Cracked photo of a dancer, detail, from ‘Unseen Siam’ exhibition at BACC
Bangkok Love Letter
Sunday 16 October 2016, Bangkok
Dear Foreign Friend,
One of the more unreal aspects of our national bereavement, apart from the unprecedented total TV black-out—more of that later—is the show of grief & devotion by some Thaksin apologists. Life for them must really be purely a matter of displaying the convenient sentiment. They don’t go through life burdened by the courage of their convictions. Or does this mean they love the King but, in the name of democracy, condone obscene corruption and extra-judicial killings? For victims of their convenient display of democratic fervour against our “anti-democratic art”, this realisation leaves a bitter taste.
The King died at 3:52 pm on Thursday. On the other side of town, at home, unconnected by social media, the news still reached me by 4:33, well within the hour, and I must’ve been the last to know. Then everyone waited for confirmation of what everyone already knew.
Royal Household Bureau announces the King’s passing
At 6:59 pm, a pleasant-faced and sympathetic young man from the Royal Household Bureau in impeccable black jacket, black shirt and tie officially announced the dreaded news to the world. He was followed by the more plain-speaking Prime Minister, properly grave and dignified. I thought they did that perfectly.
But then, about half an hour later around 7:40, both Aljazeera & the BBC went off the air. “Due to a technical problem”, says a magenta screen accompanied by bouncy music.
CNN was still on; but by 10 pm CNN had been replaced by the government TV pool, broadcasting old newsreels of the King. I surfed the channels. All the hardy Thai news channels, TNN24, Nation TV, New TV, were gone too. The TV news black-out is absolute and total. I don’t think many of us have ever experienced such a thing before to this degree. Incredibly, soon even HBO, AXN and even Animal Planet all went off the air.
How quiet it was. With no TV to watch, I went on a bike ride along Sukhumvit up to the Aree (soi 26) intersection, which around ten at night, the closing hour of the monster shopping malls nearby, is usually in mini-rush hour mode. The few cars were racing down the empty street, their headlights lending them a wide-eyed panicky look, like radioactive bunnies running for their burrows.
Near soi 26, silhouetted against red neon light, a couple of farangs and some girls in a new tourist bar seemed subdued, talking in huddles, checking their phones. I longed to film them with my phone, but they might’ve misunderstood if they were feeling paranoid. Becoming paranoid about their possible paranoia, I was afraid they might’ve accused me of trying to shame them for their perfectly natural reaction of drinking alcohol in a bar while the King dies. This thought saddened and oppressed me, and filled me with foreboding.
I rode down to Thonglor, through the soi 38 night market, normally packed with diners at this hour. There were perhaps twenty people in the little sub-soi. The rest of it, all the way from the mango-sticky rice cart to the shaved ice stand & beyond, was a graveyard. The old neighbourhood rice soup shop is the only place still full. All the people eating inside were already in black, suggesting that they’d already been home to shower & change.
4:34 pm October 14, doctors & nurses wait to say goodbye at Siriraj Hospital
Finally there is something live. 24 hours after the passing of the King, his body left the hospital in a van with misted green glass windows flanked by motorcycle outriders followed by another van and a fleet of red cars, on a short drive across the river to the Grand Palace along a route packed with mourners in black. In between the minuscule pauses in a woman’s annoying running commentary and chitchat, as the van passed by cries and moans that raised the hairs on the back of my neck rose from the grieving crowd. But the woman would not shut up. I want to hear the people’s voices! Damn you for drowning them out with your modulated dulcet tones.
Why does the government’s PR Department—and this goes for any and every Thai government in living memory—insist on telling us everything (and more, like it’s some kind of sightseeing lecture tour)? We can see for ourselves, and we want the real sound too. (Only TNN24 was blessedly free of the running commentary for a while, perhaps because of some glitch.) Same for the end of the ceremony in the palace as the monks began the 24 hour 100-day chanting “in the ancient Old Capitol style” and the royal family led by the Crown Prince departed in a motorcade, the monks’ low voices blended eerily with the royal anthem. Just let us see and hear everything as if we’re there. You don’t have to lead us by the nose like a buffalo. Aesthetically as well as ethically, it’s an outrage to chatter sweetly over such powerful sounds, like cupcake icing on steak tartare.
At midnight normal TV was supposed to resume, “to be interrupted occasionally for important announcements and live broadcasts of ceremonies”. First only Animal Planet, History Channels & National Geographic (but oddly not Discovery) came on. Then the news channels came back: first Aljazeera and CNN then the BBC and Thai news channels; but all entertainment channels were still off the air when I switched off at 12:30.
Now, on the third day, Thai news are not back to normal possibly by choice or self-censorship, but international news are blacked out only with precision. We get to see the beginning and the middle, but the end of the story cuts away to the aforesaid bouncy music on a blank screen with the bluntly unapologetic words: “Programming will return shortly”, which only serves to stress what they are censoring. Are they beginning to realise that no matter how unpalatable the reality, a news black-out is self-defeating and unsustainable; or do they know what they’re doing after all?
Our lives are full of such idle guessing games. Questions weighty and petty are being raised everywhere, as we tentatively grope our way through the black-out to ascertain what is right and what we can endure: with our few black clothes to fill these 30 days of mourning, are black t-shirts with funny messages or cartoon characters in bad taste? From what I’ve seen, the answer to that one is no. Batman is fine. Even my Censor Must Die t-shirt offended no one. So long as the colour is correct, the content doesn’t matter.
What of the “no festivities” request? In my own ‘village’, galleries are getting anxious calls from artists asking if their show’s been cancelled. The venerable old Art Center at Chulalongkorn University has led the way by not cancelling ‘Continuum: Acculturating’, its one before last show (yes, the big art space atop the main library that has nurtured & spawned so many intriguing artists will soon close forever, alas), whose opening falls on October 28th, well within the 30 days. Good for them. The King was an artist, they might’ve conferred; he painted, composed music and played jazz on the saxophone. He wouldn’t want to put a stop to art.
It’s futile but amusing to speculate why there’s still no HBO even though there are no reruns of ‘Game of Thrones’, or to wonder what the King would or would not like, as in “The King wouldn’t want to deprive me of my fix of Junior MasterChef Australia.” The King cannot help you with that or anything else any more. It is up to us. He is not here now. We are, and we keep calm and carry on.
Yesterday I saw what might be fairly termed an apparition. At least six other people saw him, but I still wonder if he was real. A group of us had gone to see Master Khrua In-Khoeng’s exquisite murals in the old chapel of Wat Baromniwas near Bo-bay market, painted under King Monkut’s enigmatic instructions: white people in Victorian dress, masters of empires, gazing in awe at a gigantic unfurling pink lotus; ringed Saturn amidst a host of angels above a French armada, approaching from a land of Greco-Roman power architecture. The moons of Jupiter—is there one too many? Why? Or is the extra moon a star? Which star? A wealth of images to feed the most discerning occult and colonial history enthusiasts.
Unlike everyone else, the man was not in black but purple; a little man with a strange skinny face who just popped into the dark chapel from the midday glare of the doorway. He didn’t prostrate to the Buddha statue like other people either; he merely stood there with hands raised in prayer and chanted, in clearly enunciated Pali, the mantra of the Guardian Angel of Siam. He left as soon as he was done, like a man on a mission with no time to waste.
You might conclude that he was the local mad man, someone’s pitiful but harmless relative left to roam free in peace. My Sherlock Holmesian fantasy is that he’s a retired primary school teacher who’s made a vow to chant the mantra of national protection at every sacred site built by the former-monk King Mongkut (who wrote the mantra), in a bid to bargain with the gods to impress them with the necessity of saving his beloved homeland. You decide which theory best fits his purple shirt and burning eyes.
With Love from Bangkok,
A pioneer of environmental investigative reporting, Ing Kanjanavanit is a filmmaker, painter & bilingual writer, best known in Thai for the cult classic travelogue/handbook for environmental activism, ‘Khang Lhang Postcard’ (‘Behind the Postcard’) under the nom de guerre Lharn Seri Thai (136)—‘Free Thai Descendent/Force 136’, to evoke the Free Thai Movement against fascist forces during World War 2, which fought for the Allies then after the war was betrayed by the Allies. Sadly, she no longer attends Free Thai merit-making rites, not since Thaksin’s redshirts appropriated the name & equated Thaksin with Free Thai leader Pridi Banomyong, which is a travesty & a sacrilege.