Tuesday, November 02, 2004
BACK TO THE LAND OF SMILES
I always wondered how Thailand got that nickname, as every time I visit Indonesia it I'm reminded that it is the country more deserving. Sure there are plenty of smiles here, but when it comes to spontaneous warm grins from complete strangers on the street, on a bus or train, in a coffee stall or anywhere -- Indonesians take the prize.
Anyway since my last missive from Solo, I made a trip with Mas Hary to the port city Cilacap for a few days. Actually he needed to do some interviews there for prospective workers for a project in Batam, but we stayed with another old friend in a small village some 30 km. from the city. Very nice and quiet kampung atmosphere, and a good opportunity to catch up with the news with our friend there.
The trip between Solo and Cilacap ("Chill-a-chap" eh?) is a good 6+ hours on a succession of buses. I'll save the funny singing bird in a box on the bus story for next time. When we'd returned to Solo last Thursday evening, there was some some unfortunately hurtful news waiting -- one of which hurt my friend very deeply. Although I tried my best to help him through it, by the time I had to leave on the Saturday evening train (in order to make my Sunday flight out of Jakarta), he was still in quite serious despair. So it was very difficult to leave, and I carried a good bit of his sadness back with me.
The other news, which was taken quite personally by many Indonesian Muslims, was the sketchy information about the more than 80 Thai Muslims who had died in some sort of protest demonstration in Narathiwat province. The details about what had actually happened were almost non-existent in the news reports there -- just the visual images alone, of wrapped bodies lined up on the ground while villagers prayed over them prior to burial, produced emotional responses in many Indonesians.
For several days running, a large group of demonstrators beseiged the Thai Embassy in Jakarta, prompting the security authorities to step up protective measures there. I remembered thinking just the week earlier when I'd been there, how minimal security was, for an embassy -- the thin protective wall which surrounds the building, as well as the general security procedures in place. Thankfully the protestors were vocal but peaceful. Leaflets handed out were addressed, in English, to the "Thai kafirs" against their "brutal and inhuman acts." A "Boycott Thai products" campaign seems to have begun also.
Now at the time, as I say I had no details about what happened in Narathiwat. How could so many people have been killed, just like that? One could only think that the soldiers, as has happened too many times in the past history of this country, were far too quick to start pulling triggers. Many people I talked with over the next few days in Solo and Jakarta, asked me about the Thai government -- who was this Thaksin, does he have control of his army, do they often do such things? I wanted to make sure people understood that it shouldn't be seen in too much of a religious aspect -- and recounted my own close brush with Thai army bullets 12 years ago in Ratchadamnoen Avenue. In the three days that followed, hundreds of unarmed citizens were shot down in cold blood -- and the number of hundreds is not likely to every be known with much accuracy. And in those black days of May 1992 virtually all, if not literally all, of the victims would have been Thai Buddhists. So I asked people to see this tragic event as a human rights atrocity, and that we should criticize the Thai government for the loss of human life, and not as some sort of sign that Thais love to kill Muslims.
I was able to get more details from the Nation website, and relay to people what I found out about the incident. Evidently some six local security people -- basically some villagers who had been hired to provide safety in their respective hamlets -- had been issued some small arms for this effort, and had promptly turned the weapons over to the local terrorist/separatist groups they were supposedly defending against. These six were then arrested by police for their actions, and held at a station. This resulted in a large number, perhaps thousands besieging this station and demanding the release of the detainees. Well, things got ugly as they often do, and I've no doubt that security forces probably made some major errors in crowd control. There were reports that some of those attacking the police station were killed at that time, that there was shooting, but the information is still not clear if it was from which (or both) sides.
However, the unacceptable part comes afterwards. When the situation was brought under control, and many of the demonstrators were secured for transportation to an army base for interrogation, there would seem to have been no further violent action. The Muslim villagers who were thus arrested, were then packed into trucks for transportation some 150 km. away, to an army camp in Yala province I believe. And in those trucks, possibly completely sealed and the humans packed like sardines, somewhere around 80 people died. It was completely unnecessary, a complete botch-up by possibly only one officer insisting on his order, and no one else questioning the wisdom of transporting such a large number of people in a clearly inhuman fashion. At least I can see that possibility -- that it only requires stupidity on the part of one or two people, and the unwillingness of any lower rank to question orders, to result in such a tragic outcome. It has been said in the Thai media that this incident is of such magnitude -- and as I saw myself, will have an effect on Thailand's relations with some of her neighbours -- that it might cause the Thaksin government to fall.
So I was absolutely stunned to see Thaksin quoted in the paper I read on my return flight, that he fully supported the actions of his military officers involved. He said something to the effect that, "If we do not take strong action, they will think we are weak." Later, he said that no officials would be punished for wrongdoing. This is too much! He appointed an "independent" commission to investigate the incident, and before they even convene, he has made such statements. Unbelievable, but not at all uncommon here in the land o' smiles. He was equally disrespectful of human rights during his famous three month war on suspected drug users/dealers last year, when an estimated more than 3,000 "suspects" were liquidated by night-roaming death squads. So I believe this attitude does trickle down from the top. I don't recall such seriously inhumane activities by the police or military under the Chuan Leekpai administration. In fact I'm sure that all these security force branches had experienced solid reform measures -- mainly prompted by the shocking violence in May 1992. Thaksin seems to have set back that process or even nullified some of its achievements.
Thaksin is up for re-election in a few months. He has run his term out to the full five years. He had fooled many of the country people to support his party -- mainly they seemed to think his phenomenal success in the business world would transfer to the national economy, and that everyone would be rich under Thailand, Inc. It didn't quite work that way, but it was a good snowjob all the same. He's not popular with Bangkok people, as my taxi driver made absolutely clear the other night when I asked him about the Tak Bai incident. However, Thaksin commands the very first ever elected government with a solid majority of parliamentary seats. So he thinks he's invincible, and he acts that way too.
Time to remind him who is the boss, that he works for the people (rather than vice versa). Frankly, happenings such as this latest Tak Bai incident have brought down governments before, and I don't think it should hurt too much to have a caretaker government leader for the two months until the coming election. If the PM insists that no officers in charge at the scene will be disciplined, then he should take full responsibility himself, and resign. It would be an important message for the southern Muslim people, and it would show Thailand's Muslim majority neighbours that things like this are not taken lightly, and will not be tolerated by the Thai nation and people. Such a move might repair some of the damage already done.
Well, the recent Indonesian election has been cited as the largest completely clean exercise in democracy, and if I find out which international organisation made that statement I'll do an update. I spotted it on a news ticker on one of the Indo channels a few days ago, and I don't recall who it was. And I don't quite know how they would bypass India for the title, unless some quantification of corruption and vote-buying etc. disqualified it. Anyway Indonesians are proud, and well they should be. I would remind people every chance I had, that they have good reason to be proud of their first direct presidential election. Apart from Megawati's childish lack of magnanimity toward the victor, it was a perfectly conducted exercise.
In fact, I was most pleasantly surprised to hear one of my "talking points" of these past two weeks, being taken up by the new president SBY. "Ess Bay Yay" for those who haven't been paying attention to my pronunciation lessons for Rachel Harvey lately, heh heh. Anyway, I'd been telling numerous people over the past weeks that they should be proud of their achievements, which culminated in such a successful electoral process -- and that the values of tolerance and pluralism (which are often seriously tested by the hardline Islamicist groups like the Islamic Defenders' Front) are so important to retain in such a diverse country. This is nothing new, indeed it's also the firm conviction of every person I talked with about these things. I also would say that Indonesia is an extremely important country in the world, due to the current international situation. Because at a time when many people around the world, who are not very acquainted with Islam, might think that Islam and Democracy are not compatible -- the world's largest Muslim country proves that suspicion to be totally wrong. And the day I left Jakarta, I heard SBY quoted on television as making basically the same point -- that Indonesia can be a powerful example to the world, and more specifically to the Muslim world. Hear! Hear!
So now it's America's turn. I've been trying to catch up on the late developments in the campaign since I got back, and I don't see anything that would change my mind. Not that I have a vote or anything, but it matters a heck of a lot all the same. I see that media like the NYT and CBS and others are still pushing heavily to elect Kerry with their choice of what to trumpet on the front page or 60 Minutes, and what to bury. Speaking of which, what the heck is Dan Rather still doing on the air?
Then we have the Osama effect: was he trying to steer things by releasing his tape last Friday? Does Walter Cronkite really believe that Karl Rove engineered the thing? And are Michael Moore and the other far-out Chimpy haters doing any self examination, after the words of The Sheik on that tape sound like they were written by the DNC if not lifted directly from Fahrenheit 911? Actually it may have been that the Moore/Pilger/Chomsky sounding talking points were the only bits that were aired. Al Jazeera only played 6 minutes out of 18, and people who have seen the whole tape have recounted that he strongly laments democratic elections in Afghanistan and the lack of violence involved in them, and the serious losses and restrictions suffered by his own al Qaeda due to the pressure on them by US, Afghan and Pakistani forces. You won't see the media mention that because these things don't make Bush look stupid.
Check out Belmont Club (on the sidebar) for some analysis which I've seen cited on several other sites, on what the bin Laden tape actually means. [I couldn't reach the site last night.] There are some important differences with his previous rants, and some signs that the actions against his group and the international terrorislamic movement are having the desired effects. But again, don't look to have any of that examined in mainstream media, it ain't going to happen at least until after the election is over.
Anyway, it appears that these issues, and the kerfuffle about missing explosives in Iraq (that appear to be the old NYT rushing to print without checking facts again), aren't having much effect in the last days. I don't agree with Bush on plenty of things, but these things are the business of US citizens and not Canadians. On the issue of what he's doing to protect civilisation -- and no I don't think that's too overblown of a way to put it -- he's the only choice if I had any say in the matter. I wouldn't want to trust John Fauntleroy Kerry anywhere within spitting distance of the White House. He appears to me to have no firm convictions, will say anything to get elected, and seems to lack genuine integrity, compassion, or in fact genuine anything. W has them -- I've seen it in his eyes and heard it in his voice, and I believe his convictions about the world in 2004 are correct. Freedom can transform societies, and I've seen it at work first hand. Freedom is the only thing that can accomplish what is needed in those regressive corners of the world, and I believe it is working in Afghanistan and that it will also succeed in Iraq.
Mistakes? Of course. This is radical stuff, never been done before. But it has to be done, or this tipping point in history will possibly go the other way. The wrong way, the intolerant way of no return. It's not for oil, or empire -- but of course it is in US self interest to succeed in this effort. It's also in the interest of everybody else, save the Islamicist fascists. In 10 years we will look at the chain reactions set off by a democratic Afghanistan and Iraq, and will realise how necessary this effort was. GWB is the radical here (and remember when "radical" used to be a good thing in certain circles?) while JFK is the reactionary. One more in the pile of paradoxes that seem ascendant in current times, along with "progressives" defending fascist regimes that repress women and kill homosexuals, militant Muslims working with committed Communists, and so on.
Anyway, who will it be? Will we see mass celebrations tomorrow in the Arab street, for the repudiation of Bush? Yikes just think of the horn blowing that would emanate from the European capitals too! The victory of AnyonebutBush (which is of course JFK's chief quality) would certainly be popular around the world, not to mention the Toronto Star. But is it the right historical choice? I don't think so. Do we want a US government of Holbrookes, Bergers and Albrights at this point in time? It would be the wrong move, and the wrong message to all concerned, in my view.