Tuesday 18 May 2010

Mind The Gap

I've been coming to Thailand since I was 23 years old and have never felt happier than when the chicken is grilling on the roadside and I'm able to shoot the breeze a little with the locals. I speak reasonably good Thai and generally know when I'm the subject of conversation in Khmer or Laos though sadly the thing that impresses any of them most is my ability to chow down on the really adventurous food that takes years if not decades to get into.

In all the time I've been here there's only one person I've come across who had any appetite for talking about social inequality. I think I've had some exposure to all the classes, ethnic groups, business people both local and international and the impact of the massive tourism business not to mention the amazing cuisine, the girls, the transsexuals, minor royalty, cops, villains, army, politicians, sports and pop stars. It's never left me that the propensity for the underprivileged to be so unambitious is only matched by the propensity for the privileged to have so little ambition for the underprivileged. 

And so I've left it there because generally the nasty after taste of all that can easily be translated into a myopic xenophobia for all other ethnic groups including Caucasians who are easy pickings when feelings of domestic superiority are aroused.

All that has changed.

Just because all fluffy kittens are nice doesn't mean that all things nice must be fluffy kittens. By that I mean just because a group of people have a justifiable grievance, doesn't mean I'm all for what they are all for. I don't have any time for the Thai media who never speak truth to power and simply echo the prevailing ruling elite's sentiment without question. So I'll try and paint a quick picture of Thai politics if that's at all possible.

Pretty much all politicians are on the make. We had Khun Chuan a few years back, who not unlike our John Major was a quiet and untainted modest politician. Apart from him, all of them are first class weasels who put self interest before their people and their country while all the time proclaiming love for their King, while showing very little application of that love.

There's not much to say about the King without sounding like the sycophants who invoke his name despite never having read any history whatsoever, or even ever trying to apply his sufficiency economy philosophy. Actually nobody talks about it. It's enough to say I heart New York because why would any body question that simple expression of sentiment?

Suffice to say that at the beginning of the decade or thereabouts Thaksin Shinawatra became Prime Minister and I remember my girlfriend of that time cried as his electoral success became apparent.

Groundless or melodramatic tears I thought at the time, but now I see what's going on it's somewhat clearer. Anyway, vote buying is standard political strategy. It works in the Western world over taxation and it works here. Thaksin's genius was to do it in a new way and by pumping money into the rural areas he secured the hearts and minds of these people like never before and more importantly their relatively inexpensive votes.

He then went on to amass as large a personal fortune as he could until the ruling elite could take it no longer and locked him out on a foreign visit through a military coup. We all rejoiced over that. The three thousand extra judicial killings in 2003, the vote buying, the stranglehold on the free media which at times is just as silencing as the lese majeste rules for the royal household (and allegedly the Privy Council I read only today).

And then it became apparent that our initial euphoria was misjudged because the hearts and minds (and votes) of all the more impoverished people in the Kingdom had been brushed aside like their hopes and aspirations are always brushed aside by the ruling elite and our hypocrisy was staring us in the face. The ugly truth is that the wishes of the majority are the foundation principles of democracy.

This narrative was quickly reduced to reds versus yellows or Mustard versus Ketchup as Nick memorably described it in Hong Kong. Yellow for Royalists and Reds for Thaksinomics.

This may have served as a useful mnemonic in the beginning but it was always the case that red can be yellow but yellow can never be red which may be confusing but serves as a useful reminder of deity worship versus day to day self interest. They're different things unless they're the same thing.

I feel I'm veering off into known unknowns territory so I'll attempt to wrap this up by throwing in another example of the gap that dare not speak its name. I've mentioned the social inequality gap and I believe that if ever the Kingdom is going to right itself there needs to be a grown up discussion about why there is so little ambition for the poor. Why public transport and infrastructure to the rural regions never gets a mention. Why schools that teach history and geography are evidently absent on a massive scale. 

But one last example has been brought home to me time and again in advertising and the focus groups where I get to hear female office hierarchy talk openly behind one way mirrors about who to to lunch with based on where they come from. This is just one picture that the Thai advertiser likes to think portrays the average person in Thailand.

And this is the colour and bone structure of the remaining 95% of the population.

Can you see why they protest? You ignore their electoral wishes. They are marginalized, put through shitty schools, given no opportunities, have a health system that only Thaksin ever tried to improve, work on the streets where even the endless broken pavements are alien to you. You look down upon them, see them as the minority when it is you who are outnumbered. You parody their simple ways in the soap operas and finally try to sell them skin whitening cream if they ever aspire to a metropolitan lifestyle.

They may be the unwashed masses and frankly many of them have tried to cut my own throat when given a chance for a few dollars but that's because they've never had the chances that you and I had. They don't have a Facebook group, they are grubby, they lost thirty five lives so far against an entire army and yet they are the soil of your country.

Mind that gap.