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George Orwell’s 1940 review of Tropic of Cancer is worth revisiting for several reasons. Not least of which is the critical lens that one novelist uses to examine, evaluate and analyze another novelist’s work. Reviews often reveal as much about the biases of the reviewer as they do with the book under review.

Orwell’s review details a bias about Miller’s class (working class), nationality (American), and art (he’s a failure) and politics (the absence of political context). Orwell’s sensibilities were fashioned at Eton; Millers on the hardscrabble streets of Brooklyn. Orwell’s sympathies were with the working class; Miller was from the American working class. In the English world of 1940 the class distinction would have been a significant factor in the literary world where the Orwells were expected to write meaningful books and the D.H. Lawrences given a shovel and told to dig coal. It is important to remember the rigidity of class divide and everything that flows from it whenever an Orwell reviews a Lawrence.

Reading Orwell’s review of Henry Miller is at times painful when his class talons are involuntarily exposed. His review of Tropic of Cancer displays the conflict between the ideal of what the working class consciousness ought to be—politically attuned—and the reality of Miller’s working class absolute focus on the sensual to the exclusion of the larger political framework.

Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence broke free of the bonds of their culture and class by travelling and living abroad. In Orwell’s case, fighting in a foreign civil war (The Spanish Civil War) showed a commitment to overcome the walls of class and upbringing and how very hard a road that is to travel. Orwell sought a literary life devoted to repudiating the chains of his class. In his review of Miller, it seems for Orwell that those chains were never fully severed.

Orwell wrote Down and Out in Paris and London where Miller set The Tropic of Cancer. Both books were intensely autobiographical. He may have had a propriety feeling about his Paris. This is a kind of old hand attitude that one finds in many places including Bangkok where the old days were always better, more alive, more interesting and stimulating. Orwell couldn’t quite figure out why Henry Miller would bother with Paris after the golden age of the late 1920s when “there were as many as 30,000 painters in Paris, most of them imposters.” Paris was swamped with “artists, writers, students, dilettanti, sight-seers, debauchees, and plain idlers as the world has probably never seen.” Though Orwell didn’t live long enough to see a similar accumulation of people in Bangkok in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For Orwell, the Paris scene populated by the expats of the 1920s had vanished by the time Henry Miller arrived to find “bug-ridden rooms in working-men’s hotels, of fights, drinking bouts, cheap brothels, Russian refugees, cadging, swindling and temporary jobs.”


George Orwell

George Orwell, an old Paris hand, felt that 1930s Paris (it was no longer his Paris) had less promising material for a novelist. Actually, it comes across even stronger; he thought Paris was a waste of time, a distraction in the larger European theatre, a spent force where nothing of interest would emerge. By comparison, in Orwell’s view there was vastly more interesting material to be mined in Rome, Moscow and Berlin as Hitler and Stalin worked the military and political levers pushing toward war. The fact is, by the time of this review Orwell had the advantage of hindsight. Henry Miller was writing in Paris in the 1930s before the war started. To strike Miller with a cross-over punch to the jaw for not anticipating the future outcome is an easy shot as the fist is coming from an arm originating in 1940.

To ignore the European political developments, to Orwell’s mind you were “either a footler or a plain idiot.” [Note: A footler is someone who wastes time or talks nonsense.] Orwell chose not to answer in which of those categories Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer fell. But it was plain to Orwell that Miller’s literary credibility was on the line. Or more graphically, he was driving a stake through the heart of a minor monster that no one should take seriously. He wanted to grab Miller by the throat and shouted in his face, “You fool, what about Hitler?  Concentration Camps? Forget about bonking and look what is happening around you at the gathering forces of history which are building to send you and the rest of the working class back to the battlefield!”

While Orwell came to the brink, he blinked and chose to sidestep the absence of political context and the fact that Paris had become a backwater. Despite a silver literary stake driven through Miller’s heart, Orwell concluded that Miller’s book was ‘a very remarkable book.’ That is a remarkable observation given Orwell’s doubt about the value of a novel “written about American dead-beats cadging drinks in the Latin Quarter.”

What brought Orwell around despite his obvious reservations about Miller’s choice of where to set the book and the lack of even a remote bit of interest in the larger political clouds forming over Europe, including Paris, at the time the story was set, was that Miller was genuine working class. As much as Orwell fought for and wrote about the working class, he was never a member of that class. Orwell was as much an outsider to the working class as Miller was to the French in Paris, and for the same sort of reasons—attitude, education, and sensibility.

What saved Tropic of Cancer and made it linger in his memory, was that Miller was about to ‘create a world of their own’, not based on the strange but the familiar. Miller’s genius was in letting the reader know that he or she was being understood. Miller’s reader would say, “He knows all about me. He wrote this specially for me.” There is no humbug, moralizing, trying to persuade you to understand his perspective or values. What Orwell valued was that Miller dispensed with the usual lies and simplifications and instead wrote about “recognizable experiences of human beings.” Miller gave the reader that the things he was writing about were happening to you.


Henry Miller

The nature of the experience chosen by a writer mattered a great deal to Orwell. It is interesting that Orwell who was born in India and was a colonial official in Burma (and whose first novel was Burmese Days) should take a negative view of expatriate life and the role of authors writing about such lives. He noted that Miller’s book wasn’t about “people working, marrying and bringing up children” but about people who lived and survived by their wits on the street, visited cafes, brothels and studios. Orwell believed that expatriate writers transferred their ‘roots into shallower soil’ as a result of concentrating on these experiences.

For Eton educated Orwell, I suspect what he secretly loved about Tropic of Cancer was his feeling Miller was interested in bringing what was common in the real life of ordinary people with all of its callous coarseness out into the open. What he secretly envied was Miller’s class credentials. Orwell might have lived down and out in Paris but his self-imposed suffering could never have made him a member of the working class. Orwell fought alongside the working class in the streets of Barcelona. Henry Miller drank and fornicated in the Latin Quarter. Tropic of Cancer made it clear that it was one thing to make an intellectual commitment to the working class, argue their cause, fight their battles, but quite another thing to become an authentic spokesman of their emotions and desires.

Miller laid open the lives through their spoken language. “Miller is simply a hard-boiled person talking about life, an ordinary American businessman with intellectual courage and a gift for words.” There is no protest about the horror and meaninglessness of contemporary life. In its place, Miller had written a book about someone whose life circumstances should have made them miserable but instead, in the case of Henry Miller, he was incredibly happy. Such an epiphany must have been a slap in the face for someone committed to the struggle of the working class.

In contrast, Orwell thought James Joyce was an artist who turned ordinary working class life into art. Miller was the tabloid writer who entered the mind of the ordinary person and his words to the ears of one who marched on the playing fields of Eton had not gone through the usual filters that censored language and thought.

What separate the two men transcends class, nationality and politics. It comes down to Orwell’s view of a writer at all times and all places which is to resist fear, tyranny and regimentation. When Orwell looked up from Tropic of Cancer, what horrified him wasn’t the language or whoring, it was Miller’s acceptance of ‘concentration camps, rubber truncheons” as well as Hitler, Stalin, machine guns, putsches, purges, gas masks, spies, provocateurs, censorship, secret prisons, and political murders. For Orwell it was unthinkable for a serious writer to ‘accept civilization as it is practically means accepting decay.’ Orwell makes the case that Miller’s point of view was passive and he laid down and with a sense of resignation and let things happen to him.

On reflection, who are the characters in Tropic of Cancer? They aren’t the ordinary factory worker or family in the suburb, but “the derelict, the déclassé, the adventurer, the American intellectual without roots and without money.” And what evaluates and saves Tropic of Cancer is isolated by Orwell to one crucial factor: Miller ‘had the courage to identify with it” as he was part of this group. He didn’t look down on them, try to explain or justify, he reported their lives, troubles, loves, sensual preoccupation.

Orwell was a political writer who used the form of the novel to great effect in 1984 and Animal Farm. He would hardly be the reader of choice for a novel preoccupied with sex among American expats in Paris in the 1930s. For him the sensual man was out of fashion, it was the time of the political man to take a stand on principle. Miller’s Tropic of Cancer accepts a world with endless cycles of violence, greed, aggression, inequality, and injustice as largely unchangeable, and that the best chance anyone has is for an escape from the constraints of the madness and limits of one’s own culture and exploring their emotions inside a new culture. Both Orwell and Miller lived in a pre-global world. Literature and writers were identified with their nationality and class. This is less true in our modern world. To read Orwell’s essay on Henry Miller is to see how far we have travelled since 1940 in terms of what readers expect of authors, and what authors’ expect from each other.

American Henry Miller was an escape artist, a hustler, and sensualist. Englishman Orwell was a Barcelona street fighter and British colonial official. The divide between the two men could hardly have been greater in terms of personality, education, temperament, and philosophy. The gap between Eton and the working class slums of Brooklyn was huge. For all of those differences, though, Orwell saw why Miller had attracted readers—he brought them into a story, never talked down to them, and made them feel they should step inside and join him on a grand odyssey of the sensual world that was recognizable and real and spoke directly to their own lives.

That part of Orwell’s review is as true today as it was in 1940. The social, economic and political distance between Orwell and Miller’s consciousness may be greater today. Few novelists have taken up the cause of the working class struggle. That fell with the Berlin Wall and in place of a wall is a growing inequality, repression and acceptance. It seems that Miller may have won in the end. What is important to remember is that Orwell took Miller seriously. In 2013 writers situated along this divide are receding like galaxies traveling at the speed of light away from each other. Soon they will no longer have evidence the ‘other’ ever existed. As recently reported in the New York Times,  novelists are no longer critically review each other’s books. The competition for money, academic position and literary prizes has silenced a generation of novelists too afraid and timid to speak truth not just to authority but to each other.

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Posted: 9/5/2013 8:55:38 PM 

 

There is a fifty-year publishing anniversary that needs celebration. It has to do with the meaning of insanity and related terms. Our use of language in every day conversation—in novels, movies, newspapers, TV, and on the Internet—changes the meaning of terms from the past. Take the trio of insanity, craziness and madness. Those three ideas have been around since we’ve had language, and one day someone will find from big data on the development of language, that one reason we acquired language was to keep tabs on people who the community thought weren’t quite right in the head.

It has been 50 years since the Kesey novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was released. That makes it a good time to revisit and ask questions about how insanity, craziness and madness remain powerful and effective tools to protect state power and authority.

The film based on Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, won five Oscars. The book and film struck a chord with the Academy and filmgoers. McMurphy could be any of us who pushed back against authority. McMurphy, a criminal in the prison system with a relatively short sentence to serve, thought he was clever in gaming the system by being transferred from prison to a mental hospital. He challenged the power of the head nurse. What he discovered that he was inside a system that could keep him indefinitely and no law, no institution, no authority could prevent the head nurse or her staff from using the full range of ‘treatments’ (in the name of medical science) to break him (or from their point of view, cure him).

If you are anti-authoritarian, then you run the McMurphy risk of being labeled insane, rebellious, and troublesome. You go on a list. Nothing that you can do as McMurphy found out will prevent the authorities from carrying out a lobotomy. At the end of the story, the Chief sees what they’ve done to McMurphy whose unresponsive face is a testament to the power of the State who employ the words ‘insanity’, ‘craziness’ and ‘madness’ with the precision of drones.

Insanity is both a legal and medical term. Madness and craziness are ordinary, common usage to describe abnormal mental acts of another person. Political correctness has erased insanity, madness and craziness and instead discussions that would have used ‘insanity’ now refer to ‘mental disorders.’

Science has dispatched madness and craziness to the old world of magic, herbal cures, and shaman trances. Science has replaced the local shaman with doctors, nurses, scientists, and psychiatrists. That has been called progress and a victory over superstition and backwardness. In the 50 years since the novel was published, science hasn’t been successful in changing the attitude, nature, and emotions of mankind. In 1963, the medical workers, in the name of ‘science’, doomed McMurphy. Science acted then, as it does now, as a good cover for those in power to legitimatize the repression of people like McMurphy.

It is difficult to say what is more dangerous—the old witchdoctor non-scientific approach, or the new science, medical approach. A person’s liberty should stand on magical thinking of superstitious people. It is cruel and senseless and barbaric. Has science has put an end to the era of witchdoctors? Many people are doubtful. The history of insanity correlates not as one would wish with the developments in science. The idea that science brings progress and the ways of a superstitious people are left in the past. What we are discovering is that science is creating better tools for lobotomy for critics and opponents. Insanity, craziness, and madness become mud-slinging words hurled against the rise of new ideas, philosophies, and technologies.

Don’t forget that at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest it was Nurse Ratchet who won. In 2013 we have a new cast of Nurse Ratchet’s and McMurphy’s and every indication that the outcome will be the same as it was in 1963.

Remember the bottle thrown from the plane in the Gods Must Be Crazy?  Whenever a tribe comes in contact with an unknown technology, instability of the existing system of belief and thought starts to list like an oil tanker that’s rammed a reef. Soon the peaceful tribe is racked with high emotions such as hatred and envy and violence follows as the hotheads arm themselves to control, own, and monopolize the novel invention. At the end of this 1980 film the hero Xi throws the bottle over a cliff and returns to his village.

But the days when the hero could return the world to its pre-bottle ways is over.

What is new is not a bottle thrown from a plane, but the Big Data quietly culled, stored, and analyzed into marketing, economic policy, and dissent suppression. That bottle won’t be thrown over a cliff. It is here in the village to stay. New tools to spot and isolate (or control) the ‘hostile disruptions’ increase the reach to track and watch people who are ‘mad’, ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’. Though you will be less likely to see those terms used. As insanity has been tainted by the long history of loose standards, terrorism has been copied and pasted in places where insanity, madness and craziness were commonly found.

The mental health issue always has risked being politicized into a campaign to reduce violence, and maintain security and order. We don’t have to look very far back in history before we stumble upon the inconvenient truths about state authorities using mental health as a method of repression and control.

A list of from the Reasons for Admission used by Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum from 1864 to 1889 gives an idea of the range of thinking and acts that landed you in the bunk next to McMurphy. These 19th century reasons describe the mental state or behavior of a person before being admitted to the asylum. From the 1963 film of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest a case could be made that much on the list below had survived well into the 20th century. A case can be made that dressed up in different terms, the list will still be sufficient to catch the 2013 version of McMurphy.

Business nerves and bad company along with brain fever, sexual derangement, dissolute habits and women trouble could fit about 90% of the writers I have met over the years. The reasons associated with the definition of crazy may explain why many people view writers, painter, dancers and others as belonging under the big tent of art as crazy or insane. The point is people who don’t wish to or are incapable of fitting into morality and norms of their society are by definition psychologically abnormal and their alternative way of living might be further evidence of abnormality. Religious or ideological fanatics see other non-believers as abnormal. Our technology hasn’t updated the definition, only the power and capability of tracking people who fit one of the categories, of craziness.

The clear and present danger of the concept of Insanity that finally caught up with McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has been summarized: a term that “may also be used as an attempt to discredit or criticise particular ideas, beliefs, principals, desires, personal feelings, attitudes, or their proponents, such as in politics and religion.”

In 2013 would McMurphy’s outcome have been any different? Have the last 50 years with all of our advance technology given us better outcomes? Or are we still back at the gate of Trans-Allegheny Lunatic asylum, where McMurphy is put out of his misery and the Chief’s only hope is to escape as fast as one can from the clutches of repressive power. There is a big difference. In 1963 escape was an option. In 2013, Nurse Ratchet’s forces would find the Chief and he would end up like McMurphy.

Whether you identify with the Chief or McMurphy doesn’t matter. It is Nurse Ratchet’s world. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a warning unheeded. We live in the shadow of the Reasons for Admission to the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. As ‘novel reading’ is one of the grounds for admission, you’ll forgive me if I put on my track shoes and go looking for where the Chief has gone to ground.

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Posted: 8/29/2013 8:57:56 PM 

 

The website www.bribespot.com is devoted to citizens from around the world who complain that state authorities have demanded bribes to overlook infractions of the law or as an additional, informal condition to receiving a benefit or service. Corruption can occur around the edges of a political system, or may have developed as part of the culture.

Here’s a recent example of a posting from Thailand by a motorist who paid Baht 200 ($5.00) to the police.

3 Lane Rama IV Road, near Bangkok University, direction Theptarin Hospital.

They: 6-8 Police, most likely from Tha Rua Station were waving “all” motorbikes to stop. 2 were blocking left+middle lane.

Officer: You were not driving as req on the left lane but in the middle lane & showed me a plastic home-made-menu-pricelist lamented sheet with a list of all offenses & their prices. On the list: Driving in Middle Lane = 400thb

Me: But how can I be on the left lane, if u guys are blocking it and I need to swap to the right lane to make a U-turn? Shall I fly over?

Officer: Give me 400thb or u go police station & this take long time.

Me: opening the purse and taking out 200 thb and telling him I not pay more than 200thb (had a meeting and was in rush).

Officer: literally pulling my 200thb out of the purse and saying: Now you go!

Q: Is it illegal to drive in the middle lane to change lanes? Only in Thailand. Police Officers I guess, they fly over the middle lane.”

It is useful to start with an understanding of what corruption means. Corrupt or corruption derives from the Latin corruptus meaning to abuse or destroy. Corruption manifests on several scales:

1) petite scale – when bribery in the form of small gifts and personal favours and is tolerated within the larger normative values of the community;

2)  grand scale – found in regimes run by a narrow circle of plutocrats or tyrants where the political, social and economic institutions are subverted for the gain of the tyrants and their cronies;

3) institutional scale – where process and institutions are weak and are found in a culture of impunity where state authorities have little or no fear in exacting personal benefits. The weak institutions indeed may feed and indirectly encourage corruption by paying a low salary to employees and turn a blind eye when they supplement their salary through bribes.

Wikipedia has this definition of corruption in the context of policing:

Police corruption is a specific form of police misconduct designed to obtain financial benefits, other personal gain, and/or career advancement for a police officer or officers in exchange for not pursuing, or selectively pursuing, an investigation or arrest. One common form of police corruption is soliciting and/or accepting bribes in exchange for not reporting organized drug or prostitution rings or other illegal activities. Another example is police officers flouting the police code of conduct in order to secure convictions of suspects — for example, through the use of falsified evidence. More rarely, police officers may deliberately and systematically participate in organized crime themselves.

We will have at some stage Big Data from sites like www.bribespot.com to see patterns in the behavior of state officials. It may be that the data will confirm that at the end and start of the month, and near major holidays that bribe taking increases as officials are under pressure to pay rents, school fees, or buy gifts. What bribespot.com relies on is self-reporting. It is difficult to assess how representative of the problem are the cases that people choose to report. This takes effort to do. I suspect that most people can’t be bothered to self-report.

The other problem with corruption reporting is that, by its inherent nature, secretive and non-transparent, that it is difficult to prove. The motorist says the cop asked for a bribe, the cop says that is a lie. He said, she said is an eternal loop and the law mostly favors the police in the case of doubt. People aren’t stupid. They know that without concrete evidence, they are wasting their time to complain. And if they complain, police who are corrupt are more likely to intimidate a whistleblower than non-corrupt police. As the theory goes, once the cops break one pillar of the law, it is much easier to knock out other pillars to protect themselves against the law.

The Bangkok Post on August 21st 2013 ran an editorial titled “Corruption is a two-way street”  by blaming the corrupt official and the person paying the bribe. The editorial concludes that to be effective to stop corruption action must be taken against the state official and the person paying the bribe.

This proposed formula to solve the problem of corruption in my opinion is fundamentally flawed and fails to address the underlying causes. It treats all cases of bribery at the same level—one corrupt state official, one citizen paying the bribe. The illegal gambling casinos run by state authorities is an example of how corruption is often a one-way street. In some systems, the corruption is closer to an expressway rather than a two-way street, with eight-lanes filled with traffic. That is the problem with thinking of political solutions in terms of metaphors. They quickly fall apart when the metaphor is expanded to expose the scope of the problem. The approach championed by the editorial would be as effective as asking people to drop suggestions into an anti-corruption box.

As we’ve seen in the categories above, bribery falls into a number of distinct categories, each of which has special issues and problems that should be addressed.

In the second category, the Grand Scale, treating the bribe payer in a system of tyrants that act as rentiers and extractors as wealth and resources as equal to state officials, is missing the larger issue. It is the nature of how power is allocated and abused throughout the system. Corruption is a symptom of a much more fundamental political issue. To focus on the bribe payer is a distraction, it is irrelevant to finding an overall solution.

The same analysis applies to the third category, the Institutional Scale, where justice system operates with weak, highly flawed law enforcement institutions. The state officials act with impunity. To suggest that the bribe payer is an equal bargaining partner with such an official neglects the power and authority that can be effectively employed to compel a target by placing them under duress such as torture, imprisonment, heavy penalties unless a bribe is paid. To call this a two-way street would require a radically different view of how streets, rules and traffic are interconnected.

Thailand falls into the first and third category. It is a gift-giving culture and bribery is the slippery slope that gift givers use to glide out of a legal jam or to obtain a state concession or benefit. Many Thais don’t view the giving of small gifts to officials as a bribe. The attitude is reflected in the Thai phrase sin namjai—something like “gifts from the heart.” It is part of being kind and generous; the gifts give both the gift-giver and gift-receiver face, with the benefit of oiling the social wheels and keeping them moving. Such a gift-giving tradition comes from a system of ancient attitudes that worked in a small scale agricultural based society (which most of Thailand remains).

The problem is the attitudes are difficult to fit with law enforcement in large populated cities where more and more people live. In places like Bangkok, the cop isn’t someone the bribe payer knows and has a long connection to through family as would be in a village. They are strangers. The giving of the money isn’t an act of kindness and generosity; it is an act of desperation, made out of fear and anxiety.  The institutions of justice are weak as protection isn’t sought within an institutional framework but within a network of connections where a patron provides protection. The state officials are selective in enforcement of laws depending on the rank and status of the person they ask for money. If that is an important/influential person, then it is unlikely that a low-ranking state official will even ask for a bribe.

The same principle extends to protect the wives, children, relatives and immediate household of people of power and status. It is not just state officials acting with impunity that is a sign of weak justice system institutions, one also needs to look at the elites and ask whether they can act with impunity. If the answer is the police and the powerful are both immune, but others must comply with the law. Being in that privileged position there no incentive to create a strong criminal justice as that would make the powerful vulnerable. Weak institutions which they control directly or through proxy, can be more easily controlled. The tacit promise of a political system to keep the elites strong and institutions weak delivers: I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine. And all this back scratching will occur behind closed doors. It isn’t enough to say ‘don’t pay the bribe’ as that fails to address the imbalance of the power relationships and the nature of how impunity is distributed in a political/economic/social system.

Corruption shouldn’t be viewed only through the lens of cops taking bribes. It involves tea money for parents to pay to get into a school. Money paid for medical services or for installation of water, sewer, or electricity. Whenever there is a government service to be provided, the question is whether the officials administering the system seek additional payments before authorizing or approving the benefit. If the answer is yes, it likely follows that such the officials inside that organization are not only corrupt, and the institution that employs them is weak and can do nothing to counter the culture of corruption.

Corruption continues to work because we still live in a small data world. In a few years after the methods of surveillance have advanced another technological leap and become prevalent, and unstoppable, then it will be difficult for state authorities to maintain the essential secrecy that is the lifeblood of corruption. The Big Data Political System (BDPS)—the next stage of political evolution—we can expect advanced computerized system to monitor the behavior and conduct of its human agents and actors as well as the rest of us.

Our old more, simple world of free choice is slipping away. Nothing is certain as to our future world will greet us one morning. It may start with a news report: “A large majority of people agree with urgent need for preventive detentions and secret interrogations as a necessary precaution to support our government’s goal to protect all citizens against terrorism and corruption.” It will use nouns and not verbs. Actions will be downgraded, potential acts upgraded.

That morning may be sooner than we imagine. We will kick ourselves for not suspecting that corruption like terrorism while real, were a great cover for an invisible government to scale up its own culture, priorities and institutions.

Systematic monitoring may be sold and bought on the basis it ends corruption. But before you sign on, be careful for what you wish for. You might be trading one old problem for ten new problems. The BDPS coming soon to your country may extract a very high price in terms of liberty and freedom. We may find that we are substituting one culture of impunity for another. And we may long for the days, that we paid Baht 200 to a Thai cop who demanded it even though we committed no traffic infraction.

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Posted: 8/22/2013 8:56:38 PM 

 

Zoos in China are cutting costs by a sleight of hand trick. In a Chinese privately run zoo called “People’s Park” in the eastern city of Louhe, the sign on the front of a cage says the animal inside is an African Lion. When Ms. Lui’s six-year son asks her why the “African Lion” barks like a dog, she’s put in a curious position.


Tibetan Mastiff pretending to be an African Lion

A zookeeper said the real African lion was unavailable being sent away for breeding. So the zoo may have had no choice. The A world without choice is a phony, impoverished world trying to be authentic and rich and failing at both. How do you explain political/economic theory that forces consumers to accept one animal as equivalent to another in order to cut the zoo’s operational costs to a six-year-old child?


African Lion playing himself

Another cage in the same zoo labeled “Snakes” had a couple of rats scurrying around hoping to be mistaken as snakes. The Telegraph went on to report: “There was another dog in the wolf cage, while some foxes were standing in for the leopards.”

It is bad enough for animals to play themselves in captivity for human entertainment. Having to pose as other animals must be confusing and humiliating. It’s sad that the zoo had no choice. But even sadder are people who have no knowledge of choice when they are seized by a negative feeling.

Many novels are like this Chinese zoo. In reading a novel, one of my foremost pleasures is finding an author who examines interior mental processes of the characters. Giving the characters an authentic inner life is difficult. Fiction without great characters will disappear quickly from mind. How does a writer go about capturing the complexity of a character’s mind?

It is as difficult to understand another’s emotional reactions to daily problems—someone cuts in front of you in a queue, insults your intelligence, a taxi refuses to stop for you, you’ve lost your keys, or passport, or can’t remember your passwords. These are examples of banal annoyance that teaches us lessons about ourselves to ourselves. The question is whether a character is open to lessons about his or her feelings. Our feelings expose us to others in powerful ways that leave our ideas far behind. In a memorable novel it is clear the characters also share our frustrations, defeats, our sense of alienation. We want to know if they think about their feelings, and if so how does that change the way they are in the world.

We look for something beyond sharing. For example, we won’t like a character who is a Tibetan Mastiff pretending to be an African Lion and not admitting to the lie. But if he is lying and we as readers know what factors in his life against which he’s struggling in his quest to continue the deception or overcome it, we’d be very interested to know what has caused that ‘African Lion’ to bark like a dog.

Like the six-year-boy at the Chinese Zoo, we would question the dog-like nature of the lion. We’d turn the pages to find out how others in the story will react to this lie and deal with the situation. Will they share the delusion that the dog is a lion? Are you as the reader supposed to share that delusion? Page after page, we search for how a character life interest has brought him to this juncture. This point. This cage. What transformations did he experience along the way? What conjunction of events led him to crawl into that cage and take the attitude of something he knew was a lie?

I’ve been reading Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life. The book is part patient case study and part memoir written by a British psychiatrist. Psychiatrists make a living in getting patients to understand what in their past relationships and upbringing caused them to bark like a dog when they are pretending to be a lion. A good novelist does something similar in the creation of memorable characters. The profile of the author’s tea with an old friend in London revealed the process required before a closed mind opened. And it is in the opening of a mind that had been shut off to oneself that hold our interest. The story is a good example of how a character’s self-knowledge is what makes his story memorable, and why I am writing about it here. The books we treasure and return to increase our self-knowledge by learning the techniques others have used to gain self-knowledge.

Dr. Grosz’s friend, a famous radio personality, who suffered from depression and isolation, described himself as negative, always looking for a flaw, a fault, or a reason to criticize another person. Indeed he introduced the author to a new word: captious. The friend defined ‘captious’ to mean someone who noticed and expressed displeasure over trivial issues. Each transaction or event registered as a victory or a defeat. He was talking about himself being not just critical but petty critical. The author asked him if he thought the analysis over a number of years had been helpful. The friend replied that he hadn’t resolved that issue but he was more ‘aware.’

His self-awareness gave him a feeling of choice at the moment he felt annoyed or upset. He could examine the feeling prior to reacting. He could permit himself the right to feel that it was his anger that was making him critical. Projecting the anger onto another as a defect in them, rather than something coming from inside himself. He no longer had to accept that the triggered emotion would automatically take control over his reaction. Instead, he could observe the source of his feeling and ask: where was it coming from? Was the source internal or external or mixed up?

What mattered was the self-knowledge that he had a choice when he experienced negative feelings. Without choice he’d lived without freedom in the truest sense of the word. To be ‘unfree’ is to be without choice. In that world of non-choice, you enter a cycle triggered by criticism because you believe you have no other choice and lapse into guilt for your conduct. He also could reflect on his years of therapy when he thought of about his feelings. And that made him feel less lonely.

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Posted: 8/15/2013 8:57:32 PM 

 

No noir story will match the ones told by Big Data. In the future, noir stories will emerge from Big Data only it won’t be fiction. Authors of crime fiction, noir, hardboiled, or otherwise, are like monks writing manuscripts before the printing press. Our end will be as noir as their end. Here’s the story of how that will come about.

I’ve thought of writing as a way to discover and explore vanishing points, light fading to the void of total darkness. That is the point where we can no longer predict what will happen next. It is a brick wall. A blank. We stop at the door to the future and are resigned it will never open.

In, Big Data: A Revolution, the authors Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger and Kenneth Cukier have opened that door a crack. But don’t buy this book. You don’t seriously want to know what is inside our near future in the Data-Time-Space spectrum.

Towards the end of this provocative book, the authors sum up: “The ground beneath our feet is shifting. Old certainties are being questioned. Big data requires a fresh discussion of the nature of decision-making, destiny, justice.”

That is only the beginning of the transformation that will happen in our life time. It is already happening, it’s started to come into the open. The huge weight and force of Big Data and the hunger of power to own it, share it, distribute it, and exploit it. We are in the middle of that big data war. Government officials and big business owners are in their bunkers figuring out what to do next. No one has explained clearly what is at stake, the options, or the current state of play. Big Data, A Revolution attempts to provide context and meaning in an era where data is no longer scarce or expensive, but readily available and infinitely valuable in making predictions about future outcomes.

Our preferences, attitudes, and mental states will be predicted with an advanced probability software and hundreds of millions equations—and that raises a number of questions.

It is happening now as you read this essay.  You are the composite of your data; your choices, likes, purchases, friends, emotional connections, and routine have been datafied. This data of your past can’t be erased, deleted or changed; it will follow you wherever you go into the future. The days of starting over are finished.  You can never go missing or disappear completely as you pull behind yourself a history that is your digital DNA.

Your mental thumbprint is now in the system and attached to this blog. It stopped there. Who else who has ever read this blog is an association? That data is stored in the system. Websites, blogs are hovered for information, and this how Big Data continues to grow four time faster than America’s G.N.P.  There is a probability that your digital presence here means that you may share certain habits, buying traits, or be connected to some free thinking troublemakers who also visit this blog.

You can no longer control, handle, supervise or understands the scale and scope of your data or the Big Data. But we have seen nothing yet. Big Data is set to grow exponentially. Some of that will be extremely useful in understanding and dealing with important problems like climate change, curing diseases, or advancing entire domains such as physics, chemistry, and mathematics. The assumption is that our understanding of the world, describing it, predicting it is a limitation on quantification of data.

To fully exploit the potential of big data we need to appreciate the scale and scope of the power that comes from collecting, storing, distributing, selling and analyzing the range of correlations that emerge when N=All. We will also pay a substantial price. Big Data is not ours without some long-standing beliefs, habits, attitudes and customs being changed. The next stage of development are data. They are being built from masses of data as you read this essay. Real economic, social and political owner will reside inside them.

Since the thirteenth century, we have searched for answers about the world and behavior that are precise and exact, and we seek out causation between events, people, and things. Our quest is to know if what we believe about the world is true or false, right or wrong, good or bad—we bring our moral and emotional sense of being in the world in the cross-hairs when we address the implications of Big Data.

Big data works not off exactness; it is premises that reality is messy and the data can provide a probability of what will emerge in the future. Big data promises a set of predicted outcomes according to a scale of probability based on what will likely happen. In turn, we give up the mission to understand why something has happened or may happen. The ‘why’ question is one that asks about causes to explain what is the nature of the world. Big Data leaves causation to the side because it is not helpful. The  messiness of reality renders inquires about causation and precision less reliable. These ideas spring from an the old way of thinking when sense had to be made out of limited information and data. Causation and precision are relics of data scarcity and can be largely ignored as correlation is sufficient in the world of Big Data. Limited or Little Data required us to formulate a theory about what we’d expect the Little Data to prove, and then we used the Limited Data to test as to whether it had proved or disproved the theory. Think of climate change and theory of CO2 concentrations as the cause. That’s the old way of using Limited Data modeling.

Randomness in large big data gives a probability analysis that is more useful and predictive than a targeted, sample size of data. Sampling of data, the default measurement of the world, has become or will very soon become obsolete. Those conducting the data gathering in the past lacked the tools (processing speed, storage facilities, etc) to collect big data and the tools (software and algorithms) to analyze such vast quantities of data. They opted for precision, sampling, and theory testing. This old paradigm goes out the window with big data in many cases. With the full dataset offered by big data, researchers can explore many more angles and perspectives whether it is predicting the next bird flu outbreak or match fixing in sumo wrestling matches in Japan.

Big data has the capacity to scale entire populations of a city, region or country. Now when all telephone calls, emails, Internet searches, Twitter mentions and retweets, and Facebook ‘likes’ are captured and stored, this isn’t a sampling; it is the whole enchilada. “[W]e can accept some messiness in return for scale. ‘Sometimes two plus to two can equal 3.9, and that is good enough.’”

We already have an example of the limits of our capacity when tested against advanced algorithms. There are chess algorithms that are used once the computer has six or fewer pieces left on the board and allows the computer to processes the probability for every possible move (N=all). The Big Data authors conclude, “No human will ever be able to outplay the system.”

We have created a big data system that is much better at making predictions about outcomes than we can make using our native brain power. We humans have dropped down in the league ranking of the best, fastest brain processing capacity in the world. In coming up with a translation program, Google didn’t test a billion words, they used a trillion. Its services cover 60 languages and are more accurate than other systems. It won’t be long until computer translations, like playing chess, will perform vastly better than any human being.

Big Data also demonstrates the transition in thinking between viewing the reality of the world as not only messy but one in which predictions of what will happen rest on correlations that emerge from big data. Amazon has recommendations for you. Each time you visit Amazon they remember your digital history and present you will the kind of books that from your prior purchases indicate you are a ‘reader of interest’.  One-third of Amazon’s business is from buyers like you who click on and buy the recommended purchase. For Netflix the percentage of online rentals that  come from a recommendation is seventy-five percent of all the business.

Amazon and Netflix offer two good examples of how using probability tools can increase the revenue of a company. There is no certainty that you will buy the recommended book on Amazon or rent the recommended film online from Netflix, but you can see the probability makes the effort pay off in rich rewards for both companies.

Big Data can’t tell Amazon why you buy a particular title. Indeed it is not interested in the why question; it is focused on what you are likely to buy given your past purchases and searches through their catalogue of books. The data opens up links that are also useful. A secondary use of the same big data may show that California international crime fiction readers are more probable to book a ticket to Beijing, Tokyo, Hong Kong or Bangkok, and targeting them with discounted fares may increase sales. The big deal about Big Data is that it has the potential for multi-uses, and many of those uses only become apparent much later. That’s one reason why storing data for long periods is in the interest of business and governments, and they will fight to keep this option; they want indefinite storage as they can’t predict what future technical and social dynamics might arise and they want all of the cards, old and new, on the table.

We were born into an information poor world. Our beliefs, political and social structures, our science and education were created out of a small sampling of the information about the world. We’ve spent our life making decisions, forming opinions and making judgments based on limited data giving us precise, exact answers as to the state of the world and each other. We are wired to look for causation. In the big data world we are told this is delusion. There is no math that can easily show causal links; but correlations are easily translated into mathematical equations.

Big Data, the book, looks at the risk of big data as it presents a real “risk [of] falling victim to a dictatorship of data.” While Amazon uses algorithms to recommend books, lawn mowers, watches, and clothes to you, there is the potential for repression if the gathering, storage, use and distribution is left to be carried out in secret. We don’t know the limits that push back against the collection and use of Big Data. In a generation, people will look back and see our time as the tipping point when we lost privacy. The big data world will continue to strip away the possibility of privacy. Privacy existed because of the messiness of information, it’s limited nature and the expense and difficulty of collecting information about the world. You once had the power to divulge personal information. In the average day, you willingly and largely unknowingly disclose pieces of data about yourself—your likes, dislikes, activities, friends, purchases, health, schooling, and plans. We’ve uploaded our life onto the common Big Data network, a small fragment at a time, and by doing so we are forfeiting our own privacy. Privacy as we know it will vanish.

Crime and punishment will change as will opinions about proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and presumption of innocence. If big data can show a correlation between a person’s  big data/information file that he has, say, a 79% chance of committing rape or murder within the next three years, will the state make a decision that a ‘probable perpetrator’ should be removed from society in order to protect society? The state would hold this person not because he’s committed a crime but the prediction is high that he will commit the rape or murder in the future. Many people may feel that with a high probability that the state should intervene and prevent the harm from happening.

The Big Data authors find that “the very idea of penalizing based on propensities is nauseating.” The future causes a sense of vertigo. It doesn’t share our values, our thinking, or account for difference between potential actions and the real thing. The authors fall back on the premise that it isn’t the problem of big data but the way we will use the predictions. The irony is the book is a call to loosen our fixation on causation and theories, and to learn to embrace messiness and predictability. When push comes to shove on preventive detentions, the authors retreat back into the world of causation and find decisions based on predictions ‘nauseating’. My view is once we jettison causation in the big data world, the use of predictions won’t be easily caged inside Amazon and Netflix’s world of recommendations. The data will get bigger, the prediction more accurate, and once that happens ‘assigning’ guilt  based on a person’s particular act will appear as another example of medieval thinking.

An important takeaway from Big Data is, “In the era of big data, however, when much of data’s value is in secondary uses that may have been unimagined when the data was collected, such a mechanism to ensure privacy is no longer suitable.” The debate we will soon have is what is the continuing role of human agency in deciding individual responsibility for actions. Another part of that debate will be whether the decisions of big data will ultimately be made by machines. Humans will likely never fully understand or control the moves any more than an international grand master of chess in a game against Big Blue. Time moves on as does the debate; and the tools continue to improve, faster processors, larger memory capacity, better algorithms, and we wake up one day to find that “rational thought and free choice” are no longer part of a world that we control.

The data story doesn’t end with Big Data. There is no endgame as has always been the case with new technologies. Each innovation seems so incredible that we can’t imagine an improvement  Remember the Beta cassettes? Our current technologies for Big Data will look like Beta cassettes in 5 to 10 years. Probably much sooner. As the period of change has accelerated from centuries to decades to years and looks ready to upend existing technologies in months. This period is a prelude to a much bigger transition in humanity’s quest to understand the world, and our place in it. We have gone “from compass and sextant to telescope and radar to today’s GPS.” Compared to the promise of what lies in our immediate future, our existing technologies to harness Big Data will be judged by future generations as closer to finger painting a horse on a cave wall.

Buy Big Data and give it to someone you want to give a freight load of sleepless nights. My predictions about scale and scope of big data, what will replace it, and how we will change our values and attitudes as a result, are beyond what we now know. It seems that all bets are off that this transition will be easy or smooth. Adjust to the fact that others will have infinitely greater information about you than you can ever imagine. You have become datafied. You can’t shake free, you can’t hide, you can’t go missing, and you can’t even hold your own ground.

The founder of Amazon has bought The Washington Post. Will the owner use the newspaper to suggest recommendations to politicians and others as to what policies, regulations and laws are the ones they should adopt? Will somewhere between one-third and seventy-five percent of The Washington Post click on and download those recommendations into their memory? The sale of the Washington Post is not just another sale of a newspaper to someone who is very rich, it is the sale of the newspaper to one of the founders of the new paradigm of gathering and distributing information. It is as if the owner of printing press bought a failing monastery and scribes writing manuscripts. You know that change is coming.

You’d be a fool to bet against the odds that one morning you we wake up to the fact that you live inside a data panopticon and there is anyway out. Not heard of panopticon? Get use to seeing more reference to that word. It is the prevailing metaphor of our time.

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Posted: 8/8/2013 9:03:57 PM 

 

Psychology, economic, law and mathematics have interesting perspectives on the dynamics between two or more people who must decide to co-operate or betray the other person to minimize punishment.

Here’s an example of how the Prisoners Dilemma works. Two suspects, Larry and Carl are arrested after a warehouse break in. The circumstantial evidence indicates they were the guilty party. Circumstantial evidence may be insufficient convict, and if both of the suspects co-operate and say nothing to the police, they will both walk free. Experienced criminals know the, but not all suspects are experienced and they are anxious and afraid and the good cop/bad cop can do wonders to convince one to defect and incriminate the other person.

Larry is told that if he co-operates by testifying against his partner, Carl, then Larry will walk out free and Carl will get three years. They also tell Larry that Carl has been offered the same deal, so don’t wait too long or it will be you serving the three year stretch while Carl is out spending the proceeds of the warehouse heist.

Does Larry trust Carl enough for him to call the bluff? Or does Larry think that Carl is weak, selfish and likely to crack, thinking that Larry will take the deal and screw him?

Both are better off co-operating. Game Theory is based on the premise that you are better off betraying your partner and escaping the penalty you’d receive if you let him betray you first.

The Prisoner Dilemma is a dilemma for a good reason—it demonstrates the relationship between the duality of our mental processing. We are at once both rational and irrational actors. At any given moment, the scale tips toward one or the other of these two natures.

If both people are totally rationale, they co-operate in that way they are both better off. As we know, the irrational mind is filled with anxiety, fear or worry that the other person won’t act in a rational way.

Some clever academics (economists of course) decided to test the Prisoners’ Dilemma on real life prisoners. The payoffs were in coffee and cigarettes to the prisoners. The women prisoners who participated in the experiment were housed at Lower Saxony’s primary women’s prison. The results were compared with a Prisoners’ Dilemma experiment with students.

The researchers thought the prisoners would be more cynical, hardcore and less likely to co-operate. The result surprised them. The results were in three categories: simultaneous game, pair basis, and sequential game.

In the simultaneous game, the women prisoners co-operated 56% of the time while the students came in second at 37% in cooperation. In the pair basis category, the actual prisoners had the best outcome and co-operated 30%, compared to just 13% among the students. For sequential games, way more students co-operated (63%).

The telling test is the simultaneous game, which is based on blind trust. The suspects have no precedent to go by. The conclusion reached in the experiment is the actual behavior of people fails to correspond with the prediction made by the Nash Equilibrium—that says it is rational to defect, though it has been noted that Nash (The Beautiful Mind was the film based on his life) was paranoid at the time he came up with the Nash Equilibrium.

There are criticisms of the experiment. First, the actual prisoners after the game ends must go back to a prison environment and if they’ve betrayed another even in a game that might offer nasty blow-back once the experiment was over and the prisoners returned to the prison population. Also, those who come from a crime sub-culture have the ethos of co-operating against the ‘system’ or the ‘cops’ and close ranks when outsiders ask them to betray one of their own.

Another commentator has suggested that the test subjects were women and that women are more likely to co-operate with each other than men. Others have come to the opposite conclusion—men are more co-operative with each other than women.

Other factors might be at play. Cultural attitudes about co-operation are important in Asia. Could it be the outcome of the Prisoners Dilemma turns, at least in part, on underlying cultural attitudes? This expands the inquiry into the ethnicity, culture, language, gender and class of the prisoners and of the interrogator. One should not assume that all three parties will share the same set of cultural attitudes.

Beyond culture is the environment of the experiment. In other words, the setting of the interrogation is another factor that has potential importance in the outcome. Suspects held at a police station are in a different situation than suspects held inside military prisons or safe houses where water-boarding, torture or other enhanced interrogation methods are employed.

Would two Japanese criminals be more likely co-operate if the interrogator was an English, Canadian or American cop? Or if one of the criminals was Chinese and the other Thai, and the Americans interrogated the two men about Golden Triangle activities, would they co-operate or defect? Would it matter if the interrogator was a woman of Norwegian ancestry and the suspects Asian men? If the suspects are a mother and daughter, does this relationship make it more or less likely one will defect? Generational difference between the suspects may be another factor that influences the suspects’ decision.

The point is how we go about how two prisoners placed in different rooms and under great stress reach a consensus as to the best course of action is clouded by criminal mentality, cultural norms, gender, prior relationship (and ongoing relationship) between the parties (and their families).

How we calculate our self-interest is rooted in what our culture teaches us about the self, the individual, and the community.

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Posted: 8/1/2013 8:52:41 PM 

 

The 2013 Thai Most Wanted Hitmen list has 100 names. The 2011 list had only 75 names. That’s a 25% productivity and employment increase in two years. If this were the economy, people would be in the streets celebrating. This list is not Thai companies on the stock exchange but a list of Thai hired killers who are in a bullish occupation.

Like the Booker Award, the 2013 list is a long one. We’ll get to the short list and the machinery to choose the winner a bit later. No literary award I am aware of has ever announced a long list with a name of 100 authors. In the real world, down those mean streets walk not writers taking notes for a great crime novel but hired killers the police would like to catch. And there are at least 100 of them, which works out about 5 or 6 hitmen for each author on a typical crime fiction award long-list.

Authors must choose their hitmen carefully. It seems there are difficulties in apprehending the Most Wanted Hitmen—they are even more careful than most authors. After all they have a lot more at stake, and more to lose.

Thailand law enforcement challenges aren’t unique (though what country exists where the citizens in huge numbers don’t believe this?). The police in every country face the same set of problems—suppressing crime and capturing criminals who refuse to be suppressed. Techniques of crime suppression and catching the bad guys are glimpses into the culture of the legal justice system and the social system.

The Thai police have used Most Wanted list and have made what translates as ‘criminal suspect calendars, which feature a photo of the bad guys (or bad women). Maybe the photographs were old, blurry, with bad lightning and horrible angle—the usual things people say about my photos. In any event these calendars (we’re not told where they were displayed) failed to bring phone calls from the public with information that they just saw what looked like #73 eating som tum at a food stall on Sukhumvit Road. The police phone didn’t ring. Or if it did, the caller wasn’t reporting the location of a wanted hitman.

Faced with the bold facts—can’t suppress them, can’t catch them—the police decided on a new campaign to hunt down the gunmen for hire in Thailand. Social hierarchy is the lifeblood of Thai society—and the building blocks are the Lego like tropes of family names, titles, rank, private schools, and private clubs. A Thai can step back in any social scene and immediately experience another person’s place on the pyramid grid as though they had a sonar system that picks up frequencies that foreigners simply don’t perceive.

Why not rank hitmen? That seems like a logical extension to the normal way people perceive themselves and others—they are either above or below you. This genius for ad hoc hierarchy making as a blueprint for hitmen pyramid is far more impressive than anything you’ll ever find in Egypt.  If you are raised and educated in seeing social relations as pyramids, why not adapt that idea to how you design your Most Wanted List.

Here’s how the new Most Wanted Hitmen List will work—according to the Thai police.


Level 1

Level one is for the top gun. The Professional. A Level 1 hitman has proved himself capable, reliable, with many successful assignments on his resume. The assassins on this list are not limited to those wanted under an arrest warrant. Apparently just because you’ve committed an assassination doesn’t automatically mean you will have an arrest warrant issued.  The example given by the authorities is the hitmen who has just been released from prison having served time for his last job. Apparently the concept of double jeopardy gives way to preventive action. Once you’ve done your time for a hit, you are a Level 1 guy would is wanted by the authorities.

The Hired Gunman Pro who is always wanted by the police, arrest warrant or not, is at the top of the hierarchy. It is important to emphasize this point so no one is confused or walks away from a citizen’s arrest of such a hitman who might argue there is no outstanding warrant. Get the guy. Bring him in. If you’re working at Level 1, the police want you even if there’s no paperwork other than the list. The privilege of the top rank is to be always wanted.


Level 2

There’s always some new guy breaking into the game. Same as in sports. One day you are kicking in goals, and the next day you’re on the bench because some new kid can kick the ball better and farther than you. These are the semi-pros looking for the chance to play in the PGA-level hitmen’s league. They are still building a resume showing their wins. The police warrant these are the most dangerous players—young, hungry, trigger-happy and as resume obsessed as a student trying to get accepted for a Harvard MBA program. The police statement was silent as to the necessity of any outstanding arrest warrant before such a person goes on at Level 2. It might be that the arrest warrant exclusion is for only Level 1—give them a bit of hierarchy pride. As it is unclear, no doubt it could lead to arguments, and, no need to remind you, these people are heavily armed, that is never a good thing in Thailand.


Level 3

Level 1 and Level 2 are your pro or semi-pro freelance, free agent players. They take assignments from anyone with the cash and the desire to see someone dead. The Level 3 hitmen are a different breed. They fit the mode of the in-house lawyers. They work for an influential figure or the mafia. Yes, in Thailand there is apparently quite a distinction between the two categories worth an essay on its own.  The third level players raise an interesting policing issue. Why not check with the godfather, “Seen #43 recently?”

“No, he’s been on the sick list,” godfather. “No, he’s been transferred to sales and is attending a seminar in KL.”

“Well, if you see him, give us a call.”

“You’ll be the first to know.”

Level 3 is the place where no one ever seems to find any evidence. It all disappears down that Alice in the Wonderland rabbit hole without leaving a tiny, bitty trace. The gunman signs on for the usual company benefits, and enters the workplace where whatever evidence he leaves behind will magically disappear, and he draws a regular salary. The police admit Level 3 is a toughest nut to crack.


Level 4

We are at the bottom of the pyramid on a dark night. In a sand storm. In the desert looking for whom? These guys are not yet qualified to be hitmen. No, they’ve not earned their stripes. The most you can say for them is they’ve murdered people in a conflict. That’s not what professional killers do, who have no emotional connection with the victim or conflict. The police want to put a lid on the possibility that these hot-headed, hot-blooded killers who get into lethal fights and arguments, don’t suddenly become cool under fire, chilled water running through their veins and climb up to either Level 2 or 3. The greater fear is a lateral entry into a Level 3 position with a godfather.

Supposedly 30% of the Level 4 killers have contacts with the Level 3 players and bosses. This assumes that bosses at Level 3 given a choice would take a level 2 or Level 4 guy.  In a pinch, a Level 4 guy might be given a chance to see if he can kill someone he doesn’t hate without first punching him out. As a general rule, it’s horses for courses in the play book for most godfathers.

The Thai police, despite the limitations of the list, have an Ace up their sleeve. Thais are highly sociable. They are hard to separate from their parents, friends and relatives. The police have figured there is no level of assassin, which can sustain isolation. The loneliness of being on the run is too much for the Thai hitman who will sooner or later head to his parent’s house, his favorite mia noi’s room, and the hangout where he drinks and sings karaoke with his friends. The idea is the police will look for clues among the hitman’s relatives and close associates.


Cost

No discussion of hitmen can be separated from the price ticket for their services. The no frills, basic level hit of an ordinary person starts at Baht 50,000 (or roughly US $1800). Most of the hits at the low end of the market are the result of love affairs that implode like a star that blows up. Only in this case, the black hole is between the eyes. If the target is a ‘somebody’ in one of the other social hierarchies, the price can shoot up.

How have the Thai police been doing in catching the professional killer included on the 2013 Most Wanted List? Six months into 2013 they’ve arrested four, and two have died. There is no report on what level these 6 hitmen came from. The main takeaway is that your chances of being arrested for being an assassin for hire is only slightly higher than dying of old age. The next time someone mentions the word ‘noir’ in terms of crime novels, you can ask them, “And what is your view on how the Most Wanted Hitmen List for 2013 fits into the definition of noir?” To answer that question would require a multi-volume series and given a dozen books, I’d only be sweeping the sand from one side of the path leading to the base of the pyramid only to watch it blow back the next day.

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Posted: 7/25/2013 8:57:17 PM 

 

Most of the time we humans are predictable in our reaction to the success of others. Anger, jealous, envy, hatred and self-doubt spill out like pennies in a clay piggy bank hurled against a brick wall. Another person’s success is felt like a punch in the face.

In the entertainment business, the gag reflect is in full swing.

Our hackles rise reading articles with openings like this:


Robert Downey Jr.

Robert Downey Jr. claims top earning spot with $75 million last year thanks to his role in “Iron Man.”

How many actors who are waiting tables in New York, Los Angeles, London and Paris dreaming of their big break would like to make one percent of that amount? The chances are they won’t have commercial success. They will never experience a year or a career like Robert Downey Jr. But that is hardly Robert Downey Jr.’s fault. Nothing in the universe was set to make his rise to fame and fortune inevitable. It could have been another actor. It could have been you.

Writers face the same problem. A handful of authors make the lion share of money from writing. James Patterson, Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, John Gresham, Stephen King are some of the familiar names guaranteed to deforest mountains in British Columbia, to sell container loads of books, to dominating bestseller list, book review coverage, and public perception of how to measure a writer’s success.

It is the .001% of authors who are profiled in the major press, and the press never fails to mention the money they earn, the number of rooms in their house, private planes, boats; how they are cocooned inside a wall of well-paid staff. The 99.999% of writers scramble with other jobs to cover the cost of their rent, food, and transportation cost. Outside of a few lions, the rest of the animals roaming the literary savannah survive on near starvation rations.

Like Robert Downey Jr., the James Pattersons and J.K. Rowlings hit the big time. They were in the right place, at the right time, and not one of them, their agent or publisher would ever have predicted the scale of such success.


J.K. Rowlings

The idea of scaling hasn’t been discussed in the saga of Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling. For those who haven’t followed the disclosure of Rowling’s novel published under another name, he’s a brief summary.

When J.K. Rowling sought to go undercover and write a crime novel titled The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pen name Robert Galbraith she discovered what most non-famous writer already know. It is tough finding a publisher, and having found a publisher, it is even more difficult for a really good crime novel to break out and acquired a Harry Potter-sized audience.

A couple of points worth noting, from everything I’ve read about J.K. Rowling, she is a decent, kind, sincere and genuine person. She doesn’t need to prove anything as J.K. Rowling. She has a brand. She knows that and like any author she must have in the back of her mind a doubt she’d like removed. That doubt is whether a novel written without the brand attached would find a publisher. The Cuckoo’s Calling had been rejected by a number of publishers. Rowling’s own publisher and editor decided to publish it under the pen name.

They created a fictional bio for Robert Galbraith and sent it out for review. Indeed the book received a good reception among critics (The Cuckoo’s Calling had good reviews). But the sales told a different story. Given the publishing world has something called a returns right—meaning bookstores buy the books but have a right to return unsold copies for a credit—the sales of The Cuckoo’s Calling range from 500 to 1500 copies.

A don at Hertford College, Oxford named Peter Millican created a software programe that could compare the text of one book with the text of books by famous writers. Professor Millican told the BBC, “I was testing things like word length, sentence length, paragraph length, frequency of particular words and the pattern of punctuation,” he explained. He concluded the probability was high that Rowling was the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling.

A book that had small sales under the name Robert Galbraith was now on the bestseller list. The limited hardback edition of the Robert Galbraith books is now going for up to two thousand pound sterling. The failed attempt to experiment with publishing outside of the brand name J.K. Rowling, has given a good insight in the concept of scaling.

When you aren’t famous and you write a book, you are no different from any other person with a product or service that is untested in the marketplace. Markets come in various shapes, forms and sizes. The market for your novel might be for yourself, family and friends. When that market is saturated, you’ve had your success. The problem is that most of us think the market for what we write has a larger market. You might be the star of your community theatre but your heart is set on Broadway and Hollywood. The same for an author who has a community theatre-sized audience for his or her book believes that he or she is one review away from a New York deal.

How do you know if the book you’ve written will ‘scale’ from an audience of a couple of hundred, or a couple of thousand, to millions around the world? The answer is you don’t know. No agent or publisher knows either. The same with films even with established stars, no one is sure whether the movie will scale and capture a huge market or flop like a fish in the bottom of a boat.

Inexperienced authors judge themselves by the standards of established authors. When their book doesn’t have J.K. Rowling success, they feel like they are a failure. Status in the entertainment world—film, painting, photography and books—is bestowed by measuring commercial success. And commercial success is what we call a work of art that scales much like the Big Bang from a pinpoint to an entire universe in a nanosecond.

Most books are fragile in the marketplace. They never ‘bang’; they whimper and die and are assigned to a potter’s literary grave. In retrospect, we can say the book didn’t scale because the subject was too narrow, the writing not artful enough, the characterization weak, the story derivative and a hundred other reasons that support the decision of the marketplace. None of this is to be taken seriously. Anymore than an analysis as to why someone believes the stock market dropped 5% in one day, or an earthquake hit China.

Those authors whose books scale across the literary universe are not necessarily some rare literary genius. There are hundreds of writers who have published books as good as or better than the one people line up by the thousands at midnight to buy. J.K. Rowling was on welfare, working out of coffee shops. She had no special connection in the literary world. No doubt she can write, but with Harry Potter she won the literary lottery, and most likely, like most lottery winners was as bewildered and surprised as anyone else.

Authors without broad brand recognition doom themselves by using the J.K. Rowling measure of success. Her lesson with The Cuckoo’s Calling published under another name is that the talent of a writer, any writer, is only one part of the complex network of gears grinding below the surface of life. Once in awhile the great machine produces a book that explodes, gathering millions of onlookers, both readers, occasional readers and non-readers. The author’s life jumps from the book review pages and lands on vastly larger stage of the news and social columns. The author becomes newsworthy, her houses, cars, boats, her likes and dislikes, what she eats for breakfast, her charities and hobbies, and her lectures and travels. A celebrity is born and like any new star shines bright.

How or why this mysterious event happens to anyone particular author is difficult to explain. But this has happened before and will happen again. When the audience for a book scales on the order of magnitude of the Big Bang, nothing can ever be the same again for that author. Whatever he or she writes thereafter will enter the public consciousness. Attempts to hide behind another name will likely fail. That new star in the literary sky just doesn’t twinkle, it dominants the literary sky and most of asteroids in the vicinity disappear from sight.

If you are a writer, you won’t allow bitterness and regret to color your opinion of the success enjoyed by authors such as J.K. Rowling. You will make a decision not to expend emotional energy over what you can’t possibly control. You will also understand that the essential feature of any author’s life isn’t whether the book scales to reach the mountaintop of the richest, but whether the author has gone into the world and climbed mountains. Be the writer who has put experience of life above striving for status.

Be the writer with an inexhaustible curiosity, a hunger for knowledge, and a humility that goes hand in hand with a wisdom that the world each day has something new to teach. Be the writer who disconnects from the Internet, cell phones and TV, and goes out into unfamiliar neighborhoods and observes the lives of people you wouldn’t otherwise meet. Be the writer who is the student and not the professor. Be the writer who is a child and not a parent. Be the writer who withholds making a quick judgment.

Be the writer who gets out of the apartment or house and enters a courtroom, a classroom, a prison, or a hospital and who watches the flow of people passing through these public places. The people in these places have lives worth understanding, and they will share their secrets, dreams, desire, disappointments and pain. Many of them are inside these places which cause them stress, duress, and anxiety. Here you will find courage, desperation, corruption, hatred, love, hope, depression, the elements that define who we are and the nature of our troubled times.

If you want to embark on a path as a writer, enter the flow of lives around you. Leave your comfort zone. Be the writer who explores cultures, religions and languages to discover the forces that shape our differences in perception, understanding, and emotional reactions.

After this exploration, whether your book scales to the higher elevations of J.K. Rowling’s commercial success, it won’t matter. You will have scaled to the top of your personal intellectual and emotional mountaintop, planted your flag and looked out on life in a way that few ever will. That, my friend, is success.

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Posted: 7/18/2013 8:50:46 PM 

 

On the 15th July 2009 a small group of writers joined together to write weekly essays for this blog—International Crime Authors Reality Check. We were and remain novelists who write essays once a week. In those essays we test notions of ‘reality’ in the context of social and political issues of the day. In these essays, we have patrolled the borderline between good and evil, right and wrong, facts and opinion.

Crime fiction has helped shape our world of ideas about social justice, the way actual legal systems function in other countries, and the way modern technology continues to change the nature of criminal investigations and indeed the nature of crime. Non-fiction is usually thought to be about truth and mirror reality. But often it is fiction that comes closer to the mark in describing truth and reality. That irony isn’t lost on the bloggers who write for you every week.

I’ve logged 214 essays since 15th July 2009, and my fellow bloggers have more than pulled their share of the weight. It takes a special breed of crime writer to consistently produce essays each week. We have a number of distinguished alumni who have written for the blog. It is understandable that other commitments require authors to bow out of the weekly essay routine. There are only so many hours in the day.

Our bloggers who currently write each week are: Barbara Nadel (Turkey), Quentin Bates (Iceland), Jarad Henry (Australia), and myself (Thailand). My writing colleagues essays have often been a detailed examinations of the writing game, politics, social and cultural developments, and insights into the world of police investigations.

Other crime fiction writers who made a significant contribution through their essays during the last four years include: Colin Cotterill (Laos/Thailand), Matt Rees (Middle-East), Margie Orford (South Africa), Jim Thompson (Finland), and John Lantigua (South and Central America). I thank each of them for sharing their insight and applying their talent to the difficult art of an essay.

All of us feel that our essays allow us to give something back to the readers of our novels—a glimpse of the intellectual concerns and interests that can be developed independent of plot and character. We don’t write behind a pay wall. Our essays are our way of giving back to readers what we hope will be of value.

If you have enjoyed our essays, the best way of expressing your appreciation is to buy and read one of our novels, or send it along as a gift to a family member, colleague or friend. On the right hand side is a scroll with a cover of our most recent novel.

To our readers, thank you for your support and we hope to publish more essays from the world of crime fiction writers your way for sometime into the future.

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Posted: 7/11/2013 9:05:45 PM 

 

Author’s photographs fall into several categories. The most common is the best face photograph; the ego shining forth. I’ve had my share of those photographs over the years. There are less common author’s photographs. Among those are ones that tell a visual story about a storyteller writing a story in a setting, which has its own story to tell.

This kind of photograph reminds me of Russian dolls nested together, each a smaller version of the one before it, until the doll is infinitely small and disappears with all of the stories locked inside.

This week, I was at the airport in Bangkok. Physically I was at the airport, but my mind was somewhere else. It was engaged with the latest Calvino novel. Scraps of dialogue, gestures, expressions, body language, and images buzzing around like fruit flies hovering over an open jar of honey. I normally carry a notebook. I left it at home. I knew from bitter experience that unless I wrote down the imaginary and dialogue that it would be lost. There were too many ideas, too many scenes and faces. There is nothing more frustrating than being in the flow of a scene and having no way to pull from that river the treasures floating past.

I went to a counter and asked for a piece of paper and found a place to write. Only later when looking at the photograph could I see that the world around me as rich as an imagination set free. An unattended airport cart filled with various packages. Who had left it? What was inside the packages?

No one but a writer lost to his imagination would miss the huge Mount Blanc advertisement, a brand, a prestige item and a godlike face—all playing out a story about how our world of commodities feeds our desires, focuses our motivations, and guides our deepest hopes. The illuminated ad shone like a mini-shrine, a spirit house, a testament to our wish to elevate our status and to receive the recognition of those around us.

Here I was a writer holding a two-dollar pen, writing, head down, lost inside myself, ignoring our culture’s message as to what is real and important. I wrote in the shadow of a company that sells really expensive, flashy pens—that now also expensive perfume for men to go along with the Mount Blanc pens. The smell, the look, that’s what has pulled us into the dragnet of manufactured happiness. We are suckers who no longer fight the dragnet as it sweeps us along with millions of other little fish trying to swim like outsized, important fish, one that secretly aspires to become a legend. Money is the shortcut to rise out of fishery. That’s how stuff is sold to us. It is the reason we part our money after we have everything else. Who doesn’t want to be a legend and immortal? And to smell so fragrant that the gods weep as we pass, is a feeling that we can’t easily shake.

The escalator leading international passengers to the immigration control, the airport workers with their vests talking to each other, knowing they’d never take that escalator upstairs to clear immigration. They are the fish, which swim in huge schools, the fish, which will never buy the perfume or take the plane to Berlin or London or New York. These local fish stay close to home shore.

I had been writing. I had been paying attention to the flow inside my mind. Everything in the photograph went unnoticed. Focus is the bullet that puts a slug in the heart of distraction. They fall away dead and we don’t notice the bodies until we look at a picture and identify them later.

What we pay attention to and how we pay (or fail to pay) attention defines as much as a tattoo of a dragon on our forehead. As a writer my books and essays form part of the attention focusing business and they compete with all of the other products that attention hawkers hit you with hundreds of times a day. Exhausting, isn’t it? All this money and effort spent to get you to focus your attention on some visual, oral, acoustical experience.

It doesn’t matter what public space we enter, someone wants us to pay attention to what they have to say. Retreating into a private space provides little protection. Legions of companies, governments and other people want you to remember that you paid attention to their message and for a reason. They want something from you. And in return, they are offering you some reward in return for your attention.

One reason to read is to find a way out of the lamppost light bias. The parable goes like this. A cop on foot patrol comes across a drunk on his knees circling around a lamppost.

The officer asked the drunk, “What are you doing on the ground”

And the drunk replied, “I’ve lost my car keys.”

The cop took pity on the drunk and helped him search for the lost keys. After fifteen minutes of a futile search, the cop asked the drunk, “Where did you lose the keys?”

The drunk pointed to the park in the dark beyond on the lamppost. “Over there,” said the drunk.

The cop shakes his head, “For God’s sake,man, why are you looking here?”

And the drunk replied, “Because that’s where the light is.”

The books l read take me out beyond the light of the lamppost. They take me to the hidden world inside the dark park. That’s where the keys were lost. Not to my car but to understanding about the nature of the world. Truth is camouflaged, out of sight. You won’t find it under a lamppost. That’s where everyone expects to find it. But the right book, in the hands of a master, can light a single candle that reveals what has been concealed. The things not sold on airport advertisements. We have in our power to take that candle and set out on an exploration. Even if truth isn’t at the end, the journey will have illuminated a pathway to worlds that lay just beyond where the darkness begins.

I was in the airport in Bangkok. It was a lamppost and I was inside its light. But my mind was inside another the terrain, time and place, and whether or not I found anything of value, I can’t be sure. But I was pleased to have found strangers who donated paper and pen to take a chance that I might be writing my own ticket to escape from the lamppost circle of light.

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Posted: 7/4/2013 8:56:00 PM 

 

Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and John Paulos have written best selling books subjecting religion to the rigors of science, testing, evidence and logic. The belief in the sky god was never able to withstand such a compelling analysis. The borders of faith have shrunk inside many people’s lives. Those who describe themselves in surveys and polls as atheist continue to remain a minority in most Western countries. It may be that many people nominally remain under the cloak of religion. Strip away the cloak and the reality is they have all but in name abandoned faith in the sky god. But the rituals of faith continue like a steam locomotive. We love the experience of ritual—the sight, the smell, and the ride with fellow passengers. We temporarily close our eyes to the fact that other forms of transportation have long ago overtaken us.

What is the evidence for this covert loss of faith in religion to supply satisfactory answers to the large existential questions about death? It is found in the rise of government as an alternative manager of fears. The second bow in the string religion brought was the fear of being a sinner, doing wrong, angering the sky god. The old violin has lost both strings. Our existential angst goes unanswered by faith and no one worries much about being a sinner. Guilt, like sin, is a word no longer functions to keep anti-social behavior in check.

The old hierarchy of fear managers—monks, priests, rabbis, ministers—historically have claimed jurisdiction over ministering to our existential fears for centuries. As absolute faith in religious answers no longer is comforting to a growing mass of people, who have switched allegiance to the scientific method, a gap has opened. Our secularization has brought about a great leveraged buy-out of the fear business. The private sector has co-ventured with the government in the acquisition, data mining, storage, and analysis of big information business.

The new secular clergy are organized around the language of mathematics as the church once used Latin for their elite. Mathematicians are our new cardinals. Their algorithms communicate the sacred and the secret. Outside the inner sanctum of Government, a large, private group of lay novices are often ex-clergy who shuttle back and forth from public to private, and vice versa.

In gaining control over the fear business, governments and their private partners have found an effective way to expand and consolidate power. The medieval role of the Church found that fear of the sky god’s wrath was effective to control kings who ruled under its grace in Europe. History teaches an important lesson about those who claim the mantle of fear managers—power, whether religious or secular—takes our fear of the ‘other’ and our fear of death to serve their own interests. Like the church before our secular age, the population has been excluded from the modern process of fear management. The new secular priesthood determines, in secret, what actions work best in the war against fear. Fear needs a face. Fear needs an enemy. In religious times, it was the devil; in secular times, it is the terrorist, who have brought us to the edge of the apocalypse; it is these people who haunt us and make us fearful.

Secular governments have learnt what large religious institutions have known for centuries—the masses will abandon claims to civil liberties and rights in return for guarantees that the enemy, the non-believer, whether within or from the outside. They have no issue with giving a free hand to officials and private contractors waging this war against fear. Priesthoods rely on magical thinking. To defeat the enemies who cause fear, all-out war is necessary. In this worldview, there is no choice but to permit the authorities to collect metadata, mine it for threats, and pursue those threats by all available means.

Institutions that work in the fear business are not only good at data mining—math as the new Latin gives them a huge edge—they are also adroit at understanding the psychology of the faithful. The reality is that people are highly vulnerable when it comes to fear. They want to be cleansed of fear. Churches no longer offer a sanctuary to repress these destabilizing emotions. We are witness to a great shifting of the guards as religious institutions are going the way of the manual typewriter. In the digital age, the amount of fear has increased at the same rate of Moore’s law for computer speed. Fear increased with our information about the dangers of the world. The uneasy anxiety of the masses demands something to be done to contain their fear.

In response to that demand, we are witnessing the results—a huge, spawning intelligence gathering empire, one justified and tailored to managing the globalization of fear. Intelligence agencies in America gather, store and process metadata about millions of ordinary people’s personal messages hovered from their email, telephone, social networks who had not been accused of any crime. The majority of those people have no problem with the government keeping information about their lives. They feel they’ve done nothing wrong. It is only people who would harm them or kill them that should be worried.

Don’t tie the hands of the fear managers, let them mount their steads, draw their swords, and vanquish the bad people from our existence. In the religious realm, heaven is on the side of the righteous. For the modern, secular population, heaven requires mass storage facilities, algorithms to mine the huge amounts of data. This new secular church, and the vast network of lay novices, operates under the watchful eyes of hundreds of thousands of the workers with the sacred task of monitoring those who generate fear. They are our representatives of righteousness—the high priests who have been granted top-secret clearance—the vanguards to guard us against the fears once the preserve of sky god and his representatives.

Our secular masters have become the new class of priests and new digital, technology installed as the sky god who sees all, is everywhere, omnipotent, and watching.

We use our new technology like prayers, believing that it will allow our secret clergy to acquire patterns, knowledge about probable associations and outcomes, and prevent a crime before it happens and identify the criminals before they commit a crime. In the ancient days when religions played a central role in people’s lives, we had to wait until a criminal acted, investigated for evidence to catch him, and extracted a confession after having caught him. In our secular, technological age that process from the steam locomotive age is no longer convenient.

We live in a new age, one in which fear propels us to allocate resources to identify people who are, or possess the potential, for violence, aggression, and brutality. We no longer rest at night knowing the sky god keeps their primitive impulse in check. Just as we have begun to have serious doubt that the sky god is waiting on the other side of death. We are alone, troubled, insecure, short-lived creatures and seeking shelter in a violent species on a rocky planet, trying to get by day by day.

This new secular regime has crept up on us. We blinked. One moment it suddenly appeared. We are all part of the congregation. Dismantling the new clergy, or effectively controlling their actions, won’t happen easily. And for a reason—we yearn not for freedom or liberty, but seek security from the terrible uncertainty of meaning to lives without the sky god, and the oblivion we confront in our death. As with all great religions, the day will arrive when one among them follows Martin Luther by challenging the right and authority of the digital Leviathan over our lives. We wait for that edict as it travels at the speed of light through cyberspace to offer a secular order where the clergy cedes power to the congregation it serves. Only then will there be any chance for a reformation.

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Posted: 6/27/2013 8:53:10 PM 

 

Theatre since the time of Greeks produced plays as a mirror to hold up to a society to see the reality of their existence. We are accustomed to the division of drama into the two different aspects of our lives—comedy and tragedy. We respond with laughter or tears as the emotional chords are played on our heartstrings with the virtuosity of the great dramatist. Not all cultures draw their dramatic heritage from the Greeks or Romans, nor are all dramas the product of professional stage producers, scriptwriters and directors.

In Thailand the police have an exclusive on the right to stage the drama of a criminal reenactment. A number of times a year it is show time in the Land of Smiles.

The police re-enactment of crimes has been refined over many years in Thailand until it has reached the level of an anticipated theatrical event. The reconstructions of actual crimes might be thought to be closer to carnival or street theatre than Shakespearian tightly scripted plays. The police having caught the criminal arrange for him or her (most of the time it’s him) to appear in front of the media and show how the suspect committed the crime. The police are casted in the role of heroes, the villain (sometimes there are more than one) is the real-life suspect and everyone plays their role before news reporters and TV cameras.

This is a different concept than the TV show like Crime Stopper, where to catch a criminal, the police reenact the crime in order to engage the public with a request for information to assist in identifying and arresting the suspect.

In Thailand, the police arrest the suspected criminal who has “confessed” to the crime. What follows the confession is a media presentation where the suspect, actors, and the police stage a reconstruction of the crime.

Reenactments can carry a light note, a hint of comedy with a suspect who has the media spotlight. That certainly proved to be the case with Carlo Konstantin Kohl who escaped from the airport by a German national where he’d been held in the transit lounge on his journey from Australia to Germany.


The Bangkok Post

Sometimes the ‘theatre’ moves from the realm of controlled drama produced and directed by the police, to ‘live’ drama, which shows just how badly things can go wrong with a staged re-enactment of a crime.

In a recent criminal case, a Vietnamese national, a suspect in an abduction case was on his way to a crime scene reenactment, escaped out of the back of a police van.


Phuket Gazette

When a 17-year drug addict reenacted the vicious stabbing of a maid in Phuket—she was stabbed 80 times and her throat slit—relatives and neighbors tried to beat  up the suspect and the police had to intervene to protect him. As he was a minor his face was covered by a balaclava.


Pattaya One

In the case of a sexual assault and robbery of two Russian women, the police  had Thai actresses play the role of the Russians in the reconstruction of the crime.  Obviously a ‘reconstructed’ crime doesn’t actually reproduce all the elements of the crime. It is more like a power point presentation of how to fly an airplane than actually getting in the cockpit and taking off.

The Nation reported the police rationale for reenactments of crime:

“A Metropolitan Police specialist said a re-enactment is important for an investigation because each criminal or each gang behaves differently in committing a crime. Details on how criminals commit each crime help the police understand the pattern of a crime. This can help them track down other criminals showing the same behaviour pattern and help reduce the loss of life and property.”

Reenactments as a police school teaching tool for crime investigators strikes me as an interesting, though implausible, heuristic tool. I think the jury is out exactly how such reenactments expand the range of knowledge about criminal behavior. Watching Superman in Man of Steel might impart some knowledge about criminal conduct as well. Crime re-enactments, in my view, touch on a much older idea about communities gathering to witness a wrongdoer repent, confess his crime, show his contrition by assisting the authorities in demonstrating what he did. Reenactments are a ritual, like rituals surrounding birth, marriage and death. Rituals of cleansing the wrongdoer—with the police as high-priests—are on hand as representatives of the gods who punish those who do wrong, so that victim’s family, friends and neighbors can watch the suspect admit his sin.

If the police explanation is correct, the re-enactments ought to take place in an actual theatre or classroom. From the photos below, you can see the Thai police staged a re-enactment of the murder of a well-known and controversial businessman is being witnessed by only two officers (with one having his interest engaged elsewhere).


The Nation

Another point, which also isn’t explained, is why the press is invited to record this piece of theatre, the large number of police officers who attend such reenactments, or onlookers who are allowed to watch the whole proceeding up close. Are they training sessions or workshops? Or is this staged reconstruction more like theatre? May be it is a ritualized repentance and request for forgiveness as I discussed earlier. Or could it be an effective way of communicating with the public that the police not only have solved the crime, protected them, and by locking this man up they are keeping them safe? As we’ve learnt with recent events in the intelligence community in America, the desire to feel safe is a license to do whatever is necessary to accomplish that goal. Reenactments are hatched from a primordial fear of danger from other people.

A member of the National Human Rights Commission, Paiboon Warahapaitoon, requested that the police take into account the human rights implications arising from staging a reenactment of a crime. Even under Thai law, the accused can’t be convicted solely based on a confession. A reenactment is no more than a dramatization of a confession that cannot be used to convict, unless it is supported by independent evidence of guilt.

Western lawyers have come out to argue that the Thai police reenactments would be illegal in most countries.

Most of the Thai reenactments are young Thais with little education and from poor families. These are the faces one sees among the suspects reenacting crimes. The rich and well-off are not actors in these dramas. They have their lawyers, day in court, and are usually out on bail, denying the charges against them.

Last week a Thai diplomat stationed in Cario was involved in an altercation in a luxury hotel. The facts are yet to be finally established, but the preliminary reports having the young Thai woman diplomat kicking, scratching and biting an Egyptian lawyer in front of her husband and other witnesses after a round of insults at Egypt and Egyptian people .  The diplomat has claimed self-defence, but offered no details as to what caused her to be threatened. The Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs has recalled her to Bangkok and said it will investigate the matter. Whatever is found, one thing you can be assured won’t happen is a reenactment of the incident.

If you want to see how the rich carry on, watch primetime Thai TV lakorn (soap operas) on free TV channels. They are the next best thing to crime reenactments of assaults and other crimes the privileged commit. Lakorn is wildly popular amongst a large segment of the population. This shows there is a popular appetite for reenactments of crimes, nasty and anti-social behavior which don’t quite rise to crimes but nonetheless inflict a fair measure of emotional damage to the victims.

For this reason I think it is unlikely that the popularity of the Thai lakorn will wane any time soon. And the same can be predicted for criminal reenactments starring members of the underclasses. All societies need a way of staging drama. Each culture evolves a set of expectations, roles, producers, directors and media stars. The Thais give the starring roles to the poor in reality news entertainment in crime re-enactments, and the rich get theirs in soapy primetime TV dramas.  Thai audiences are as entertained as any member of the old Globe Theatre in London. The show must go on. And when the price of admission is free, and the villain at center stage performs his role, for that moment, he achieves a moment of fame. And the police reinforce their image as heroes, defenders, protectors against the ‘other’ who are out ‘there’ waiting to kill, maim, rob, rape or assault.

Shakespeare in Richard II wrote: “As in a theatre, the eyes of men,
after a well-graced actor leaves the stage, are idly bent on him that
enters next.” And who enters next may well be someone caught on a
video camera. Digital video recorders in cell phones have the
potential, over time, to replace the police reenactment. The purpose
of the reenactment is for the suspect to show how he committed the
crime. In this YouTube clip a Thai man confronts Russian man with a
handgun in Phuket. It is over a woman.

Videos like this eliminate the need for a reenactment.

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Posted: 6/20/2013 9:01:23 PM 

 

Bangkok this week has secured its reputation as the place (to borrow Maurice Sendak’s book title) Where the Wild Things Are. Wild things like in wild, feral animals are a good place to begin a Conrad-like journey into the heart of urban darkness.

Noah, according the myth, collected a pair of each animal and loaded them onto an arc as he had advanced warning that a flood would wipe out life on the planet. This week a modern version of Noah was busted in Bangkok, although no arc was found on the premises. But that is a minor detail, as no self-respecting face displaying local would be caught dead shoving animals into a wooden Arc. The new Arc is an imported luxury cars.

Before we move on to the animal selection process for filling up an Arc, let’s start with the noise animals make. Noah must have had neighbors, too. We never heard their side of the story. Noah didn’t work in silence. He banged nails day and night to construct the arc, while his animals caged up kicked up a chorus. Never heard that part of the story? Right. That merely proves that some great background stories never are told, or if told, are remembered and passed down from generation to generation.

In Bangkok, after a drinking session the music is usually turned up … and up … and at some point it blares through of the neighbor’s walls. The racket Leeches through the floors and ceiling and sucks you dry. Welcome to the neighbor from hell. The one with the teenagers who has formed a rock band with his buddies but no one has ever taken a music lesson.  The wannabe rock stars bang away on electric guitars and drums from midnight to four in the morning. You complain to the police. They do nothing. As Thailand is a hub of the unconventional story about hellish neighbors, at last there is a story where the police actually came, saw, held their noses, and returned with very large trucks to remove the source of the noise. Only in this case, it wasn’t loud music that caused the misery.

In one of the remote neighborhoods in Bangkok, Khun Lek bolted up in bed as he tries to awake for a nightmare of roaring lions and a distant tingling of pigs and peacocks. You are awake but the sound of jungle hasn’t disappeared. And then he smelled something foul as if a hundred sewers have backed up and overflowed in your bedroom.

The police discovered the neighbor—a Mr. Montri runs a pet shop at the Weekend Market also known as Jattujak or JJ Market. He’d previously been convicted of trading in wildlife and had gone back to his old ways as officials found: 14 white lions, 4 otter civets, 2 hornbills, 1 oris, 23 meerkats, 1,000 sugar gliders, 12 peacocks, 13 turtles, 6 minks, 4 miniature pigs, 17 marmosets, a number of birds, and some stuffed animals. It seems the police got tired of counting after the exhaustion of counting 17 marmosets (those little buggers race around like rats on speed and all look alike making counting an ordeal) as quantities grow vague when it comes to birds and stuffed animals. There it is. After the great flood, the world starts over with this population of animals.

Mr. Montri told the police that he had the paperwork to legally import the lions from South Africa. Apparently a lion cost Baht 200,000 wholesale or about $6,700.00. There was a slight problem with the papers. The import documentation showed 16 lions coming into Bangkok, and there were only 14 in the cages on Mr. Montri’s land. The paperwork hasn’t stopped the police from charging Mr. Montri with offenses that could delay the sailing of the Mr. Montri’s Arc by up to 4 years.

Where were the missing 2 lions? That question is one Mr. Montri’s neighbors are seeking answers to as they gingerly rush from their front doors, climb into their cars or on to the seat of their motorcycles and get out while the getting is good.

The rich in Thailand apparently have a strong desire to own unusual pets. There is also a dark side, too, as the delicate bits from some of these animals are also made into medicines usually to increase the vitality and virility of aging men.

The secret sex lives of some old men include harvesting organs from rare, large African animals. Others go for luxury sports cars.

This leads us back to the on-going investigation by a large number of agencies into the smuggling of luxury cars into Thailand. The 300% import taxes are staggeringly high for someone using the normal import channels. That provides an opportunity for someone who can figure out a short cut. Somehow 2,000 luxury cars were smuggled into Laem Chabang port in Chon Buri and stored, making it one of the world’s largest luxury car parking lots in the world. As one would expect, cars began disappearing from the port as importers began selling them off at bargain prices.

The Department of Special Investigation (DSI) is looking into 600 luxury cars to see if they were legally imported. DSI has impounded a 100 luxury cars so far this year.

News reports indicate 90% of the luxury cars imported into Thailand came in illegally. That is more than just a little leakage in the system. That’s the sound of Niagara Falls roaring next to those missing lions. Like prohibition of alcohol, criminalization of drugs, or 300% taxes on for a luxury item is guaranteed to fuel a grey and black market, corrupt officials and create a wealthy criminal class of middlemen. In the case of Thailand, the grey and black markets are the lion’s share of the luxury car market. The grey market includes luxury cars used abroad by students and imported into Thailand—just think about it. You come home from year of study abroad with a half-million car that slides under the tax regulations. Or if you have a luxury car assembled in Thailand, another free pass. Though the assembly of such cars require technicians and facilities that rival NASA, and the local ‘assembly’ shops appear to have no more than the usual screwdriver and hammer. And the luxury car has to be registered. Basically the luxury car market is a legal mess with many fingers pointing and many more fingers in the pot.

The owners of luxury cars are a who’s who of Hi-So personalities, senior government officials and even an abbot. Their sons and daughters also have a taste for the exotic import that distinguishes them from the lower orders running around town in their government subsidized locally assembled cars that cost less than the upholstery on a Bentley.

You need vitality to drive one of these babies. With a white lion in the passenger’s seat no one, I repeat no one, is going to have a larger face than the man behind the wheel. Most people are status obsessed and the Thais are no exception to the rule. Face is important. What you drive, wear, and the animals you collect, if of the right sort, can create a face the size of the moon. Capitalism in its full glory has provided a mechanism to achieve the elevated heights undreamed up in Noah’s day of mere arc builders.

If we stand aside from the personalities and the distracting images, we can see more clearly what is at stake. The lions and the luxury cars are really a story about our uneasy, troubled relationship with nature and each other. Our problem has caused a problem with nature once it became apparent that there is vastly more profit in destruction than in maintenance of natural resources.

We are a species of Deceptive Apes, Killer Apes, and we are a danger to ourselves and all other species. Our ancestors passed laws and wrote constitutions to protect us against ourselves. In the digital age we have found those in power have discovered new and powerful ways of deception, means far beyond the imagination of prior generations.

We deceive ourselves that nature can absorb our rapacious behavior. We deceive ourselves that those who collect information will never use it for their benefit rather than our own.

We deceive ourselves into believing that the rule of law will continue to protect us like a dyke against the rising tide of government intrusion. Apathy is the bedfellow of deception. We are enablers of the worst excesses that should worry us but don’t. A majority of Thais accept corruption as part of the system. A majority of Americans don’t object if their government accesses, stores and analyzes their emails, Amazon purchases, Google searches, Facebook likes and posts, and telephone calls.

Collectively we’ve fallen into a state of denial that a price is paid for deception, and we are the one’s who pay it. Our minds fill with the soma of the media and the government officials, and we miss the context and the larger issues. Like a great magician, who knows how to distract his audience, we are easily fooled. We focus our attention on the slightly amusing personal stories that limit the damage to a couple of dodgy schemes that the authorities are investigating. Imported lions and luxury vehicles are a good laugh. Until we realize that we are laughing when we should be weeping.

We live in a time of great loss—nature, privacy, freedom, honesty and fairness. One by one, these values are dying. Like Old English words, one day no one will remember what such words meant back in our day. The natural habitat of the Deceptive Ape is in transition. What that new space will look like? Perhaps our descendants will occupy a mental cage with as much space to roam as the cages that the Bangkok resident white lions were housed.

We can only guess. Where the Wild Things Are is just beginning to unfold.

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Posted: 6/13/2013 8:28:56 PM 

 

Some weeks provide an avalanche of events—enough to fill a book of essays. For example, a German national who’d finished serving a prison sentence in Australia for theft and drug law violations, escaped his private security guards at the Bangkok airport and had a two-day holiday in Bangkok before the police caught up with him. Carlo Konstantin Kohl, a German national, with an Australian accent aged 25 (a contemporary of Mr. I Am Awesome, the 25-year-old Thai drug dealer with five wives I wrote about a couple of weeks ago) was being extradited to Germany. Here’s an account in the Australian:

Kohl’s escorts were two private security personnel whose job was delayed at Suvarnabhumi Airport due to bad weather. The security detail had decided to wait for the onward flight to Germany in the transit lounge with Mr. Kohl. It was a long overnight wait and the guards fell asleep according to the Bangkok Post  (although the Australians denied that). Mr. Kohl decided he wasn’t all that anxious to return to Germany where he was wanted on parole violation charges. According to local reports he wandered around the airport for hours.


Mr. Kohl on his way to a foot massage in Suvannabhumi Airport in Bangkok.

The Bangkok Post:

His escape from the airport confirmed that it has more exit doors than  Bangkok’s illegal gambling casinos—300 doors—and is far less secure. Any one of the airport exit door, apparently, is easily disabled by snipping an electric wire.

Rumours are unconfirmed that Immigration—having discovered all of these doors may be in surplus for emergency use—might convert a half dozen of these surplus exits into Fast Track lanes for those willing to pay an extra fee. Of course, I made that up, but anything your can conceive in your imagination just might have a counterpart in reality in Thailand.

Thais love stories about handsome young rogue farang giving the authorities in Australia and Thailand a dual set of black eyes. He was bound to endear himself to a Thai audience by stopping at the airport for a foot massage before high tailing it to Soi Cowboy. The local press played the sanuk angle of the story as if Mr. Kohl’s tour of Bangkok’s hot spots was a blend of Home Alone and Hangover II. A handsome young rogue for a star, fumbling, sleeping Australians, and a tour of the hot spots of Bangkok.

Establishing the facts has been illusive. Like objects in zero gravity, facts in Thailand have a habit of floating free, bouncing off the shell of reality, untethered they remain fluid and forever just out of reach. The Thais have a way of dealing with facts that appear to incriminate someone important—those facts fall into the category of insufficient evidence. In Kohl’s case no Thai officials of rank were incriminated (that was news in itself). His romp through Bangkok was an adventure, and besides everyone was quite happy to lay the blame the Australian security detail—including the Australians. Falling asleep on the job? That could never happen in Thailand. What about all of those doors Mr. Kohl rattled? Some of the doors had been kept open for the convenience of airport staff. A bolt hole might be useful when the time comes to sneak a cigarette, hide from the boss, or to find a cozy spot for a quick nap.

Even the circumstances of Kohl’s capture/surrender/ambush—take your pick—are unclear. He was arrested in the vicinity of the German Embassy (the exact circumstances of his apprehension like most other aspects of the story are vague). One press report said Kohl had applied for a replacement passport two weeks earlier. That was the first clue that he’d been enjoying himself in Bangkok for some while. And he’d been flying under the radar.

Hadn’t anyone notified the Germany Embassy in Bangkok to be on the outlook for him? Apparently not, but facts like elementary particles in physics apparently only allow you to measure location or velocity. I’d hazard a guess that Heisenberg’s head would have been spinning to explain the facts in this case. Was Kohl on his way to the German Embassy to pick up his replacement passport? Did he suddenly have a pang of guilt and walked up and turned himself in to a Thai cop he saw on the way to the embassy? We don’t know those facts. You can’t find them anywhere in the press accounts.

In one week, Carlo Konstantin Kohl managed more front page coverage in the English language newspapers than the Prime Minister or her brother—the one who was prime minister when the airport with the 300 exit doors was opened, and the one through which he exited some years ago. This was exactly the kind of story the local media love—a Hollywood bankable rogue, keystone private cop foreigners, and no one of importance had been accused of corruption, thuggish behavior, or displays of gross arrogance. Allegations of negligence, well, to complain about that is to complain about the oxygen we breath. Though the Thai press had a report that the taxi driver that drove Kohl from the airport into Bangkok charged him Baht 3,000 for a ride that normally would cost under Baht 300.  It’s not certain Kohl was aware that he’d been grossly overcharged. I suspect his gave the driver a hundred dollar bill. Unless after his foot massage Kohl made a trip to one of the airport exchange booths.

With a bit of time to reflect, the Bangkok Post ran editorial suggesting that if Kohl could use a coin to open a security door at the airport, well-trained terrorists who’d been trained with escape and evasion skills could easily have popped open all 300 doors at once.

Kohl, who was fined Baht 6,000 ($200) and given a two-year suspended sentence for illegal entry, later conducted what appeared to be a workshop in front of about 50 officials who watched Kohl show how he had used a coin to open a security door and how he cut the wire. It was less a reenactment of the crime than the usual photo op the local papers run of a foreign guest speaker, guru from abroad, holding one of those seminars at a five-star hotel, lunch included, for the professional development and the transfer of foreign know-how and technology.

Kohl’s fun holiday in Bangkok overlooks one or two issues that I’ve not seen raised in the press accounts. Shouldn’t someone be asking the question as to whether there are protocols that require foreign police agencies, or private security firms used by law enforcement to transport prisoners to other countries, to notify local authorities that a criminal will be passing through as a transit passenger? Wouldn’t the Thais like to know in advance of arrival of someone like Mr. Kohl at their airport? Would they have rules to be observed such as don’t fall asleep in the transit lounge while escorting a prisoner? Can any serial killer show up in the custody of a couple of sleep deprived private security guards, take a power nap in the transit lounge, and let their charge take a tour of the city? What other people or things are going on in transit lounges that Thai officials might be interested in as a matter of public security and safety?

Or is this the international transport of prisoners one of those black boxes, like the renditions the Americans ran out of Thailand for some years, where flights come and go out of shadowy world with a wink and a nod? Do other countries have procedures that set out what notices and process must be complied with in flying prisoners in and out of their country?

The problem with such questions is they take the fun out of Kohl’s story. Better to keep a lid on the broader implications of what happened by limiting attention to the official response which is to send a crew around to rattle the 300 security doors at the airport. The questions are also embarrassing to both the Australians and the Thais. By asking why the Thai authorities didn’t receive advance notice of Mr. Kohl’s arrival raises the uncomfortable possibility that the Australians were under no obligation to give the Thais any such notice.

Credit must go to Mr. Kohl was exposing the security problem at the airport. Additional credit is due for establishing the abiding metaphor whenever an influential person is facing a ‘fact’ that causes a major loss of face and serious criminal charge—he will find 300 exit doors, and one of those door will allow him to escape. Call it the ‘insufficient evidence’ door.

The more interesting story this week was the explosion and fire that destroyed a carrier lorry loaded with six foreign luxury cars that somehow had entered the country and avoided import duties, and the parties have links to major politicians and government officials.

The six luxury cars have caused a turf battle between the police, customs, revenue department, and the anti-corruption agency—that no doubt other agencies will seek to have the cars and jurisdiction under their authority. Doors. 300 doors, and the question is which doors will open and close before the mystery of who owned and imported the six luxury cars. Next week, reading the local press will be an exercise in observing multiple doors opening and slamming shut like a nineteenth century prison cell. Could the Australians take the fall for those luxury cars? Did someone fall asleep again? Somewhere, official wheels are turning, door knobs to power tested.

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Posted: 6/6/2013 8:54:13 PM 

 

One of George Orwell’s most enduring essays is titled Shooting an Elephant. In the 1930s George Orwell served as a colonial official in Burma. He was a sub-divisional police officer. Young Orwell’s hatred of the idea of empire was only matched by his brutal contempt felt toward the unfortunate souls who were the subject of the imperial occupation of their homelands.

His iconic essay about an elephant goes to the heart of imperialism—the linkage of the despot with the expectations of those they exploited. The story begins when the narrator received a phone call about an elephant on the rampage into a bazaar. He takes out his old .44 Winchester, knowing it is too small a weapon to down an elephant, but as a means to frighten the beast. The elephant is in musth and the mahout has taken the wrong turn ending up twelve hours away.

All the weapons in the empire are with the authorities. The locals were without weapons and as a result ‘were quite helpless’ against the raging elephant. They could only stand to the side and observe destruction of a hut, fruit-stalls, the eating of produce, overturning a van, and killing a black Dravidian coolie who’d been stomped to death in the mud. And wait for the British colonial officials to handle the problem. The locals were victims. They were passive. Their alternative was to wait for those with guns to arrive and save the day.

Having laid eyes on the dead man, the narrator sent a servant to a friend’s house to borrow an elephant gun. Once he had the elephant gun, the mood of the crowd changed from indifference to an expectation of harvesting the elephant’s meat once it had been shot. A small army of locals followed on the heels of the official to the paddy field where elephant as found quietly eating bunches of grass.

The danger had gone out of the situation. The elephant was calmly feeding itself and no more dangerous than a cow. The official had no desire to kill the elephant. And saw no compelling reason to do so until he saw the crowd of 2,000 Burmese watching and waiting. It was not idle interest that drew them to the field. He represented authority. He had an elephant gun. They had only their hands. “A sahib has to act like a sahib…” He had no choice but to act out his role; it was impossible not to kill the elephant not because the elephant was a danger but because an armed man without resolution was no longer to be feared. He must never show fear to the natives. A fearful man without resolve no longer projected that he was the legitimate master of their destiny. He might be despised but he would be feared and that was the framework on which empire rested.

The killing of the elephant was a messy affair with multiple shots and great suffering by the beast, taking a good half an hour to die. Afterwards, opinion was divided as to whether the official had done the right thing by killing the elephant. What made him happy was that the coolie had been killed. It had been his death that gave justification to the death of an elephant that was no longer a danger to anyone. The shooting had been more of an execution of a murderer. No one could deny that murder had happened. While an elephant couldn’t form the intention to kill as a human being could nonetheless having stomped to death the coolie, no one could say that the shooting had been wrong.

Orwell’s parable about an elephant can’t be disconnected from the context of empire. A modern version of the story happened last week in Thailand. A Thai nurse and her husband visited Lae Paniad Elephant Kraal in Ayutthaya. The nurse had offered an elephant named Plai Big some food. The elephant grabbed her arm and pulled her toward him, stomping on her with his foot. Her husband rushed to help his wife. Plai Big gored him. The nurse died from massive injuries to her internal organs. The husband was seriously injured.

Like Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant, an elephant, a 27-year-old 3 tonne male, had killed a local. In this case, the dead woman was a nurse. She was hardly a member of the coolie class that featured in Orwell’s story. No one ran to the authorities and asked that a police official be dispatched to shoot the elephant. The Thai resolution had a different outcome. A ritual was performed at the elephant kraal. The ends of the elephant’s tusks were sawed off by 20 centimeters. The purpose of the ceremony was to free the elephant of the spirit of the dead woman. It was reported that Plai Big would never work with the public again. . Plai Big fate will be to spend the rest of his days in solitary confinement.

In Orwell’s story there was a tragedy. In the contemporary Thai story there was a similar tragedy. When foreigners occupy another land, the need to maintain fear and authority ruled out any other option. It was never about the elephant; it had always been about monopoly to use violence as the means to show resolve. Nothing short of pulling the trigger to kill could establish such resolve was beyond question. To maintain order was to show that resolve even though it wasn’t necessary. And maybe that is the point of Orwell’s story. Indecisiveness in the exercise of force would have been a sign of weakness. One man in a crowd of 2,000, if weak, would not survive. He would be laughed at. And the last thing a man with a gun can allow is laughter at his expense.

In Thailand, the dynamic was different. By not shooting an elephant, no official would not expose to belittling laughter.  The elephant didn’t have to die to maintain authority and the right to use force. Rather than violence as a response, a ritual as held to free the elephant from the spirit of the dead woman. A metaphysical resolution rather than physical violence ruled the day. Also in the Thai story, the elephant had a name, an age, and an identity. In the Orwell story, the elephant, like the locals and the dead coolie were nameless as was the elephant

The tragedy of elephants isn’t that they sometimes kill people but the aftermath of the survivors, what they expect to happen and who is in charge of the weapons. The elephant in both cases acted out of hormonal heat, a moment of rage. Compare that with the choice given the very human foreign armed policeman who when pressed by size of the crowd around him killed the elephant in cold blood. It is the premeditation, the thought process, the politics that are disturbing and haunting. The elephants shame us by showing how we calculate in our killings, and the rituals of healing is only available once a community draws upon its own traditions without interference from the outside.

From Syria to the West Bank to Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan, the expectation that killing the elephant is required has not changed from Orwell’s Burmese Days. The lesson is clear occupiers use terror and fear to maintain control over local populations. It is also clear that the lesson hasn’t been learned as the forces of imperialism are tested just as they were Orwell time, and those who are occupied welcome the raging elephant because he provides thousands to judge for the first signs of weakness to embolden themselves to take up weapons against the elephant killer who are not one of their own.

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Posted: 5/30/2013 9:05:17 PM 

 

In Bangkok and New York, Barney Rosset told me many stories about Henry Miller.  He’d published Miller and knew the author personally. My views about Henry Miller have been shaped by Barney’s recollections over the years. Richard Seavers also had a long history with Barney. A friend gave me a copy of a memoir written by Henry Miller’s Paris friend and contemporary, a photographer named Brassaï.

Henry Miller The Paris Years was  published in 1995 by Arcade Publishing, a press run by Richard Seaver. I’d met Richard Seaver in New York at Barney’s loft in the East Village and again at Barney’s table at the National Book Foundation award ceremony in 2008 when Barney was given a lifetime achievement.

With those connections, I was the right audience for Henry Miller: the Paris Years, having know a couple of the people who were close to Miller for years. You can be close to someone without knowing the interior layers that go deep, where stuff is hidden, forgotten, fractured into a prism like mystery.  Even when you know them well, years later when you seek to recall what was said and done, the memory can play illusive games.

I am weary of memoirs written by the friends of famous people. It is natural that they will put themselves in the center of the famous friend’s life. That is a danger. I wondered if Brassaï fell into that trap.

Brassaï was one of Henry Miller’s friends. The one result of fame is that an author’s friends have their memories and correspondence ready for a memoir about the author, his life, habits, attitudes, weaknesses, ticks, and philosophy.

The book titled Henry Miller The Paris Years ends with, “Henry left France without tears, without regret, and without looking back, as if the ten years he’d lived there had simply vanished.” I wish that Barney were still around to ask if that was his take on Miller’s years in France.  His time in France had made Henry Miller’s reputation; it has established him as a writer, a genius, and a literary tiger. I have been around expats a large portion of my life—it is very rare to find someone who has lived in a culture as Henry Miller did in France would discard the place like an old sweater.

Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and his other major works, were written out of experience that was processed through a hyperactive imagination. His reality was the result of this creative process. The boundaries of fiction, make-believe, became the raw ingredients of life in Paris and cooking up an exotic confection. His books were not just exotic, they were—according to the Americans—obscene. The Tropic of Capricorn was banned. But for the efforts of Barney Rosset who spent a personal fortune on court battles (only stopping at the Supreme Court of the United States) started in the 1960s. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn had established himself as a writer that upset officials who decided what could be read in the United States.

Understanding Henry Miller’s Paris experience sheds light on his views on relationships, sexuality, identity, memory and imagination. Pornography is largely the legal conclusion from the conservative elites that the combination of those elements must stay within strict boundaries of propriety.

Henry Miller, according to Brassaï, a person was lucky or unlucky on whom they met. For a writer, who needed the constant input of new experiences, Paris brought him much luck in companions.  If experience was fuel, the high-octane stuff came from two women. Anaïs Nin, born in Paris, American by nationality, a Spanish father, and Franco-Danish mother—the original globalized woman before anyone used the term globalization. She kept a diary that by the time Miller met her ran to 48 notebooks—but she dismissed them as ‘bloody ejaculations.” It was a relationship of conflicting attitudes toward literature, a writer’s role, and the nature of reality. Anaïs Nin believed that a writer should stay bound into the moment of truth, not to filter it through imagination, which changed the reality to something no longer true. Henry Miller was at the opposite pole—where reality until processed and transformed by imagination would never become ‘real’ and fiction and myth were the techniques of this transformation.

Anaïs Nin was Miller’s intellectual muse. Brassaï writes that during the two-year period that the Tropic of Cancer was put on ice by a publisher in Paris anxious about possible legal problems, Anaïs Nin guided Miller through multiple rewrites. It wouldn’t have been the book that made his reputation without her tireless, patient pushing him to make changes.

Another woman, June, was Miller’s sensual muse. She walked on the wild side. A woman filled with a huge amount of energy, men were attracted to her, and she exchanged sexual favors for money. As June’s husband, Henry Miller didn’t ask where the source of her money was coming from. It was no surprise to learn that Henry Miller admired the pimps who gathered at Chez Paul near the offices of the Chicago Herald Tribune, 5 Rue Lamartine, in the heart of Paris’ red light district. He admired their power of women, their lack of shame, their sales banter and their disdain for ordinary work. They had a life style that Henry Miller idealized as one route to take in the rebellion against culture and those in authority.

June had, in Brassaï’s view, a superabundance of life; she was one of those people with ten times the intensity and energy of ordinary mortals. If one is writing out of experience, hooking one’s star to such a woman as June propelled Henry Miller into dramas that most writers would never dream possible.  Her betrayals and lies created a stormy relationship. At the same time, passive women bored him. Such a woman was an open book. Miller didn’t want that kind of woman.

Brassaï writes that Miller married June without knowing the basic like place of birth, name or family background He wanted mystery, someone who was unpredictable, unreachable, whose life and background remained vague and unknown. June was not just a siren, she was a cypher—one that Miller tried with his imagination to break the code. He failed in that goal, but his failure to decode June nonetheless set him on a journey that inspired him to write two brilliant books: Tropic of Cancer and Tropics of Capricorn. June felt committed to Miller; though he was a genius, and for her, he was the one true love of her life. For Miller, June was part of his expression of open rebellion against his Brooklyn upbringing.  They were both displaced spirits seeking to escape old lives and create new ones.

One detail of Miller’s writing habit concerned his daily routine of walking the streets of Paris. He was a great observer. He could only think on his feet. And that meant walking around examining buildings, people, activities until some thought—the Voice—would come into his head and he’d rush back to his room and sit in front of his typewriter as the cascading images, ideas, and expressions tumbled out of his mind and onto paper. He was less interested in the truth—thus his arguments with Anaïs Nin—then in stories he drew from observations. For Brassaï Miller’s casual relationship with the truth was ‘bewildering’. In Tropic of Capricorn, June emerged as a character filtered through imagination to the point she was no longer recognizable from the flesh and blood woman he had married.

In the end the well of Henry Miller’s experience drifted away. He left Paris without a backward glance. Anaïs Nin drifted away. He slipped away from June. Having lost the city and two women who had inspired him, brought him the Voice that defined him, there is a lesson to be learnt for an author. If your work is dredging experience arises from the lucky strike of a gold mine of life, like all resources, sooner or later the gold runs out. The mine is an empty shell, a hole in the ground, and a hole in the heart. Only a few writers are lucky enough to find the perfect match of time, place, and companions that put him in touch with that Voice—the one that moves and touches not just the author but readers for generations.

In a book titled Chairs, I wrote about Barney Rosset’s Henry Miller connection in a story called Star of Love. I had asked Barney if Henry Miller had discovered Bangkok would it have changed his life. Barney replied, “Totally. Absolutely. How could it have not influenced him?” In the end, Barney said that Henry Miller holed up on top of a mountain in the Big Sur. He had a security guard at the bottom where there was a dirt road. The guard’s job was to stop anyone going up to bother Henry.

This was the author who roamed the streets of Paris searching for the Voice. The oyster had closed its shell. No more pearls would emerge. Brassaï set out how he saw Henry Miller’s reality. Too bad there’s no chance to ask Anaïs Nin if Henry Miller The Paris Years was filtered through the imagination factory—part illusion, part hallucination. Or does the author give the reader the unfiltered, unmediated truth. But the person I’d really like to ask is June. What would she have thought of this version of the truth? All these people are dead. Whatever the truth of their reality will continue to slip into the recycle bin of their reimagined lives once created for succeeding generations. A literary life that has the capacity for self-generating truths by those who knew the author is rare.  We are reminded that truth rung through the active imagination of writers like Brassaï is part of what keeps Henry Miller alive in the minds of readers today. Oblivion is the alternative.

After finishing Brassia’s memoir, and thinking about the big picture, the reader could say that Henry Miller was a lucky man.Luck has a great role in a writer’s life. As I put the book aside, I felt I had been lucky to have discovered Bangkok when it was the Paris of the 1930s, a place where Barney Rosset, Henry Miller’s friend, discovered my existence, making me a small piece in the chain of people who have written about Henry Miller.

Miller had Paris, while I had Bangkok pretty much to myself for the early years, and it was a place where I walked, explored, learnt a language and culture and the place where I found my Voice. Unlike Miller, I couldn’t imagine leaving Bangkok for the isolation of a mountain top or, at the very least, not without stopping and looking back one last time to say a final goodbye to all of that.

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Posted: 5/23/2013 7:23:46 PM 

 

Dear Hunter,

Your mother, Susan, who is a long-time reader of my books, asked me to suggest a reading list for your 16th birthday. What books would I recommend for a 16-year-old? Every author and reader would suggest a different list of authors and titles. Choices such as these will be contentious. No list is ever complete. What I’ve recommended are a dozen authors as your son’s first steps of the long-term journey into the world of creativity and imagination.

Some authors combine ideas or thoughts with creativity to create works of pure imagination. Other authors draw upon their experiences processed through a vivid, compelling imagination to create art. Others still like Orwell found political ideology and expatriate life the source for his imagination to take hold.

I’ve included a number of expatriate authors who have found that life inside another culture has given them a creative space for their imaginations to take flight. I pass along a list of recommended authors and titles with a warning: any attempt to create categories is a risky and dangerous business. The dangers have much in common with the idea of considering books according to genre. In that ghetto, books are confined to categories, for example, literary, crime, science fiction or historical.

In reality, works of genius transcend literary categories. As you can see from my recommended list, Orwell and Miller are found under more than one category—illustrating my point that genius refuses to be pigeonholed.

My categories, in other words, are broad guidelines, and aren’t to be taken too seriously. They are rough signposts and signal my own personal taste and development as a writer. When I was 16 years old, I would have liked a nudge as what to read during my teens. You will no doubt find your own favorite authors and books along the way. Read them, too. Avoid, if you can, the latest fashion or trend. Books come and go. Only a few have the staying power to be read by another generation.

The works below have such staying power. The list isn’t meant to be definitive. The list is a start; not the end. It is also eccentric and personal reflecting to my own biases, interests, values, and experience. Given that limitation, over the next year of your life, you might set aside time for reading each of them. Each of the works, deserves to be read at 16-years-old, and again at 26-years-old. Read them and reread them as you grow older and through this process, you may discover ideas, images, thoughts and visions that you missed in the earlier readings. And you will discover new things about yourself that life has bestowed.

If I had read them in the sweathouse of my youth, I can only wonder what impact that might have had on my life. As a birthday present, I send this list with the hope that your life long pursuit of books will benefit from this early start.

Thought and Imagination:

  

Jorge Luis Borges:
The circle of Ruins, The Immortals, and The Library of Babel

    
Jose Saramago
: Blindness, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis


Isaac Asimov: The Foundation Series

 

Experience and Imagination:


Louis-Ferdinand Celine: Journey to the End of Night


Henry Miller: Tropic of Cancer


George Orwell: Down and Out in Paris


Alice Munro: Runaway

 

Politics and Imagination:

      
George Orwell: 1984, Animal Farm, The Hanging, Homage to Catalonia


Margaret Atwood: the Handmaid’s Tale

 

Expatriate Life and Imagination


Henry Miller: Tropic of Cancer


Graham Greene: The Quiet American


Lawrence Durrell: The Alexander Quartet


Somerset Maugham: The Moon and Six Pence, Razor’s Edge


James Baldwin: Notes of a Native Son

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Posted: 5/16/2013 8:52:38 PM 

 

An investigative journalists in Southeast Asia is like the person walking point into a jungle filled with booby-traps, snipers and ambushes. It takes a very special person to volunteer for walking point.

Bopha Porn is such a journalist.

She is a reporter for the Cambodian Daily. She is also a very brave journalist. Recognition of that bravery came this week with the announcement by the International Women’s Media Foundation of 2013 Courage in Journalism Awards.  Three awards were given for courage to three women from around the world. Bopha Porn was one of the three. She is the first woman in Cambodia to receive this award.

The citation that comes with the award reads:

“In [April] 2012, Phorn narrowly escaped with her life when the vehicle in which she was traveling came under heavy fire. Phorn was investigating claims of illegal logging in a protected area of the Cambodian jungle with another journalist and an environmental activist when gunmen with AK-47s sprayed the car with shots. The activist, Chut Wutty, was killed. Phorn’s reporting on land and environmental issues, as well as her stories about criminal activity and human rights abuses, have made her the target of other life-threatening attacks.”

I had an appointment with Bopha in Phnom Penh in April 2012. I arrived a day after Chut Wutty had been killed. I didn’t know at that time the circumstances of his death or that Bopha had been next to him Chut Wutty when he was killed. We were meeting to go over final edits of her short story, Dark Truths, for the anthology Phnom Penh Noir.

Phnom Penh Noir

When I rang her, Bopha said she couldn’t make the meeting. She said she wasn’t in Phnom Penh. She asked if I could meet her where she was staying. I asked where she was, and she replied, “Near the Vietnamese border.” Then she told me the entire story and how she was concerned that returning to Phnom Penh might be risky as she’d witnessed the killing of Chut Wutty, who was attempting to expose illegal logging. Twenty-four hours later, she was back in Phnom Penh. She couldn’t stay away from her job at the Cambodian Daily. Hiding out wasn’t in her nature. We had lunch and she told me her story.

In this part of the world, where illegal logging is often linked to government officials, witnesses to the murder of environmentalists, human rights activists, and others seeking to expose official wrongdoing are danger. She was absolutely right to find a temporary shelter away from officials who might seek to clean up the loose ends.

We talked several times that day and Bopha decided to return to Phnom Penh. The news of Chut Wutty’s murder had gone out on the wires. It was international news

Following an extrajudicial killing, officials in this part of the world don’t normally issue an order to kill a journalist who witnessed the murder once the eyes of an international audience are watching. If that possibility isn’t open, other options present themselves.

According to Asian Correspondent the Cambodian legal system found that “Rattana was accidentally shot by a former employee of Timbergreen. The employee was sentenced to two years in jail on October 22, 2012 with 18 months of that sentence suspended. He walked free less than two weeks afterwards. While local NGOs called it a “mockery of justice”.”

Bopha Porn has continued her investigative reporting from her base at the Cambodian Daily in Phnom Penh. Her courage makes her a role model for journalists throughout Southeast Asia. Reporters find themselves in situations where powerful vested interest with impunity from the law intimidate, bribe, or threaten the most brave of them. No one is ever paid enough money as a journalist to take a bullet for justice, freedom and fairness.

For someone like Bopha Porn, it has never been about the money. It has been about exposing those who have accumulated wealth at the expense of their nation, murdered others to increase that wealth, and destroy the natural resources along the way. Asia needs heroes in this struggle.

I can’t think of a better one than Bopha Porn.

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Posted: 5/9/2013 8:50:33 PM 

 

Some criminals start out young as they embark on a life of crime. Many reasons can be found to explain why someone turned ‘bad’ and adopted the life of an outlaw. One of those reasons is financial. The criminal wants a certain life style that takes money. He has a choice—find a job, save up for the car, the condo, the holidays, to support his partner and dependents. Or if his plans are grand, then no regular job will finance the structure of a life that only the wealthy are able to afford.

Occasionally, there is a criminal who has a broad vision of his future. His life plan could only be financed by winning a super lottery or by crime.

The Bangkok Post carried the photograph and story by ace reporter Sunthon Pongpao about the arrest of Saichol Mailuan.

Saichol (in Thailand people are referred to by their first name) was cornered in Wang Noi district, Ayutthaya by the police in a drug sting. The suspect opened up with his .357 hand gun at a number of police officers. The spent shells indicated he fired 5 times (keep that number in mind, we will come back to it).

The report said that the police were unharmed as they wore bulletproof vests. But there was no mention as to whether the fired shots by Saichol struck anywhere near the vicinity of the arresting officers. If they’d bounced off the bulletproof vests, I have a feeling the vest with the holes would have been displayed for the media.

Saichol’s shooting skills are a valid subject of inquiry, as one of the 5 rounds (remember the number 5, we are getting there) resulted in a self-inflicted wound to his left leg.

In other words, the suspect shot himself in the left leg resisting arrest by a small army of policemen.

That degree of accuracy doesn’t suggest he was a trained marksman or professional gunman. In the photograph accompanying the article (you’ll have to go to the earlier Bangkok Post link to see it, as it is copyrighted, and we wouldn’t want to breach a copyright), Saichol is seated at a table, a crew of non-smiling Thai police officers standing behind him and at his side, the .357 handgun on the table and box of shells spread out so everyone can see exactly what a .357 round looks like.

There are more pictures of him here.

Saichol was photographed wearing a T-shirt with the words—I Am Awesome. That may seem like a young man’s bravado. It would have been quite wrong had the T-Shirt said—I Am a Crack Shot. Awesomeness is something few people can rightly claim at any age, while anyone can learn to shoot a gun.

What did the police discover in their investigation of the suspect’s background?

First, he’s quite young–25 years old. I know I said that before. How much living did you have behind you at 25? I’d wager a bet it doesn’t come close to Saichol.

Second, he’d done 5 years in prison for attempted murder, as well as drug dealing and theft (as also reported by Thai-language newspapers). Matichon reported that Saichol confessed that he had been to jail 5 times.   The fact he’s a lousy shot may explain the prior attempted murder conviction.

Third, his ability as a drug dealer rivals his shooting ability. He sold yaba (‘crazy drug’), the Thai phrase for methamphetaimes pills.

Fourth, and here comes that most auspicious number 5 in Saichol’s young life, he has 5 wives. The wives live in 5 different households. 5 houses. 5 rice cookers, 5 TV sets, 5 dental/medical bills, 5 motorcycles/cars, 5 wardrobes. That takes some serious cash. Economies of scale aren’t in his favor. Note to Ministry of Education—mathematical courses ought to teach scaling, power laws, and how to buy food and other stuff in bulk.

Fifth, there is no mention as to which one of the five shots hit his leg. Was it the first shot? That may explain why he squeezed off 4 more shots without hitting any of the cops. Was he trying some kind of fast draw and pulled the trigger before removing the .357 from his holster? Or was it the 5th shot, and that ended his shooting spree?

Odds makers in Saichol’s hometown are offering higher odds for the self-inflicted shot coming from rounds 2, 3 or 4. Was he left handed or right handed? If the cops are standing in front of you, how do you shoot yourself in the left leg? It’s these kind of questions you’d think someone would put to the suspect. Perhaps they were but answers are never reported. Why is that? Maybe the sequence of the round will come out in evidence at his trial. Though he will likely cop a plea and there will be no trial and the mystery of the number of the round that hit his leg will remain.

Let’s summarize what we know so far: Saichol is a high testosterone 25 years old, who is a bad shot.  His left leg suffered a self-inflicted .357 hole from one of 5 rounds he fired. He was nabbed red-handed with 1,000 yaba pills.

On his earlier conviction Saichol spent 5 years in the monkey house. He supported 5 Thai wives in 5 different households. He’s been in jail 5 times.

Karma and the number 5 are finely woven into Saichol’s life.

One would have to begrudgingly concede that Saichol has earned the right to wear his T-shirt in his meet the press with the police glowering in the background.

Rumor has it that all of the underground lottery tickets in Ayutthayawith 555 were quickly snapped up after the news of his most recent arrest broke. There has been no word on how his 5 wives will support themselves as their common husband returns to prison. Note to the Press: Visitation rights should be an interesting story to follow up. Will the gang of 5 wives have to draw straws or can they visit as a group? The BBC, CNN and others would follow like a pack of hungry wolves should they appear together wearing T-shirts—He’s Awesome.

The question is whether Saichol will again get another 5-years stretch in the big house, and at age 30 emerge a changed man. Can he go straight? Will he have learned his lesson? Which of the 5 wives will be waiting to greet him upon his release? Can this be turned into a Reality Show?

As for that T-shirt—I Am Awesome—it might be the one shirt that he doesn’t want to wear inside the big house. He might think about a tattoo.

Just saying.

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Posted: 5/2/2013 9:01:23 PM 

 

Spirit Houses are a common sight in Thailand. They appear in front of factories, rice fields, houses, condominiums, restaurants, bars, schools, government offices, high-rises—just about anywhere you venture, the likelihood is you’ll find a spirit house. Like the tuk-tuk and muay Thai, it is part of Thai identity to believe there are spirits who reside on the land require appeasement with offerings and the gesture of a wai.

A problem arises when a spirit house is erected on land outside of Thailand.

In Burma, Violet Cho authored a piece for The Voice disclosing a conflict between Italian-Thai Development Company, one of Thailand’s leaders in the construction business, and local people in Burma.

The Burmese have their own set of spirits that they pay homage to; they are called ‘Nats’ which have been described as supernatural Burmese elves.

There are 37 Nats in the Burmese belief system. Among them are Thon Ban Hla, The Lady of Three Times Beauty, Maung Po Tu, Shan Tea Merchant, Mahagiri, Lord of the Great Mountain, and Yun Bayin, King of Chiengmai. It appears some of the Nats have jobs. Others are royalty, and I am not certain if the Thais are generally aware that one of the Burmese Nats is King of Chiang Mai.

In Missing in Rangoon I explore the supernatural world. Each time I’ve been to Burma, some new and different aspect of spirituality emerges for examination.  Indeed it would be difficult to write a novel about Burma without touching upon this belief system as it is and remains central to the identity of the Burmese.

The clash between the Thais and Burmese over the Thai spirit house is a collision between different supernatural belief systems that lie at the core of national identity. The world news offers up a constant, daily stream of the aftermath of such conflicts. Often it leads to violence, the full program—pogroms, burnings, looting, maiming and murdering.

According to Violet Cho’s account, the problem arose over villager in Nabule who claimed a holy Buddha footprint had a sacred claim on the mountain, and that erecting a Thai spirit house was an affront to this object as well as to various ancient pagodas on the mountain named Mayingyi Paya.

The Nabule villagers claimed the Thai company had not consulted them before installing more than one spirit house on the mountain.  There are spirit houses in front of the company office, and other spirit houses at various project sites. The article makes it sound a bit like a spirit house invasion and occupation. The locals noticed the appearance of these structures to ‘foreign’ spirits. And foreigners, in spiritual form or otherwise, aren’t always that welcome especially if it looks like they have moved into the neighborhood, plan to stay, and drive out the local Nats.

It is unclear whether the local villagers mounted protest, demonstrations, letters sent or other means—perhaps spiritual—of expressing discontent, before locals destroyed one of the spirit houses.

As Nabule is scheduled for development in a project involving the Thai and Myanmar governments, it is difficult to know whether the motives might be more than bruised feelings over the local spirits being occupied and displaced by Thai spirits. In this part of the world, when something murky happens, the question usually asked is who might be the ‘third hand’—who is really behind the incitement and what does that person(s) want. And usually it is money, says that little cynic that perches on the shoulder of people who’ve lived in Southeast for too long.

Violet Cho quotes a senior leader at Ba Wah Village justifying the spirit house destruction by the locals. “We can accept it if the project does not destroy our environment but if it is threatening our people, culture and religion then we will surely have to be against it,” said U Hla Shain.

This being Southeast Asia, it is no surprise that U Hla Win, the vice chairperson of NLD for Dawei district would call for negotiations. U Hla Win pointed out the conflict was spiritual. What he didn’t point out is that the rest of the world since recorded history has been trying to figure out how people with different supernatural beliefs can live in peace and harmony in line of site of other believers who erect their own shrines and perform their own set of rituals that pay respect to alien supernatural beings.

On both sides of the border, both the Burmese and Thais suffer their fair share of cognitive dissonance between animist and Buddhist beliefs. The incongruity is never quite resulted as both sides claim they are Buddhist and animist. The Burmese won’t negotiate away their rituals involving the Nats anymore than the Thais will cease to erect spirit houses containing a wide range of deities from various spiritual and religious origins, from local and ancestral ghosts to assortments of Hindu gods.

As an example of the straddling of spiritual balance beam, this analysis pretty much sums up why negotiations between locals who support their local team of Nats and the visiting team with their imported team of spirits—or even more alarming, the spirit house are awakening the local spirits who have been oppressed by the Nats.

“We do believe and worship the village’s nat but now seeing Thai spirit houses in the area, it is like a guest is taking forced residence in our house. We do not want spirit houses in a religious Buddhist area like this. There is a possibility for cultural mixing and I am concerned about our culture being threatened by another culture,” said U Aung Ba, member of the Nabule Spiritual Group.

We will keep an eye on the 2,000 households and 10,000 Buddhists of Nabule as they learn that the opening up of globalization has a cost. Consumers are given new choices. Foreign businesses bring in their own culture and belief systems. What locals are never told until it is too late is the idea of choice means locals are given an expanded menu of spirits to worship, and the new businesses bringing in their expertise, technology are not leaving their local gods at home.

Local gods need accommodations. Spirit houses, like drones, are a metaphor for what it means to have invisible forces watching you; the locals lose their historical isolation and the remoteness of the mountain life vanishes. Village life begins to change as new ways, ideas, and beliefs appear with people from neighboring lands.

This is only the beginning for the villagers of Nabule. Starbucks, McDonalds, and 7-Eleven are not far behind the spirit house invasion. The Nats will have new immigrants from the spirit world as neighbors. The locals will resist these intruders.  Yet what can they do? Globalization, like the Borg, has one motto that fits all: Resistance is futile. Development means the bargain you make is to yield up your old belief system. The deal with the devil of development is the new spiritual dimension brings prosperity and happiness. The true enemy of the local supernatural belief in Nats isn’t the Thai spirit houses, it is shift to reinvention of identity.

Nabule has had its welcome to the big game played out in thousands of villages. The Thai company with the installation of spirit house has merely softened them up for the final assault on their mountain. It is only a matter of time before the big artillery open up, blasting them into the modern, secular age, which has no place for local gods. Only then will the villagers of Nabule feel nostalgic for the time when all they had to worry about was the conflict over their belief in Nats against the Thai spirit houses. The dignity of local deities is in for a rough ride.

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Posted: 4/25/2013 8:51:37 PM 

 

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