You Can’t Get There From Here: A Road Map for Thai Democracy (Part One)

“Roadmaps” are popular in Thai political circles.

Thailand’s-roadmap-to-reforms2

Lately it seems that whenever anyone out of power in Thailand is demanding something that someone in power doesn’t want to give, someone in power comes up with a “roadmap”. Said roadmap is usually a vague list of more or less concrete steps to be undertaken before “democracy is restored” or “reconciliation is achieved”, whichever is perceived to be the demand or need of the moment. Over the past five or six years, it is usually both: first reconciliation, then democracy.

One reason these roadmaps never seem to guide the nation to its destination has to do with the rather pointed lack of a shared definition of ‘reconciliation’, to a minor extent, and, far more significantly,  of ‘democracy’ itself. Conveniently for all concerned, neither term has a fixed meaning. And equally conveniently for all concerned, both terms fairly glow with positive connotations. Who, after all, could be so churlish as to deny the value of either one?

Pared down to basics, the royalist-military-conservative wing defines ‘reconciliation’ as “STFU and do as your betters tell you”, a formulation hardly likely to endear itself to the vast majority of the Thai people thus being told to know their places.

Similarly, ‘reconciliation’, to the various levels of Thaksinite political expression boils down to “Bring Thaksin home and let us get back to running Thailand Inc.”. In many ways it is the same definition directed at a different group. Everyone just wants everyone else to shut up and take it lying down. *

It makes for difficult politics.

As for the competing definitions of ‘democracy’, well, even on a roadmap it’s better to stay away from that one. But in the interest of “reconciliation” some delineation may be beneficial.

To those who define themselves primarily by opposition to the coup and all forms of military dictatorship in Thailand, ‘democracy’ conveniently means “elections”.

Once elected, Aleister Crowley’s injunction “Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be The Whole of the Law” becomes the predominant mode, unless of course the Royal Thai Army, the Constitutional Court, or any one of a number of independent bodies originally mooted by the oft-cited People’s Constitution of 1997 says you can’t.

Then it’s time to STFU and do as you are told or call another election and get democracy back on track.

Unless the Election Commissioners won’t let you. At which juncture it’s time for yet another coup to put an end to the undemocratic chaos, take a time-out, and rebuild “democracy”, as defined by those who support military coups as a means of restoring Thailand to the true path of ‘democracy’.

This group tends to define ‘democracy’ as rule by a group of people who are not greedy, and who are most definitely not dishonest politicians, and who are content to stay behind the curtain operating the levers that the PM and her cabinet and the houses of parliament push here and there in a kind of dumbshow until the real leaders accept a setting that most accurately expresses the will of the Thai people, as divined by these “good people”.

Generally speaking, the “good people” who provide the real leadership behind the scenes in this definition of ‘democracy’ are the same people who step out in front of the curtain and run things under military rule.

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So, given that one way or another, the same people are in fact sovereign in Thailand regardless of what any given “constitution” might say, or what party any given election might return to nominal control of the government, what seems to be the problem?

To Be Cont’d…

 

*It should be noted that the one area of conscious and loudly-trumpeted agreement is that those who have offended against the lèse majesté laws, the notorious Section 112, are not important to reconciliation. Everyone agrees that these monsters should rot in prison or in exile until a higher form of amnesty is decreed from on high. More liberal observers of the Thai political scene tend to view any suggestion of ‘democracy’ that doesn’t include protected speech as somewhat lacking, but neither side in the present conflict cares much about that, as can be seen from their shared emphasis on “STFU” as a necessary component of ‘reconciliation’.

 

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Real Media: John Pilger on the ABC of Media Power

Pilger, as usual, is spot on. In the Thai situation, it isn’t just the media that is hostile to truth.

Last week, renowned journalist John Pilger spoke at a Q&A on media power with Des Freedman from the Media Reform Coalition who released his new book ‘The Contradictions of Media Power.’

We have picked some of our favourite quotes from John Pilger during the talk, which give us an insight of his experience and understanding of media power, which is something we can all learn from. And he definitely puts it best.

john-pilger

“The whole essence of media is not about information. It’s about power.”

“Today the media is, as the father of propaganda, Edward Bernays described, ‘an invisible government.’ It’s in the government. It’s in the government’s vested interests. The Prime Minister is a PR man by trade, and not a very good one. That’s all he is. He shouldn’t be taken seriously, he just has the position. That position allows him certain aspects of power. But the real power…

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Bangkok’s Three Finger Salute: A Reading (Updated July 8)

Not long ago, in Bangkok, there were a number of so-called “anti-government protesters” wearing Guy Fawkes masks in order to symbolize their defense of freedom, justice and the monarchy of Thailand. It wasn’t long before guffaws were heard throughout the kingdom (through the media, of course), pointing out the unintended irony of using the image of a would-be regicide as a symbol of stalwart defense of monarchy.

Oh my.

At the same time, clever folks pointed out that like in so many things, these Thais had failed to interrogate the history and therefore the meaning of the Guy, and had simply, mindlessly, adopted the image from the Hollywood film, V for Vendetta. For these folks, the Guy mask was just a way to say “Fight the Power”, being the evil corrupt Thaksin administration, and present what is in essence an extremely conservative, right-wing, quasi-fascist movement in the light of liberalizing anti-establishment values.

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Of course, now that the “Thaksin administration” has been removed by what has become the usual series of judicial solecisms, followed by administrative shenanigans (on the part of the “independent bodies” that exist to provide the checks and balances every democratic system relies on), and finally a “military coup”, the anti-establishment shoe is on the other foot, as it were.

And so Hollywood has been scoured yet again to come up with a fitting image to show the defiance and courage of the Bangkok “anti-coup protesters”:

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Reports in international media that the junta has made the gesture from Hunger Games illegal and that protesters have been arrested for it has the guffaw crowd snuffling again like well-trained pigs digging for truffles. Only this time it isn’t the protesters they’re laughing at: those right-wing Thais are just an inexhaustible supply of opportunities for condescending wit. How stupid can they be, really?

Arresting people for imitating a movie?

Of course, no one has pointed out the irony of using the Mockingjay Salute in Bangkok, especially at Bangkok’s notoriously glitzy malls.

In the film, the salute is first performed by an old man, a poor and undernourished old man who has obviously spent his life toiling in the fields of District 11. All of the districts in Hunger Games are subject to The Capital, a place where vacant fashionistas entertain themselves by watching representatives of their virtually enslaved subject Districts kill each other.

The Capital,with its ostentatious wealth and its ruthless exploitation of the provinces, is the Enemy. It isn’t hard to view the relationship between Bangkok and the impoverished provinces of the north and north-east as similar to that depicted in the film between the Capital and the Districts.

.hunger fingers

Interestingly, Rue, the young woman for whom the salute acts as a kind of memorial as well as a gesture of solidarity in resistance, is black. And everyone knows how Bangkok middle-class folk feel about the dark-skinned “buffaloes” who serve their food and drive their taxis.

It’s nice to see that a few hundred Bangkokians are willing to risk the wrath of Prayuth to protest the imposition of military rule yet again in Thailand. And it’s good of the media, both social and mainstream, to do what it can to follow up on the whereabouts and treatment of these people once they are taken into custody.

But reports of thousands of arrests in the provinces are basically ignored. And when they are reported they are reported as arrests for gambling, drugs or weapons. Just because they happen to be taking place in the provinces with the highest concentrations of Redshirts doesn’t seem to cause many folks to wonder why, suddenly, the Junta is sweeping up gamblers and pot smokers.

And no one in the media seems to want to look behind the “Reconciliation Process”. What happens at these meetings? Who attends? Under what form of compulsion do they attend? What sort of threats hang over these provincial activists if they were to play Hunger Games like their urban cousins in the Capital? Would they receive the “catch-and-release” leniency being accorded to Bangkok? Would anyone know? Where are those thousands recently “swept up”?

It will be interesting to see whether or not some of the intrepid reporters who drift from hotel to mall and back again in the glitzier regions of the Capital ever find it in themselves to get out in the countryside where the real military dictatorship has its foundation.

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But Bangkok is just so much fun. And it’s easier to laugh at a dictatorship than to report on it accurately.

*Added July 8:

And now we have a group of pro-democracy students promising to “fight the power” to the Last Man Standing and calling it their “Alamo”. They tweet as   and have a tendency to strike dramatic poses (in ungrammatical English) against “slavery”, by which they appear to mean the junta.

No matter that one of the issues causing the Texans at the Alamo to revolt against the Mexican government was the Mexican abolition of slavery.

In September 1829, the Mexican government outlawed slavery. The outraged Texans, not wishing to give up their peculiar institution, protested, and so the government excepted Texas from the general abolition, thus allowing the Anglo-American settlers to keep their slaves.

A few months later, a new government rescinded the blanket exception for Texas and restricted the American settlers from “importing” any new slaves. And taking away a white American’s right to own another person did not go down well with Texans, even if they had agreed to settle in a new country that might have different laws.

The rest is history. But the Alamo story as these Thai students are using it, is a myth, a myth celebrating Anglo superiority and American imperialism, a myth purporting to tell a tale of freedom and rights, when it actually tells a darker tale of white men willing to die to maintain the institution of slavery.

Odd that people ostensibly fighting for human rights and democracy would choose such an image for their fight. Now let’s look at the fascist imago as it bubbles beneath the surface of Last Man Standing, shall we?

last-man-standing-original

 

 

 

 

 

14 Ways of Looking at Thailand’s Military Coup

NB: This post was published on May 25th 2014, 3 days after the coup took place. It’s interesting to look back and see what I got wrong and what I got right before I go on to write an update two years later.

 

1. Contrary to popular belief, the men who have undertaken this coup do, in fact, intend to return Thailand to democratic governance. General Chan-ocha does not plan to remain in office as El Jefe Supremo until one of his children takes over and neither does he intend to rule the country for years as was the case with coup generals until the coup of 1991.

2. Thailand’s deeply flawed democracy will be tinkered with, adjustments made here and there, and then returned to the “sovereign people” of Thailand, of this you can be sure. And like the “democracy” that has existed in fits and starts since 1976, it will be a managed or supervised democracy, a democracy in which a weak parliament will appear to “govern” the country, a “free” press will be free to criticize politicians and their coalition administrations, and a loose and ever-shifting congeries of soldiers, bureaucrats and wealthy business families will sit in the half-light of media inattention making sure that parliament does not ever get to actually govern the country.

3. This coup is not primarily about the “succession crisis”; it is about democracy. It is not about deciding to abandon democratic principles that have never had much actual play in Thailand, but about shaping a democracy that the oligarchy can live with. In this way, the Thai democratic project is not dissimilar to democracies around the world, pace all those who like to see Thailand as a uniquely dysfunctional construct.

4. To a very great extent, this coup is about Thaksin and his family of potential “clones” more than it is about that other wealthy Thai family that provides a cynosure for both praise and criticism while the real work goes on elsewhere. And this is not because the Shinawatras represent the shining future of democracy and popular sovereignty as guaranteed in constitution after constitution. It is because they represent the possibility of a rival “network” of generals. bureaucrats and wealthy families who threaten to supplant what some call “the old guard” (as if they don’t have children and heirs).

5. It is not possible to discuss here the finer points of how succession might in fact fit into the overall picture in which this present coup fills the foreground because one of the purposes of the coup is to make sure that it continues to be an express trip to a prison cell to do so. Like most Thai people, I have no wish to go to jail.

6.The Thai people want democracy, at least a majority do. They have come to understand and are now insisting on popular sovereignty. This coup has been undertaken to deny that sovereignty and begin a process of re-establishing a simulacrum of it that will keep the lid on for a few more decades.

7.While there are unquestionably “fascist” elements in the “old guard” network, and techniques and approaches drawn from European and Asian fascisms over the past century are especially prominent in the “street wing” of the Yellows, there is no desire to set up anything resembling a Thousand Year Reich behind this coup. The RTA for all its faults is capable of rational practicality and this coup is neither more nor less than a tool in the hands of the traditional elite.

8. This coup does not represent the failure of Kamnan Suthep’s Great Mass of the People movement. Neither does it represent the failure of any of the various versions of PAD that have taken shots at the YL administration since its election in 2011. The coup is the culmination of all those “movements” and their fulfillment.

9. A large minority of Thai people are not adamantly opposed to the coup, and a number of those are active and vocal in their support for it. One reason so many people are willing to accept this end to months and years of wrangling in the streets is that they are exhausted, bored and frustrated with the endless apparent chaos. The speeches, the marches, the reports of parliamentary shenanigans, the blocked roads, the confusing arguments pro and con, the courts and independent bodies and their controversial judgments, the deaths in the streets: a look back over the past few years of Thai political “news” is enough to depress and confound anyone without a fixed commitment to either “side” in the conflict. Families and friends argue or have stopped speaking to each other altogether. There is a natural desire on the part of many to simply want it all to stop.

10. So when the generals and their technocratic assistants, the tame academics and loyal bureaucrats, scramble to make possible a swift return to democracy, it is only natural that many people will want to give them the benefit of the doubt and embrace the new constitution and the new/old Thai-style democracy with relief and just a touch of sadness and regret.

11. It seems likely that this coup, unlike the last coup, will be met with a considerable degree of popular resistance, and not just from Thaksin-associated elements of the UDD and more genuinely pro-democratic Redshirt splinter factions. There seem to be a surprising number of middle-class Bangkokians reacting very quickly indeed with courageous defiance both on the streets and in social media.

This military government, however, will not be as patient as the one fronted by Abhisit and Suthep from late 2008 till the election in 2011. There will not be months of rallies cruising the streets of the capital and there will be no long occupations of intersections a la Rajprasong 2010 or just about anywhere earlier this year. The moment the apparently spontaneous rallies get too large or too boisterous, or the moment they begin to take on a serious Red tint, there will be bloodshed. And it is highly unlikely that the Bangkok middle-classes will be there when the dying begins. It’s not their way.

12. It seems highly unlikely that this coup will lead to the civil war that many commentators are warning about and have been warning about for years now. At least not in the sense that it will have the character of a popular insurrection, with troops fighting for democracy on one side and oligarchical monarchism on the other. There may be a brief struggle within the army itself but that is more likely to take the form of Thaksinite elements versus the old boy network, with fringe involvement of officers who see their road to promotions blocked by the dominance of cliques and classes they don’t belong to. Hardly the sort of thing to enable western “liberals” who long for the victory of democracy to comfortably cheer for one side or the other. Not that some won’t, mind you.

If anything like this civil war scenario eventuates, it will most likely take the form of a low-level insurgency similar to the one that has plagued the south for a very long time now. Without the glue of religion or the memory of an independent country assimilated some time in the recent past, it is unlikely that any Isaan or Lanna insurection would have the staying power of the Malay-Muslim struggle down south. And who knows. maybe the moves toward decentralization and regional autonomy that were hinted at by the Yingluck admimistration will be acted upon by the future “governments” in Bangkok, thus drawing even the southern chapter to a close.

13.This coup is taking place in Thailand. Not on the Internet or in social media if you prefer that term. It is not taking place in a world flattened and shrunk by globalization. It is not taking place in a world wherein the End of History has been reached and liberal-democracy has been assured a place at the end of every nation’s inevitable evolution. It is taking place in a country that is less than 100 kilometers from the People’s Republic of China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and that shares land borders with Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Malaysia. And what that means is that it is happening in a country that when the tanks are put away and “democracy” restored still looks more democratic than any other country in the region.

It is important to note this because “international media” and “the international community” are invoked again and again by journalists and social media people to prove to themselves that people like Suthep can never “win” and coups just can’t “succeed” any longer in the modern world. And Thailand is a part of that modern world. Just look at Facebook stats and Line and Instagram stats! Absolutely EVERYTHING in this world, and not just “the revolution”, WILL BE TELEVISED ONLINE!

And the world will judge.

14. Well, maybe. But it’s more likely that Thaksin said it best when he said, “The UN is not my father”.

He could have been talking about this coup and all the various people behind it. Come to think of it, he probably was.

 

When Is A Coup Not A Coup?

Please feel free to add your own ideas. Agree or Disagree. All comments welcome on this auspicious occasion.

A coup is not a coup when the successful coup-makers use the power they have seized to deny that a coup has taken place.

A coup is not a coup when the people disenfranchised and suppressed by said coup are desperate to believe that it has NOT happened again.

A coup is not a coup when influential media personalities have repeatedly denied categorically that a coup is in the offing, and will therefore clutch at whatever straw(man) will allow them to report authoritatively that no coup has taken place.

A coup is not a coup when it is the final orchestrated move in a long series of orchestrated moves to replace an elected government with an appointed government that represents the will of the appointees, some of whom happen to have been elected, and not that of the electorate.

This particular non-coup will likely continue not being a coup just so long as EVERYONE DOES EXACTLY AS THEY ARE TOLD!!!

A coup is not a coup when the end result is what has been being called for by anti-democratic thugs for months but cannot really be called either a military or a judicial coup because it is a slick combination of both and has taken place with the silent assent of the displaced elected caretaker government.

 

MagrittePipe

Corruption and Institutions Repost from January 16

Many of the articles dealing with the most recent round of “protests” aimed at dismantling Thailand’s ever-fragile democratic governance speak of the need for “strong institutions” to provide the “checks and balances” necessary to protect against corruption and other abuses of power by elected officials. This theme is hardly new in Thai politics. The ’97 Constitution was designed with just these “institutions” in mind.

This article from Bloomberg puts it clearly: “Only strong judiciaries, anti-corruption arms and networks of government watchdog agencies can ensure accountability.” And whereas I am sure all good liberal-democrats everywhere will nod their heads in agreement (as I found myself doing as I read it), a moment’s reflection is enough to realize that this sort of suggestion is equivalent to proposing that Thailand adopt “Mom, Apple Pie, and The American Way” as a bulwark against everything bad. Which is just silly.

Thailand is an early-adopter of what is being recognized as a major trend in anti-democratic strategizing around the world: the so-called “judicial coup”. In order for groups or individuals aligned against democratic governments to avoid resorting to the much-maligned military coup, a “strong judiciary” is a good substitute. A wealthy oligarchy with a matched set of judges in its arsenal is going to benefit from a “strong judiciary” far more than the voting public with their “one man, one vote” weapon of choice.

The same thing goes for all of the “institutions” needed to provide the “checks and balances”. The stronger the institution the more powerfully it can be used to either bolster or utterly destroy an embattled democracy like Thailand’s.

Corrupt judges cleared the way for Thaksin Shinawatra to become Prime Minister when he had been caught hiding his assets under his maids and chauffeurs, and corrupt judges have been beavering away ever since to remove him and his associates from Thai politics.

To run through the catalog of similar abuses by the NACC (National Anti-Corruption Commission) and the EC (Election Commission) over the past decade or so would be a waste of time. The point is clear: without honest, law-abiding men and women to staff the strong institutions that provide checks and balances to government power, these institutions serve only to shore up the power of extra-governmental, anti-democratic forces within the country.

What this means of course is that Suthep and his followers calling for “good people” to set the Thai system of government back on democratic track is absolutely correct. The irony of a corrupt politician (charged with murder and being allowed to avoid reporting to the police because he is too busy overthrowing an elected government) nominating himself and his cronies to be part of a committee to choose those “good people” is painful.

Corruption in Thailand begins at the top and flows downward. At some point in the process, that corruption has gathered sufficient power unto itself to threaten the livelihoods and lives of anyone who would challenge it. It is going to require a lot more than “strong institutions” to save democracy as the preferred form of government in a country where just about everyone in the middle class and above is heavily implicated in the very corruption they pretend to abhor.

At the “bottom” of the Thai system of “democracy”, farmers sell their votes to whoever offers them a few hundred baht and then go ahead and vote for whomever they want. At the “top”, judges and professors and journalists and politicians sell themselves for varying amounts of money, prestige and power, thus ensuring that the votes those farmers sold mean nothing anyway.

And what can strong institutions do about that?

FIRST SONGKRAN

(Originally written and posted on what was going to be a very different blog in 2006)

The Thai New Year celebration, Songkran, is the third “new year” celebrated each calendar year by the festival-loving people of Thailand: first, of course, since by calendar year I mean the western calendar, is “Phi Mai”, celebrated on December 31st and January 1st in much the same way that New Year is celebrated in much of the rest of the world; then comes Chinese New Year, usually in February, with a dragon parade through Bangkok’s Chinatown and various other Chinese-style celebrations held throughout the country, with a special degree of intensity and flair in areas with traditionally high populations of Sino-Thai people, like Chantaburi and Hat Yai. Songkran is also known as “Thai New Year”, and if there is any holiday celebrated in Thailand that communicates a better sense of Thai culture and Thai people, I don’t know what it is.

Not that Songkran is universally endorsed by the Thais themselves; there are those who feel that the celebration often gets out of hand and reflects poorly on Thailand as a modern civilized country.

It is particularly despised, and I suspect feared, by many in the large ex-pat community in Thailand. Picture yourself walking along Sukumvit Rd. in Bangkok on a sweltering afternoon in April, the hottest month of the year. A pickup truck passes, the back full of soaking wet Thais bearing gigantic high-pressure water guns and plastic bowls full of water drawn from the barrel sitting in the middle. Imagine a sudden barrage of cool water soaking you to the skin. Or perhaps a young child flings a bowl of water in your direction and then a young comrade runs up offering to daub your wet face with talcum powder; admittedly, not everyone’s idea of a good time. As I write this, my trusty old Nokia is in pieces and I hope drying out, soon to return to full functionality. It is not wise to have your phone in your jeans pocket as you do your stroll down Sukumvit; we live and learn. And neither is it wise to wear heavy absorbent cotton clothes; you will stay wet for a very long time if you do.

The number of traffic deaths, high at the best of times in Thailand, soars through the four days of Songkran, most attributed to drunken driving, some to dangerous driving conditions created by the unbelievable amounts of water flowing in the streets after a few hours of “water-play”. Even Songkran aficionados will admit that there are definite drawbacks to the excesses the holiday provokes in certain celebrants. But cracking down on Songkran activities or attempting to eliminate the most extreme behaviors associated with it would be a definite case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, in this case from the back of a pickup truck. And that’s no way to treat a baby.

The Songkran holiday begins with the rather subdued and beautiful washing of Buddha images with small amounts of water poured by people who line up to take their turns to do so. Songkran rituals are almost all associated with cleansing, a kind of cosmic spring cleaning if you will; as a matter of fact, April 12th, the day before Songkran begins is the day when many Thais do a thorough cleaning of the house. On the 13th, the first day of four, people also pour water over the hands of parents and grandparents as an expression of respect and a blessing.

For most peoples living in tropical climates where rice culture is attuned to the seasonal monsoons and the radical shifts between long hot dry periods and shorter intensely wet ones, water has always taken on the characteristic of the sacred; in this, the Thais are not unique. The Mekong River, one of the longest in the world, beginning in the Himalayan foothills close to Tibet and running through southern China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, down to its vast mouth in the South China Sea, is still worshipped as a divinity in all the Buddhist cultures it bathes in its life-giving waters. Several of these countries celebrate a similar water festival to mark the beginning of spring, but Songkran in its modern, and some would say debased, form is a uniquely Thai expression of this reverence for water, without which, of course, no human life would be possible.

It is also, and this is the simple wisdom of so much folk-culture, a great way to cool down for a few minutes or hours as the temperature hovers in the vicinity of 40C. And what a great excuse for a party.

I more or less missed the first day of “water-play” on this, my first, Songkran. What I did do was watch from the balcony of my hotel room as a group of children set up their water and talc supplies, looking for all the world like a five-cent lemonade stand, on the sidewalk across the street and subsequently began dousing passing taxis and pedestrians with small amounts of water thrown from brightly coloured plastic bowls of a kind I’ve always associated with traditional squat toilets, not the greatest association, I admit. I was curious to see whether foreigners, farangs in Thai, would get any special treatment, hoping to thus gauge what my experience would be like once I did in fact hit the streets.

What I saw was instructive; anyone, whether Thai or farang, who indicated by the least apparent gesture of refusal to engage was spared a dousing. The application of matching stripes of talc on either side of the face was always offered rather than thrust on the recipient. The way these children of eight or nine or ten years applied the talc was reverent in a way that reminded me of the colored spots placed on foreheads by holy men in Katmandu. Many of the Thais wai-ed after receiving this powdery blessing as a way of saying thank you, which is, I’ve learned, the “proper” way to respond.

When I finally ventured out into the night, leaving the quiet soi behind, I found that the children’s respectful and essentially joyful mischief was not the model for everyone flinging water and talc at passersby, although it did appear that most of those who made it very clear that they did not wish to get wet were spared a drenching. And I do mean drenching. Groups armed with hoses and high-powered water guns were stationed on most corners, directing their ministrations mainly toward passing vehicles and especially those pickups full of revelers, but occasionally turning on pedestrians. Most of the “water-players” were themselves wet to the skin and many faces were caked with talc, giving them mask-like visages reminiscent of carnival in its many forms from around the Christian world.

As uniquely Thai as Songkran is, there is something so fundamentally universal about it that you begin to feel a part of some timeless expression of human being, besides, of course, cool and wet, and oddly discombobulated, as you stroll soaking wet past five-star high-rise hotels and tailor shops and travel agencies on Sukumvit Rd.. It is also, I might add, a great opportunity to for once not look like the typical perspiring farang in a city of disconcertingly cool and dry-looking Thais. This is just one of the ways in which Songkran “water-play” acts as a great leveler in a society that is riddled with hierarchical distinctions.

One of my principle tactics when I wander the streets of Bangkok, a city that I have grown to love over the eight years that I’ve been visiting, is to simply “follow the music.” The little jewels of experience I’ve discovered this way range from elaborate performances of traditional Thai dance and music to thunderously loud presentations of young Thais singing out-of-tune Christmas carols in the 30C heat of a December night. The tactic did not let me down on this occasion. In fact, on the second day of “water-play”, it led me to one of the finest moments of Dionysian bliss that I’ve ever known.

Emerging from the cool, dry environs of a subway station I’d entered only to avoid crossing the vast and chaotic intersection of Sukumvit and Asoke Rd., I was entranced by the very loud strains of mor lam music pouring out of the tiny Soi Cowboy, one of Bangkok’s “notorious” redlight districts. Drawing closer, I noticed that there was what looked for all the world like a river of talc-stained water pouring out into Asoke. What I saw when I turned into the soi made my heart leap: hundreds of soaking wet people dancing and whooping and spraying jets of water into the brilliant afternoon light. And this was only four o’ clock in the afternoon. Have I mentioned how much I love this intensely rhythmic Isaan music, mor lam? Here was one celebration of Songkran I was not going to miss out of a misplaced sense of propriety or any other sensible folly that would excuse my not getting into the spirit of the “water-play”. I plunged in, dancing and whooping and splashing with the best of them. It was here, I’m sure, that my cell deep-sixed. A small price to pay.

There’s little more to say, except to note that for the first time in years, I wished I had a camera (equipped, of course, for underwater shooting), or better yet a video camera. I wanted the sound, the colour, the sense of continuous movement; I wanted to record the three women who placed an ice-cube, drawn out of one of their blouses, onto the ground and began spontaneously to pass their hands over it like witches summoning a spirit, then fell in a soaking heap, giggling at their own invention; I wanted to record the katoey in a mumu who leapt atop a high table and danced in haut camp joy and the people who solicitously caught him when he slipped and fell; I wanted to record the stiff tourist faces melting into huge easy smiles once the inevitability of what they’d let themselves in for by entering the soi bore in on them. For a brief moment, I wanted to record it all. But then I remembered that it would all begin again next year, just as much a part of the seasonal round as the monsoon or the hot dry winters. And so I went back under, as Nietzsche might say, losing myself in the dance, in the music, in the water that we were all soaked in, and the water that we are all made from. What better blessing or cleansing could a man ask for on his fourth day in his newly-adopted hometown?