Wednesday, 28 March 2012

I have not posted anything for a long while. Left Thailand and got to work on my dissertation and teaching.

I just published a book with Silkworm which analyzes and describes the red shirt protest, as i encountered it and saw it during my research.

If you enjoyed the blog you will also like the book.

check this out

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Aphisit's gift

On 9 January 2011 the Abhisit government announced its “gift” to the Thai population. In a white box with a light blue ribbon was deposited the new policy, presented under the name of Prachawiwat, or progress of the people. The neologism carried nine presents to the people, allegedly addressed to expand social and labor security to the declared 24 million workers in the “informal economy”, to moderate the growing cost of living in Thailand, to guarantee access to credit to operators of taxis and motorcycle taxis, and to address crime. The Thai PM stressed that the gift would not cost much for the Thai population.

After a few days of confusion, trying to understand what the policy actually looked like, a large debate has been sparked in the Thai media and universities. Most of this debate revolves around three questions: How is the Prachawiwat different from Thaksin’s Pratchanyom? Is this a genuine policy or just an attempt by the government to win votes before the next election? Who will pay for this and how much? Unfortunately much of this debate has not yet reached the English-speaking media but in the next days a number of articles will be published on these discussions by major international newspapers. Leaving this task to people better equipped than me, I just want to present these nine gifts (I now sound like my Sunday school teacher talking about the Magi) and to offer my personal take on them without going into the details but rather focusing on their conceptual framework.

Presentation of the gifts

Gift 1: Expansion of the social security system to 24 million Thais operating in the informal economy (nok rabob), according to the government. This scheme provides two levels of social security based on a co-payment system between the workers and the state. The first level amounts to 100 baht per month, divided between 70 baht paid by the workers and 30 baht by the state. The second one amounts to 150 baht, in a 100+50 formula. Different from the actual welfare state scheme offered to regular workers and government officials these policies cover the cost for health care, death insurance (which could be collected after a minimum of 15 years of payment), and a retirement scheme.

Gift 2: Access to credit for taxi drivers, motorcycle taxi drivers, and street vendors for a minimum loan of 5000 baht at an unspecified low interest rate. The government will also provide a 5 percent discount on down payment on the taxi to drivers who have been operating for more than 3 years and a special loan for those with more than 9 years of experience.

Gift 3: New registration procedure for motorcycle taxi drivers with the purpose of eliminating local mafia influence over the drivers. The government will at first re-register the drivers who were registered in 2003 by the Thaksin government and then expand the process to the new drivers who have entered the system since. This policy will be first implemented in Bangkok starting on 15 February.

Gift 4: Allocating 20,000 new areas for street vendors in Bangkok with the purpose of making these places into tourist attractions.

Gift 5: Controlling the cost of oil by lifting the price control on LPG for the industrial sector but leaving it in place for private vehicles and transportation providers.

Gift 6: Providing free electricity to an estimated 9 million households who consume less than 90 units a month by raising the cost of electricity for heavy consumers by 1 percent.

Gift 7: Cut the cost of animal feed to make the final price lower and also make the change in prices public at all times to avoid speculation. Moreover the government will introduce an experiment of conducting the egg trade in kilograms and not in pieces with the purpose of cutting the price by 5 to 10 satang per kilo.

Gift 8: Increase the diversity and transparency in the trade of agricultural product with the purpose of giving better choices and prices to consumers

Gift 9: Increasing security and crime control, especially in 200 unspecified locations, in conjunction with an upcoming police reform.


The package proposed by the Thai government does take some steps toward addressing growing problems of inequality and access in Thai society and it pushes the on-going path toward labor security in Thailand a step forward. However, in my opinion, the conceptual framework in which these steps are taken reaffirms conservative ideas about the relationship between citizens and the state, the relationship between the capital and the rest of the country, participation, and welfare schemes. These are conservative ideas that the majority of Thai society, including both the red and yellow shirts, seems to be questioning and trying to leave behind.

Let us first look at this idea of Prachawiwat, the progress of the people, as a “gift”. Anthropology, my discipline, has been long fascinated by the dynamics and implications of gifts and gift-giving. Out of the rivers of ink written on the subject two main streams of thoughts have emerged.

Firstly, the idea that gift-giving establishes or re-affirms an un-equal relationship between the givers and the receivers in which, by virtue of their giving, the former pose themselves as superiors. An example of this dynamic in international politics that left many observers puzzled, was the refusal of India, after the 2004 tsunami, to receive “economic help” from Western powers, particularly the United States. Proudly, the Indian government, worried by the position that aid will put them in, not only declined the “gift” but also offered economic aid to other affected areas, especially Sri Lanka. Despite the destroyed homes of many citizens the Indian government refused to be put in the position of a receiver and showed its strength and autonomy, framing itself as a regional power, a giver.

Secondly, the framing of a “gift” as an invitation to reciprocity, an act that puts the received in debt and therefore calls for another gift, to re-balance the exchange and further the social relationship. Examples of this are constantly visible in contemporary Thailand where small gift-giving is an essential part of daily life, office work, and new acquaintances. More than once I came across the story of a foreigner failing to fulfill this call to reciprocity be seen as “rude” or not “generous”.

In the context of the Prachawiwat scheme both aspects give government’s “gift” an eerie tone. Framing this policy as a present takes the functioning of a government out of the political arena. Withdrawing from an expanding discussion in the Thai political landscape over rights and duties, access and taxation, the actions of the state are pushed back into the realm of paternalistic politics. As a motorcycle taxi driver put it to me “I receive a gift paid by my taxes and I should also thank them.” In this realm an established benevolent and superior entity, the state, offers a present to a structurally lower receiver, the population. This relation, framed in the language of the patronage system, brings us into the second aspect of this gift-giving: what reciprocity is the government seeking? Often, forms of reciprocity between governments and population, or between clients and patrons, are based on “gifts” in exchange for “support”, meaning in this case electoral support or, at least, silent acceptance. This “gift-giving”, smilingly presented by an excited Abhisit as a cheap present, in many ways condense the conceptual problems with Prachawiwat and represent a major step back in terms of the conceptual framing of the relationship between the Thai state and its citizens. In this sense Thaksin’s Prachaniyom, if not framed in the language of rights, was indeed predicated on questions of access, access to a state-controlled capitalist system of capital, loans, and investments under the mantra of “transforming assets into capital”, but access nonetheless. With this new policy we are back to square one. This in general seems to me the biggest mistake for a policy that was presented as having its strength in participation and equality.

The second point of concern in relation to this new package is its disproportionate attention to urban areas, especially Bangkok. The government has pointed out that the reform will start from Bangkok and then be expanded to the rest of the country, without specifying when this is supposed to happen. Moreover, if we stop to analyze the nine gifts it becomes clear that few of them are oriented to a rural constituency. Some of them (2, 3, and 4) are obviously directed to urban workers and even the schemes connected to agricultural products focuses mostly on transparency and price control for consumers, without really addressing the problem from the perspective of the producers, who are increasingly squeezed between the raising production prices and the low selling prices. For these rural producers these policies will hardly do anything. In term of the social security scheme, the pearl of these gifts, from the direct admission of Ajarn Sungsidh, the head advisor to Abhisit on Prachawiwat, the proposed welfare scheme is will not affect agricultural workers, who represent the large majority of the 24 million informal workers presented as the beneficiaries of the new policies. At most, it will benefit 5.2 million urban informal workers. This disproportionate focus on the city – even though it is not surprising for government opponents such as a motorcycle taxi driver friend who promptly told me “Claudio, this is nothing new. These people have been convinced that the whole of Thailand is Bangkok for a long time” – seems at least short-sighted and at most suicidal, especially given the new movements and discourses that populate the broad Thai political landscape.

The third point is that the offers of Prachawiwat which are great when seen from afar are greatly scaled down when analyzed in detail. The social security scheme, presented by the Thai government as a visionary and unprecedented expansion of the welfare state to the informal economy, is, in fact, NOT a welfare scheme. The conceptual foundations of a welfare scheme are normally a holistic approach to labor security, education, health, retirement as well as its extension to the family of the assisted. Both elements are lacking in the case of Prachawiwat. What the Abhisit government is offering – undoubtedly a step forward in terms of labor security for informal workers – is a so-called “social insurance” scheme, meaning a system of co-payment between the private payer, and only the private payer, and the state with the purpose of guaranteeing health insurance, life insurance, and retirement money, based on a 3 percent interest rate accumulated over the years. No service is offered to the family of the assisted. This scheme offers nothing more than other private insurance would offer, apart from the co-payment help.

In conclusion, the package developed with the help of think tank that was offered a meager five weeks to come up with a policy theoretically effecting more than a third of Thai population, seems to me to offer, in practice, some interesting steps toward a re-conceptualization of the role of the informal economy in Thai society but without framing them in a solid and substantial plan toward guarantying access, rights, and responsibilities to the actors involved.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Filling the gaps

I have been quite absent from the blog, mostly focusing on my research and redacting two months of posts into a manuscript which is up for review now.
I take advantage of this for putting up all my posts from April 10th to May 15th, which i did not had time before to check and upload. If you have time take a look at them.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

October 10th- Democracy Monument

(sorry again no time to put up pictures, will do as soon as i get a moment)

We woke up in the morning and decide to get out and check around as some twitters reported movement of riot police around Ratchaprasong. We drove through the empty Rachadamri, few people in red shirts walking around and police officers lounging around in the heat. The reported barricades going up around intercontinental hotel were not there. We arrive at an empty Ratchaprasong around 11 as a roar comes from Rama I, echoed by the cement ceiling of the skytrain rails.

From that direction a caravan of red shirts in motorcycles gets closer to the intersection, giving full voice to their horns. In front a man I met many times carries the head-bones of a buffalo painted in red with written in thai “stop double standard”, besides him an older woman sits on the back of a motorbike wearing a big plastic hat with the shape of Democracy monument . Around him a river of red flags and few Thai flags. We decide to follow them and drive back into Ratchadamri. It must be around 300 hundred bikes, many of them motorcycle taxis, either wearing the orange vests or recognizable by the yellow plates on their bikes. “It is a matter of ideology” a driver tells me later “some people put on red shirts and take out their vests, some other, like me, come to protest as motorcycle taxis, with the vest.”

As we drive around some people timidly applaud or waive to the caravan, to show their support, mostly vendors, tuk-tuk drivers, or motorcycle taxis sitting at their station. The procession drives down Ratchadamri road and turn left into Sarasin. There another smaller caravan drives in the other direction, dialoguing with us through the horns. Right again into Wittayu road, left into Rama IV, Sala Daeng then back in the direction of Ratchaprasong. On Rama IV small groups of police officers waive to the caravan and take pictures, smiling. As we drive around more people join in, enlarging the ranks of the caravan retracing the geography of deaths during the May protests. Along the way the procession stops often, to remain compact. Some people shout “Here people die”, the new slogan of the Red Sundays, or voice their disappointment. “Fuck the people who order the killing” they repeat over and over again.

In front of the entrance of Lumpini Park the caravan stops to join with another group of people waiting there, parking bikes on the concrete pavement in front of the statue of Rama VI. Some people wai to the statue as other organize the group and distribute small hand-drawn maps of the route to take. The new plan is to drive in the direction of Victory Monument before going back to Democracy Monument, where the caravan started. A couple of people offer me I ride as the group that was waiting at the park gets on the bikes. A young woman covers her face with a banner “May 19th. 91 people died.” The procession starts again, back into Ratchadamri road in the direction of Ratchaprarop. The bikes are now more crowded, kids sitting on the front and red gadgets everywhere. Down the road a small groups of people stand on the side carrying a big picture of Seh Daeng, which the people greet as they pass by. As the group arrives to Ratchaprasong, directed by a larger number of police officers it stops again underneath the flyover, hoping to get some relief from the intense heat.

A man on a big bike tells me proudly “I brought my son” pointing at a small kid clung to his waist. “He needs to see this.” People around distribute red roses before getting moving again. As we get out of the area in the direction of Ding Daeng more people appear on the street, cheering the moving protest. The caravan keeps growing in size. There must be about 800 bikes by the time we get to Victory monument. Two laps of the round-about. Red shirts and flags with the backdrop of two big pictures of the Queen and the metallic statues of military jumping out of the monument. Again and again the group stops to remain compact as a young woman, carrying a big red flag and a plastic uzi gun, shouts directions to the first lines that then pass it back to the rest of the caravan. Soon enough the procession reach Ratchadamnoen, stretching on the large boulevard. Few hundred meters before Democracy Monument, where again red robes have been tied to form a spider web, the caravan stops. Performance is always a part of politics, especially in this country. The large group of red shirts filling Democracy Monument starts cheering. On this other side the horns answer, as the bikes stand still. A long moment of staticity, two groups staring at each other in the heat.

Few minutes after the flows break open and the red shirts at the monument shout and cheer as the caravan parades on the roundabout before parking. The monument has been once again reappropriated and transformed by the red shirts. Two large plastic banners, held up by people circle the monument. On the lower level images from the April and May events, the dead, the injured, the military firing. On the upper level old pictures of 14th October 1973, black on white. From these banners to the core of the monument red robes create a web, tied by a group of older women sitting in the shadow cast by the monument’s wings. Around the monument people are starting to write messages on the ground with pieces of chalk. Behind them two women hold up two boards with written in English “Take your happiness back. Give red shirts life & Democracy” and “We need Justice”. Around them people are dancing in the street, with music pouring out of the speakers of pickups and cars parked around.

Soon the crowd starts growing and the ubiquitous red shirts merchandise start popping up on both directions in Ratchadamnoen. In few hours the foot paths are overflowing with t-shirts, flip-flops, Cds, books, food, music, wrist bands, mugs. I meet one of the book sellers I know who always puts up shop at protest and he tells me of the September 19th protest in Chiang Mai and being stopped on the way at a police road block where the officers checked his books and told him to keep fighting also for them. Behind us a police trucks pass by, with a big red flag attached on a side. I greet him and walk into Dinso road where the pictures of the people that died on April 10th are laid out on the ground with sparse red candles burning in front. A donation box sits among them, where people stuff bills to support their families, often left without a breadwinner. We walk around for a bit and decide to get back home, consumed by the heat, as the protest keeps swelling. It is going to be a long evening at Democracy Monument.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

September 19th- Back in Ratchaprasong

(Sorry no time to put pictures on now, i have to choose carefully)

We exit home around 5 into a very quiet traffic around Sathorn, took the skytrain and get off at Siam. As the train bent over Ratchaprasong intersection people gathered on the right side of the car to look down to a red river of people taking over the Ratchaprasong area from Erawan Shrine to Pratunam and from Wat Pratum to Chidlom.

Most of the sky-train commuters got off the train and walked into Siam Paragon, normally overflowing with people and Sunday events. We walked back in the direction of Ratchaprasong, meeting flock of people dressed in red leaving the area. As we walked over the skywalk a feeling of déjà vu fills the air. People dress in red everywhere, street-vendors calmly occupying big chunks of the pathways with tables and chairs and a thick smell of fermented fish. Some people free red balloons with white question marks on them inside Wat Pratum as other curious walk around the temple, revisiting the place of the tragedy.

We walk down into the crowd and we overhear all around us people recounting the story of the dead, of the snipers on the skytrain tracks, and the fear of the last days of the May protest. Along the way arriving to the intersection chalks outlines of dead bodies have been traced on the pathways, syncopating the walk to Ratchaprasong and laying silent on the concrete in front of the growing wall of design-inspired state propaganda. Messages of hope, tranquility, harmony, and security in English who seems to over-simplify the political conflict more than ease it. Among these messages an unsettling blue board repeats 6 times, in black capital letters:


In front of the poster two black chalk outlines seem to contradict the reassuring propaganda. Around the air is filled with Red shirt music, especially the hit รักคนเสื้อแดง. People gather around the few pick-ups with loudspeakers, specifically prohibited by Suthep, and dance as the sun goes down over the massive crowd. Over them the skytrain runs unimpressed, with its regular and mathematic frequency. Underneath the rail two red piece of cloth cover the sides of the skywalk. In white, again in English, written “Who is killer? Where is justice?” These questions, and tentative answers, fill the intersection and people’s conversations.

We start talking to people here in there, most of them are from Bangkok and came out to show their support for the red and the fact that the red shirts are not gone and could easily take over this space anytime they want. Many people wear shirts with written “Red never die”. Even if at first gaze the atmosphere seem the same of the early days of red shirts in Ratchaprasong, the conversation run differently. Many people tell me proudly, staring at me “we have no leader; these are people that came autonomously, following their heart.” What is seen by many of the protesters as a new more participative phase is also peppered by new forms of search for responsibility and justice. Few people talk about Aphisit or government dissolution anymore, but questions about the real instigator and responsible for the May 19th massacre bypass the government to rest on higher authorities and more long-standing presences. People talk about entire institutional structures that keep people’s head down and get involved into politics to the point of celebrating “war victory rituals” after May 19th massacre.

Stories of the international relations to Saudi Arabia and the ‘blue diamond” fill people’s mouth, as an unspoken and unspeakable taboo finally being uttered. An upper-class young Thai man walks around with his eyes wide opened. “ I have waited for this many years” he tells me as he walks through the crowd, openly talking about subjects he normally only dares with his closest friends. It is surprising to hear some of these conversations in a public arena, filled with resentment and personalized attacks. Even more surprising is to see them written, condensed even just for a night on pieces of paper or larger state propaganda boards that surround Central World and will be promptly trashed or be taken away as soon as the crowd leaves the area around 8 pm.

Around the ratchaprasong sign a thick web of red threads is condensed and small pieces of paper are attached by the protesters to the threads, expressing opinions about the government and other state institutions. On the pavement, where the stage used to be in May, two big red candles light up two small cartoon boxes messages. “Take your happiness back, We need Justice”. Behind this on a wall is written. “Not Harmonize”. Not far away a small kid sits alone in front of myriads of small red candles, playing with the fire.

In the mean while the crowd is slowly decreasing as people start leaving and the traffic slowly by slowly moves back into the intersection. Buses are the first to arrive, tearing away, as they pass, the spider net of red yarns that the protesters have build from the skywalk to the whole intersection, resembling a mixture between the plastic cover present there during the last days of May protest and the Buddhist sai sin (สายสิญจน์ ). After them the motorcycle taxis arrive, moving from the outskirt of the protest to the core, trying to pick up the last passengers as other protesters help clean up the area, picking up trash, and cutting the red ropes from the intersection signs and the light poles. Finally is the turn of cars and in less than twenty minute Ratchaprasong is back to the usual space of traffic flow. Only reminder the huge wall around Central World filled with people opinions, written over the state “together we can” campaign, which is often played on by the messages that ridicule it of re-signify the content of the propaganda. Few hours later the boards will be removed to leave to the first morning sun just a wall of grey corrugated iron.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

interview with Al Jazeera & other medias

Another interview on my work, lately is a bit crazy this way. If you are interested take a look here. Also Thai PBS (here), Bangkok Post (here), and Matichon (here)

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Interview on New Mandala

Later i have been back to my research, having less time to write on the blog and less feeling of responsibility toward recording what i see and hear on the street. Today New Mandala has an interview on my research, if somebody is interested take a look here.