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Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The body of a second year student from Chulalongkorn University, hanged from a tree during the Thammasat Massacres of 6th October 1976. The photo was taken by Neal Ulevich.



Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Author Questionnaire - Tom Tuohy

QUESTIONS:


·         What is the title of your book? Watching the Thais
·         What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? A book that shows something new to both old hand expats and new visitors to Thailand.
·         What genre does your book fall under? S E Asian history, travel, culture, cross-cultural communication.
·         Where did the idea come from for the book? Several years ago when I was living in Bangkok and trying to get to grips with living in such a strange place, so different to where I’d been brought up - London.
·         How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript? The book was written over a period of about 7 years.
·         Who or what inspired you to write this book? The sheer number of expats visiting, rising year on year, and the equal amount of ignorance of Thai culture that I saw.
·         Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? Already published by a UK publisher through a UK Arts Council website, and in Thailand self published. I rejected a traditional publishing offer from Bangkok Books in 2007.
·         What other works would you compare this book to within your genre? There are many but “Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind” stands out as does “Working with the ThaisHenry Holmes, Suchada Tangtongtavy.
·         What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a
movie rendition? This book is non fiction.
·         What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? The book answers a lot of questions that foreigners often ask about living in Thailand: why are Thais always smiling? Why do they not ever want to take responsibility for their actions? Why do they always seem to be in a group? Why are they so friendly? I also explain the history of their customs and festivals and why they always seem to be so superstitious and love ghost stories.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Dying to get around - Driving in Thailand

Many people will have read the sad story of the British couple who were killed in a crash in Chachoengsao, Thailand two weeks ago. The couple had been cycling around the world for two years, and had travelled through Europe, the Middle East, China and 23 other countries without incident before coming to Thailand. A Thai pickup driver, Worapong Sangkawat, 25, crashed into them and the police charged him with reckless driving causing death.


 (Photo: Mary Thompson and Peter Root)

The news prompted a Thai academic, Assistant Prof Thaweesak Taekratok from the Crash Scene Investigation Project at Naresuan University to say, "[Foreign tourists] should know that travelling in Thailand is often different from their countries... A handbook should be distributed to guide [all tourists that visit Thailand]. We have to warn them of the improper or risky behaviour of Thai motorists, risky areas on roads, and how rescue workers and medical officials assist with injuries."

The death of the British couple was not an isolated incident. Thailand has become extremely dangerous for tourists over the years. This is what the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office says about travel in Thailand, "Serious accidents involving other vehicles including cars, coaches and mini-buses also occur. Many accidents are due to poor application of vehicle and driver safety standards.

There have been a number of accidents involving overnight coach travel. In June 2011, 3 British nationals were killed in an accident involving overnight coach travel, on 3 July 2012, 2 British nationals were injured in an overnight coach crash and on 6 February 2013, 3 British nationals were injured in an accident, again involving overnight coach travel. Seek local advice if you are in any doubt about the safety of your transport provider."

What's surprising for me, having lived in Thailand for most of the last 15 years, is that only now are the authorities thinking of giving out travel warning information in a handbook. After all, we get horrific and graphic images of lung cancer patients emblazoned all over cigarette packets in Thailand, so why no warning about the dangers of driving in the country? According to the World Health Organisation, Thailand ranks 11th in the number of road deaths per capita and the website lists Thailand as high as 6th in the world for the number of road deaths which is a shocking statistic.

Getting assistance

When I first touched down in Bangkok one rainy day in 1997, Thailand was just beginning its first Amazing Thailand promotional campaign which has been unbelievably successful over the years. With tourist numbers growing steadily, year on year, one would have assumed that consumer watchdog organizations would have been set up to give advice and guidance to travellers to Thailand as they would in other countries. Personally, I don't know many such organizations that do this in Thailand which is why there are often repeated calls for them to be set up.

Other than the embassies or respective consulates in the various Thai cities which offer their citizens consular assistance, the services for tourists that I know of are the Thai Tourist Police who, in many situations, are about as useful as a tin opener at a fresh seafood restaurant. From what I've heard, in many cases, they merely employ their language skills to help the Thai vendors negotiate a better price from the innocent foreigners when there's a conflict. This may be unfair, but I rarely hear any good stories that come from these encounters with the Thai Tourist Police.

There are also the Volunteer Tourist Police officers in Pattaya who are native English speakers as well as native speakers of other languages e.g. German and French. From what I hear, they do a very good job in often difficult situations and thus make a real difference. Then there's the English speaking Bangkok Free Ambulance Foundation service run by Marko Cunningham, a New Zealander, that operates from Bangkok. No doubt there are other outlets which have a specific mandate to help struggling foreigners, but these are few and far between.

On the road...

Having driven in Thailand myself for many years, I can attest to the difficulties faced by foreign drivers in Thailand. For one thing, the rules of the road, what are called in the UK - The Highway Code - are followed in Thailand in the same way other rules are followed by Thais in general life. In other words, they are not followed at all. There are a number of reasons for this because Thais, as I wrote in my book, Watching the Thais, have considerable scope or freedom to interpret the rules as they see them, on a case by case basis.
For example, when Thais are stopped by the police on the road, many will already have placed a banknote or two inside the plastic cover of their driving licenses just for such an occasion. This corrupt practice allows Thai to do whatever they want on the roads safe in the knowledge that, if they get caught by the police, they have a means of escape.

The general tariff is the following: taxis - 40 baht; regular saloon cars - 100 baht; 4X4 or high-end cars like BMWs or Mercedes - 200-300 baht. Obviously, if you are a foreigner, the cop will rely on your ignorance of this system and invariably try to get as much out of you as possible. (I once had an argument with a traffic cop who stopped me at a pedestrian crossing in Rama IV Road and demanded 1000 baht which I negotiated down to 200 baht. I had only stopped because he had walked into the road to usher an old lady onto the pedestrian crossing and, seeing me, ushered me into the kerb for questioning.)

Most Thai people are also very fatalistic and believe in a higher power at work. This leads them to be very slack in matters of personal as well as road safety. Ratanawadee H. Winther, of the Bangkok-based Asia Injury Prevention Foundation (AIPF), explained this recently in an article in The Guardian newspaper, "Thai people still lack awareness and take safety very lightly. They're also very superstitious when it comes to death - for example, they believe someone will not die if they're not 'meant' to.

Another problem is that Thais will sometimes ignore red lights, so if you happen to be a foreigner approaching a traffic light or intersection, and you press on the brakes, if there's a Thai behind you, it's quite possible he or she will rear end you as there was never any intention to actually stop at said lights. As reported in The Nation, "He [Assistant Prof Thaweesak Taekratok] said his team found that many foreigners injured in traffic accidents thought all Thai motorists must stop at a red light, but when they did that, they had a collision....So, they need to be informed in regard to accidents," he said."

Pull up to the bumper baby...

Tailgating is another problem. As I wrote in my book, Thais will often drive almost bumper to bumper, so it's a good idea to get out of the fast lane to avoid a potential accident. Here's how I described it: "Tailgating is another of the more pernicious aspects of getting around in Thailand. When at the wheel, I have lost count of the number of times I have had to cross into other lanes to escape the Thai version of Evil Kaneval: Somchai the pick-up driver-cum-fruit-seller-cum-labourer who's on his way to fill in for his cousin, a doctor at Bumrungrad Hospital. It starts with a glance in your wing mirror and there he is - the equivalent of Mr Bean on steroids. I say Mr. Bean because these drivers have about as much gumption and general road savvy as our comical friend in his Austin Mini. In fact it doesn't matter if you are in the fast lane doing 120 kilometres per hour, way over the speed limit. Sooner or later, the Thai Evil Kaneval will be there, approximately 6.7 milimetres from your rear bumper, his lights flashing frantically for you to move into another lane and out of his way" (Watching the Thais, Chapter Three, Thais and Movement, Keep on Walking, Johnny Walker)

Of course, this is something of an exaggeration, but getting around in Thailand can be, and often is, fraught with difficulty. When using public transport you may not fare much better as that too has its own set of rules,
"The psychology and general atmosphere whilst using public transport in Thailand is also interesting to think about. When you happen to find yourself on, for example a regular Thai bus, some general considerations need to be noted. The same driver will invariably drive as if he has a prior appointment (which he's only just remembered about), with some mysterious benefactor who is going to alter his and his family's life radically. It is apparently for this reason that he will proceed to slam hard on the brakes at every juncture. It amazes me how these drivers wait till the last second to do this, instead of gently easing on the brakes when approaching a junction.

What results is a collective surge of passengers moving forward en masse like an unintentional human, as opposed to Mexican Wave. Granny on her weekly visit to feed the ducks in the park gets a new seat on the floor; Somchai, the 7-11 employee gently and apologetically extricates himself from the cleavage of Navaporn, the cute SCB teller; students from nearby colleges hang on for dear life, hoping their hair isn't messed up and make-up isn't smudged when they collide with the stainless steel handrails. The unflappable ticket-collector, almost always a woman, moves slowly down the bus, click-clacks open and shut her klaxon-like metal pencil case full of five and one baht coins, and carries on collecting the money as if nothing ever happened. ‘Mai pen rai!' the elderly gentleman mumbles in the corner. ‘Amen brother' I say quietly to myself as I pick myself up off the floor!" (Watching the Thais, Chapter Three, Thais and Movement, Keep on Walking, Johnny Walker) 

 What is to be done?

Obviously, from the two quotes above, I have made light of getting around Thailand in my book. However, with the number of foreigners dying on Thai roads increasing every year, there is a much darker dynamic at play and there needs to be something done about it. If Assistant Prof Thaweesak Taekratok is serious, and there is a handbook made available for tourists, then it may not solve the problem, but at least it's a step in the right direction. Too many families come to Thailand and find a relaxing and welcoming race of people eager to please. Such people easily unwind and soon forget about the hidden dangers on Thai roads.

Only a few months ago, there was the very sad case of a 30-year old Russian female tourist who died under the wheels of a truck trying to save the life of her one-and-a-half-year-old baby in a road accident. The tragedy happened late on Friday in Pattaya where the tourist was on holiday with her husband and two children. When the family was buying some fruit in a roadside stall, the little girl ran out onto the road. The mother rushed after her when she saw an approaching truck. She did what any mother would have done, but in the process gave up her own life.
While nobody can prevent every accident happening, we should always try to alert tourists to the potential dangers of getting around in a foreign land so that we can prevent at least some parents having to make spur of the moment decisions that can have fatal outcomes.

This article was originally published on the following website - http://www.ajarn.com/blogs/tom-tuohy/dying-to-get-around/

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Thinking outside the Box - Swedes Retiring in Thailand

Thinking outside the Box - Swedes Retiring in Thailand

Tom Tuohy Feb 18, 2013

Op Ed

What’s the first thing that comes into your head when you think of Swedes? I think of Bjorn Borg, the Swedish chef from The Muppets, and that famous Swede locked up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London – Julian Assange. You might think of SAAB, meatballs from IKEA and ABBA. You may even think of the Stockholm Syndrome where kidnapped prisoners, after a period of time in captivity, sometimes begin to identify with their captors. Whatever comes to mind, one thing is for sure – Swedes are able to think “out of the box” and come up with novel solutions to complex social issues. 
This was amply demonstrated this week when the Swedish politician, David Stansvik, made an interesting proposal. He suggested that it would be a good idea to give retiring Swedes an option of relocating to Thailand where there is an abundance of sun, the cost of living is much lower, there are many qualified healthcare workers, and many Swedes like to retire in Thailand anyway.
“It was a study group we had on health care needs in the future. We know that the number of elderly is increasing [in Sweden] and that recruitment needs are great. This is a way to meet the problems we face. Not this year, but maybe in five or ten years,” he said.
And when you think about it, it’s not such a bad idea. Sweden has one of the highest incomes per capita in the world. (According to the IMF, Sweden was in eighth place in 2011.) Sweden also has a very high tax system where both the employee and employer pay tax to three different levels of government: the municipality, the county council, and the central government. This means there’s an awful lot of money to go round for things like education and social spending e.g. healthcare.

The Swedish Problem
While it may seem more than a tad controversial, there are a number of problems that Sweden is facing along with other developed countries like Japan and S. Korea. It is something of an ageing time bomb with many from the Baby Boom generation ready to retire. With advances in medicine and technology, many of these people are living much longer than the “three score and ten” years of the bible. An added problem is what could be called a double whammy: because these people are now retiring, they will no longer be paying into the tax system which means less revenue is being collected while more and more people are drawing from the same funds e.g. for state pensions and for medical expenses. This is stretching the resources available for the elderly to the maximum.
“The elderly in Sweden are an increasing group that requires much, and expensive care. At the same time, recruiting manpower for the needed services is becoming a challenge. A study group in the Swedish town Nora that discussed health care needs in the future suggest that instead of importing labour, it might be easier and cheaper to simply export the elderly.” (http://scandasia.com/swedish-proposition-send-the-elderly-to-thailand-services-are-cheaper/) This doesn’t sound bad at all as long as it’s voluntary. (Nobody wants to have to visit grandma and grandpa in Bangkok or Pattaya once a year!)

The Thai problem
One wonders whether the Thai government will accept this arrangement should it be offered as it has benefits for both sides: the Swedes get to solve the financial problem of their ageing population by exporting grandma and grandpa, and the Thais get lots of Swedish Krone flowing into the country providing jobs for the local populace. Let’s be honest though – when it comes to thinking outside the box, there are some Thai government ministers not known for their clever and original ideas. As Andrew Walker wrote of one Thai politician, Mallika Boonmetrakul: an appalling Thai Politician
“This is good example of a bad Thai politician; the brain is never put into gear before the mouth is set in motion.” (http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2011/11/29/mallika-boonmetrakul-an-appalling-thai-politician)
Only this week, the Deputy Prime minister said that policemen can ask for money from local Chinese merchants while on the street, thereby once again blurring the line between good honest police practices and rampant bribe taking. This was the same minster who, as Thailand’s representative, turned up to Malaysia the previous week drunk as a sailor thereby tarnishing Thailand’s image abroad. (A touchy subject if anyone saw the Saturday Night Live skit which has a man trying to learn Thai so he could get laid in Thailand!) It didn’t seem to occur to this politician that Malaysia is predominantly Muslim and alcohol is haram (forbidden) – or maybe he just didn’t care.
There was also the Thai minister who suggested the teachers in schools in the south be armed, so they could defend themselves against terrorists. And then there was the Thai politician who accidentally shot and killed his ex-wife with a submachine gun in a restaurant in northern Thailand. Oh well – as the Swedish chef used to say – “Den smakar skit på julbord. Bort, bort, bort!” (no translation available.)

The pot is empty
On a global level, there are other issues that need to be understood if this Swedish idea is to be put into the correct context. Nowadays, more and more people have less and less money to spend on retirement and the costs that go with it – healthcare, recreation, and travel. This is primarily because of the ageing time bomb mentioned above. It’s also because of the Credit Crunch of 2008 which saw billions of pounds that would have gone into state pensions and other social programs being diverted to cover the gaping holes in governmental budgets in order to e.g. prop up ailing (“too big to fail”) companies.
In America this was to bail out companies like Chrysler and Fanny Mae. In the UK, Northern Rock and the Royal Bank of Scotland were both bailed out by the British Government which still retains the majority shareholding in both banks. No doubt the repercussions of this will be felt for some time which will lead others like the Swedes to consider thinking outside of the box and coming up with novel solutions to these and other kinds of social problems.

Tom Tuohy is a teacher and writer. He has written for a number of newspapers, magazines and websites including: The Guardian Weekly, the English Language Gazette, jobs.ac.uk and the Bangkok Post. You can access Tom's blog here. Tom is also the author of Watching the Thais which is available in print, on the Kindle, and as an ebook.

(This post was originally published on the Chiang Mai City News website: http://www.chiangmaicitynews.com/news.php?id=1415)

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Thailand’s lèse majesté laws - When Freedom of Expression meets the Middle Way

Tom Tuohy Feb 8, 2013 

Op Ed

 
By now, most people will have heard about Thailand’s newest inmate Somyot Prueksakasemsuk - who was recently sentenced to 11 years in prison for breaking Thailand’s infamous lèse majesté laws. 
 

Photo taken in Chiang Mai's busy Walking Street

The usual discussions and criticisms have of course taken place among Thailand’s chattering classes and further afield as could be reasonably expected. Perhaps the most voluble of these has been the verbal onslaught from the former Reuters’ journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall. His attack on the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand (FCCT) has, to some degree, shifted the debate about this draconian law, from the actual unfairness of this law per se, to whether the FCCT is actually upholding its own charter and protecting the very notion of freedom of speech in the country.

The FCCT’s own charter or mission statement is clearly stated on its website. It even has its own heading – 
“Press Freedom”:

“For more than 50 years, the FCCT has played a vanguard role as the ASEAN region's most active press club. The Club advocates press freedom as a cornerstone of civil society in emerging democracies and is a vital venue for an open exchange of information.”

The key word for me here is “advocates” which suggests some kind of action. After all, one cannot be an advocate if one does not share that idea with others. Marshall’s suggestion – no, that’s far too subtle – Marshall’s verbal onslaught, seething, acidic polemic, his go-for-the-jugular approach, while true on many levels, does little to encourage journalists, whether foreign or indigenous Thai, to attempt to address the problem or even foster further debate. Rather it is divisive when it could have been inclusive; excessively critical instead of attempting to find common ground; one man’s two-finger salute to an organisation that, while it may have its faults, does a lot to promote the values of journalism within the region.

Asian political analyst and co-founder of New Mandala Andrew Walker is completely right when he says of this, “I can understand Marshall’s frustration, even anger, about the FCCT’s position in relation to Somyot’s imprisonment. But I am disturbed by his fundamentalism which assumes that there is only one morally desirable approach to be taken to the extraordinarily difficult lèse majesté issue. In his polemic there is no room for self-doubt; no room for respectfully considering the tactical judgments that others make; and no acceptance of the range of opinions that exist about lèse majesté. To assume that there is only one effective, or morally desirable way, of tackling a problem as politically complex as Thailand’s royalist repression is extraordinarily naïve.”

So, who is right? Marshall does at least acknowledge that there are “plenty of courageous and principled foreign journalists covering Thailand”. However, is the FCCT, as Marshall states, also an organization full of “feckless” foreign journalists who fail to do the job they are there to do, instead preferring to pamper to the well heeled masses?

“Unfortunately, their good work is undermined by a feckless majority who refuse to stand up to censorship, and a vocal minority of longtime FCCT members who unashamedly peddle palace propaganda.”

These are pretty strong words and leave little in the way of scope for discussion or wiggle room. The journalists Marshall criticises in his article are some well known names: Nicholas Grossman, Dominic Faulder, Julian Gearing, Paul Wedel, Richard Ehrlich, Robert Horn, Joe Cummings and Robert Woodrow. He also cites the following: “A stunningly obsequious story in November 2011 by veteran Associated Press correspondent Denis Gray also deserves a special mention in the hall of shame.”  

The opposing view is that the FCCT has taken the correct line and, in very Buddhist fashion, decided to wait it out by treading the Middle Way. We all know that the longer you stay in Thailand, the more you are inclined to become, to some degree, assimilated into thinking and acting in much the same way as the locals. Could it be then that many of the feckless reporters Marshall mentions have gone over to the dark side? Could it be that the long years they have lived in the Kingdom have rendered them quasi-Thai, incapable of attacking this law head on in the way that Marshall wants them to? Marshall, however, is clear this is not something they can get away with doing:

“This is not an issue on which journalists can quietly retreat to the ‘middle ground’”.

It’s interesting to wonder what purpose it would serve if, as Marshall wants, many of these journalists did in fact speak out about the lèse majesté laws and Article 112 which forms its basis in legal terms? While, as he rightly says, it’s not illegal to actually speak out about them, in my view, it is inevitable that far more journalists would end up in the clinker no doubt sharing stories and hunks of dried bread with Somyot Prueksakasemsuk and his ilk. What good would that do? Would it be enough to put pressure on the powers-that-be to rescind the said law? One doubts it very much.

As a freelance journalist who regularly reports on Thai education issues for a London based newspaper, I am not sure that Marshall’s attack on his fellow journalists is fully justified or conducive to furthering the debate. As Andrew Walker has said above, the laws on this underpin an extraordinarily difficult lèse majesté issue. The jury’s still out on whether Marshall or the FCCT is right in their approach to this issue. 

Again, Andrew Walker hits the right tone when he says:

“I completely support critical commentary on journalists’ coverage of Thai politics and the monarchy. But I don’t support the fundamentalist vilification of journalists – especially a fine journalist like Nirmal Ghosh – because they have different opinions, or have made different judgments about the path to political reform.”
 
Only time will tell who is right.

Tom Tuohy is a teacher and writer. He has written for a number of newspapers, magazines and websites including: The Guardian Weekly, the English Language Gazette, jobs.ac.uk, The Bangkok Post. You can access Tom's blog here.

Tom is also the author of Watching the Thais which is available in print, on the Kindle, and as an ebook.
 
(This article was originally published in the Chiang Mai City news, February 8th, 2013 - http://www.chiangmaicitynews.com/news.php?id=1374)

Thursday, 24 January 2013

George Carlin - more than a social critic

For those not in the know, George Carlin was a comedian of the 70's and 80's who could write something very eloquent...and so very appropriate. Here's a sample by George Carlin:




"The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider Freeways ,but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less, we buy more, but enjy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge, but less judgment, more experts, yet more problems, more medicine, but less wellness.We drink too much, smoke too much, spend too recklessly, laugh too little, drive too fast, get too angry, stay up too late, get up too tired, read too little, watch TV too much, and pray too seldom. We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often.We've learned how to makea living, but not a life. We've added years to life not life to years. We've been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet a new neighbor. We conquered outer space but not inner space. We've done larger things, but not better things.We've cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul. We've conquered the atom, but not our prejudice. We write more, but learn less. We plan more, but accomplish less. We've learned to rush, but not to wait. We build more computers to hold more information, to produce more copies than ever, but we communicate less."

What an absolute genius and one of the funniest men I ever listened to, too!

Monday, 21 January 2013

The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves

This looks like a great read and definitely one that I'll be adding to my wish list!  

 

Here's the book's blurb - 'This book is about change.'

"We are all storytellers – we make stories to make sense of our lives. But it is not enough to tell tales. There must be someone to listen.

In his work as a practising psychoanalyst, Stephen Grosz has spent the last twenty-five years uncovering the hidden feelings behind our most baffling behaviour. The Examined Life distils over 50,000 hours of conversation into pure psychological insight, without the jargon.

This extraordinary book is about one ordinary process: talking, listening and understanding. Its aphoristic and elegant stories teach us a new kind of attentiveness. They also unveil a delicate self-portrait of the analyst at work, and show how lessons learned in the consulting room can reveal as much to him as to the patient.

These are stories about our everyday lives: they are about the people we love and the lies that we tell; the changes we bear, and the grief. Ultimately, they show us not only how we lose ourselves but how we might find ourselves too."

For me, what is most interesting is the way the author shows the value of storytelling and how quintessential it is to our lives. From the oral tradition of sitting around a campfire exchanging shards of broken lives, to the great tomes that make up literature proper, stories are as indispensable to our lives as oxygen. Stories, whether us telling our own, or listening to others, heal us in ways we have rarely really ever understood, till now.