Letter From Thailand

Insurgent Notes heard from a friend in Bangkok on December 19th. He began by likening the current confrontation between the Greens and the Blues there to episodes in the history of Byzantium.

Everything (well almost everything) is like the Blues and the Greens in Old Byzantium. People here talk one way in private and another in public. The real reason for this is the lese majeste here which is worse than anywhere else I can think of. You can get 20 years in jail if you pipe up. In private, all groups are talking and thinking about the impending demise of the monarch and even the monarchy, and planning about how and when to get going for the immediate future.

The Greens and Blues in Byzantium originated as two sets of gamblers in one of the big Hippodromes, with regard to horse-racing and other stupidities. The jockeys were made to dress in one or other of the colours, and the ‘fans’ did the same. But from there, it was a struggle for power between political cliques in and about the Imperial Palace. It was a mixture of conspiracy, gambling, power struggles within the oligarchic elements and popular entertainment and demagoguery. It is more or less like that here. Characteristically, everyone uses the word ‘mop’ (Thai pronunciation of mob) with no negative nuances at all. Our Mop and their Mop. The two big parties are all built on patronage, local political dynasties, ruthless methods, and unbelievable corruption.

Neither has anything in mind except money and power and of course ‘the military.’ Plenty of nationalist fanatics around. The weirdest part of this hippodrome is the cross-cutting of interests. When Thaksin[1] started his time as PM, he was substantially helped by a small group of leftists and ex-leftists who came from middle class families, and when the Communist Party collapsed thanks to the war between China and Vietnam, they took advantage of a general amnesty, but still with leftist ideas. The biggest thing they did was to get Thaksin to create a public health program, which forced doctors and quacks to charge the poor and the remote no more than one dollar for treatment. No previous government had ever dreamed of anything like this. Needless to say many small town and rural doctors got into their cars and rushed to work in Bangkok. But the poor have a strong memory of this policy and they form one big basis for Thaksin’s rapid ride to power. Then the irony showed up when Thaksin became far and away the richest citizen in the country, a position he obtained largely by insider moves and plenty of corruption. Only the monarch had that kind of money. In Forbes, he is still far and away the richest monarch in the world, at 30 billion dollars, followed by the Sultan of Brunei (20 billion, thanks to Shell), the King of Saudi Arabia (18), a string of Gulf Emirates, and the money-laundering micro-monarchies of Monaco and Lichtenstein. No Liz, no Japanese Emperor without an Empire, no Scandinavians, no Low Lands, not even Spain. But the king here is a born miser, so hasn’t done what Thaksin did with his ill-gotten gains. He knows how to use his money, especially in putting the leash on a large crowd of local dynasties, but not destroying them, rather making them work for him in election times. So there is the weird situation in that the poor and the rural population adore the secular billionaire while the mega-city middle class, aka bourgeoisie, adore the magical billionaire. But the magical one is close to his last days, and the family is a big mess. What the bourgeoisie get furious about is Thaksin’s manufactured mega-projects, most of them needless, and paid for by the existing tax-regime. Plus the inevitable high corruption for these projects. When Thaksin ordered each provincial governor to send him their lists of local drug dealers, which they killed just like that (later many of the dead turned out not to be drug dealers at all, and of course no drug-mafiosos were touched.) this didn’t bother the bourgeoisie at all. Then there followed a horrible campaign to suppress the uprising of Malay-speaking “Thai citizens” in the Far South, which only made the rebels more violent, and better trained and armed. It’s been going on without an end for the past decade. Bourgeoisie: who cares about the goddamn Islamic Malays? Meantime, Thaksin’s base turned out not to care a damn about the Far South either. They are naturally interested in trouble in the North and Northeast.

The Greens have historically had a strong base in the Near South (also who cares about the Far South), while the Blues share the feeling. One can think about the situation as an example of class conflicts, and one wouldn’t be wrong at all. But there is no nation-wide radicalism, almost all the Greens are obsessed with their own regions. The present cabinet is full of thugs, and only one of the genuine radical leaders is placed highly; all the others are local dynasties. Thaksin himself gave them a perfect example to follow. When he was PM, he announced that he couldn’t trust anyone who wasn’t a relative, so he gave high posts in the military, the police, the ministries, etc. to siblings, cousins, in-laws, on a scale never seen before, at least since the overthrow of the absolutist monarch in 1932. At bottom the big ruthless and demagogic struggle is between the Old Rich and the New Rich for domination. Very, very sad.

Part Two

The pivot right now is the Bangkok Sino-Thai bourgeoisie, who are in a strange position. They have been on the rise since the 1910s, but only came into their political own after the violent crushing of the Bangkok left after 1974. The key was the development of the Grand Banks of Bangkok, which quickly created branches in almost all provincial towns, ready to lend money for any local dynast. Lots of financial power, but very little connection to Thai culture or Thai feudalism. They know almost nothing about thriving Thai folklore, legends, oral histories, and so on, so they only watch American, Taiwanese, and Chinese movies. The basically Thai underclass, even when forced financially to work at low rates in Bangkok, thinks always about “going home.” But this is not in the culture of the Sino-Thai, who think mainly about “moving up,” no home needed. A bit like Peru where the rulers think and talk in bad Spanish, while the masses speak Quechua. Many young Sino-Thai radical kids were pushed to be radical partly because they were ashamed of their parents, and wanted to be “truly Thai."

The bourgeoisie loves the Monarch, because only with the granting of feudal statuses from on high, can they really keep moving up.

A true story: about two years ago, I got into a taxi to go to the airport. The driver was an elderly Chinese, quite proud of his origins in Bangkok’s Chinatown. Most taxi drivers then were wildly pro-Thaksin; when I asked him about his views, I expected only the usual. But No! He said: “You think I support Thaksin because I am a taxi driver. But you are wrong. I am a Hakka and so is Thaksin. We Hakka are the only brave Chinese. We never let our women to suffer the torture of their feet being crushed. We led the great revolutionary uprising in the 1850s which would have overthrown the Manchu dynasts if the Whites didn’t give Peking a lot of arms and money. We Hakkas are brave, tough, honest, hardworking, and creative. That’s why I support him.” I was curious, so asked what he thought about the leader of the Democrat Party. “He is a typical Hokkien, arriving in Thailand from Vietnam two generations ago. The Hokkien are real fuckers, liars, cowards, big talkers, arrogant, treacherous…. etc.” “How about the ultra right-wing movement?” “Their leader is an immoral right-wing asshole (Sondhi Llim). He comes from the island of Hainan, and is a real Hailamese. These people are dirty, cowardly, opportunist, lazy, treacherous…….” At that point I had the courage to ask about the Monarch. The family is from the Techiu, historically a small, unimportant offshoot of the Hokkien. They say they are real Thais but actually they are not, and their Chinese clan name is Ma (Horse). They are like a mini version of the Hokkiens.” I said that you haven’t said a word about the rural Thai. “They are nice people, but they are satisfied if they have good food to eat, plenty of alcohol, and ditto for sex. They have no politics.” “But doesn’t this indicate,” I ventured, “that your view of politics in Thailand is like the classic Three Kingdoms? Can this be true?” “Well yes, the Hakkas, Hailamese, Cantonese, Hokkiens and Techius, control every institution that is important."

The interesting thing is that in Thai open politics you can slug your way oratorically by denouncing your enemies as: crooks, exploiters, greedy politicians, homosexuals, un-Thai, coup-plotters, womanizers, slaves of Hollywood, etc., etc. The one thing that can never be said is “You are a m-fucking Chink.” This is the only agreement by all the power hungries, rather like the French politicians who agreed not to let the press get at their prostitutes, mistresses, etc., etc. What’s (Marxistically speaking) interesting is that the bourgeoisie doesn’t come out of socio-economic changes within a nation, but is an immigrant class, which is also half proud of China and half afraid of Peking. You can in the same way think about the Philippines, where almost all the Presidents have been Sino-Filipino, but never say so, and, of course Singapore, a Hakka dictatorship. Weird, but fascinating!

  1. [1]Thaksin Shinawatra is a Thai business tycoon turned politician. He was Prime Minister from 2001 until 2006, when he was overthrown a military coup. He has lived in exile since then. He was convicted by the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions of abusing his power to help his wife buy public land at an auction. Further corruption charges await him if he returns. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is the current Prime Minister of Thailand.


3 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Pete,

    In Thailand it’s the reds and the yellows not blues and greens.

  2. Elvin,

    This article is strange enough to wonder if it’s a joke. The problem is not just the colors (reds and yellow or blue and green). At least one other is: what exactly does ‘Hokkien’ mean here?

    ‘Techiu’ = 潮州 [ie Chaozhou]. It makes no sense to say that this group is ‘historically a small, unimportant offshoot of the Hokkien’.

    Wikipedia: ‘Slightly more than half of the ethnic Chinese population in Thailand trace their ancestry to the Chaozhou prefecture in eastern Guangdong. This is evidenced by the prevalence of the Minnan Chaozhou dialect among the Chinese in Thailand. A minority trace their ancestry to Hakka and Hainanese immigrants. ‘

    and ‘The Teochew [ie Chaozhou] dialect of Chinese has served as the language of Bangkok’s influential Chinese merchants’ circles since the foundation of the city in the 18th century. ‘

    and: ‘The vast majority of the Thai Chinese belong to various southern Chinese dialect groups. Of these, 56% are Teochew (also commonly spelled as Teochiu [ie Chaozhou]), 16% Hakka and 11% Hainanese. The Cantonese and Hokkien each constitute 7% of the Chinese population, and 3% belong to other Chinese dialect groups.’

    In other words, persons of Hokkien descent are a very small part of the Thai Chinese population; those from Chaozhou (‘Techiu’ etc) are a very big part.

  3. Juan Etcheberria,

    Bangkok taxi-drivers are not noted for this degree of fluency in English — so, the question arises: exactly in what language was this purported conversation conducted? In Thai? In Hakka? In Mandarin???. His spelling of ‘Hainanese’ as ‘Hailanese’ suggests the writer does not differentiate [n] and [l] in syllable-initial position; this is not something that occurs in English. The Thai word for ‘Hainan’ (ไหหลำ) does have ( ) rather than in that position, which this can also be the case with many varieties of Southern Sinitic where initial [n] and [l] are not differentiated. As for the curious spelling ‘Techiu’ with its monophthongal , this is apparently a transliteration of Thai ‘ดูแต้จิ๋ว’.

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