[These pieces appeared in the Year 2000 supplements]
Siam’s last millennium
Siam had its last millennium in April 1639. The Ayutthaya kingdom used the Chula Sakkarat calendar which turned 1001 on that date. As the royal chronicles relate, King Prasat Thong was worried this millennium would usher in an "Age of Evil throughout countries large and small". He consulted his advisers. Easy, they said. The King must "expunge the past" by introducing a new calendar. In that way "all of the capitals, countries, cities, districts and villages will enjoy happiness as extensive and complete" as in the past. The King readily agreed. But then he had his own reasons for expunging the past. He had come to power by coup. He had only just finished disposing of five of his predecessor’s sons.
Wiping clean a thousand years of history needed quite an investment. Artisans were put to work reparing over 120 temples in the capital, creating a shortage of building materials. Outside the Ayutthaya palace, they built Mount Meru, the mountain at the centre of the universe. Around it they set specially made figures of devils, giants, angels, musicians, sages, birds and serpents. At each of the eight points of the compass, they set the figure of an elephant, each in a different colour. Between each two elephants stood the figure of a horse king. Round of all of this they set up flags, banners, sugarcane, umbrellas, banana fronds and flowers.
On the great day, the soldiers and fire-service were drawn up all around the ground. Monks came and chanted. The court Brahmans dressed up as the gods of fire, water, storm, wind, moon, sun and all the Hindu pantheon. Two sheets of gold, representing the new and old eras, were placed on the mountain. Musicians blew conches, banged drums and gonged gongs. The King arrived on his gold-decorated palanquin, ascended Mount Meru, and "erased the era" with a wave of his hand.
On the next day, the King had all the streets swept and repaired. He circulated the city on his elephant, scattering silver as alms to the beggars. The event ended with a three-day fair which the chronicles assure us was "an exceptionally magnificent affair".
Pleased with all of this, the King sent off a missive to the ruler of Burma in Ava suggesting he should adopt this new calendar to avoid millennial catastrophe. One year later, a Burmese embassy arrived back with the answer. Very politely, the Burmese King noted that they "had already used the original era for many generations of kings". If they changed, "We fear We would be confused".
King Prasat Thong was not pleased by this answer. The Burmese embassy was thrown out on its ear. The King raged: "If the wretched Burmese won’t follow us, forget it!" The new calendar was quietly forgotten. Siam survived.
Amendment to the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand, 2005.
Elections to the Assembly will take place under five methods.
a. Party list. Electors will first vote to decide how many members will be returned by each party. Following that, prospective candidates will enter into open bidding for places on each party list. This is a reversal of the current practice which is considered unfair to candidates.
b. Dynastic list. Candidacies are reserved for bona fide sons and daughter of former MPs by a major wife. Selection will be decided by a computer model which awards points for: victory in bar brawls; discreet land deals on behalf of parents; proven ingenuity in electoral corruption; etc, etc.
c. Scandal list. This reservation recognises the important role which backbench MPs play as national entertainers. Successful candidates must be able to prove one or more of the following: ownership of a large house on reserved forestry land; forged educational qualifications; forged documents to evade military conscription or to enter police service; ownership of an illegally imported car or CD copying machinery; photographic evidence of association with German gangsters; personal driver involved in brokering position-buying in bureaucracy.
d. No-confidence list. Candidates must compete for these seats in a gameshow live on Channel 3. Successful candidates are those able to press a buzzer, raise hand, and rise to their feet in the shortest time after the Finance Minister/Opposition Leader begins to speak.
e. Chidchob memorial seat. This special seat commemorates Chai Chidchob recommending his son Newin to the electorate because of his "bony arse". Fathers of prospective candidates are invited to make a similar recommendation referring to any body part.
The genetically modified village.
Over the last generation, the Thai village has been genetically modified. Into the old rural DNA, the developers have spliced many urban genes. The result is a hybrid. Part rural, part urban. Part traditional, part modern. But can this hybrid reproduce? Is it hardy? Is the old rural gene-pool being lost forever?
Agriculture becomes less profitable year-by-year. More and more villagers raid the city for the extra income needed for survival. But many keep a village base as social security. The crisis showed that this makes perfect sense. Millions went back to the village home after they lost their job and exhausted their savings. But they didn’t stay there long. There was nothing to do, no chance to earn. So they shuttled back and forth. Into the city to look for a job. Back to the village when out of luck.
This constant to-ing and fro-ing has brought urban habits, urban attitudes, urban consumption patterns, urban aspirations back to the village. It has also imported rural elements into the modern national culture. TV gameshows can’t survive without large doses of rustic northeastern clowning. Regional accents are all the rage on radio and in popular music.
But is this hybrid late-twentieth-century village just a passing phase? In the twenty-first century, will the village become like the city or simply disappear?
That’s uncertain. The crisis has shown that the urban economy is unreliable, and the village is Thailand’s only functioning system of social welfare. Forty percent of kids still don’t get the secondary education which is a passport to a reasonable urban job—and most of those kids are rural. The pollution, chaos and unfriendliness of Bangkok are great deterrents to permanent migration.
The genetically-modified hybrid village will be with us for some time. But splicing in some urban genes may have destroyed some old rural qualities like deference, tolerance, and readiness to accept urban exploitation. And dog bites.
Jobs depend on education depend on cash
Now that the Thai economy is under foreign ownership, there is a simple equation underlying employment, growth and prosperity: the better the education level, the higher the technology attracted here, the better the jobs, the higher the incomes, the faster the growth.
The policy-makers know this. And the policies are on-target. Shaking up the universities. Revolutionising school education.
But changing education take a lot of time, expertise and money. Things will move much slower than businessmen would like. Shortages of skilled labour and technical expertise will continue to hold the economy back.
This is not unique to Thailand. During the industrial transformation in the west, education lagged behind the economy. Many entrepreneurs tried to overcome these bottlenecks by taking matters into their own hands. That’s why the campuses of western universities are littered with faculties, research institutes and laboratories endowed by the great corporations – Carnegie, Rockefeller, Courtauld, Cadbury, Siemens, Krupp, Rhone-Poulenc etc.
But many of Thailand’s corporations are crocked. The major forces in the economy now are the international companies. Will they accept their historical responsibility to patronise education? Will we see the Dow Faculty of Chemistry, Unilever Institute of Food Technology, Minebea School of Engineering, Seagate School of Management, Monsanto Academy of Public Relations, Toyota University of Technology, ABN Amro Institute of Applied Economics? Will we?
Making rivers sacred.
One of the most successful strategies of the environmental movement has been ordaining trees. Once a tree is wrapped in an ochre robe, chopping it down is as sinful as killing a monk. The wrapped trees are marvellously photogenic. The strategy marries moral force and publicity appeal.
For 2000 and beyond, how to do the same kind of thing for rivers?
Thailand is long past the point where it had good sites for building dams. Recent projects have been approved only because the cost-benefit accounting ignores most of the costs. But there is tremendous institutional momentum behind dam-building. The result is episodes of environmental hooliganism like the Pak Mool dam. One of Thailand’s most beautiful rivers and most productive fisheries was converted into a dead, ugly industrial ditch. Stopping such hooliganism needs something more than rational argument—something combining holiness and public relations appeal.
This should not be difficult. All water is sacred. Rivers are the abode of the naga snake spirits which control the fertility of the land. Worship of the naga existed long before Buddhism. It was so powerful that Buddhism adopted the naga as protective spirits which guard temples, deities and the Buddha himself. How to protect these protectors from the dams?
The last traces of old naga worship are the long-boat races held towards the end of the rainy season. In recent years, these races have undergone something of a revival. But they risk becoming tourist events rather than acts of homage to the water. Something needs to be done to revive their religious aspect. And then to hold a contest on any river where the Electricity Authority or Irrigation Department threatens to build a dam.
And as an annual reminder, hold a grand, sacred ‘Homage to the Naga’ race at Pak Mool. Blow up the dam, leaving just the absurd fish ladder to serve as the race’s finishing post—and as a monument to folly.
Bangkok: City of what?
Some months ago, the BMA put up the first banners announcing its year 2000 campaign. The banners read ‘Bangkok: City of Culture’. For any resident, this was an astounding, disorienting message. But there was a clue. The banners were fixed to the pillars of the BTS Skytrain where they achieve their greatest magnificence at the Rajprasong intersection. Above, the concrete octopus is splayed over the city. Below, the concrete worm is burrowing under the city. A thought! Maybe the banners have a misprint. They should read ‘Bangkok: City of Concrete’. At last the municipality and the tourist authority are leveraging the city’s true competitive advantage for the millennium!
For the true enthusiast, we recommend the Hopewell Holiday Highlight. This unique concrete monument has been preserved in its original form. Your guide will point out the similarities to menhir cultures, Stonehenge and the Plain of Jars. Visit the museum and see a life-size replica of the man who made it all possible, Montri Pongpanit, carrying a suitcase.
The March of History Tour. Visit a selection of sites around the city where specially beautiful canals were concreted over.
For stopover passengers with limited time, savour the Rajprasong Panorama Experience. Appreciate the special combination of post-modern-roman Sogo, mock-Asiatic-brutal Grand Hyatt, super-utilitarian police hospital, maximum-security-jail-chic World Trade Center, and a double dose of the BTS concrete octopus.
Historical Half-day Excursion. Visit Saraburi to stand on the perfectly flat site where once stood a whole mountain which has gone to Bangkok.
Connoisseurs of Concrete Cornucopia. A full-day tour around the collected works of architect, Rangsan Thorsuwan. Optional jail visit.
Taxi Thriller. Ride the full length of Rama IX road in the care of a Bangkok taxi driver. Features include: the concrete pillar slalom; multiple chicane; flyover double-switchback; and optional loop-the-loop.