The Sad Part Was

A review of by T. F. Rhoden of Prabda Yoon’s The Sad Part Was, translated by Mui Poopoksakul.

Thailand’s most popular literary writers rarely get an introduction onto the world stage. An English language newspaper like The Bangkok Post will hint at the greatness of one seminal Thai author or another in their arts and culture section. But non-Thai readers will be clueless as to why. That short stories by the Thai writer Prabda Yoon are now available in his first English language anthology The Sad Part Was is at least one significant corrective. Nearly two decades after Prabda caught the attention of Thai readers and won the S.E.A. Write Award, non-Thais are gifted this rare opportunity to enjoy his works through Mui Poopoksakul’s fluid translation.

Prabda’s writing is playful and creative. For international readers, the breakdown of plot structure, cryptic and sudden endings, and wordplay in general are well understood techniques. But when short story collection Probability came out in 2000, Prabda hit upon a freshness and spontaneity that was less well represented in the realistic writing in Thailand at the time.

One example is in the story “Marut by the Sea”. The burgeoning storyline of the main character Marut’s story is suddenly interrupted by a voice meant to represent some stylized, self-loathing voice of the author’s subconscious. The reader is forced to grapple with this interjecting voice as it obliterates the narrative logic:

You should comprehend by now, given my elaboration thus far, that whoever wrote that book dearest to you is no finer a human being than anybody else. He has no clue what he’s done. Do you know how I got the opportunity to pop up and communicate with you today? It’s simple. Prabda hasn’t come up with a plausible reason for why Marut is sitting by the sea.

You might be thinking that I’m part of his genius. Don’t.

The uninvited authorial voice does not let up. It continues to hold the plot of Marut’s tale hostage, speaking directly to the reader, until the last few words of the story itself. For Thai literature, the effect of the author’s interruption is striking.

All of the short stories work from a vantage point not normally accessible to non-Thai readers. Some comment on how… [click here to continue to read full text]

the sad part was t f rhoden

*Originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of downtown Bangkok for this re-post goes to the awesome Philippe Lai. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

white-compass-rose-th

Death of a Monarch or an Oligarch?

At the end of a king’s long reign, it won’t just be a game of thrones that plays out in Thailand – it will be a game of gold.

The Associated Press recently published an article on the “Thai monarchy’s billions.” This makes for an important, if brief, reminder that there is more than just the power of quasi-governmental position or the power of ideology to the elite role that the late monarch held within the Thai polity.

Because the King could also readily command a power of mobilisation and could have, at least theoretically, commanded a certain power of coercion if the Thai nation were to ever actually slip into a prolonged, violent emergency, he also commanded a remarkable degree of power in terms of raw material wealth.

An extreme concentration of material wealth has political consequences. Thailand, in this regard, is no different than any other polity across the globe. What is unique about Thailand is that its wealthiest citizen also happened be the focal point of so many other bases of elite power. The late monarch was both an elite and an oligarch. And as he was arguably the top elite amidst a network of various elites, he was also the top oligarch.

Thus, as objectively and level-headed as one can be about such things, we should do well to review the state of Thailand’s oligarchy at this juncture of the late monarch’s—the late top oligarch’s—death.

As a side note on motivation for this piece, it should also be plainly stated that one does not mull over economic inequality simply for the sake of getting a pat on the back by our overly-represented, Left-leaning colleagues in academia. Nor does one do this in order to conjure up even rarer arguments for the late monarch’s well-recorded and, at times, patently undemocratic tendencies. Rather, one ought to review the late King’s material wealth as social power simply because in Thailand it is an empirical fact that money matters quite a great deal on the political stage, both locally and nationally.

With the King’s passing, what has changed about oligarchy in Thailand? What has stayed the same? Beginning with the latter, the overall structure of oligarchy has not changed within Thailand since Thursday, 13 October 2016.

There are still incredibly… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in New Mandala by T. F. Rhoden; any original credit for image/photo at the top of this post via Bloomberg. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

white-compass-rose-th

Migrant Labor Activists Plan for the 2020 Election in Myanmar

Over two million Burmese migrants in Thailand were left out of Myanmar’s 2015 election. Will it happen again in 2020 ?

The Union Election Commission of Myanmar reported turnout at 69 percent for the historic 2015 elections within the country. Outside of the country, the story was very different. Fewer than 20,000 external voters engaged their political right at the ballot box abroad. This amounted to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the over four million people who compose the Burmese diaspora.

“We labor migrants and refugees were simply considered not important enough by the previous Burmese government to be involved in the elections last year,” says a Bangkok-based migrant and labor rights activist from Myanmar, who wishes to stay anonymous due to her illegal status in Thailand.

Burmese migrant activists have begun meeting to plan for the next election four years away. They want a much higher rate of turnout for absentee voters for the next election.

A recent example of this foresight was an open letter from a network of migrant associations operating in Bangkok to Aung San Suu Kyi, state counselor of Myanmar. The open letter was meant to coincide with her official June 2016 visit to Thailand. Though the majority of recommendations were about more immediate concerns of migrant labor rights for Burmese citizens who make the trek to Thailand for work, the letter also included important recommendations for an extension of absentee suffrage. Migrant associations specifically requested guarantees for inclusion in future national elections.

Suu Kyi did not publicly address the absentee suffrage challenge during her visit like she did other migrant labor problems. Yet the fact that politically active Burmese in Thailand included this in their letter already demonstrates their concern with “not losing this opportunity again” for potential external votes to be counted in the next general election.

Lowering Costs for Migrants

In terms of Myanmar’s… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in The Diplomat by T. F. Rhoden; image-photo credit for this post via Channel NewsAsia. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

white-compass-rose-th

Who Would Voters with No Votes Vote For?

An exercise in extending absentee suffrage for Myanmar’s citizens abroad.

The 2015 election in Myanmar marked a major milestone in the country’s political transition and return to democracy. But some people were left out of the historic vote.

The reasons to not allow an individual to vote are as much a part of the history of all our great liberal democracies as they are a continual reminder to remain vigilant for those of us who may have lost that right somehow. In the past, some of us did not own property, were not the right kind of ‘white’ (Northern European), were not men, a tad too tanned or rather much too noir, or simply too young to vote — yet not too young to make the ultimate sacrifice in “foreign war.”

If the above reflects too much of the Western experience, then one could also include reasons like class, religion or lack of, language or dialect, caste, cult, ideology, marriage status, education level, sexual preference, and on and on.

Think of some ridiculous social cleavage, some cultural hang-up of yesteryear, and the astute comparative political scientist will ultimately be able to pluck another tawdry example from an even more exotic, backward republic. Give the polity an election and it will collectively vomit out some new excuse for democratic exclusion come election day.

But how does one analyse the individual who once had a political right and has now lost it? How about the individual who lost the right to vote for no reason other than not being at the right place at the right time on election day? A loss on grounds of a technicality—of logistics?

In Myanmar’s 2015 election, they had a constitutional mechanism ready to thwart such a possibility. In the 2010 House of Representatives Election Law, a provision exists in Chapter IX, section 45 to 47, which allows for an “advance ballot.” This is meant to assist those citizens who are bedridden, who may be out of the township on business, or who may be even so far away as to be beyond the territorial sovereignty of the state. Though what is legislated through Parliament and what is effected via on-the-ground operations, alas, proved to be very different.

Of those who were registered… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in New Mandala by T. F. Rhoden; image-photo credit for this post via ITV. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

white-compass-rose-th

L’histoire des Migrations Birmanes en Thaïlande Contredit l’Analyse Actuelle

Le discours prépondérant sur la migration des quelque trois millions de personnes originaires du Myanmar vivant actuellement en Thaïlande est essentiellement binaire. On considère généralement qu’ils sont soit des manœuvres, soit des réfugiés. En termes de causalité, la première catégorie serait incitée à se déplacer « de son plein gré » pour des raisons économiques tandis que la seconde serait « contrainte » pour des motifs politiques.

Une vision simpliste

Cela peut sembler être une rapide simplification des recherches des autres mais plus on se penche attentivement sur les écrits, plus cette vision binaire réfugié vs manœuvre constitue le cadre théorique dans au moins trois disciplines : les politiques migratoires contemporaines, la législation internationale sur les réfugiés et travail, ainsi que les études des organisations non gouvernementale. Je crains que cela ne soit plus une figure rhétorique qu’un élément étayé par des preuves en provenance du terrain.

L’année dernière, Adam Saltsman a expliqué dans The Diplomat que trop de différenciation entre les réfugiés et les manœuvres pourrait en fait nuire à ceux auxquels les analystes et chercheurs souhaitent venir en aide, alors que tant de ceux qui furent autrefois des « réfugiés » sont déjà entrés dans le réservoir de main-d’œuvre en Thaïlande. Il fait valoir que « le plaidoyer pour les réfugiés doit être relié à la défense des intérêts des migrants et du droit du travail » afin d’aboutir à des « solutions durables »… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in Alter Asia by T. F. Rhoden; translated by Édith Disdet; all other written and photo credits appear on Alter Asia. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

white-compass-rose-th

Millennia-Long Histories and Burmese Migrations into Thailand

For the approximately three million people from Myanmar in Thailand now, the main narrative on migration is essentially binary. The argument generally goes that one is either a labourer or one is a refugee. In terms of causation, the former is enticed to move for “voluntary” reasons of economic want, while the latter is propelled for “forced” reasons of political exigency.

This is, perhaps, something of a simplification of the research of others, but the deeper one delves into the literature of at least three specific areas or disciplines of study—contemporary migration policy analysis, international refugee and labour law, and any humanitarian or NGO-type study—the more one realises that this refugee-vs-labourer binary is the essential theoretical framework for analysis. I worry that this is more of a trope than something backed by on-the-ground evidence.

Last year Adam Saltsman made an argument in The Diplomat that too much of a differentiation between refugees and labourers may actually do harm to those who analysts and scholars may wish to help, now that so many of the once “refugees” have already entered the labour pool in Thailand. He argues that “advocacy for refugees must be linked with advocacy for migrants and for labour rights” in order to come to any “durable solutions.”

My own forays into the study of the Burmese in Thailand have also generated qualitative as well as quantitative evidence to argue against this simple binary. This needs to be analysed more fully…[click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in New Mandala by T. F. Rhoden; all other written and photo credits appear on New Mandala. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

white-compass-rose-th

Unequal Thailand

Book review published in New Mandala by T. F. Rhoden on Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker’s Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power (Singapore: NUS Press, 2015.

Does Thailand have an oligarchy? If so, how do we define it? And most importantly for this collection of essays, what is the proof of its existence in contemporary Thailand?

These are some of the main questions that pervade Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power, edited by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker. Translated and reworked from a Thai-language edition, Su sangkom thai samoe na [Towards a More Equitable Thailand] published in 2014 by Matichon, this volume is a timely and useful review of some of the political economy issues facing Thailand today.

With nine chapters by Thai scholars and technocrats, the aim of the book is to provide up-to-date data and analysis on those material foundations that have fostered a growth in inequality and a strengthening of oligarchy in recent years. Some chapters do this better than others, but all provide insight into these issues.

In terms of raw empirical analysis, all of the research essays are a success, particularly the second chapter on… [click here to continue to read full text]

unequalthailand-200x300

*Originally published in New Mandala by T. F. Rhoden; photo credit for re-post from Matthijs van Oostrum via Atlantis. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

white-compass-rose-th