie.

Non-Thai Critics. The foreigners. This is a Thai movie. What business do foreigners have coming onto the set, reading the script, ripping it apart, asking why the casting was done in this way, and not that way. A headache for any filmmaker: the invasion on the set from outsiders. How to sideline the non-Thai critics? Reach for levers that are connected to the Nativist Instinct. This is a surefire way in Thailand and in most countries works on the emotions of a significant number of people. Foreigners who have lived in Thailand for many years, no matter how fluent in Thai or how deep their understanding of the Thai culture and society, remain an object of suspicion. It is bad enough they’ve wandered onto the set, and now they want to sit in the director’s chair. That’s bound to cause some friction by butting in and inviting themselves to the script writing session.

Exceptional Foreigners. There is always an exception to celebrate certain non-Thai. When a foreigner says this is the best script ever written since Iron Man2, he will be celebrated as someone who can read a Thai script and absorb all of the complexity of the plot, story and characters – forget that he may not read a word of Thai or have never even lived in Thailand. As long as he appreciates the script that matters.

The Script Wars. The Land of Smiles movie isn’t being remade. The question is what will this new movie look like? The script remains in rewrite. These script wars have been around for many years in Thai politics, as one set of cast, an entirely new cast and crew replace writers, directors and producers, sometimes by a coup, sometimes by an election. It is a crazy way to make a movie. But all movie making activity is a little crazy, risky, and controversial. In terms of staking out and defining the official, authentic movie to make, the government follows a long tradition. And if the Red Shirt side were returned to power in an election, the probability is great that they would use their mandate to write a very different movie. And the whole process would start over as if on a perpetual loops. Before a movie has mass audience appeal, it needs to connect with the mass audience. Both sides make the mistake of defining the audience as composed only of their supporters.

After having lived for couple of decades in Bangkok, I don’t pretend to have the answer to how that loop is closed or to expand the audience or end the script wars between rival factions. What I believe, though, is this. Such battles over what belongs in the script and who plays the role of the hero and who is the villain will not end soon.

We are limited in what we can know and we are limited in how we know things. Humility is acceptance of those imitations. An awareness shaped by humility tells us that a script can always be made better; but know that some people will always hate whatever movie you make. That’s life. If you are making a movie, and millions of people are complaining that they are being assigned the role of extras in a terrible movie, you can deflect the criticism by pointing to an evil offshore alternative moviemaker, or you can listen to the objections made by the critics, and address them on the merits. Who gets speaking parts and who gets screen time is always a headache for any moviemaker. Politicians have the same problem.

Political scripts like movie scripts can never please everyone. But a political script is not an entertainment that last an hour and a half and you can walk out of the cinema and into your real life. Political scripts are about your real life every day. That’s why they are important to recognize that in a democracy everyone can and should be a critic of the movie making process. Because they have to live with the results long after the popcorn has run out.

Posted: 6/7/2010 1:23:09 AM 


Henning Mankell: When a Crime Writer becomes part of the Story

The intention of this blog has been to connect reality with what is loosely called crime fiction. The reality checking asks: does a novel which purports to be an authentic representation of social, political and economic conditions in which the characters find themselves match the facts on the ground? Or are the facts wrong, twisted, biased, or otherwise subject to dispute.

Swedish crime author Henning Mankell became part of the Israeli commando raid on 6 ships loaded with relief supplies destined to breach the blockade on Gaza. In an early morning raid, commandoes were dropped by helicopter onto the boats. Mankell happened to be on one of the boats (Swedish ship Sofia), though it appears no one on his boat was killed. But they were all arrested, including Mankell. He has been deported from Israel and is in England where the Guardian reports, “The bestselling Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell today accused Israel of murder, piracy and kidnapping after describing how the aid ship he was travelling on was seized by Israeli forces this week.”

Mankell has become part of the Israeli commando story. The Telegraph reports that Mankell has urged global sanctions on Israel.

The Telegraph continues with this quote from Mankell: “I can promise there was not a single weapon aboard the ships,” he told an Expressen reporter who was returning to Sweden with him after the writer had been deported by Israel.

I happen to be a fan of Henning Mankell’s novels as are 30 million other people. The question is what happens to the ‘author’ when the person who writes becomes a political activist? When an author chooses to take one side what is the impact on his audience as an author? Should he/she care whether the readers agree with his/her political point of view? The next few days the Huffington Post story about Mankell will have accumulated readers’ comments and most of the comments I suspect will come not from readers but from players on both sides of the Middle East divide.

I ask these questions because of recent events in Bangkok. For three days, during some of the most intense street battles in Thai history, I was at Rama IV filming and talking to people who were largely Red Shirt supporters. In 2008, I was at Government House talking to and filming Yellow supporters (The Corruptionist emerged from my time among the Yellow). In other words, I have spent time with both sides, talking to people who basically only talk among themselves. They drink the Kool-Aid as if Jonestown is their model for solitary.

As a journalist, I covered political upheavals in Southeast Asia for nearly twenty years. In 1992, I was on the streets during the worst of the violence and at Sanam Luang on the eve of the bloodletting (A Haunting Smile arose from those experiences). I was in Rangoon on two occasions when Aung san Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and attended the press conference. (Waiting for the Lady is a chronicle of that time.)

What one comes away with is the degree of polarization that has occurred worldwide. You no longer have to go to the Middle East to find an angry, demonizing, irreconcilable group of people, faction or neighborhood. Governments no longer pretend to have neutrality and crank up a propaganda machine to spin the facts. Censorship of other points of view is justified in the name of national security.

What is a crime fiction author to do?

My personal position is not to take a public position in a political dispute. I have decided not to publicly support any side. Because for me, if I choose a side, I can no longer appeal to people on the other side who will view me as their enemy. I don’t mind making enemies. That’s not my fear. My main concern is that my books would thereafter be read through the filter of my political affiliation.

I’d rather upset both sides than pleasing one and alienating the other. And in private, I remind myself that the stock and trade of fiction is the ability to craft nuance, ambiguity, and complexity into a novel. Partisanship, by its very nature, reduces these qualities in crafting good against bad, right against wrong, injustice against justice. To be a partisan you must be prepared to drink their Kool-Aid. All writing must be in support of that side of the cause as there is no other side worth considering.

I want to talk, observe, and think about the lives of people on both sides of a dispute as fellow human beings, brothers and sisters. But I am realistic, too. With polarization comes a suspicion of anyone who doesn’t declare the ‘team’ or ‘tribe’ or ‘party’ they support. The age is one defined by paraphrasing George W. Bush: “Either you are on my side or against me.” He was a politician. For an author, in my view, it must be “I will be neither for nor against you. I will seek, though, to understand what you fear and desire.”

Outside of the book, in real life, once an author shows that his true sympathy tilts to one side, the other side will be certain to retaliate and attack. Mankell can be reasonably certain that he will suffer blowback from the Israeli side. There will be others who seek to discredit him, use dirty tricks, threats, bullying, the usual top ten list from the black op manual these kind of people use. People will be urged to boycott his books and leave nasty comments on Amazon reviews.

Leaving aside the militants who will go after him, Mankell may find that others will have a hard time reading his books without thinking at each stage of the story—what influence do the author’s political views have on the character and story?

I’ve been thinking long and hard about Mankell. And about my own coverage of the street demonstrations and fighting in Thailand. I’ve put myself in harm’s way. Not because I wanted to take a side, but because I wanted to know first hand what was happening. When I write about the events of May, my readers will know one thing. I was there. I was on the spot. I saw, not everything, but what I saw wasn’t from a government spokesman, a news report, or a rumor. For many years I was a freelance correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle. I also covered the UNTAC operation in Cambodia in the early 1990s (Zero Hour in Phnom Penh arose from that experience).

I have written four novels that draw upon the political turmoil in Thailand, Cambodia and Burma. It is part of the landscape of this region. The events I incorporated into my novels—the leaders, the military, the people, the clashes, the anger, hatred, and violence are the backdrop to a larger story about people and their daily lives.

I believe that readers don’t want to know my political views. They want to believe in their hearts that I share whatever view they have. That is essential because when someone reads one of my novels he/she doesn’t start with the assumption that I have an axe to grind. That I have a dog in the race, so that I’ve fixed the race to make certain my dog wins. That the secret design of the book is support one side over another. The real world is hateful and divisive and dangerous enough. Writers of crime fiction shouldn’t be part of an ugly campaign to vilify one side in a political dispute. One of the great pleasures for me as a reader, is to read a book by Colin Cotterill, Matt Beynon Rees, or Barbara Nadel and know that I will find a pathway to the human heart, one that isn’t pamphlet in the polarization wars that will continue for a hundred years.

I will continue to go to the frontline and talk with people, examine their lives, ask what they want, watch and feel the fear that comes with being under fire, and experience the nightmares that follow. It is only by submerging oneself in the humanity of others that we know ourselves more fully, and understand the limits of what it is that we can know.

Posted: 6/3/2010 10:49:14 PM 


Report on Foreign Eyes by Christopher G. Moore

Report on Foreign Eyes

The subject of the panel was: Thailand in the Eyes of Others. The FCCT described the evening as follows:

“Thailand has been through some tumultuous months with scenes that have both horrified and bemused many. The world has drunk a heady cocktail of ramwongs, snipers, firebugs, rogue generals, blood-pouring rituals, live firing, burning tyres, APCs, black militia/magic/smoke, terrorism warrants, VIP prisons, dead journalists, travel advisories, Kevlar, empty streets, failed compromises, broken deadlines, government statements, razor wire, outraged letters to the editor, burnt-out buildings and disputed body counts.

“Without doubt, this has been a story that every one of us might mix a little differently – and perhaps not even with all the same ingredients. Much has been reported, said and written – and a great deal has also been argued about what was or was not reported, said and written. It goes without saying that every individual’s perception of events is framed by what they know (or think they know), and where they were at any given time. When events move quickly and possibly disastrously, perceptions and reality may diverge dramatically. Did this happen here?

“The FCCT is pleased to welcome an expert Thai panel to offer some insights into their land and how they feel it has recently been presented:

- Dr Sumet Jumsai – Architect, artist and social commentator

- Kraisak Choonhavan – Deputy Chairman of the Democrat Party, former senator and expert in foreign relations

- Pana Janviroj – Chief Operating Officer of the Nation Group

- Somtow Sucharitkul – Composer, author and social commentator”

On Wednesday evening 2 June 2010, under the heading of Thailand in the Eyes of Others, the FCCT panel focused attention on the foreign media coverage of the Red Shirt demonstrations and ultimate confrontation in mid-May 2010. Including those killed in April, the total loss of 88 lives and the burning of 36 buildings in Thailand.

I have some observations about the panel and the audience questions that followed. In any panel discussion, how the question for the panelist is framed is important. The FCCT had placed a wide frame on the question—How fair and balanced was the foreign media coverage? The evening was mainly a Thai critique on the international TV news about how the Thais in political conflict were presented to an international audience. In particular, the panel, as were Thai questioners, were highly critical of TV coverage by CNN and BBC.

These two networks covered the street fighting and that coverage inflamed a number of Thais, especially those who support the government’s side. Nothing of substance was said about the other media—print media, including news, features, editorials, or blogs, facebook or twitter. It was as if only the TV news of CNN and BBC had covered the conflict. That is a considerable distortion of news sources and the impact of various news sources concerning the Thai May conflict.

The digital world was largely ignored (there was one clip of the foreign protestor threatening to burn down Central world), even though cyberspace buzzed with front line commentary and ireports from citizen journalists. In a number of cases, the online video footage was more compelling and dramatic than the networks. Thousands of images, videos and commentary reached a larger world through the Internet. What Thailand in May 2010 has demonstrated is that news that shape international public opinion is no longer limited to TV network news. News coverage has expanded far beyond TV and the traditional print media.

The old way of gathering, reporting, accessing and, indeed through comments, participating in the news has fundamentally changed. If they did, the members of the panel did not show that they appreciated that Thailand found itself in the middle of a new media—where multiple gateways allowed viewers and readers to a rich variety of opinion, images and videos, along with interviews and on the scene reporting. Reporting is no longer in the hands of news professionals. What we saw over the last two months of demonstrations in Bangkok was how news coverage has radically altered. That digital genie won’t be easily pushed back to the magic lantern. It’s out for good.

The second observation comes from listening to various members of the panel complain about how foreigners didn’t really know or understand what the Reds were shouting from their stage or community radio stations. They raised the question of cultural sensitivity, knowledge and understanding. The consensus on the all-Thai panel was that foreigners didn’t understand Thai culture and therefore made many mistakes, and if not mistakes, then a distorted picture of the true situation.

Never mind that the true and full situation with all the necessary background would require a Ph.D. thesis on recent and historical events to prepare and a Ph.D. to understand. Setting up the standard in this fashion guarantees that foreign correspondents can be judged as having failed in their duty to be sufficiently in-depth and accurately nuanced. Of course no news reporter, Thais included, could ever achieve such a goal. And if they tried, no one would watch their TV report, which might take 8 hours of viewing time or read 350 pages of text necessary to give them such background. Besides, today’s news junkies wouldn’t limit their news to any one source and know how to find different points of view from many international and local sources.

Leaving aside the question of whether foreigners can truly understand Thailand well enough, there exists a cultural divide between Thais and foreigners.  That divide lies in the role, function and purpose of freedom of expression. In Asia, the Confucius goal is to strive for harmony, stability and order. Freedom of expression, as a Western concept handed down by ancient Greece, is about verbal confrontation, often even verbal conflict. It allows a space for a war of words. The public is the referee in these battles, deciding who wins and who loses the argument. In most cases, that happens at the ballot box. But in between elections, freedom of speech permits others to challenge the policies and opinions and conduct of the government. It requires the government to defend its policies and conduct with arguments that persuade citizens that they have acted appropriately under the circumstances. In Asia, such speech is seen as hostile, creating disharmony, challenging the authority of elders, who because of their rank and status are owed respect and are not to be questioned.

After more than twenty years of living in Thailand, I have seen this cultural war about freedom of expression fought over and over again. Always the same arguments are made. But the Thai and foreign debaters argue pass each other. They don’t truly understand what the other side is arguing – or if they do, choose to ignore it. In my view, that results in a failure to focus on the core values essential to a functioning civil society and who and how political, social and economic priorities are established. Those core values are the product of two different mindsets.

The Asian mindset is premised on speech as gentle and aimed at expressing sympathy and understanding. One panelist complained that the Western press had not expressed sympathy with the Thais. This idea suggests that speech is a kind of collective therapy exercise. No one loses face. No one in authority is directly challenged. Criticism is wrapped in enough ambiguity that it loses its force and thrust and falls away without hitting a specific target. The repression of free speech, however, doesn’t stop Thais from using poor cousins of freedom of expressions—gossip and rumors and backbiting. But this is done on the sidelines, living rooms, backrooms or behind the keyboards. Such expression is not a substitute for public debate; it is, from the Western point of view, the way people who are bottled up let out steam and seek information are restricted and limited in ways that make them ineffective agents of change. Of course, this kind of information is highly unreliable and mostly wrong in fact. But it doesn’t matter. Harmony is not disturbed.

The Western mindset is authority must be challenged, made to account for its actions and conduct, and that unpopular opinions, silly opinions, even mean spirited and stupid opinions aren’t repressed. They are allowed into the marketplace of words. No one forces anyone to listen. Listening is optional, and many ill-formed, vague opinions are not taken seriously. There is likely a marketplace for many strange views and ideas.  Allowing fringe ideas to enter to the marketplace isn’t a stamp of approval of their merit. The merit of an idea is up to the public. The public is allowed to judge what is being said, heard or seen and make a decision whether to accept it. When they find no audience, like all noise, they drift into the background. It takes a mature society to allow for a wide frequency of opinion, knowing a lot of the noise isn’t productive, but recognizing, that in advance, it is impossible to bottle up opinion on the basis that some of that noise will upset important, and powerful people.

In my view, the Thais have paid a heavy price for their compromised freedom of expression system. It has allowed a breeding ground for incompetence, cronyism, and corruption to arise largely unchecked inside the political realm. Without freedom of expression these virus like agents operate with impunity inside the system, growing until they spill over and there is yet another coup. Those who launched a successful coup against Thaksin Shinawatra’s government in 2006 justified the action on the basis of his alleged cronyism and corruption. They didn’t allege he was incompetent. If anything he was too competent on how to game the system sealed off from public effective debate.

The coup removed Thaksin Shinawatra’s administration from office but it did nothing to eliminate the underlying elements that permitted the alleged misrule to come into being. There has been little self-reflection on the connection between the absence of free speech and the embedded problems that have for decades plagued the political system. It is without irony that Thaksin Shinawatra’s administration proved to be no friend of free speech. The coup makers, at least on this part, and those governments which followed the coup, haven’t learnt the lesson. Once in power, they’ve continued the Thaksin legacy of restricting freedom of expression. Many of them had been victims of such repression, but memories are short and power is intoxicating.

In the West we sacrifice harmony because we believe that the battle of ideas and opinions ultimately makes us stronger as a society. In Asia, we see harmony as the essential goal and speech must yield to order and stability otherwise confusion and conflict will destroy the unity of society. There isn’t a lot of middle ground between these positions. You get to choose one or the other. Trying to have both is like assembling a plane that you know won’t fly but insist once again that it will. It may be that the Thais experiment of using coups to mop up the political mess that inevitably arises when citizens are cut off from challenging and criticizing the decision-making will come to an end.

The end of the coup culture won’t happen because the Thais embrace the Western mindset on freedom of expression but will arise as the digital news gathering age gives them no choice. They can ban thousands of websites but they’ve lost the battle. There are too many entry points, too many voices; the floodgates of information and analysis can’t be closed. Ultimately it may be technology rather than principle that overtakes the Asia mindset and freedom of expression will provide the Thais with more harmony and stability than tanks and APCs.

Posted: 6/3/2010 12:03:43 AM 



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