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Blog Archive November 2013

Thai Political Super Storms: Kreng Jai System Under Attack

A series of political super storms has hit Thailand in recent years—in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2013. That’s a lot of bad weather. The turmoil and fallout have occurred with the frequency of super typhoons, with each bringing more damage than the last. At the moment a number of commentators in Thailand and abroad, like weathermen, are trying to forecast the political weather in the days, weeks and months to come. Most are finding it difficult to make predictions with any degree of confidence.

Political predictions in Thailand suffer from limitations comparable to those of weather forecasting. The political climate involves complex systems that constantly change, reassemble, merge, expand or shrink in ways that are uncertain until they happen. I’d like to examine one feature of the ongoing turmoil—the cultural world of kreng jai—that may partially explain the political instability of Thailand’s recent past.

Some years ago I wrote a book titled Heart Talk, which reviews the large (seemingly limitless) Thai language vocabulary about the heart. The Thai expression kreng jai has the longest entry in the book and was the most difficult to explain in English. I wrote: “The phrase reflects a rich brew of feelings and emotions—a mingling of reverence, respect, deference, homage and fear—which every Thai person feels toward someone who is their senior, boss, teacher, mother and father, or those in powerful positions such as a high-ranking police officer.”

What is driving the political turmoil, in my view, is a breakdown of this ancient kreng jai system that has until now been the bedrock of the political establishment. The patronage system, the pii/nong—older and younger person system and the automatic deference to rank, uniform and position were built from the stone and cement of kreng jai. Even voting has been fenced in by the unwritten rules of deference.

There is much talk recently of vote buying, talk that is aimed at undermining the legitimacy of a popularly elected government. The historical record indicates that the exchange of gifts and benefits for votes has long been a feature of Thai politics and is another example of the kreng jai tradition. Poor villagers deferred to the educated, well-dressed “betters” with more power and money because that was how the system worked. Gift giving was the oil that lubricated the system.

In the kreng jai system it was inappropriate, rude and unforgiveable to question or criticize people in power or who hold positions of authority. From a policeman to a village head man to a schoolteacher or civil servant—the status was sufficient to guarantee compliance without worry of being asked to justify an action or a policy or a belief.

Until recently there was a widely accepted faith that an older person would take care and protect a younger person. That those with power, in return for deference to them, would keep the poorer, “powerless” people from harm’s way. What has happened in Thailand is that the faith in this grand bargain promised by kreng jai has been broken—with a new political consciousness arising from a fledgling system of electoral politics.

Once the general population of voters understood that they had power in their vote, they started to wonder about the role of kreng jai in a world of newly empowered voters. This modern, new power to elect officials promised to secure for them a better life than the one they had traditionally received under a pure kreng jai system. What happened next? Pretty much what you’d expect—people’s previously unshaken belief in the old faith that had driven the political process was replaced by doubt and skepticism. In response, both anti-government and government officials have attempted to reinforce the kreng jai system by taking advantage of the legal tools of criminal defamation as defined by Article 112 of the Criminal Code (lèse majesté) and the Computer Crime Act.

A yawning political divide has opened up between those who wish to institutionalize a political system based on the old notion of kreng jai and those who wish a substantial modification of automatic deference as the appropriate attitude toward the political elites. To this extent the elites on both sides of the current political impasse share the same interest. It shouldn’t be overlooked that a separate kreng jai system operates inside the class of elites. In fact, the more one investigates kreng jai, the more one starts to see that, like the weather, it quickly becomes very complicated.

Thailand’s anti-democratic forces are embracing the idea of kreng jai to preserve their world. That means a code of conduct based on deference within the elite class and between the elite class and everyone else. The Bangkok elites rail against Thaksin Shinawatra, who comes from a Chinese political/commercial family in Chiang Mai, with the kind of deep, committed hatred that can be understood as emerging from their existential fear of his growing power. Like the Israelis’ hatred for the Iranians, nothing and no one is going to change the emotional voltage.

Thaksin Shinawatra’s mistake was to play the popularity card to trump the informal kreng jai code among the elites—one that kept a rough parity of power so no one was hugely more influential than the others. The Bangkok elites saw Thaksin’s political agenda as a betrayal of the long-standing elite power arrangements. He refused to honor those informal arrangements in a way that made them feel threatened. The Bangkok elites had every reason to support the 2006 coup against this internal kreng jai violator and encourager of the upcountry voters’ growing inclination to seek political power rather going through the old patronage system.

Of course, it might be said that Thaksin created his own personal kreng jai system, perverting the original one for his own personal profit. Another view is that Thaksin saw an opportunity to ride a wave of cultural and social change. He hadn’t created that wave that threatened to wash out the old temple walls of kreng jai. But he found clever political ways to tap into the power of that wave through health-care programs and other populist policies that kreng jai had never delivered.

The start of the current round of turmoil began when the government tried to enact a grand bargain among the elites. The idea was to pass an amnesty bill that would have absolved Thaksin and the opposing Bangkok elite side of all crimes since the 2006 coup.

The opaque nature of power arrangements and agree-ments on the informal side of Thai politics hints without any solid evidence that a deal was struck and provided cover for the government’s push to enact the amnesty bill. Whatever the deal was (assuming there was one), it excluded the possibility for justice for the people who had gone into the street to protest against the regime installed by the 2006 coup. a number of whom had been shot, injured or killed. Those responsible for the camage would be let of the hook. No one would be made responsible for any of the wrong doings. The stark reality sent a clear message—the “little” people would have to accept their karma. It was a deal by, for and between the elites only.

The political struggle over amnesty ironically ignited the current turmoil. What went wrong? A couple of factors fall into the category of miscalculation. The Bangkok elites have traditionally enjoyed the type of immunity that normally extends to foreign diplomats. The traditional elites had no real fear of criminal prosecution for their activities. Why would they need an amnesty bill when they already enjoyed virtual immunity? Thaksin had, in their view, betrayed them, and he was allowed to go and remain in exile. No one tried to stop him from leaving Thailand. For his betrayal, he’s hated at a distance. So for Thaksin, living in exile to use Skype and other high technological means, to go over their heads with an amnesty bill was intolerable. They perceived, from a distance, he’d found yet another way to overrule the traditional elites. His continued influence was an insult, another thumb in the eye and a display of power to force them to acknowledge his right to run the show.

What is interesting was the uproar the legislation caused. The hatred among the elites and their supporters for Thaksin’s betrayal intensified as they saw the amnesty bill as another attempt by Thaksin to pull the strings to overrule the verdict of exile and asset confiscation by the unofficial power structure. To add insult to their injury, he pointed to his legitimate right to have his way as he had gained the popular vote from what are, in their view, the “uneducated,” “stupid” and “unwashed masses.” The non-Thaksin elites were livid—how could these people who historically owed kreng jai to them ally with Thaksin to undermine their position and power?

Those same unwashed masses who delivered Thaksin his power also felt betrayed. They turned on him. For a brief moment the shared hatred of the traditional elites and the upcountry masses gave them a rare glimpse of solidarity. That didn’t last long. The elites might have funneled that joined hatred into meaningful political reform. But no, they seized the opportunity to go in for the kill by scotching a constitutional amendment to allow for a wholly elected Senate. While the little people felt let down by the amnesty bill, the proposed amendment would empower them to extend their political voice to the upper house. The traditional elites saw the extension of the voting franchise to the Senate as another power grab by Thaksin.

With the amnesty bill Thaksin managed to alienate his friends and supporters and bring them in common cause with his old rivals. It would have been his weakest political moment. He was vulnerable. The traditional elites saw an opening to root out what they’d started to call the “Thaksin Regime” and to return Thailand to the pre-Thaksin political era. That was a far bridge to cross. How to get from the present to that ideal past? The big idea was for a government ruled by an unelected “People’s Council” which would complete the job of destroying the remaining elements of the “Thaksin Regime.”

The government’s and Thaksin’s miscalculation on the amnesty bill showed that they had not read the hearts and minds of the Thai masses very well either. This mistake gave the traditionalists an opening to attack the government, democracy and elections. The government is only lucky in that, as disappointed and betrayed as its supporters had felt with the bill, they understood a much higher cost would be paid if they were forced to return to the old full-blown kreng jai system enforced by edicts of the People’s Council, handpicked by the elites.

The yearning for the stability of a strong kreng jai underpinned the calls for the government not to dissolve parliament and hold new elections but rather to put democracy on hold. The elites have not quite caught up with the rank and file who have opted to leave their feudalistic deference behind. Kreng jai hasn’t vanished. It remains a value for many Thais. But the nature of deference is changing.

Globalization, social media, cheap travel and the Internet are forces that have chipped away at the Thai kreng jai system. Once exposed to the crosscurrents of ideas, thoughts and images, kreng jai begins to have a dated, worn and artificial quality. The ritual wai remains. I remember years ago buying a poster at the Weekend Market that showed more than a dozen different wais. This was a poster used in schools to teach students the intricate but meaningful differences in the kinds of wais and who was entitled to which kind. The wai a tourist receives, for instance, is part of the hospitality industry; it is a commodity, a product, one that makes foreigners feel special. It comes with a warm smile.

These political storms mask a greater change in the cultural atmosphere. The jet streams have shifted in the way most Thais perceive their relationships. It would be premature to say that kreng jai is gone. Indeed the kreng jai aspect will remain for a very long time. That said, the core faith has evolved from a kind of quasi-religion to a secular position that honoring and respecting people is a good thing—only they should earn that respect. That’s a big change. And that those with rank and status should be accountable to the masses is a full frontal assault on an ancient system that continues to resist, protest and posture.

Can a self-governing non-elected “People’s Council” of “good” people reinstate, defend and protect this cultural cornerstone of the political establishment? Think how long it has taken for Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to change minds and hearts, and how incomplete that process is, and you start to have an idea that great shifts in belief systems happen over many generations. We live in a world where change has accelerated. Information is widely available and information is empowerment. So long as the schools and universities, the civil servants, the military and the courts draw ranks to retain the kreng jai system, the political turmoil will continue.

There are certain to be more political super storms as the existing elites have put their finger into the air, and they don’t like way the wind is blowing. It isn’t the government or the constitution that is the problem. It’s that Thais are changing a key feature of their hearts. The political climate is complex. There are hidden forces we can only guess at. There are connections and undercurrents that we are only vaguely aware of. No one element, in isolation, is ever the whole story. Shifts inside Thai culture are part of the political instability matrix. But there are other elements, such as technology, social media and the values and ideas flooding in from all directions.

To return Thais to the old system of kreng jai would require sealing off the country and imposing re-education camps. There are voices, here and there, that suggest such an alternative, but the reality is that going back to an idealized state of deference would be like speeding backwards on a moonless night on a mountain road without guard rails. It would no doubt end in a terrible accident. The question is, what will the new rules of the road be? That’s like asking what the weather will be next month. We can only guess at the most probable outcomes. No one knows.

Posted: 12/5/2013 7:55:27 PM 

 

Where Do You Get Your Information?

There is has never been a time with more sources of information available for little or no cost to billions of people. An Internet connection puts you into a sea of information that your grandfather’s world would have found astounding. There is a dark side to the information revolution: misinformation, lies, fraud and deception like a magpie laying eggs in the information nest. The same can be said with the dissemination of opinion. It is no surprise that opinion, information, facts and evidence can appear like a rugby scrum on a muddy playing field. You can’t tell one player from another.

The first question to ask someone who makes a statement is to ask the source upon which it rests. Take a statement such as: “Vitamins are good for you. They will help you live longer.” Is this information reliable, supported by scientific research, and without qualification? In this case, recent studies indicate that vitamin taking correlates with a higher rate of mortality.

If someone is getting most of their information from the TV news or local newspaper, and accepting this ‘news’ as factual, reliable and tested, the chances are they are forming opinions based on actual knowledge and reality but upon the biases that the news sources wish others to share.

A reality check on bias is to take any news story and run a background check. Make yourself into a reality check detective and the news story is a suspect that may or not have anything to do with the opinion of the evidence you are evaluating.

Not only is theere a flood of information, there is also a tsunami of misinformation. There are political and commercial reasons to pass off misinformation in the high stakes game of making a profit or gaining and retaining power. Facts and information take high casualty rates in this struggle. Foundations, institutes, TV stations draw large audience with misinformation.

True ignorance is allowing oneself to be trapped in a narrow information zone because the views and ideology have a strong emotional appeal. Cults are built on faith. Information within a cult flows from faith, loyalty and authority and is to be defended against any contrary information. The bad blood in many countries, including Thailand, is caused by failures of information access, processing, discussing and evaluation.

Freedom of expression includes the right to consider all information and facts. In restricted political expression systems, censorship and threat of imprisonment is used to confine and narrow the sources of information.  Open access to all information is threatening to entrenched elites who have a monopoly over information channels and content. It is only with the channels gone global and people able to access them from their office and home has the possibility of challenging the old information monopoly arisen.

But the possibilities of access aren’t enough. Many people are lazy thinkers and are happy to let others ‘bake that pie’ and they’re happy enough to eat it without asking too many questions about ingredients or the kitchen where it was prepared let alone the goal of the owners. The Hume distinction between ‘ought’ and ‘is’ makes their eyes glaze over. Pass the popcorn. The idea that information requires intellectual work on their part is not popular. For many so long as the news is ideologically consistent with their worldview or entertaining, that is sufficient to ‘believe’ it is true. There is no independent reality check.

Education means teaching students that ‘what you see is all there is’ is a bias. An inquiry needs to be made as to what is missing or absent from a study, survey or opinion. It also means teaching students that information is messy by nature. Most of the time there is uncertainty and doubt about agency and causation. We can’t predict outcomes in the future. We can come up with probability of outcomes understanding that ‘dark’ horses sometimes win a race.

Consumer society has been a great success because of its ability to create a vast population of docile, passive and status-seeking consumers. Huxley’s Brave New World  in 1932 long before the advent of computers and the Internet warned that these characteristics of the new man/woman would allow state sponsored repression of the truth to go unnoticed, unchallenged. Soma. The mental state of artificial well-being that covers lies and deceit.

We live much of our lives online where bit-by-bit we give up for free our social networks, our private thoughts, medical history, doubts, books, TV shows and films, and political positions. This information is shoveled into the great maw of surveillance systems to track those with deviant connections, thoughts or ideas; to create better soma for consumers to fall into a deeper sleep. In this brave new world, information independence becomes a crime. Those who dig too deep find that they are digging their own graves.

Posted: 11/28/2013 7:45:23 PM 

 

An Act of Kindness: A Hakim and Arnold Mystery (Hakim & Arnold Mystery 2) by Barbara Nadel

Review: by Christopher G. Moore

Barbara Nadel has made her international reputation with her Istanbul set Inspector Ikmen Mysteries. What is outstanding about the Istanbul novels is her adroit weaving of cultural attitudes and values into the social and economic world of her characters and her considerable ability to breath life into Istanbul as a city. She makes Istanbul come to life.

It is a different challenge to make Muslim life inside a London come to life. An Act of Kindness rises to his challenge and creates a part of London most of us have never witnessed and have no first-hand knowledge.

In this new mystery series, the stories take place in the marginal neighborhood of East London where immigrants and local poor live. Both communities fall prey to organized criminals who circle like vultures over the vulnerable robbing them of their dignity, respect and security. An Act of Kindness has the same cultural preoccupations as the Inspector Ikmen Mysteries—to open the psychological and emotional arrange of a self-contained community with different traditions, beliefs and attitudes.  In the novel, the Muslim worldview—especially the one of Muslim women—seek to find an uneasy co-existence with English values and attitudes. There are compromises, uncertainty, confusion, doubt, and fear written into the lives of the women who form the story.

PI Lee Arnold and his assistant Mumtaz Hakim, a widowed Muslim working mother, work out of an office in East Ham. The private investigation business isn’t making them rich. The Arnold Detective Agency is headed by an ex-cop, and his policeman skills and continued contacts bring a law enforcement structure to the story. The PI office is up a flight of stairs at the back of a rough alley behind Green Street, Upton Park. In the case of Mumtaz Hakim, who after her abusive husband’s death, is saddled with a large mortgage and secretly each month has pawned what remaining items of value she has to meet the payment. Her employer, Lee Arnold plays a smaller role in the overall story—when he appears it is as protector, comforter and advisor.

Mumtaz takes on a new case involving a Muslim woman named Nasreen whose husband Abdullah has received a law degree from the University of Manchester. It appears to be a traditional Muslim marriage. The novel starts with Nasreen discovering an ex-serviceman (he’d served in Afghanistan) living in a wooden shelter in the back garden. Nasreen hasn’t told her husband about the homeless man named John, who she has secretly been giving food. She fears her husband’s wrath. Abdullah, who is easy to anger, has more than his fair share of secrets from his past in Manchester and the place and name of the law firm where he tells his wife that he’s employed.

Abdullah is abusive and controlling, and his wife is afraid of him—and with good reason—he has no hesitation using physical violence. It is her fear of his explosive rages and demands that haunts her throughout the novel. She reaches out to Mumtaz, another Muslim woman, but steps back as her traditional values make it difficult for her to accept that her husband may have secrets of his own about his employment that he wishes to keep from her. Nasreen has a crisis of denial. This is a common link she shares with Mumtaz who is in denial (though for different reasons) about her economic prospects. Only Mumtaz has the perseverance to ultimately break through Nasreen’s failure to see what was in front of her all of the time.

The mystery unfolds as John Sawyer, the ex-vet is murdered, his body was dumped in an adjacent Jewish ceremony, and Abdullah takes a wrecking hammer to the walls of the newly acquired house. He tells his wife not to ask questions. That he’s renovating the house himself to save money. The house holds a crucial secret connected to Abdullah’s history. Each day he arrives back from work and sets to bring down another bit of wall. His wife believes he works as a lawyer for a firm of solicitors. As his entire life is built upon a foundation of lies and deceptions, he may have the right morality for legal work but it does make his biography difficult to take at face value.

As Mumtaz works the Nasreen case, she also has another client who wishes to find out if her sister Wendy Dixon is on the game. The sub-plot opens up the world of powerful and dangerous gangsters who are running a number of illegal rackets in East Ham. Sean Rogers, the head of the local mafia has the police, judges and other powerful people under his thumb. They along with wealthy men attend sex parties that Roberts hosts, supplying the escorts. No one has the courage to stand up to Rogers for fear of the violence that he’s capable of inflicting against anyone challenging his authority.

The central issue is one of coming to terms with cultural identity by Muslims in London. Abdullah’s secrets are caught up with his childhood and the deathbed secrets of his father that haunt him. In seeking to claim his cultural legacy, Abdullah will spare no one and no cost even though it will destroy others.

An Act of Kindness is a parable of chasing dreams of one’s father until they slowly turn into nightmares from which darkness claim the dreamer and all of those around him. The relationship of Nasreen and Mumtaz as Muslim women struggling with abusive husbands and debt sharing a bleak future reveals the emotional lives of culturally displaced women in London. Like a coming across a terrible road accident, your first reaction is to look away, and then you look, and you can stop seeing the pain and suffering.

And you wish the world had a way to sing a lullaby to those like Nasreen caught in the car wreckage of a life, one that comforts those who are inconsolable. Nasreen’s fate, like that of Wendy Dixon, an escort girl working in Sean Rogers’s sexual fantasy world, is determined by men like Abdullah and Rogers. Their fear freezes them. They are in the orbit of men with frightening power and whose careless brutality and violence acts as a gravity, bending, folding, distorting their futures. Finishing the novel, I felt a lingering sorrow, a cry from the heart, as the helplessness overwhelmed and ultimately destroyed the lives of several women.

There is little redemption in An Act of Kindness. Instead, the reader finishes the novel with a sense of real despair as the unfairness of what happened to each of these women was as irreversible and permanent as a cold, unmarked grave.

Posted: 11/21/2013 7:45:53 PM 

 

Saying Sorry

Every culture has an equivalent word for ‘sorry’—a universal expression of apology and acceptance of responsibility for the harm done. Normally we consider such an apology as a private, personal affair. What if the concept is brought into the criminal justice system? The first requirement would be for the accused to admit to the crime. The accused would have to confess that he or she has committed the wrongful act harming the victim.

In Thailand, the authorities regularly employ police organized ‘reenactments’ of the crime. After the accused has confessed, he (it’s almost always a he) is either taken to the scene of the crime or seated at a table in a police station surrounded by uniformed police. The accused shows how he committed the crime. Often the victim is photographed pointing a finger at the accused who understands his role. He responds to this staged drama as a lesson in his personal humiliation. His head and eyes are often lowered, and he’s a diminished, pale and defeated person unworthy of nothing but punishment.

Reenactments such as these are not about the kind of moral rapprochement—which translates as ‘bringing together’—between the criminal and victim. There is no attempt at reconciliation. The reenactment is more a kind of inflicting moral scorn and pain on the accused. They are the theatre of tragic farce starring a man in leg irons. This allows the public a chance to join the 2-minute hate session with the suspect as the object of loathing. Reenactment as a close cousin to what we had in the West for centuries the pillory where the offender’s head and arms were imprisonment in a wooden frame and the public invited to inflict their abuse.

In Scotland, legislators are proposing legislation that would create “restorative justice.” Liberal Democrat spokesperson Alison McInness explained the concept, “It provides a form of accountability – a forum to receive an apology. It can enable those who have committed crimes to reflect on their actions, take personal responsibility and appreciate the harm they’ve caused and make amends.”

A crime, especially one involving violence, leaves the injured victim with difficult emotional issues. In this case, the victim isn’t pointing his or her finger at the person who inflicted the harm but explaining the impact the crime had on his or her life. It is the personal story of that suffering and pain and the offender listens to the story and then accepts what he’s done and expresses his sorrow and regret for his actions.

The idea is to use this with young offenders who would be screened by authorities to determine if they accept what they did and are willing to meet the victim, hear her or his story and apologize. Scotland currently has an ad hoc system that has shown positive results. The proposed legislation would enshrine a victim’s right to restorative justice.

The trend to establish a right of victims to take part in restorative justice was contained in a 2012 EU directive, one that the UK signed up to.

Would restorative justice work in a shame-based society like Thailand? A crime reenactment had a different purpose than restorative justice. The criminal who shows the press (the victim may or may not be present) where he stands and illustrates with a hand gesture, fingers like a gun, points at a plainclothes policeman who plays the role of victim. The central players in this drama are the alleged criminal, the police and the media. The victim plays if anything only a minor role—a prop.

It would be an interesting experiment for youthful offenders in a place like Pattaya or Phuket to sit across the table from their victim and hear the victim’s story of how the crime has damaged their life, family, job, health or property. If the victim were a foreigner, a translator would likely be needed. It shouldn’t be a public event with media crawling all over the room for the best camera angle. Most of the young criminals in these highly popular tourist destinations are committing crimes against ‘outsiders’ and in Thai culture ‘outsiders’ aren’t considered as having the same rights, emotions, or humanity as the locals.

Perhaps seeing their victim as another human being seated across from them, someone they’ve hurt, someone who now has recurring problems as a result, might change the attitude of the young offender. It seems to be working in Scotland, it would be worth examining whether the good results on turning around the lives of a tough youth in Glasgow and allowing the victim closure might just be the kind of remedy other legal systems, including the Thai system, could yield a positive outcome.

There are some unresolved issues that should be addressed. If the suspect is a sociopath or psychopath, how meaningful is the expression of sorrow for the pain inflicted? In Scotland it appears that suspects are pre-screened before being allowed to be seated across from the victim. Whether part of that screening is to determine sociopathic or psychopathic personality characteristics isn’t clear. Another issue is whether the potential for a suspect’s empathy for his victim and the victim’s compassion for the suspect can merge into a genuine reconciliation. What such an alternative does provide is a testing ground as to whether our demand for security and justice can be enhanced by bringing together the parties most affected by the crime.

As the target for the program is youth offenders, the possibility of changing a suspect’s attitude by a fine or imprisonment may be less effective than several sessions where he begins to see the ‘victim’ not as the ‘other’ or an ‘object’ but another person who has been harmed by his action. That might be a wake-up call for a young offender. If the Scottish experience is anything to go by, it is waking-up the authorities to a new avenue to rehabilitation. A pilot program for “restorative justice” in Thailand might be worth considering. Who knows, it might catch on and all kinds of people—not just those in the criminal justice system—might benefit from discussing their loss resulting from acts of political violence to drawing border demarcations. Life is full of loss and injury. Our ability to address the aftermath is our weakness. The emotional resolution is left out of the equation. Restorative justice is about restoring the human heart. That takes time. It takes patience and understanding, and it requires trust and belief that healing has a higher priority than punishment.

Posted: 11/14/2013 7:50:25 PM 

 

 

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