14th February is Valentine's
Day. On this day for winning hearts, protesters remain in the streets of Bangkok.
There has been another push from protester leaders to call the masses into the
streets to support their anti-government demonstrations.
In war, politics
and love winning the hearts and minds separates the victors from the vanquished.
I find significance in the traditional word ordering of the phrase. Start with
the heart, and the mind will follow. Straight from Hume and every modern psychologists
led by Daniel Kahneman. If you can emotionally involve another person the hard
battle is won. The mind simply fills in the justification for the heart's decision.
The hearts and
minds drama is being played out in the streets of Bangkok. It also has a psych
ops patterns worth exploring. If one were clever and devious enough, the best
line of attack would be to undermine the populist programs of the Government
by turning the recipients of the populist programs against the Government.
Let's talk about
Thailand's rice farmers. Any psych ops that would win the hearts of rice farmers
might represent a political turning point. This is an interesting story. A brief
summary: The vast bulk of rice farmers live in the Northeast and North of Thailand.
They are loyal supporters of the Government. The Government draws support from
the Reds. The Red movement is committed to representative democracy and elections.
Since the election of Thaksin Shinawattra in 2001, rice farmers have voted in
super majorities for members of his political party.
The current political
turmoil finds his sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawattra, who led her party
to the polls on 2nd February, and who has faced months of unrest led by ex-MPs
of the Democrat Party, who resigned and took to the streets to lead protestors
to bring down the Government. The protesters have used various means in their
struggle---blocked road, cut electricity and water to government offices, blocked
polling stations, 'arrested' and beat up people, threatened kidnapping of the
prime minister's son, and ten people have been killed and hundreds injured in
violent incidents related to the anti-government protests.
The protest leaders
have shifted their reason for attacking the Government from an ill-conceived
amnesty bill, and the allegedly illegal attempts to amend the Constitution (the
Government wanted a fully elected as opposed to a half-elected, half-appointed
Senate) and the usual standby---corruption. The leaders have had their bank
accounts frozen by a government agency. They have marched around Bangkok gathering
'donations' to support their protest.
So far the protesters,
looking at the dwindling numbers in the streets (sometimes a handful) are not
winning hearts and minds of their fellow Thais. But they have a new idea. Having
effectively reduced the authority of the caretaker government, it isn't surprising
problems are arising. Such as payments which are now due to rice farmers under
a controversial rice subsidy scheme, which by all accounts is riddled with problems,
including allegations of mismanagement and corruption. The protesters having
closed down the ability of the Government to pay the farmers, now blames the
Government for failing to deliver the payments. The protesters have powerful
allies. The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) is expected to bring
formal charges against the caretaker Prime Minister for her role in the rice-pledging
The message is
being spread that this heartless Government you voted for is letting you down.
They created a bad program. The local English language newspapers, which are
heavily anti-government, run stories of rice farmers committing suicide over
money worries. They show 500 rice farmers who have come to Bangkok to complain
to the government.
have a new message that goes something along these lines:
your friend. Your friends pay you. This Government is a false friend. Voting
and democracy are unreliable. They cheat you.
If your heart is
in democracy, you will only be disappointed.
Join us. Sing with
us. Come to our picnics and nightly concerts. Happy Valentine's Day, rice farmers,
we love you! Wait for the new T-shirts we've ordered.
Even though we
called you water buffalo and said you were stupid last month, that was last
month, forget about that. This month, we are your friend, and your savior.
In fact, the objective
appears to be an old fashioned psych ops plan to sow the seeds of discontent
and doubt in the hearts of rice farmers. It is a cynical ploy (but brilliant
at the same time) and given the track record of Bangkok's elite caring about
the 'heart' of rice farmers, the chances are high that it won't work.
Still the pitch
is being made that if the rice farmers would only return to the traditional
Thai values, their betters in Bangkok will take care of them. Just like they
always have. People in Bangkok had given ten or twenty million baht in cash
handouts to the protest leader who then as the 'big faced man' gives it to grateful
rice farmers. That's a photo op anyone heading this psycho op will frame and
put on his wall.
There are several
problems with this approach. It assumes that rice farmers can't see through
the endgame, which is to discredit populist programs, and the Government that
sponsors populist programs. At the heart of this Valentine's Day message from
the demonstration in the street is one that the protesters and their allies
are the one with a true heart. Given the outstanding amount owed under the rice
subsidy scheme is in the billions, and the donations in Bangkok handed to a
protest leader are a rounding off error in the larger scheme of this mountain
of debt doesn't matter.
What does matter
in this coded message, sent over the head of the democratically elected government
to their main rural constituency that continues to return them to office no
matter how many times the elites ban their party and leaders, is that democracy
lacks the traditional Thai heart. Walk away from democracy like you'd walk away
from an abusive lover. That true Thai heart is found in the ancient concept
of kreng jai system, where the good people aren't elected (a concept that can
go so very wrong) but are known by their rank, position, name and status. They
decide what is right, moral, fair and just. Trust them. Trust their heart---their
nam jai, 'water heart'. They have shown their good intentions by collecting
donations for them. Has the government done that?
Here's their story:
Heartless government. Overflowing heart of protesters.
The battle of hearts
and minds of Thailand's rural voters will continue. The idea is these donations
to rice farmers will pay several dividends., The rice farmers are then expected
to return a respectful wai of gratitude for the handout and more importantly
will turn their back on the unreliable Government and democracy. It remains
to be seen whether this will happen. I suspect that very few people who labour
in the rice fields of the North or Northeast are betting the farm on the protesters
looking after their long-term interest. The seeds of democracy have been planted
and yielded too many good crops for the supporters to return to the days of
waiting for a coin to be dropped in their rice bowl.
Kafka The Grand Master of Noir: A Lesson for Thailand
The New Statesman had an article titled “Death by data: how Kafka’s The Trial prefigured the nightmare of the modern surveillance state” by Reiner Stach.
While the familiar rallying cry against government oppression is drawn from George Orwell’s 1984 or Animal Farm or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, it is Kafka who in The Trial might best lay literary claim as godfather to the modern noir fiction movement. Stach reminds us that while we don’t particularly like Josef K, the doomed protagonist in The Trial, we can’t stop ourselves being drawn to following his downward spiral into oblivion.
Josef K is you. He’s me. He’s done something along the way. What that something is remains vague like a fog that obscures and terrifies. It is that foreboding, that sense of the gravity of terror pulling one headlong into a dystopia and that is the heart of noir fiction. Josef K is a victim. But when that victimhood is traced back to the source, Reiner Stach concludes that the tormentor is to be found by looking into the mirror. We are, in other words, without our personal complicity with surveillance state we wouldn’t become a victim.
We are partners in our victimhood. We work alongside the surveillance state feeding them our most private thoughts, fears, desires, and we confess our transgressions. We do this in public. We post our confessions daily. No need to go to church to find a priest. Our surveillance overlords are our new confessors. We know this is happening and we do nothing to stop it. Not only do we do nothing, we can’t stop ourselves from exposing the details of our life.
This passage from Reiner Stach’s article struck me as relevant to understand something about the current political turmoil in Thailand.
“Kafka was deeply sceptical of the therapeutic promises of psychoanalysis but he was captivated by the way it described the propagation of power, which chimed with his own experiences. Someone who keeps getting told that he is incapable, inferior or guilt-ridden will have to expend a good deal of energy to resist such a self-image and not make himself guilty in his own eyes. He has to struggle not because the forces of power have violated or diminished him but rather because he has been infiltrated by those forces. The poison lodges in his own body.”
The elites and their supporters in the streets of Bangkok are a minority who have pushed back against mass political power. They want to suspend election. They view representative democracy as the enemy. To delegitimize the governing party, they demonize and belittle the common, ordinary upcountry voter who have consistently elected a majority to Parliament, one that fails to preserve and advance their interests. They refer to the ordinary voters from the North and Northeast as uneducated, stupid, easily bought, misguided and their votes ought to count less as a result. They wish to shutdown Bangkok, throw out the election, the prime minister and supporters and seize their assets.
In the last 25 years, the ordinary non-urban voter has carried this baggage. And everywhere he or she looks, from TV dramas, to movies, to novels, magazines, newspapers and TV news, these negative images act to diminish and belittle. It infiltrates the mind and heart. The effect is to blunt a movement to expand civil and political rights. The minds of the diminished, like that of Josef K, feels under constant pressure, watched, excluded, an object of suspicion.
Thai man prevented from voting by Anti-government protesters
With a broad-based message from the media, schoolrooms, the better educated, and politicians, people aren’t just influenced; the operating system of their consciousness is set along perimeters that aren’t questioned. It is difficult to reset the mental operating system of a mass of people who are marginalized. For example most Americans don’t believe the government storing metadata from their phone calls and email accounts is a problem. They have, they say, nothing to hide. Neither did Josef K. That’s the way it starts. Believing one is innocent as if that is sufficient when the shadow of authority falls over their path. The reality the politicians are the front stage for an invisible civil service that expands into the private sector, merging bureaucratic procedures in a seamless web.
Like a fly, Josef K fell into the invisible web long before there was an Internet. It is what makes The Trial relevant and undated. Our personal fascination with the fly hitting the web, sticking to it, struggling, protesting, and slowly resigning himself to his fate. He blames himself and not the web. That is the irony of this dystopia where the structure of the web is such that no one is responsible.
One morning people wake up and find that they are caught in the web. They panic. Who to turn to? There is no hot line to phone for rescue. There is no possibility of rescue. There are no courts or other institutions that remain impartial and work to restrain power; instead they come to represent another aspect of absolute power. Evidence is always insufficient to bring one of the overlords to justice. There is no justice. And in The Trial, no one hears Josef K’s cry for help. His protests of innocence have no meaning once caught in the web. He’s there because he put himself there. He’s a victim and he’s to be blamed for being a victim.
The vast majority of Thai people in Bangkok and the countryside continue to believe in elections as the solution.
Would have representative democracy have saved Josef K? The answer to that question is the big issue of our time. Not just in Thailand, but elsewhere, there is evidence of growing discontent in the wide spectrum from dictatorship to democracy. The belief in government as protector of personal safety and welfare has collapsed. The rich withdraw into gated communities with private security forces, their children in private schools, their wealth in offshore private banks. The poor are left to fend for themselves on the scraps.
What is left is escape. Hit the road. Unplug from the grid. That is easier said than done.
Escaping from the grid—that is steering clear of the web—has a few people making a run for it. They won’t get far. The surveillance system grows until ultimately there is no place to escape. At that point, we are all guilty of something. We wait and plead our innocence, we rail against the injustice of it all. And so did Josef K. When the end came he no longer objected, to shout his innocence, he condemned himself, he was both victim and executioner. The State remains hidden, faceless, without responsibility. They no longer need to pull the trigger.
They’ve infiltrated our consciousness, installing an operating system that works on automatic pilot. Once in place, we are programmed to carry out on ourselves their dirty work. It’s how the new governing system was designed and organized to work. What has changed from Josef K’s time is the role of technology is making the State’s goal of infiltration vastly more efficient. We file daily status reports on ourselves through social media. We are our own parole officers. It works because it all appears so benign and friendly. All these digital communities ask of you is to ‘like’ them and to feel mistrust and guilt that you have private thoughts and feelings that they may not like. Those ‘likes’ are harvested, stored, analyzed, and cross-referenced.
That’s enough big data to clone a population who process patterns like Josef K.
The Police State broke George Winston inside Room 101. But Josef K needed no Room 101. He broke himself.
The price of looking the
other way by state officials has a new measurement: the Rhino Horn Index. Like a
Hollywood list for actors and directors, those in the know can scroll down and
find out the asking price and from their contacts establish the actual price.
But establishing market price of officials is getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s
first examine the transition of organized crime. Organized crime adapted to the
industrial age, and it is now adapting to the digital age.
We draw our knowledge
about criminals and their activities from TV shows like the Sopranos,
the newspapers, films like the Godfather and Good Fellas,
novels, and plays. The Mafia is a cultural object that people feel they
The Mafia has a code. And
they have their iconic philosophy such as “Money is Power.” Or “It is a good
person that sees and keeps silent.”
The Mafia was associated
with families and operated locally.
Like any other business
model, the modern criminal organizations wishing to scale to global reach have
had to modernize to keep with the times. Tony Sopranos’s world is already in the
Leaving aside murder,
kidnapping, rape, assault, burglary, and robbery that involve an individual or
maybe a few individuals in a gang, the big-money crimes are in stolen art
objects, animal products, security swindles, counterfeit goods, credit card
fraud, tax and benefit scams, and, of course, trafficking of people, weapons,
drugs, and illegal wildlife. The criminal kingpins like their counterparts in
finance, banking, big corporations have reduced their risks by finding flaws in
the existing law enforcement system and exploiting them to their
The name of the game is
not to get caught.
The digital highway
robbers are surfing the big data wave. With the best lawyers, accountants, and
consultants, they can find new and better opportunities for making money and
figure out the probability of detection.
With large cash washing
through their hands, the criminals succeed by creating networks of police,
politicians, customs and immigration, bankers, lawyers, CPAs, who are rewarded
for their assistance. The international crime payroll is likely one of the
biggest in the world. The CEOs of these hugely profitable enterprises do not
appear on the Forbes list of the richest. They are hidden out of
The global criminals are
drawn from many nationalities. The list would include: Russian, Chinese,
American, Indian, English, Macau, Madagascar, Brazilian, and many more. The old
idea that crime is ‘organized’ never contemplated the full extent that the
modern digital economy could improve organization.
The Economist, January
18th 2014, ran a story “Earning with fishes” that indicated the
illegal wildlife trade was worth ‘as much as $133 billion annually.’ That’s a
lot of exotic birds, elephant tusks and rhino horns. As rhino horns fetch up to
$50,000 per kilo you have a product significantly more profitable than cocaine
or gold and if you get busted, the sentence is closer to 14 months than 40 years
in the big house. The question in the mind of an international criminal is
how many rhino horns in pay offs are required to complete the
A lot has been written
about money politics and how the rich use lobbyist to influence Congress to pass
legislation to protect and advance their economic interest.
In the criminal world,
they cut straight to the chase and pay off the prosecutors, witnesses, customs
inspectors, the cops, and anyone else hovering near the criminal justice system.
One kilo of rhino horns buys a cop or a district attorney. Four kilos and you
have a judge finding insufficient evidence. A small herd of rhinos should be
enough to buy an entire congress.
The biggest source of
corruption isn’t the politicians filing phony expense accounts, or giving a
contract to a relative or friend, or taking a golf holiday paid for by a big
pharma company. The real action is in the world of illegal transactions where
the players know the price of those monitoring and regulating the law
enforcement system. They use money to control that system.
And they do it every day
of the week to the tune of billions of dollars.
Organized crime has
discovered what the DOW 500 CEOs have figured out: borders are your best
friend—just like cross-borders is the new mantra for international crime. Divide
your business into component parts: Your buyers are in country A, your sellers
are in country B, your money comes from country C, your mules from country D,
your transportation from country E, and your residence is in country F. Payments
flow across multiple borders, from multiple bank accounts, in multiple
Each jurisdiction has its
own laws and regulations and officials to take care of. Choosing the right
location for a part of the overall transaction slows down the official process
as the officials only see the part that takes place inside their borders. It’s
pulling all of the pieces of the puzzle apart. The criminal caught is the mule,
the flunky, the ‘worker’. The crime bosses are at sitting beside their swimming
pool drinking a cool drink. Their connection to the criminal activity has
disappeared as the trail ends in an offshore company with nominee shareholders
What is the reaction of
governments to the scaling of international criminal activity? The
Economist says without any irony: “Governments are reacting by getting
law-enforcement agencies to work together. America is trying to improve the flow
of information between them.”
What this means is the
government has no plan. It is too busy fighting terrorists, and that fight sucks
all of the resources into a battle that lets the criminal class clean up.
International criminal activity is layered with complexity. Take money
laundering as the cash rattling around the system won’t fit in a suitcase. It
needs a banker.
“Between 2006 and 2010,
some of those criminal networks laundered $881 millions dollars through a single
legal bank inside the United States. In fact, in 2012, the Criminal Division of
the Department of Justice pointed out that the same Bank ‘failed to monitor’
$9.4 billion dollars during that same period.”
This amount comes from
gangs in Central America and Mexico. Wrap your head around the amounts from all
criminal activity internationally, and you start to understand the dimension of
the problem. This year on The
question asked is: What scientific idea is ready for retirement? And Eduardo
Salcedo-Albaranchose recommended that “Crime is only about the actions of
individuals” should be retired.
In its place we turn to
data mining tools to make predictions from the vast sea of information to get a
handle on how the networks are constructed. Once the design emerges, the
players’ roles understood, the parts of the puzzle are reassembled. The idea is
to use big data to establish an overall picture of the full extent of the
components (including the gray areas of officials, politicians, banks, lawyers,
and accountants) who play a role in the criminal organization. The process goal
is to make the illegible legible.
This assumes that major
criminal organizations are keeping one step ahead with their workforce of
specialists who can encrypt communications and set up alternative means of
funneling money. Given the huge resources available to international criminal
syndicates, the chances are finding a person’s price in kilos of rhino horns
will extend the immunity they currently enjoy. There are companies that provide
seminars on how security teams can use web intelligence for effective threat
The reality is government
is either too distracted, has different priorities, or enjoying the fruits of
kilos of rhino horns to make significant headway into the tangled web of
organized international crime. The best and the brightest minds might find an
alternative to working on Wall Street. And the rest of us might wake up to
discover there is another .1% working the system, who are untouchable and too
big to fail.
My generation remembers
when this Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western was released in 1966. It was the time
of the Cold War. Good guys on our side, bad guys on the other side. They were
also ugly. The idea of ugly is an old one. Wikipedia has only one sentence to define
ugliness: “a property of a person or thing that is unpleasant to look at, listen
to or contemplate.” That’s it. A word so revolting the editors of Wikipedia
don’t want to spend time contemplating in its presence.
While beauty has multiple entries that goes on
and on. Wiki explains beauty as follows: “The experience of ‘beauty’ often
involves an interpretation of some entity as being in balance and harmony with nature, which may lead to feelings of
attraction and emotional
Ugly and Beauty are words
for a certain sensation, a feeling, how our gut instincts act with our rational
deliberative mind shunt down. Ugly brings to mind feelings of disgust,
revulsion, and avoidance while beauty is a feeling of being uplifted, admirable,
In the recent
anti-government demonstrations in Bangkok starting on 13th January
2014, under the slogan “Bangkok Shutdown,” I spent some time at Asoke
intersection on Sukhumvit Road checking the crowd and their banner with slogans
slagging the government. In the photo below, I found a Thai woman holding a sign
that read: “YINGLUCK you are SO UGLY.”
I had found my replay of
childhood Cold War fear and hatred. It was like a 1966 version of Clint Eastwood
had appeared squinting and chewing a cheroot his hand over the gun in his
Photo credit: Christopher G.
The banner was aimed at
this woman: Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Maybe I am shallow but I’d
be very hard pressed to describe the woman in that photograph as “ugly” or to
understand how anyone else could think that the word “ugly” and this woman could
be used on the same sign. But there it is. My filter for beauty sees
something the protesters don’t. What explains this divergence in
This wasn’t an isolated
banner. Here’s another female anti-government, protestor holding a Thai sign:
“I am beautiful and smart to boot. The bitch Pou is hedious and STUPID to boot.”
(‘Pou’ is PM Yingluck’s nickname.)
Aristotle taught that
beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I understand the point that beauty and
ugliness are perceptions seen through filters. What you think is beauty is just
you filtering that image through a cultural lens. We all wear this lens every
day of our life. It is impossible to slip on someone else’s filters and see the
world through their lens. All you can do is find evidence that explains how the
filters works for those who have them implanted from childhood.
This got me wondering what
Thai cultural alchemy has the power to turn (to my eye) a stunningly
beautiful into an ugly woman. Let’s start with the old, well-used stand-by:
abject hate. If there is a person, a group, a nation or state that you hear and
hate, your subjective experience in visual images and contemplating of such
images will stir strong negative emotions. Blacks, homosexuals, women, Jews, and
peasants have a history of being the object of hate, made ugly, undesirable,
less than fully human.
It is a rare modern
political culture, which doesn’t have negative campaigning against an electoral
opponent. You defeat the enemy by dehumanizing him or her, turning the
person in an object of scorn and ridicule, reduced to the perceived state of
being incompetent, corrupt, stupid, or unpleasant. Who would want to elect such
When you dissect our
filter for processing good and bad, beauty and hate, you learn something about
the relationship between programming and emotions. Our emotional, irrational
side is tuned into an easily programed subjective experience into the binary
code of either good or bad. A series of one’s and zeroes, on-off switches,
propelling us to evaluate a person, event, or policy as good or bad. We are
programed to search and capture the good and to avoid and punish the bad.
Nothing has changed much in the way we process values of what a group we
identify with has decided is good and bad.
In the world of emotional
rage there are no fifty shades of grey. There are no shades. Period. You have
your basic pitch black (ugly) and pure white (good).
What smears and
mud-slinging seek is to destroy the element of trust in another. We trust the
‘good person’ and distrust the ugly one. The systematic use of hate language is
condemned by the press in most countries and is unlawful in a number of
countries, though not in Thailand. It is gasoline poured onto a fire. Hate, in
politics, is a call to war. Think of the killing of half million Indonesians in
1965 to 1966 to understand the potential scale of damage and death. Hate is a
poison well. Reform drawn from a well filled with hate leads to a road of
What makes the
anti-government protest in Bangkok more like the Cold War than political
posturing is that the leaders are seeking to disconnect the Bangkok middle-class
and traditional elites from the democratic system of one-man one-vote. Prime
Minister Yingluck represents the face of electoral democracy and the protesters
and the Democrat Party, which has given the appearance that they are
political arm of the Peoples Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), has
failed to win an election in two decades.
The career politicians who
are leading the street demonstration are election losers. They blame democracy
for returning a majority in Parliament to govern the country. They distrust
democracy. To justify distrust we need to bring in hate, and to hate democracy
isn’t going to bring out a large mob. You need a face or a number of faces for
that. Like Russia was America’s existential fear during the Cold War, Thaksin
Shinawatra and his sister Prime Minister Yingluck are, for the PDRC faithful,
feared and hated for their existential threat. A threat against what the PDRC
believe is Thainess and traditional alignments in the political, economic and
Yingluck is transformed
into an ugly person for the protesters as she represents the face of what they
fear most—a new political arrangement that pares down their 76% share of the
confiscate what has always been their cut. Even if you have more than half of
the pie, you are going to have less than before. Khrushchev was the face of the
evil Russia. He was bad. Khrushchev was ugly. And his banging his shoe at the UN
suggested he was unstable and crazy enough to make us fearful.
Unless you can put on
those lens that let your hatred a full reign to feel revulsion at how ugly that
person who threats us is. How could anyone trust anyone so ugly? If you can’t
trust someone, then they should be kicked out of office, their assets seized and
they expelled into exile. The way to get rid of a problem is to assign a leader
with the ugly label, rally a mob to take to the streets, demanding she resign
and her entire clan leave the country. Protest leaders have suggested this
avenue for Khun Yingluck. Living in Bangkok during the past few weeks has
been like returning to the ancient past.
Once we commit to a group,
our subjective experience of beauty, good, bad, and ugly has a group setting,
one that plays on survival. Life and death. Never compromised. Defeat your
enemy. Make those horrible ugly people grovel at your feet. This works on
a number of levels. We wish to belong, to receive approval, to be accepted, and
a shared subjective experience is the membership card. We also suffer from many
One of the most common is
What You See Is All There Is (Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking,
Fast and Slow) Here’s a good example of WYSIATI. Susan Boyle who
appeared in 2009 before a large audience and a panel of expert celebrity judges
at Britain’s Got Talent.
Most people who saw her
(including me) would not have thought she was anywhere close to a description of
beauty. Our minds recoiled at the very idea that she would sing. We held our
breath. And then Susan Boyle sang and the camera panned the faces in the
audience and the judges. They were dumbstruck. People were crying. I was crying.
The whole world cried as WYSIATI has biased us to judge her before we heard
Our biases don’t normally
allow us to hear beauty coming from the ugly. But at that evening people around
the world subjectively adjusted to a new way of perceiving beauty.
Perception can change
quickly. The Susan Boyle incident is a lesson in overcoming bias. It
helped that we knew nothing about Susan Boyle the first time we laid eyes on
her. We’d never seen or heard of her before. Suddenly she was on our TV screen.
That first moment was our only cue to hang our bias—her appearance. Her
appearance carried no other baggage. But in politics, whether the Cold War or
the Street of Bangkok, people are subject to non-stop hate programing on cable
TV and radio, they sign up for social media enclaves of hate sharers, and read
the literature and newspapers of hate. Hate becomes a 24/7 cycle filled with
cherry picked information to confirm and deepen the hatred. Orwell in
1984 had Big Brother’s 2 minutes of hate. Yingluck is on the other end
of 24 hours of hate every day. You want to know how strong filters and bias are?
Here’s your case study: Yingluck appears to the anti-democracy demonstrators
through their filters as a Susan Boyle lookalike standing on the stage at
Britain’s Got Talent, on that they would never open their ears to hear
protesters don’t have a monopoly on hate. On the pro-government side, you don’t
have to go far to find those who live in alternate hate universe. Inside this
place you’ll find lots of images where their opponents are seen as ugly. In the
photograph, you can witness the extreme of that hatred with a noose around the
necks of Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Deputy Prime Minister
The current protest and
demonstration has been a battle between beauty and ugly, good and bad. As I
wondered among the demonstrators, I saw many of them taking selfies.
Photo credit: Christopher G.
They marveled at their own
beauty and the beauty of their friends. Everywhere along the Asoke and Sukhumvit
Road intersection I witnessed this scene repeated many times.
The beautiful and good
people on the night of 13th January 2014 turned out in large
numbers in front of a stage erected at the Asoke and Sukhumvit
Photo credit: Christopher G.
Moore Asoke-Sukhumvit Intersection, 1st day of “Bangkok Shutdown”
(January 13, 2014)
By the fourth day of the
so-called Bangkok Shutdown, the same intersection looked different.
4th day of “Bangkok Shutdown” (January 16, 2014) Photo credit:
The good and beautiful
people had gone back to work. They needed to recharge their cellphone
batteries, shower and eat. You can’t really sustain a high pitch of hatred
unless you are unemployed, dirty, hungry and hopeless. Once you have your SIM
card filled with selfies and a cool office to work in, the hate switch is turned
off. At least until after work, with recharged cell phone, a new and cool outfit
with patriotic accessories, and fresh makeup, they can return to the streets to
No question that
Thailand’s political system is at a crossroad, and no question there is genuine
anger and fear. No question that there is a real need for reform. Thailand one
day could have a half-dozen mega-cities. Yet, it is doubtful that the existing
Bangkok elites and power structure would co-operate politically for a system
that expanded the possibility of additional rivals. They want things to be the
way they’ve always been, despite new and much changed reality.
I also have grave doubts
whether a centralized democratically elected government would be the system of
choice that would govern a country with multiple mega-cities. A new political
arrangement would be required. One where the existing sense of space and
location experienced as a physical place is superseded by a digital space, where
voting every few years is replaced with a more calibrated system representing
consensus about extracting wealth from some citizens and distributing it to
others, a new political system, in which the notion of citizens, rights, and
benefits are finely tuned to ride the rapids of large scale change. At the
same time, it will take a democratically elected political system under rule of
law to allow for the next transition. That’s how I see electoral democracy, an
incubator to give birth to a new way of governing when our current perception of
space and time and change are fundamentally upended. In that new world the idea
of ‘reform’ will be built into the political system to allow for continuously
updating. I am not certain if we are quite ready for that reality but several
generations down the road will likely have a very different opinion.
Imprisoned by my own
filters and biases, I know that they prevent me from experiencing anything more
than a subjective reading. These psychological filters don’t reach far into the
future. That, however, is the future that is at stake, and how coalitions of
people, powerful institutions and leaders can put in place a democratic system
that will prepare the country to walk free of the good, the bad and the ugly and
into a place where they hear Susan Boyles’ voice and for the first time feel
themselves inside a world where they know What We See Isn’t All There Is. There
is much, much more.
Consent, or the absence consent, is a crucial concept that runs like an operating system inside politics, criminal justice and social systems. In a democratic system, consent of the governed allows for a co-operative basis to co-ordinate the administration and distribution of governmental services. Only dictatorship can ignore the consent of those it rules. And, instead of consent, the population is managed with weapons, prisons, and gulags to process those who demand consent.
Consent is important. So what does it mean in a political and social context?
Their is a minimum age before a person can ‘consent’ to having sex, to being contractually bound, to marrying, and to voting. Below a certain age the person’s consent is irrelevant. The theory is such a ‘young’ person lacks the capacity to form consent. The assumption being that until a person reaches a certain age they can’t judge for themselves matters of importance. There consent is void in a number of areas, including voting. The age for each of these categories shifts across cultures. How we structure consent is a cultural construct and a social construct that is shared by people who are born and raised and live inside that culture.
Our idea of consent is restricted to the age at which we say a person is capable of giving consent; it also applies to what groups are included (and those excluded) from participation in the political process. It isn’t limited to age. For example, blacks in South Africa, regardless of age, were excluded from voting in South Africa under apartheid. Criminals and the insane are commonly excluded from voting. So are non-citizens such as immigrants. Such a category exclusion is significant. An immigrant physicist or heart surgeon can’t vote, while a citizen with no education, job, and low mental ability can vote. Deciding who is in and who is out, is itself a political decision—one that every country makes.
If your consent is embedded in the political process, you have a channel to shape and influence the officials who make and enforce the laws that affect the lives of citizens. Consent in a democracy is egalitarian. Consent in a non-democracy could mean that many citizens have no more political status to influence government than an illegal immigrant.
The current political impasse in Thailand, in my view, is largely an argument about who gives consent, how consensus is formed, and how dissent is allowed along the road to judge the legitimacy of government to make public policy, allocate funds for such policies, and the legal frameworks that create the institutions of government. Battles of expansion of consent is found in a recent ruling by the NACC (National Anti-Corruption Commission), an independent agency, which found a prima facie case against 308 MPs who voted to amend the Constitution to make the Senate a wholly elected body. At present under the constitution, it is half-elected and half-appointed. As a result, the 308 MPs may be banned from politics.
The decision should be put in context. Under the 1997 Constitution, the Thai Senate was wholly elected. The selection process was changed to a half-elected body in the constitution that followed a military coup that toppled a popularly elected government in 2006.
The traditional cultural system in Thailand is based on patronage and a hierarchy of ranks and status. Consent of the larger population is not part of such a system. Patronage was never designed as an egalitarian system, or a system based on equality. A patron will take care of those who rely upon his position and authority even if it means abuse of power. Benefits and privileges in a patronage system are not allocated in a transparent, public way. Large, mass-based consent is not how the patronage system works. But Thailand is also a fledgling democracy that overlays the more ancient patronage system. The problem has been the two systems work off a different playbook. The democracy pulls to an expansion of consent as the basis of legitimacy and that means winning elections. The patronage system rests on notions of loyalty, unity, authority, status and rank that provide an alternative to consent obtained by an election. A patronage system has its own internal checks and balances to monitor cheating and deception and a patron who is too greedy will suffer from lack of loyalty.
Each political system has a founding myth and set of metaphors. The metaphor that describes a patronage system is the family. The father (the patriarch), mother (the matriarch), children and extended family make decisions based on their status and authority. Children don’t have the right to withhold their consent to go to school or do their homework. The father’s decision is the law, but as he’s benevolent and loves his family, consent isn’t (in his mindset) needed as he’s always motivated to be fair, justice, kind, and decent ensuring that the family’s needs are met. When this metaphor is scaled up to run a modern nation state problems emerge.
There is an uneasy tension between the forces of domination and those on receiving end of rules, regulations and restrictions who demand a voice. Absolute political domination is the unrestricted power to use education, threats, censorship, imprisonment, exile or force to dominate the lives of others without the consent of the dominated. At various times in the past, in the West whole classes of people had no way to offer or withhold their consent to political domination. Blacks, women, non-property owners had not right to vote. Their opinions, interest, desires and needs might have had indirect influence but without consent their political expression was faint and easily ignored. The expansion of political consent has been a slow process over hundreds of years in advanced democracies such as the UK and the United States. The population granted political consent gradually expanded but over a long time to replace the simple idea of the family unit as the model for decision-making.
What makes democracy an unusual political system is that it is premised on consent of all citizens. Other systems of government hoard consent for a few, the elite, the good people, or those inside a networked, narrowly defined ruling system. It is often said democracies don’t declare wars on each other; they trade with each other and have economic interests that would be harmed by warfare. Another reason is a democracy with a draft ensures that everyone’s sons and daughters are at risk and consent for sending them to war is a restriction on the military’s decision to go to war. War is a political decision. Going to war requires, at least in a democracy, the consent of the majority of the citizens. It is their children, fathers and husbands who will be killed and injured, and they think twice when it is their own kin who is ordered to patrol inside a killing zone.
The idea of consensus comes from a commonly shared consent to a course of action, a policy decision, an investment, an expansion or contraction of programs. Forming consensus is rocky, unpaved road, and conflict is the norm. Agreement by all whose interests are involved is unusual. Only in a Utopia is there no conflict. In the political sphere, democracy allows these conflicts to be worked out with concessions until a consensus is reached. That is why democracy has the reputation of being messy; finding a common consensus amongst millions of people is a messy process.
Dissent is the withholding of consent or contesting that the authorities making a new policy, implementing an old policy, or distributing benefits has acted without consent. In a democracy, there is an acceptance that dissent is part of the deal. Not everyone will agree to the consensus on an issue. Those in the minority are left to register their dissent in a number of ways. Demonstrations, protests, boycotts, public petitions, referendums, recalls, social media campaigns are common examples as those in the minority seek to undermine the consensus and substitute a new consensus in its place. Dissent is difficult to accept in a system that demands unity and conformity. Dissent can also be the response to dictatorial governments that either ignore or minimize the group of citizens that consent is extended to. Criminal defamation and other laws work to keep dissent within pre-defined boundaries and to punish those who exceed those bounds.
In the heat of the current political turmoil much has been written about corruption. In a patronage system, it is no surprise that nepotism and cronyism are widespread. It is, after all, little more than a scaling up of arrangements made inside a family. Of course, members of the family help out each other and their friends. When the family is nearly 70 million people, the limits of scaling from the family to a large population from different regions, ethnic backgrounds, local customs and which has become aware of its diversity.
That gift of cash to the family friend who helped little Lek get into a highly competitive elite school isn’t seen as corruption in a patronage system. It is how the system is designed to work. As power is in a few hands, the common consensus is that appointing friends and relatives to official positions, or helping a friend to avoid arrest and imprisonment for a criminal offense, or colluding in distributing under the table payments oils the patron-client relationship. Such activities are not flaws in the system. They are a feature of the system and how and why the system works and remains stable. Personality cults arise from the patronage system and the powerful use laws as weaponized ordnance designed to defeat opponents who challenge the patriarch. Like drones, the enforcement of laws isn’t about justice, but efficiently eliminating challengers who threaten the system.
In a democracy inevitably there will be corruption but it is at the margins, and is more difficult to conceal and justify. If voters are promised universal health care, some might say that is ‘corrupt’ as the candidate and ruling party are ‘buying’ votes and a bought vote doesn’t represent true consent. A bought vote is not counted because a ‘genuine’ vote requires ‘true’ consent. The government’s legitimacy, in this way of thinking, means the motives of those giving consent must be examined as well as the political intentions of those who receive the consent from the voters.
The nature of voting is for a political party to promise voters that electing them to office will return a range of policies that serves their interest. Cynics argue that most of the policy decisions are too complex for ordinary voters to understand, and they are easily manipulated by sleek political TV advertisement campaigns, appealing to emotions.
At the same time when a patron acts to advance or protect the interest of those who shelter under his power umbrella, it begins to look like a prototype of vote buying. A patron who can’t protect his charges will find his power and standing diminished. In a face culture, the patron is aware that if he fails to protect, his reputation is tarnished. Patrons (in theory) fight hard to protect their luk nong (the Thai expression for those under the charge of the patron). Unexpected switching of roles does and can happen. In the case of a Thai beer empire heiress, the daughter was requested by the father to lower her public profile in participating in street demonstrations to limit voting rights. She refused. There is irony in the refusal by one in the younger generation who demonstrated alongside with others in the streets of Bangkok to, among other things, impose limits on the voting system, to keep the old system.
The problem for the old system in Thailand is that once the idea of consent is expanded, creating a wide spread expectation that voters can influence policy and reward politicians who exercise power under a regime of consent, withdrawing consent is difficult. Once the Americans freed the slaves, what if a majority of American voters voted to reintroduce slavery, would this be a legitimate expression of majority consent? Or the majority vote to withdraw the right of women to participate in elections?
The reality is that once political participation through consent has been enshrined, there may (and likely will be) a fringe of people who will work to undo that decision. Another reality is taking away consent once given is going to be a bloody event. It would be viewed as an enslavement by default, and a return to a purely patronage system where relationships to power are based on concepts that devalue consent as the measuring stick for legitimacy.
On January 7, “Respect My Vote” on a hand-written sign held up by a middle-class, educated Bangkok Thai man occurred at an event organized by the Democrat Party under the titled: “Eradicate Corruption, Committed in Reforms.” When pointed out from the stage by former Prime Minister Abhisit he was someone sent by a rival, the protester replied, “I am not your rival. I am the people.” A reply that echoed the ancient cry, “I am Spartacus.” The words “Respect My Vote” cropped up on T-shirts and posters during the 2012 US presidential election. And now “Respect My Vote” has gone viral on Thai social media.
Thailand is stuck in the transition between patronage and democracy. The difference distills to a sound bite-size distinction between Respect My Authority and Respect My Vote. And it won’t be resolved until the idea of consent can be reconciled with the governing system and mutual respect based on equality gains acceptance by all parties.
In Thailand, the scope, nature and power of consent as the way to judge legitimacy is at the heart of the current political storm. The thing to remember: this storm never blows over. There are never clear skies politically or economically. The old generation and the rich cling to what they have and resist changes that are a threat. They don’t consent to change. The patronage system has worked for them. But a new generation and the poor have come to see giving their consent by voting is normal. Taking that right away or diminishing it with a thousand tiny cuts will not be the solution going forward.
Patrons don’t let go of their children easily. And children once they’ve left home aren’t happy to be forced back to live under their father’s house rules. As a civilian observer in the 1980s riding with NYPD in the early hours, I learned first hand from the police a couple of lessons. First, both sides in a domestic argument believe that right is on their side. They become highly emotional. Kitchens are full of knives and other possible weapons. People are drunk. They are enraged. They are armed. And that’s why cops everywhere, not just in New York, hate taking a domestic violence call. Because they know from experience there is a high chance someone is going to get hurt. The equivalent of police dispatchers in Thailand are calling in a domestic dispute that is just about to get out of hand.