Monday, October 27, 2008

Yala is a Sexy Town

*all photos copyright *

Surprisingly saucy stage show at the local Galaxy Disco in Yala. August, 2008. For a small town in the grip of an insurgency with strong ethnic and ultra-conservative religious overtones, the stage shows at BOTH space-themed discos are surprisingly sexy.

And now for something completely different...

I love stereotypes and I often help perpetuate them.

If a journalist goes to the southern border provinces what will they focus on? Muslims, soldiers, insurgents, roadblocks, birds in cages, mosques, bla, bla, bla.

But, beyond the confines of stereotypes, the world - and in this case, Southern Thailand - is much more than the stereotypes that journalists are often required to chase.

Case in point: the city of Yala - in the center of a four year long insurgency - is also a thriving university town and a generally cool place to visit.

Sure, check stops, soldiers, and brooding mood of violence can be noticed but that is about 10% of the story.

The rest is vibrant multicultural life that should get as much attention as the stale 'insurgency' story.

And that is it, a sexy picture and a different view from the southern border provinces that usually produces images of Muslims, soldiers, insurgents, roadblocks, birds in cages, mosques, bla, bla, bla...

Recipe for a Coup

*All Photos Copyright *

Makawan Bridge was closed again on Sunday October 26.

The anti-democratic People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) have unleashed their militia members to build roadblocks of piled tires and razor wire and are controlling the entrances.

This comes as ex-pol Salang Bunnag is calling for today - Monday the 27th - to be the beginning of the pro-government group's vigilante efforts to re-take Government House from the PAD protesters.

PAD have reportedly taunted them and said 'bring it on'.

The real worry is that PAD wants a bloody street clash in order to trigger a coup d'etat

So today, we shall see if violence flares and if a coup is triggered.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Amulets and War

*All photos copyright *

From a trip to Phaaw Ming village in Pattani province August 2008 to work on a documentary film about the southern insurgency.

Q: Have you ever experienced violence here that made you scared?

Medic: I have never been in an incident. But I have lost some of my subordinates so I was sad but I try to do my best.

Q: How do you take care of your self when you are on duty?

Medic: First I wear body armor. I wear a helmet all the time while traveling. Once I get to the location I can take it off in some cases, such as now, it is safe with a lot of people. But if we are in the car, we have to be careful all the time. We cannot fall asleep and have to be prepared.

Q: Apart from helmet, do you wear Buddha amulet?

Medic: Yes, I do. It is the pendent we are all get.

Q: What kind of amulet is that?

Medic: It is Lung Pu jeam. I've got it from the military. Lung Pu jeam and Lung Pu Tuad. This one is from my home in Lumpoon, Pra lod, my dad gave it to me. That is all. The rest are for moral support.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Who Kills the People?

The propaganda war over the bloody street clashes between the police and the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) is in full swing.

The two VCDs pictured above are being handed out at the various pro and anti government protests sites in Bangkok.

The top one in red is titled "Police Kill the People" (ตำรวจฆ่าประชาชน) and is PAD's view of the tragic events of October 7th.

The bottom VCD is called "PAD Kills the People" (พันธมิตรฆ่าประชาชน) and I received a copy while photographing Salang Bunnag's pro-government speech at Royal Plaza.

Both should NOT be watched if you are averse to the sight of violence, gruesome injuries, and death.

Both should NOT be watched if you are susceptible to believing one side or the other's propaganda.

But if you do want to see how each side is spinning the conflict, then you should really watch both.

What is clear from both - besides that they are both claiming to be the victims in the conflict - are two simple truths.

Thai police desperately need better equipment and training in non-lethal crowd control. They are, as many predicted before the violent clash, prone to violence and poorly trained.

The next truth is that the PAD leaders have whipped up their followers into a frenzied mob and have not simply allowed the violence but have specifically instigated violence. PAD has raised and nurtured an armed militia which is now beyond the capacity of the police and government to control.

PAD, of course, knows that when the police try to reign in the PAD's armed thugs, violence will ensue and will serve their purposes of delegitimizing the government.

Add into this volatile mix the above VCDs showing gruesome violence perpetrated by BOTH the police and PAD and it seems almost inescapable that further violence will erupt.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

When Proxies go to War

*All photos copyright*

Pro-Government supporters cheering Police General Salang Bunnag at Royal Plaza, October 22, 2008.

Retired police General Salang has been repeating his threats to oust the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protesters from Government House and with a strange twist.

From The Nation:

"Salang said he would seal off Government House to starve off the protesters, who would be denied supplies of food and water for three days.

He said friendly foreign countries have agreed to supply him with the weapons, which would be used in the operation that would not create any loss of lives.

He declined to name the foreign countries or the details of his operation to reclaim Government House from the protesters."

And what 'friendly foreign country' would actually supply weapons to a former police general?

None of course, that is nonsense.

But, in the same way that PAD's million-baht-a-day protest enjoys certain royal patronage, there are other interested stakeholders who would happily arm Salang's vigilante group.

Its not simply that Thailand is awash with weapons anyway or that it is unlikely a difficult thing for former police officer to have access to the state's armories or that small arms dealers feeding insurgent armies in Burma would happy to sell arms or that Cambodia's small arms markets could supply countless weapons or even, god forbid, those Chinese-made 'non-lethal' tear gas grenades that proved to be seriously lethal might find their way back into use but it is more likely that Salang will be armed from the pro-government camp.

And by pro-government, that could simply be the government itself.

Given that the floundering government has lost much legitimacy over the violence that erupted on October 7th it is unlikely that they would risk another confrontation.

But a proxy militia – either funded by the government itself or by a certain unmentionable faction of an unmentionable institution – could certainly be employed to go to war with PAD.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

What happened on 7/10/2008?

*Photo copyright*

Police with the controversial tear gas guns at Government House, Oct, 2008

A really interesting firsthand account of the PAD clash with police has emerged over at New Mandala by photographer Nick Hostitz.

"There is now a discussion about excessive force by police, and of course the use of teargas. From what I saw, I believe that the police had no other choice. Blame it on the miserable police budget that they had no less lethal teargas grenades, but not on the police officers on the ground that day."

"In this showdown PAD has used lethal force and if the police did not use teargas then this situation would have degenerated to hand-to-hand combat. And that, I am sure, would have cost many people their lives, on both sides. PAD had a few handguns, one or two police officers have been stabbed by flag poles. So, one would not like to imagine what would have happened if there was not the distance between the sides created by the teargas grenades. I doubt that any police officer intended to maim anybody but this day was a day of very few choices."

The full article with some great photos can be found here What Happened on 7/10/2008?

In addition, the Foreign Correspondents Club Thailand is hosting two programs covering the crisis:

Program #1
Thailand's Political Crisis:
Whose Human Rights?

Senator Monthian Buntan
Dr. Sriprapha Petcharamesree

Photojournalist Slide Show:
"What Happened on October 7, 2008?" by Nick Nostitz

October 7 photo 1

October 7 photo 2
More October 7 photos by Nick Nostitz are at:

Wednesday, October 15 at 8:00 pm
with buffet dinner at 7:00 pm
(Please see pricing and reservation procedure below)

The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) attempted to block the country's representatives from meeting in Parliament on October 7, prompting police to fire tear gas at protesters to clear a way for lawmakers to access the building. From morning to night, police battled with demonstrators, some of whom carried clubs, iron bars and even guns, until they retreated to their base at Government House. Two were killed in the fighting and more than 470 others were injured, including about a dozen people with limbs blown off. Protesters accuse the police of using excessive force, while police deny using heavy explosives and retort that the demonstrators were hardly peace-loving democracy activists. The clashes have pushed the government to the brink yet again, with former army chief Chavalit Yongchaiyudh -- appointed to the cabinet less than a month ago -- abruptly quitting and calling for a coup.

The violent events last week have raised a number of key questions about the "rule of law" and "human rights" in Thailand. When is it appropriate for police to take action to disperse crowds? Can protesters still be considered peaceful if they carry weapons and violate the constitution? What about the human rights of voters who support the ruling party?

Program #2
Thailand in Crisis:
The Thai Media's Perspective

The Nation front page

Tuesday, October 21, at 8:00 pm
with buffet dinner at 7:00 pm
(Please see pricing and reservation procedure below)

Hours after police fired tear gas on protesters on October 7, The Nation website had a large photo montage titled "Black October." The banner headline immediately recalled the street violence in 1973 and 1992 that took down governments. Other papers similarly pilloried police measures against protesters, whose use of satellite television channel ASTV, owned by protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul, has helped strengthen their movement.

What role is Thailand's media playing in the current crisis? Have they been biased toward the government or protesters? What values are shaping their coverage of events? How does the local media view foreign coverage of what is taking place?

Friday, October 10, 2008

A Quick and Dirty Analysis of the PAD Conflict

*All photos copyright*
From a happier time at government house with the PAD protesters - September 2008.

The following is a quick and dirty analysis of the current crisis revolving around the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) using a 'presenting', 'proximate', and 'structural' framework.

The presenting problem; Protests.

The proximate factors, according to the United Nations, are "likely to contribute to a climate conducive to violent conflict or its further escalation, sometimes symptomatic of deeper problems." And, the following examples are taken from what the Thai public has expressed and I don't necessarily agree with all but they do provide the needed wide scope of issue that people feel are the problems.

In addition, it is useful to divide these into categories such as Political, Social, Economic, and Security yet some issues can be present in multiple categories.

The proximate political factors are:

  • Resentment towards Thaksin
  • Fears of a puppet government
  • Debate of about the nature of democracy
  • Dissatisfaction with people in power
  • Constitutional amendment
  • Political polarization
  • Protecting the monarchy
  • Protecting Thai political culture
  • Political process dissatisfaction
  • One vote, one person
  • Dis/Reconstruction of the political system
The proximate social factors are:
  • Resentment towards Thaksin
  • Protecting the monarchy
  • Political polarization
  • Protecting Thai political culture
  • Mistrust
  • Mass media manipulation
  • Aggressive mood
The proximate economic factors are:
  • Corruption
  • Economic stress
  • Conflict of interests
  • Feeling of economic insecurity
  • One vote, one person
The proximate security factors are:
  • Reprisals/Punishment/Treason
  • Control of the mob
  • Limited capacity for conflict in Thai society
  • Mass media manipulation
  • Protecting the monarchy
  • Mistrust of security forces
The structural issues, according to the UN, are the "pervasive and long standing factors and differences that become built into the policies, structures and culture of a society and may create the pre-conditions for violent conflict." For this data, I have made extrapolated the deeper issues, from the proximate, that are driving this conflict.

Importantly, if a solution is to be reached, it essential to address the structural causes of conflict rather than the presenting or proximate issues in the conflict. If only changes are made to proximate issues then the conflict might momentarily deescalate but it will not go away. This factor, would also explain why the protests have been a reoccurring since 2004.

The structural social factors are:
  • Polarized social classes of rich urban and poor rural
  • Nepotism/corruption
  • Conflict avoidance in Thai society rather than confrontation and resolution
The structural political factors are:
  • Debate over democracy - manifest in PAD's inability to gain political power
The structural security factors are:
  • Inconsistencies in the justice system
  • Limited capacity for conflict mediation
The structural economic factors are:
  • Economic disparity
  • Corruption
What is essentially important here is that neither the dissolution of government or the acceptance of PAD's thoroughly anti-democratic idea of 'new politics' would help solve the crisis.

No matter what happens in over the coming days and weeks in Bangkok it will not resolve the conflict because the structural problems causing these protests have not been addressed and the cycle of protest and violence will continue.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

PAD Thugs with Gun

In Thailand, the word 'mob' (ม็อบ) is often mistakenly used instead of the word 'protest' (ประท้วง).

I used to make a point to argue and correct this language use when friends and colleagues would mistakenly call a protest a mob. Especially so if they were reporters.

And there is good reason. A protest is a legitimate function of democracy while a mob is a crazed group of thugs bent on violence and destruction.

But when it is time to talk about the thoroughly anti-democratic People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), they are nothing short of an ugly mob of thugs bent on violence and destruction.

A mob is a mob, nothing more and everything less than democracy.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Lèse majesté and Harry Nicolaides

*all photos copyright*
Rama 5 (King Chulalonkorn) statue worship near Government House.

Over at the New Mandala there is an important discussion about Thailand's draconion lèse majesté laws.

The article, written byAndrew Walker and Nicholas Farrelly, is well written, articulate and I post it here because of how important this issue is in Thai society.

The whole article can be read bellow or at New Mandala here.

In Thailand the legal system seeks to ensure that public comment about the monarchy can only be favourable. Under the lèse majesté provision of the criminal code, any action that insults or disrespects the royal family can bring a sentence of up to 15-years behind bars.

The most recent victim of this law is Melbourne man Harry Nicolaides, who has worked in Thailand as a university lecturer and freelance writer. He was arrested at Bangkok airport on 31 August 2008. As Nicolaides continues to languish in a Bangkok prison cell, the use and abuse of the lèse majesté law has received a modicum of worldwide scrutiny. However since 21 September, Nicolaides’ case has been completely out of the news.

He has been quietly forgotten.

Lèse majesté is a weapon used to defend the perceived honour of Thailand’s royal family. According to Paul Handley, the author of an unauthorised 2006 biography of the king, “[i]n Thailand, all that truly stands between royal virtue and London-tabloid-style media treatment is the lèse majesté statute.”

Since Handley’s controversial book–which is banned in Thailand–there have been a number of high-profile cases of lèse majesté involving foreigners. The two most recent instances where accusations have been levelled at non-Thais are illustrative of the problems with implementing this law.

In December 2006 Oliver Jufer was charged with the offence after defacing images of the king in Chiang Mai during a drunken spree. He was held for four months without bail, and after a quick trial was sentenced to ten years in prison. Jufer served another few weeks before he was pardoned by the king and deported to his native Switzerland.

At the time, outrage about his draconian treatment for an act of immature vandalism led to even more outlandish attacks on the Thai monarchy. There was a flurry of provocative and childish online protests that used the global reach of the YouTube video-sharing website to mock the Thai royals. In response, the Thai government banned YouTube. This sparked further international bemusement and condemnation. To conform to local expectations of fair comment, YouTube is today only available in Thailand in filtered form.

Since the Jufer fiasco, in April 2008 the BBC’s Bangkok correspondent Jonathan Head has been embroiled in a lèse majesté fight of his own. He has not been charged but is the subject of ongoing investigations. Head’s case is related to that of Jakrapob Penkair, an outspoken critic of military intervention in Thai politics and an eloquent ally of deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Comments made to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand during 2007 landed both men in trouble.

When only Thais are involved, lèse majesté does not get as much attention. But one case that has entranced the international press involved student activist and social critic, Chotisak Onsoong. Earlier this year he was charged with lèse majesté after refusing to stand during the playing of the king’s anthem at a Bangkok cinema. Almost unique among recent lèse majesté cases, Chotisak welcomed the charge with further acts of public defiance.

The view of the king himself on lèse majesté is not completely clear. In his 2005 birthday speech he cautioned against the over-exuberant use of this criminal provision. Nonetheless many factions within the Thai elite continue to indulge in episodes of lèse majesté accusation and counter-accusation to score political points.

The king’s formidable media management apparatus is apparently comfortable with this situation. While he may have some personal reservations, the king has yet to make any explicit recommendation that lèse majesté be abolished. Perhaps it remains too useful as a tool for stifling open public debate about the role of the royal family in national political and economic life. Lèse majesté helps guarantee an unrelenting public diet of positive royal news.

In Thailand, it is even hard to report the details of a lèse majesté charge without fear of sanction. Detailed reporting runs the risk of repeating the offence. Self-censorship reigns. So Harry Nicolaides will be unlikely to ever see substantial details about his case published in the Thai media.

Hopefully foreign journalists will exercise their greater freedom to report on his predicament. Some, including the BBC’s Jonathan Head, The Age’s Peter Gregory, Reuters, the Associated Press and Reporters Without Borders have already made important contributions. But for the past two weeks there has been silence.

All reports suggest that the charge relates to a passage in an obscure book published by Nicolaides that describes the rather flamboyant private life of a Thai prince. This may have been an error of judgement on Nicolaides’ part but it does not, in any way, justify his current treatment. Respect for other country’s legal systems is all very well. But this is a law that silences Thais and foreigners alike. It prevents what we would regard as perfectly normal, if somewhat prurient, reporting on royal lives. More importantly, it muzzles public discussion of a range of issues that lie at the heart of Thailand’s ongoing political crisis.

The Australian media could be doing more to highlight the plight of Nicolaides and to open up broader regional discussion on this outdated taboo.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Finding the Border at Preah Vihear – Part 4

Bangkok Post Cartoon, July 31, 2008.

International Law's Strengths and Weaknesses Mitigating between Sovereigns.

International Law’s Limitations at Preah Vihear

Despite the very clear examples of how international law has proved to be both a preventive force and a forum for resolution, there are very serious limitations to its ability to mitigate conflict. The fact that 8000 Khmer and Thai troops are locked into a standoff at Preah Vihear clearly demonstrates that international law is struggling to contain the nationalist fueled standoff. And such a stalemate is a reflection of one of the primary paradoxes of international law – enforcement. Enforcing international law, such as the ICJ decision that awarded Preah Vihear to Cambodia, is only enforceable by the very states that are in conflict. If Cambodia and Thailand can reach an agreement they can enforce international law. If they don’t agree, there is no international law because there is no one to enforce it upon them.

This peculiarity of compliance can be seen in a 1962 letter regarding the ICJ Preah Vihear ruling from Thanat Khoman, the Thai Minster of Foreign Affairs, to the Acting Secretary General of the United Nations. Thanat wrote that Thailand disagreed with the ruling “but stating nonetheless that, as a member of the United Nations, His Majesty’s Government will honour the obligations incumbent upon it under the said decision in fulfillment of its undertaking under Article 94 of the Charter”[1] (Thanat, 1962). This acquiescence did come with a particular caveat though which stated that Thailand had the future right “to recover the Temple of Phra Viharn by having recourse to any existing or subsequently applicable legal process”.

At first glance such statements of compliance with the ICJ ruling might seem to suggest that the controversial border demarcation was grudgingly agreed upon by Thailand. But this is not necessarily the case. Thailand might be capitulating to objective social forces that international law represents but it is not submitting to a higher authority. This is because where there is neither mutual interest nor balance of power, there is no international law and Thailand is under neither a binding agreement nor subject to legal repercussions should they decided to annex the temple with military force.

When the ICJ ruled on Preah Vihear, the court had the United Nations Charter, Cambodian and Thai agreement to have the court adjudicate, and the court’s own reputation but does not have the agencies of enforcement apart from the agencies of the national governments. This makes the ruling something of an enforcement paradox. The court can rule, and rule with the highest political authority, but requires the belligerents to enforce their own submission. There is recourse to the Security Council under Article 94 of the UN Charter, should one of the one of the conflicting parties ignore the ICJ ruling, but, in the case of Preah Vihear, such an intervention is highly unlikely. And particularly with the prevailing mood of hate and fear that Thai nationalism has been wiping up, compliance to the ICJ ruling would be a self-inflicted wound that the current Thai government would certainly be weary of.


What remains as a salient indicator of adherence to international law is that Thailand, with its vastly larger and technologically superior army, has not simply annexed the temple during this latest confrontation. There are certainly other mitigating factors, such as trade and tourism disruptions, that might make Cambodia and Thailand reluctant to engage in armed conflict yet international law’s calming influence and dispute mechanisms are not just working to ease the conflict but defining the very parameters of the argument. The true test though will not only be to see if armed conflict can be avoided but will be to see a lasting resolution that will prevent future conflict between the two sovereign nations.

[1] Article 94 of the UN Charter states that members of the United Nations will comply with the decision of the International Court of Justice and that if a party does not comply, the other party has recourse to the Security Council.

Finding the Border at Preah Vihear - Part 3

Bangkok Post Cartoon, July 31, 2008.

International Law's Strengths and Weaknesses Mitigating between Sovereigns.

International Law's Strenghts

It should be understood that the original French/Siamese border demarcation was the creation of international law between two sovereign entities. Because there is no global sovereign to impose laws upon states, such border treaties are agreed between states as a matter of mutual self-interest. And despite the fact that disagreement has emerged, the struggle over Preah Vihear is still largely conducted through the mutual self-interested confines of international law. To understand the relationship between the Preah Vihear conflict and how it is being mediated by international law, the ICJ’s 1962 arbitration will be explored.

The ICJ was established in 1945 as the United Nations’ (UN) principle judicial mechanism and the court has general jurisdiction to resolve international legal disputes submitted to it on consent by states. The jurisdiction of the court is predicated upon signatory member states to the UN Charter who, under Article 93, are “ipso facto parties to the Statute of the International Court of Justice” and under Article 94, must “comply with the decisions of the International Court of Justice in any case to which it is a party”.

How the case of Preah Vihear arrived at the ICJ for adjudication was a result of Thai troops using the retreat of French colonialists around 1945 as an opportunity to assert its sovereignty over the temple. It should be noted that the temple’s location is remote to both Bangkok and Phnom Penh and there is considerable confusion as to when Thai troops or border police actually annexed the temple. This confusion can be found in the ICJ proceeding which relates a general lack of knowledge whether Thai troops occupied the temple in 1940, 1949, or 1954. This point should not be particularly surprising though. After the French demarcation and besides the previously mentioned diplomatic meeting between French colonial officers and the Thai Prince Damrong, both Thailand and Cambodia neglected to demonstrate any rituals of sovereignty over the temple and it was large abandoned by officials in what has been described as a ‘do-nothing sovereignty’ by both nations.

Yet once Thai troops began occupying the contested temple, the chaotic space between demarcated states had been exposed and revealed two contesting sovereign powers vying for control over the same space. With no higher law or global sovereign to exercise authority, the potential for violent conflict over contested territory is very real. This scenario is, indeed, a primary rational spawning international law. With two entities endowed with supreme authority within their own territories there is a need to ensure peace, or at least mitigate conflict, between the contesting sovereigns.

With the potential of armed conflict looming over ownership of Preah Vihear, both Cambodia and Thailand voluntarily submitted the conflict to the ICJ for arbitration. That both states consented to arbitration by the ICJ can be understood as a way of states cooperating and trying to create international law between the two countries. This mutual consent is essential because no international court can take jurisdiction over international disputes without the consent of the states concerned and is a reflection of the nature of the international system in which the ultimate sources of law in which a state will submit to are their own.

Such consensual submission of cases to the ICJ is also a reflection upon the courts specific type approach to finding sources of international law. In the Statute of the International Court of Justice, Article 38, sources of law are found in ‘international conventions’ and ‘international custom’ as well as ‘principles of law recognized by civilized nations’ and the ‘teachings of the most highly qualified publicists of the various nations, as a subsidiary means for the determination of rules of law’. This means that along with determining the law through searching established norms, the ICJ is not necessarily a law creating intuition, such as the common law determining Anglo-American courts, but a law finding court.

Such an emphasis upon finding sources of law rather than creating law can be found in the Preah Vihear case. Issues that were emphasized in the proceedings were the original border demarcation map, called Annex I, the customs of statehood such as formal meetings between representatives of both Thailand and Cambodia, and the advice of experts on demarcation. These topics can clearly be understood as analogous to subjects in Article 38. The map is analogous to ‘international conventions’, the meetings between governmental representatives parallels ‘international custom’ and the experts on border demarcation are the ‘qualified publicists’.

In regards to the value of mapping as an international convention between states, the ICJ understood the French produced map as an implied conventional agreement between Siam and France. This was because once the border was demarcated, the French order 1000 maps to be made in which they issued 50 for the Siamese government. During the intervening period before the ICJ hearing, Thailand appeared to acquiesce to the map’s accuracy and did not lodge a complaint over the fact that Preah Vihear was drawn inside the French Indochine. This has become a point of contention in the legal struggle over the temple because Thailand’s silence was interpreted by the court as concurrence with the French-drawn border and specifically as a tacit agreement with the international convention of an agreed border.

The ICJ also placed value upon interpreting the law in the international customs between governmental officials. The most significant event was a meeting between Prince Damrong, formerly the Thai Minister of the Interior, and French officials. When the Prince arrived at Preah Vihear, he was officially received by the French Resident Superior with French flag hoisted which the ICJ understood as a standard international custom between sovereign states. A clearer demonstration of ownership by the French can scarcely be imagined. It demanded action and yet Thailand did nothing. Like the Annex I map, without protest it was interpreted by the ICJ that Thailand was demonstrating tacit approval of Preah Vihear belonging in Cambodia.

The final factor, the ‘qualified publicists’ or experts, were drawn upon to interpret the technical points of the border’s actual demarcation. This reliance was articulated by one of the twelve judges, Mareno Quintana, who wrote “A layman in the matters with which the opinion of the experts was concerned as a judge generally is, he has to draw a legal conclusion from a piece of technical work which seems to carry conviction” (International Court of Justice, 1962). And such publicists, in the form of cartographers, gave testimony on the merits and accuracy of the map’s delineation. Specific issue was taken determining, with the expert’s opinions, the watershed lines and stream beds that would be used a demarcation points. And through one academic’s interpretation, such was the reliance of the court upon expert’s opinions, that the actual topographic realities surrounding Preah Vihear were convincingly misinterpreted by a cartographic expert representing Cambodia to such an extent that region’s streams and rivers reversed their course to favor a watershed line that would place the temple within Cambodian territory.

By the end of the ICJ proceedings, “The Court, by nine votes to three, finds that the Temple of Preah Vihear is situated in territory under the sovereignty of Cambodia” (International Court of Justice, 1962). Through the use of conventions, customs, and experts, the ICJ interpreted international law and created what has been the most important international law concerning ownership of the temple. And although the decision remains unpopular in Thailand, and which there are various complaints over the finer points of the proceedings, the precedent has been set and Thailand has bitterly acknowledged the ruling.

Although international law may have shortcomings that will be address in the next section, the very fact that the Preah Vihear issues is a border scuffle betrays just how deeply engrained international law is. That geo-political borders are the embodiment of, and rational for, the spawning of evermore detailed and practiced international laws to mitigate conflict in the chaos between sovereign demarcated entities is almost forgotten in the haze of the law’s normality normality. The politicized globe has carved imaginative nation-states across the earth and the world of delineated states has been naturalized as though each political demarcation was an actual, incontestable, geographic reality. Preah Vihear’s ownership is not simply being fought utilizing the mechanisms of international law but is being fought because of, and through, the paradigm of approximately 400 years of legal practice and precedent. Essentially, international law has become so deeply ingrained and normalized that its basic tenets, the borders and treaties, are virtually assumed to be natural and incontestable.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Dangerous Racist Nationalism

*all images copyright*
Rama 5 statue near Government House

Nationalism is a poison.

It might not have always been so as nations across Southeast Asia fought off the yoke of colonial oppression by harnessing the power of nationalism.

But it is a poison now that has reached such critical mass in Thailand that issues like the border conflict over Phra Vihear with Cambodia and the festering southern insurgency are perpetuated by Thai nationalism.

Essentially, close minded nationalists have prevented rational discourse on what Thailand is and who it represents to such an extent that the ability of the country to deal with conflict - like Phreah Vihear and the southern Insurgency - in a rational way is severely challenged.

So it is refreshing to see some people speaking out against the vile nationalist non-sense that Thai students are force-fed at their schools.

From the Bangkok Post:

What makes us proud of our country? At the Education Ministry, our patriotism is judged by how much we can memorise national history in textbooks as sacred fact written in stone.

That is why they are extremely worried about the future of patriotism here.

Despite the emphasis on rote learning to enforce conformity and to kill a questioning mind, the education authorities believe our children still cannot parrot well enough.

The future is bleak when many students still do not know about Pantai Norasingh, a popular folk hero who symbolises loyalty to the monarchy. Worse, the educators lament, many still do not know about King Naresuan who freed the Thais from Burmese rule.

The protracted save-the-country theatre at Government House does not convince these bigwigs that there is no shortage of ultra-nationalism here.

The spiralling southern violence cannot make them see that the crux of the problem lies in their version of nationalism, which states that only the dominant Buddhist Thais own the country. Nor can they see that if they insist on pushing this down the throats of the ethnic Malay Muslims, peace will remain out of reach.

Hence their plan to make children across the country parrot more of what they define as national history, what they equate as patriotism, which boils down to a dangerous racist nationalism in a conflict-ridden society where respect for cultural plurality remains indispensible for peace.

When I told my 12-year-old daughter of the Education Ministry's plans for her history classes next year, she screamed at the idea.

"Why do they want to put us through more boring hours? Why do they think we will love the country by remembering about battles, blood and death? Why is history so full of killing and scary events? What is the point of making us remember so many difficult names and dates? I just don't see any use of it."

Playing devil's advocate, I said we need to know about historical roots to know who we are so we can move forward confidently. The boredom may stem from how history classes are conducted, I suggested.

She defended her teacher vehemently. "We're allowed to do open-book quiz in class, which is fun. But the materials are boring."

"So what do you want to learn?" I pressed.

Civilisations, she said. Old civilisations in all parts of the world. How the pyramids were built, for example. When I pointed out that pyramids are not Thai, she just shrugged her shoulders.

When I asked if she wanted to learn how different geographical landscapes shaped different cultures and civilisations, how an ancient civilisation based on the salt industry in the Isan Plateau rose and fell, how it was replaced by principalities in the river basins which prospered from rain-fed rice cultivation, how different ethnicities in the region lived alongside one another since prehistoric times in this region and, closer to home, how true it was that Bangkok's roots were essentially Chinese - she cut me short.

"Anything, mummy. Anything is better than what it is now."

However boring, ultra-nationalism has still succeeded in seeping in to poison kids' minds. My daughter, for one, truly believes that Thailand once owned parts of our neighbouring countries, making us the greatest in this region.

"Because the textbooks say so."

Like most Thais, she feels Burma is fierce and heartless, Cambodia cannot be trusted and Laos is inferior to Thailand - because the history textbooks teach her so. And since national history only has room for ethnic Buddhists, she considers it an alien notion that other ethnic minorities must have equal rights to the dominant ethnic Thais in a democratic society.

She is only 12, I told myself. If others can rise above such ugly nationalism to understand how it makes us cruel and heartless, my girl can do it too, one day.

The Education Ministry may want to tighten the chains of racist nationalism, but any mother who cares for her children's humanity and peace in an increasingly tense multi-cultural world, will never give up the fight for it.

Neither will I.

"Dangerous Racist Nationalism" how apt.