Confessions of a shopaholic?

Saw this interesting study mentioned by Bangkok Pandit. It’s a PhD thesis written by an Australian girl of Khmer ethnicity and it’s called “Thai urban middle class and urban-rural divide” and BP gives a very enticing bites from the abstract and the conclusion.

Accordingly, I argue that the notion of the ‘urban-rural divide’ popularly used to describe the conflict obscures a more complex reality in which city and countryside are linked by reciprocal relations within both urban and national systems of status and class.

Hmm, tasty.

I immediately followed the link and prepared for some real serious reading. This was just in the first paragraph:

My investigations suggest that an indigenous spatial-symbolic matrix, encapsulated in centralising and hierarchising mandalic principles, continues to inform both cultural understandings of stratification and the socio-spatial structure of Bangkok.

However, once I passed beyond the abstract it turned into something else entirely. For the next thirty pages or so it’s all about shopping, shopping, and more shopping. I swear there isn’t a page so far that doesn’t mention shopping in one way or another.

I think her own description of her research should be presented before one gets too excited about her conclusions:

Finding opportunities to engage in participant-observation in order to research consumption is none too difficult in a city where shopping is less an activity and more a way of life….I spent inordinate amounts of time in such places, either conducting surveys, engaging in observation, or accompanying friends and informants as they went about their daily lives…

“Friends and informants” are mentioned in her acknowledgment chapter: “Christine, My, Pamela, Pooh, Wolfie, Paul, and Sean” – I suspect at least one of them is actually a dog, but maybe not, maybe the dog was her research assistant who didn’t even deserve to get her name mentioned:

“My research assistant accompanied me without complaint to the most unlikely places to conduct research, tirelessly helped me find informants, and provided perceptive observations of her own. Her contributions have extended well beyond the call of duty.”

She was in Thailand for a grand total of eighteen months.

Generally it’s a very easy read, the acknowledgment chapter I mentioned could be mistaken for some blonde bimbo reception speech at MTV pop-tart of the year award but it doesn’t diminish her originality in any way. She has plenty of cultural references that are immediately recognizable by any Bangkokian and, though not hilarious, point to a good sense of humor and observation skills.

I would recommend this paper to everybody, even if only for laughs.

Hopefully I’ll get to the heavy stuff before I lose interest, it can’t be all about shopping for 300+ pages, can it?

Oh, shit, research assistant was not a dog, found her mentioned again, on page 35: “Mali was approximately the same age as myself and had trained in the social sciences (linguistics and comparative politics) at preeminent London universities.”

Though choosing verb “trained” rather than “studied” is still suspicious.

Avatar review

Avatar is by far the must see movie of 2009. It’s simply mind blowing.

I’ve watched it twice already, first in regular 3D and then on “proper” Imax, both at Siam Paragon.

No idea how it would look on a non-3D screen, I suspect a lot of visual appeal will be lost. Imax also had superior sound with chairs literally shaking during heavy machine gun fire. On the other hand, the 4:3 screen ratio on Imax was disappointing. I’ve seen a blurb somewhere that Cameron thought cutting off sides would be better for 3D viewing but in my opinion there’s so much more detail on a wide screen that 4:3 cut takes away a lot of wow factor.

Either way, visually it’s a feast, especially the Pandora itself. From floating rocks to seeds of the sacred tree to animals and insects, it’s just awesome. I’m going to watch it again at least once before it goes off the screens – it won’t be the same on the TV once the dvd/blueray comes out.

Having said that, there were several let downs. Cameron is a great director but his stories don’t live to to his technical skills. I won’t judge if this story is as emotionally compelling as Titanic, it certainly has its tear jerking moments, but it could have been so much more. Once the emotional high has passed and I started to think about it rationally it looked shallow, boring and predictable.

Without giving the plot away beyond of what is in the trailers, the decision to fight the earth army back was clearly a rather childish kindergarten sandbox reaction. At first I thought Jake Sully had a real plan for this conflict resolution, for two sides getting a solution based on mutual respect but no, he’s just a marine, they don’t do thinking and negotiations even if the basic conditions are there – after all the “skypeople”, the earthlings, wanted the resources that natives didn’t use themselves, surely they could have found a way to co-exist and maintain the same “balance” that Ewa, some sort of Pandora deity, was so much concerned about.

It wasn’t even the Earth army, it was a private security force for a mining company, any win would be only temporary, skypeople would surely come back and put the native rebellion down. Bows and arrows and local wildlife can save the day once, maybe twice, but ultimately they are doomed anyway. They are fighting progress, and progress is unstoppable.

That brings us to another aspect – “paradise” vs “progress”. The story assumes that paradise is better, that Pandora should be left alone, that it’s perfect as it is, that once you get to know it, like Jake did, you’d appreciate its beauty and even fight to protect it. One problem, though – in order to fight you need some sort of a progress anyway – you need better weapons, better organization, and you need strong passion and propaganda machine, you need to compete with other civilizations. Once you start on this path your paradise is as good as gone.

It’s nice to be a “self-sufficient” hunter on some little known planet but only if that planet has been designated and protected as a spa resort or a monastery, not if it happens to be on the front line of human endeavor to conquer the nature. Greens might rage against it all they want but it’s a fact of life and they’d better learn to live with it, and so do Na’vee Pandorians.

That brings us to the culture of Na’vee themselves – what do they do with their lives? What do they do beyond eating and procreating? What makes them different from the animals they hunt? They all, Na’vee and the animals, seem to be equally aware of “Ewa” and their places in the “balance” scheme of things, so that’s nothing special either. In fact Na’vee seem to be aware of the concept of “progress” and their elevated status among species on their planet, they are essentially at the stage the Earth civilization passed through thousands if not millions years ago and as such they don’t offer any alternative modes of development.

Surely we can learn something from them but it’s not going to change the essence of what our civilization is all about, and one remarkable thing about it is that it’s very adaptable. Even if skypeople come back and conquer Pandora, the episode will be registered and our civilization will learn from it and be more considerate next time. I bet “we” are even more concerned about preserving places like Pandora than Pandorians themselves. They just go to war, provoking destructive forces they can’t stop, and they risk losing the whole planet to their little emotional outburst. Savages, indeed. They yet to learn to control themselves when passions rise. We had a lot more experience with wars and their outcomes, they should learn our history if they have nothing to relate their situation to.

About “savages” label – while only war mongering skypeople used the term in the movie, Jake Sully, the convert himself, related to them like to savages, too. He had no second thoughts in treating them like a clueless tribe that had no idea what they were getting themselves into, he knew that Na’vee had to be saved from making fatal mistakes, but eventually he also gave up and resorted to war, and, for all their assumed enlightenment it that was apparently the only option they could think up themselves, too.

That brings us to “Ewa” and its role in this mess. In Na’vee’s words Ewa is a combined consciousness of all living beings ever lived, in science words it was a network of whatever Pandorian trees have for brains, and it has more connections than a human brain (the whole planet beats one single human brain? Duh). In Na’vee’s words Ewa is interested in maintaining the balance, it doesn’t take sides. Fine, but then it was clearly a local phenomenon as it didn’t take into account the existence of skypeople and their aspirations, it clearly took sides when the battle started. A bit disappointing, religion wise. Here, on Earth, we have a concept of God that rules the whole universe and every living creature on every planet, and, as such, if he is interested in maintaining balance he’d have no problem in settling Skypeople vs Na’vee dispute. I could say that in the end the war mongering skypeople got what they deserved by OUR God rules, not by Ewa’s, which makes Na’vee alleged superiority questionable again.

Also it was no problem for an earthling to achieve highest position in Na’vee society in three months but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t work the other way. So here the Earth is superior again.

I think the main lesson we should learn from this story is something along the lines of responsibility and sustainable development, not about bliss of sitting under trees and singing Kumbalaya.

What if we compare this story to the West vs Thailand? Well, for one thing, Thais have learned how to walk the fine line and have the best of the both worlds. When colonial powers came knocking on Thai doors, Thais have managed to placate them and save their independence, and so far they seem to resist “soft” colonialism rather well, keeping their cultural identity under the onslaught of all things “farang”. They were smart enough not to go to war they couldn’t possibly win, and they are smart enough to maintain their “privileged” status now, though at times I think they are paying only the lip service, equally to “imported” development and homegrown Buddhism.

Rakesh bites the dust

At this moment it’s not clear whether he’s being flown back to Thailand already, with local TV saying that he’ll be here in the evening, but by all accounts he’s lost his long extradition battle, even if he hangs on for a while.

It’s over.

When he fled Thailand over ten years ago his main line of defense was that Thailand is a third world lawless country unsafe for high profile white collar criminals like him. Back then it probably made sense, but not anymore.

In paper Nation the Canadian judge Mackenzie, who apparently ruled against the appeal last time, is quoted as saying that in all these years Rakesh hasn’t presented any evidence that he’d be facing maltreatment at the hands of Thai authorities, and that for the first eight years Rakesh was released on bail under “unusual” terms. These quotes do not appear in any  articles on their website, however.

The Supreme Court denied the request for hearings yesterday, so the game is over, with Saxena himself quoted by Thanong:

“If Leave is not granted, the legal process technically comes to a close… then nobody can do anything about it.”

There are several implications from this extradition. After the coup he thought he’d be safe forever. Didn’t work. Apparently the velvet coup didn’t make the same impression on the judges there as on anti-coup activists here. Pro-Thaksin folks were giving Rakesh as an example that Thaksin will never be extradited after he fled.  The extradition would surely send a warning to Thaksin.

I don’t think he ever wanted to follow Rakesh, who was under house arrest for years, so he’s hopping from one banana republic to another – Nicaragua, Fiji, Swaziland – wherever there’s a coup and some madman emerges as a dictatorial ruler, Thaksin will sure pay a visit and ask for shelter. With Rakesh extradited and Polanski being detained in Switzerland, Thaksin will be dead scared to go anywhere close to respectable Western countries.

Locally, there were people who got those Rakesh loans back in the 90s and who might get under unwanted spotlight, particulalry Newin and Banharn must have their heart skip a bit or two. Some Democrats are already sharpening their knives, though relying on people turning their backs on Newin or Banharn just because they are corrupt is a pipe dream. The bond between these two and their supporters won’t be destroyed because of some silly things like taking money from banks. It’s not a crime against the voters themselves, they won’t care. It would clip Newin’s dreams of expanding beyond lower Isan, however. His “buses from hell” project didn’t endear him to Bangkokians, and connection with Rakesh won’t help either.

I don’t think there will be any serious fallout – Dems would just use it as bargaining chip to keep Newin in line. They are not going to abandon him unless they are sure they could cobble up a ruling coalition on their own.

All in all it’s only Thaksin who is left outside while the rest of the gang find the ways to weather the storm together. Rakkiat being released on parole is another message that Thaksin should accept his fate just like everybody else.

The good news is that Thailand has apparently shed the image of a backwater banana republic, even with the coup and all.

Abhisit must be happy to put away the fears about his legitimacy, if he ever had any, too.

South Park Wisdom

Just watched the latest episode, Whale Whores, it’s about Japanese dudes killing whales and dolphins, and ruining Stan’s birthday in the process. So Stan goes to rally his friends to do something about it but Kyles just retorts: “It’s not like we can the change the way the entire country thinks. I don’t like it, but it’s just the way they are”. Stan, of course, disagrees, but it’s something foreign commentators on Thai politics should take into account – it’s just the way they are.

In 2003 the govt unleashed a drug war and lots of people were simply killed, allegedly by fellow drug traffickers, but it’s the attitude of the entire country that was shocking – there was massive popular support, and no one showed any mercy to suspects being gunned down in the streets in the broad daylight. Some monks approved of it, and some singers composed songs about it.

There were several attempts to investigate those murders and link them to Thaksin, but even after the coup those investigations went nowhere. That gave a lot of ammunition to anti-coup campaigners because the reason they assumed was that there were too many anti-Thaksin elites involved in the drug war as well. I don’t remember any particular names or any presented evidence, but the way the chief anti-drug war campaigner and investigator Kriengsak Choonhavan let it go without any statement does make it look suspicious – if there were names besides Thaksin, they were not meant for the general public knowledge.

I, personally, don’t believe in this conspiracy theory, even it seems plausible. It might not be the uncovered names but the general lack of enthusiasm that killed those investigations. No one would admit to anything and everyone would just ignore this seemingly noble cause. There were certainly no whistle blowers in the corridors of power, no one felt strongly about the “injustice”.

That’s just the way they are.

There’s no unconditional right to live here,  every situation is judged on its own merits, some people deserve to die regardless of the “due process”. And the due process is probably the last thing people would rely upon if they search for justice, they would probably rely on trusted sources outside officialdom. Everybody in the neighborhood knew who the drug dealers were and when they were killed no one shed a tear, let alone complain about some judicial ideas like presumption of innocence.

My point being – don’t get worked up over Thais not displaying the usual indignation when something illegal happens, like the coup or the drug war. If justice has been served in their eyes, they don’t care much how it came about.  So when some activists start their arguments with “the coup was illegal”, half the country doesn’t get it: “Generals did the right thing in removing Thaksin. Justice has been served. What’s the problem?” , and the other half wouldn’t mind another coup if it went their way and reinstalled Thaksin.

It’s just the way they are, and it doesn’t mean they don’t care about justice or fairness, they just look for it in different places. More on this topic later.

If it appears that I’m lecturing here – I put this post in “Fundamentals” category, it’s where I come from, it’s here to better understand why I form certain opinions on current events.

Hello world!

Let’s go over some fundamentals first.

 

The world is perfect, Thai politics are perfect, there’s nothing to improve. Really.

 

The world and Thai politics in particular serve their purposes just fine. The problem is that we want something different out of it.

To the folks who’d protest that it can’t be fine, that people are suffering as a result of this mess, my answer is – people would suffer anyway. In Bhagavad Gita there was this guy, Arjuna, and he was going into a battle against half of his relatives. So he hesitated – people he cared about very much would be killed.  He was given a simple, and profound answer – they are already dead, you just don’t know it yet. Your job is to go out and do whatever you have to do, and don’t worry whether they live or die – God will sort it out himself, that’s his job, and he is better than you at balancing people’s karma anyway. In fact he is perfect at whatever he is doing, by definition.

 

So, having this attitude in mind, what should we do about Thai politics?  On one hand, if there’s God’s design for it and he’s watching over – then everything is fine, he can’t be wrong. On the other hand, if it sounds so fatalistic – why should we, I, bother at all? Well, I feel like I’m doing something useful here, that it’s kind of “my job”, so, regardless of the outcome, I’m happy I’m doing this, just for the sake of making effort. I’d feel inadequate writing a blog on flowers, or motoring, or scuba diving instead. It just wouldn’t be right.

 

Generally I apply the same standard to anything else – if people are doing something  because they genuinely feel like they have to, that it’s the “right thing” – I support them wholeheartedly. If they have ulterior motives – that’s the reality of life. Everybody has ulterior motives, all the time, the difference is in the degree and people’s own awareness of what is right and what is wrong, of the voice of their own consciousness, even if they are too weak to follow it.

 

So, the task is to keep the absolute, unattainable goal in mind, and navigate the dirty world of politics at the same time, making choices and backing one side over another.

 

Let’s see how it goes.