Tuesday, May 25, 2010


This essay was first published in the Bangkok Post on May 24, 2010 as "The pain and sorrow of two cities in crisis"

September 11, 2001 might well have been the worst day ever in the history of New York, but it was pretty much just another day in Bangkok.

I was riding in a taxi from Soi Aree to Sukhumvit when I first got news that my hometown had been struck by some kind of shocking attack. The Thai driver, who had his radio on, was upset. Then he told me, in a kind and commiserating way, that a plane had hit New York's World Trade Center. I understood every word he said, but somehow it didn't add up. I tried to convince myself that I had misheard, so shocking was the news.

A short time later I was with a group of mostly American friends, watching TV in horror as the second tower came down. We found what scant comfort could be had at a time of a great human tragedy by obsessively searching for information on TV and online, commiserating quietly.

The next day I had to teach even though my mind was numb, still in mourning for my hometown, the news full of apocalyptic images. I took the skytrain from Soi Aree to Siam and walked to the faculty of communication arts at Chulalongkorn University. Before class, I heard some students chatting to one another in the hallway.

"Did you hear about the World Trade?"

"No. What happened?"

"A plane crashed into it."

"Taay leao! Right there in Ratchaprasong?"

"No, silly, World Trade Center in New York."

"Oh, you had me worried for a minute."

I said nothing, but the ignorance and apathy of the second speaker left me feeling sick. I went to the dark, air-conditioned faculty meeting room, where a group of students was gathered, watching TV. Finally I thought, someone who will understand. But they were watching a badminton match broadcast from Malaysia and were reluctant to change channels. Again, I felt a silent pain I couldn't express.

On my way back to my office, I saw a fellow ajarn in the hallway, choked up, with tears in his eyes. He said how sorry he was to hear the news from New York. He didn't say much, he didn't have to; he understood.

I felt reconnected with the human condition.

In the days that followed, I carried a sense of inner pain that wasn't easily translated. I was offended by what was and wasn't on Thai TV, at once not enough news, but too much sensationalism. But what really riled me was seeing a televised report of a hair styling contest in which one of the Thai contestants had her hair done up in a double beehive, representing two towers, complete with a toy plane crashing into one of them.

I stopped watching TV. But the newspapers by then were all reporting the callous words of then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who, when asked about the terror attacks on America, replied thus.

"Mai pen rai," said the prime minister, "rao pen klang." (We are neutral).

He said Thailand was neutral so it was no matter of concern.


Neutral between what two sides? Killing and being killed? Terrorists and victims of terror? What was there to be neutral about?

And even if Thailand didn't happen to be a close ally of the United States, wouldn't a word or two of sympathy be in order, just on humanitarian grounds?

Now Bangkok has been struck with a huge tragedy and in an odd parallel to 9/11, Bangkok's "World Trade Center", now renamed CentralWorld, has been hit so bad by arsonists it looks like the Pentagon after a jet crashed into it.

If my own feelings about New York, and my adopted home of Bangkok are any guide, it's not just a hole in a building, but a hole in the heart of the city. And the photo of a tattered Thai flag and wide-eyed modernist statue backed by the gutted building will no doubt become an icon of the shock and pain for many.

What has happened in Bangkok in recent weeks has created an open, gaping wound that will take years to repair.

For many Thais, foreign news coverage of domestic turmoil rubs salt in an open wound, especially when it is rife with error, lacks balance, makes sensational claims and tries to fit Thailand's tragedy into simplistic narrative frames in between frequent commercials. CNN, which seems to work on the assumption that anti-government forces are always right, even during riots (except in the US), gives undue airtime to overly made-up, puffy-haired announcers with fancy graphics tools who make ignorant comments about Thailand.

No better are the surprisingly insensitive comments about the torching of Bangkok made by famous academics, such as "All of this is justified", or "The farmers of Thailand have stood up!"

Just what farmers would that be in reference to?

Much of the academic comment to date reeks more of intramural red versus yellow intrigue akin to a heated sports match than a heartfelt concern for people on the ground.

As I came to understand after 9/11, even trivial comments hurt people when they are down.

There was a sense then, and now, of disbelief. If only it were a dream, or if one could turn back the hands of time, but you wake up each day and the hard truth is still there.

But time does heal, and facing the truth squarely does help. New Yorkers were distraught, at times riven with rage and riled up by callous comments made by cavalier commentators who chose to see 9/11 as just desserts or as someone else's problem.

US President Barack Obama has been prudently silent, despite the efforts of Thaksin's lawyer/PR flack who is angling to extract a trumped up "human rights" condemnation of Thailand at a time when the country that offered to come to Lincoln's help with a supply of elephants during the US Civil War requires the understanding of an old friend.

After 9/11, New Yorkers got back to their lives and eventually the tragedy was put into perspective and taken in stride.

Best of all, New Yorkers emerged from the political crisis as open and big-hearted, tolerant and as cosmopolitan as ever.

New Yorkers discovered that terror ceases to intimidate and divide when hatred and fear are let go of and people instead come to grips with the problem in a way that allows them to fortify their spirit while getting on with their lives.

At a time in the life of my country when I required quiet commiseration and understanding, many individuals in Thailand, including a taxi driver, my students and my colleagues at Chula, reached out with quiet understanding.

I wish to share the same sentiment with the good citizens of Bangkok and the provinces who have been hurt by recent events and are still reeling with shock, sadness and disbelief.

Philip J Cunningham is a freelance writer and political commentator Read more on this article...

Monday, May 17, 2010



(published in the Asia-Pacific Journal on May 17, 2010 as "The Long Winding Red Road to Ratchaprasong and Thailand’s Future")


The sniper shooting of Seh Daeng, Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol, on May 13, 2010 by an unknown assailant while chatting with foreign reporters has brought to rupture the standoff between Reds and Yellows in the heart of Bangkok and signals a new stage in the movement and its repression. Seh Daeng, whose nickname means “red commander”, was the reddest of the red shirts, while his daughter, now at his side in the hospital, is a staunch supporter of the yellow shirts, illustrative of the convoluted politics of the era. To better put in context the convoluted politics of the present day, and to identify some of the key heroes and villains and historic reference points being talked about on both sides of the barricades in Bangkok, a brief review of Thai social activism follows

The road to the red-shirt takeover of the Ratchaprasong intersection in the heart of Bangkok’s busiest shopping district is a long and winding one. Political activists are not unlike historians in that they frequently point to events in the past to understand what is happening in the present. For the sake of context, a few milestones on Thailand’s bloody road to democracy will be introduced to better understand the democratic and revolutionary claims and pretensions of the red and yellow shirted activists today.

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Thursday, May 13, 2010


by philip j cunningham

Thanks to internet technology and the media savvy of the money people backing Thailand’s combative red shirts, it is possible to take a virtual seat right in front of the rebel stage at Rajprasong and listen to speeches, live music and public service announcements morning, noon and night.

The camera focus is usually steady and tight, making it impossible for the virtual observer to judge the size, mood or makeup of the crowd, let alone sense the heat, chaos, confusion and odors of the gathering, but one gets a good sense of performer personality and talent, with varied gifts of gab and occasionally outright inspiring rhetoric.

For the key speakers, their fame as activists precedes them. Nattawut Saikua and Jatuporn Promphan and Wisa Khanthap are among best word-slingers and deservedly get the prime time slots.

Other orators sound rather shrill and humorless, as they repeat the rote, but ever shifting, party line espoused by “The Core.” One day it might be a call to end martial law, another day an absurd complaint about Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban going to have a coffee with the police instead of putting himself under arrest.

(from Bangkok Post, May 13, 2010)

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Monday, May 3, 2010


(from the Bangkok Post, "Where lies the truth amid the mendacity?" May 3, 2010)

by Philip J Cunningham

I watch the unfolding of massive street protests in Bangkok from a geographic distance, but not without emotional identification as I work from a library, putting the finishing touches on a paperback version of a book about the Tiananmen student protests of 1989.

Flamboyant Maj-Gen Khattiya Sawasdipol has compared the red shirts to the students at Tiananmen, one of many careless comments that serves to obscure rather than illuminate what is really motivating the protesters.

Suffice to say the Beijing students, provocative though they were, relied entirely on peaceful expression and carried no weapons --not slingshots, not M79 grenades, not spears, not clubs-- and though agents provocateurs did appear as if from nowhere during the orgy of violence of the June 4 crackdown itself, there were no black-clad Ninja hiding behind civilian shields, aiming their guns and rifles at military targets.

It's a terrible challenge to understand what's happening on the streets of Bangkok, and there's scant comfort in noting that almost no observer, whether on the scene, in the academy, in the newsroom or barracks or halls of governance seems to have a clear grasp of what's going on either.

Impatience for a crackdown is palpable, though there is still a chance for patient, peaceful measures to work. A bloodbath cannot be entirely discounted, especially if the military acts peremptorily in reaction to perceived divisions within its ranks or simply by being goaded into a merciless show of force.

(to read the entire text, please follow the link here) Read more on this article...