Saturday, 28 January 2017

Monsters of God

Pramuan Burusphat’s accidental vision of an exorcism, from ‘Eroded Memories’series

Bangkok Love Letter
Monsters of God

Thursday 26 January 2017, Bangkok

Dear Foreign Friend,

An obviously compulsive occult fact-checker gave me a hard time over my last letter to you. “The lightning-struck tower is the symbol for 2016, the year for toppling creaky structures,” she says. “That’s last year; that’s done. Now we’re in the year of karma: extreme imbalances are now propelling themselves towards correction.”

Well, sorry about that.

The occult fact-checker was not the only one upset with me. A local stoner god said the law permitting ‘hemp’ cultivation was already passed. Why did I write that it was “being discussed”? Truthfully, I did know, but the law as passed is so confusing and strange, permitting only certain Northern provinces to grow ‘hemp’. Why is Chiangmai so privileged and Bangkok not? I followed this trail of clues & found too many awkward implications that require great courage to explore. (If one were writing a book, its reach might stretch from Air America all the way to the destruction of watershed mountain forests.) That’s best left alone, I decided, consoling myself with the fact that hemp is better for the soil than either cabbage or opium. That story is still unfolding & we should perhaps not rock the boat that’s at least heading in the right direction.

Still in black after 100 days: tattoo girl at ‘Destination: Still Unknown’ at BACC

The 100th day ceremony for King Rama IX fell on Trump’s inauguration day. I switched channels back and forth between local & international news, saturating my retina with archetypal images straight out of fairy tales. The Prince of Darkness with his lacquered golden hair emerging from a tunnel. Ivanka & Melania in Star Treky costumes, like visitors from another world, come to take over this one.

‘Khao Mor-Mythical Escapism’, labyrinth of mirrored cubes at Chula, by Sanitas Pradittasnee

It’s fascinating to watch someone go through the processes & ceremony of becoming the centre of power and, theoretically at least, the unifying focus for his or her society. Why is it so obvious when this alchemy doesn’t occur? Trump looked terrified despite or because of his bravado. He still looks terrified. People inadequate to the role look scared, as if they’re aware what a fraud they are. Instead of growing in stature, they seem diminished somehow, as if dwarfed by the size of the chair they’ve fought so hard to fill.

We meanwhile get scared anticipating our rulers’ responses to their own insecurity, exacerbated by, say, celebrities’ refusal to sing at their inauguration; the pepper spray & tear gas the police fired at protesters a couple of blocks away as the Trumps waited with the Obamas to travel from the White House to the swearing-in; the thinnest cheering crowds in recent memory; or the obvious fact that everyone on that terrace loathes him. Despite the Greco-Roman grandeur & the national anthem, no unifying transference occurred; the Donald remained a real estate developer & reality TV host, clearly out of his depth & lashing out. The I Ching (hexagramme 16, ‘Enthusiasm’) has this to say on these national rituals:

“Rulers have made use of this natural taste for music.. Music was looked upon as something serious and holy, designed to purify the feelings of men. It fell to music to glorify the virtues of heroes and thus to construct a bridge to the world of the unseen. In the temple men drew near to God with music and pantomimes (out of this later the theatre [then cinema!] developed.) Religious feeling for the Creator of the world was united with the most sacred of human feelings, that of reverence for the ancestors. The ancestors were invited to these divine services as guests of the Ruler of Heaven and as representatives of humanity in the higher regions. This uniting of the human past with the Divinity in solemn moments of religious inspiration established the bond between God and man. The ruler who revered the Divinity in revering his ancestors became thereby the Son of Heaven, in whom the heavenly and the earthly world met in mystical contact.
These ideas are the final summation of Chinese culture. Confucius has said of the great sacrifice at which these rites were performed: ‘He who could wholly comprehend this sacrifice could rule the world as though it were spinning on his hand.’

The Richard Wilhelm translation of the I Ching (rendered into English by Cary F. Baynes, Foreword C.G. Jung, publisher Routledge & Kegan Paul) having been my family’s bible, I was struck early in life by this enigmatic passage. I was fascinated by it but knew I couldn’t understand it, at all, until I had the privilege to attend the last week of Queen Rambhai’s cremation rites in the open air at Sanam Luang at the height of the equatorial summer in April 1985.  

When her royal husband, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII), the last absolute King of Siam, died in his 40’s of influenza while in exile in England, there was no pomp & ceremony. Unlike today, Siam was then in monarchy-bashing mode.

Today it’s illegal or even lethal, in some circles, to criticise the royal family, but back then it was flavour of the month, positively encouraged as good citizenship by the government, to the extent that whatever the King did or said was given the worst possible spin (though who would scoff now at his great anxiety that real democracy wouldn’t be possible without good universal education to prevent Thai people from becoming easy prey to dishonest politicians & the military; this was interpreted as contempt for the people & look what’s happened since). He duly abdicated 2 years after the military coup d’etat that ended absolute monarchy; the constitutional crown then fell upon his dead younger brother’s eldest son, Ananda, who as a school boy in Switzerland became King Rama VIII. A study of modern Thai history without dogma or preconceptions would reveal that King Prajadhipok was a conscientious but luckless man who had inherited an impossible situation: a near-bankrupt treasury, a fattened bureaucracy that resented having its fat trimmed (his mistake was not in telling skinny little people to eat cake, but in telling big fat people to eat bread because we were broke), and the worldwide Great Depression.

There was no purpose-built golden pavilion for his remains; just a no-frills cremation at Golders Green Crematorium in wartime North London in 1941, with his tough young widow and a few sad relatives standing by. It would be years later, after the war, before my mother’s father who was his last-standing royal guard & brother-in-law, eventually carried the ashes home to Siam in a tiny urn.

(You see why the forbidden history is so alive to me despite being omitted from our school history books. Like many of his contemporaries, this grandfather was pretty luckless too. He was a soldier who just wanted to serve under men he could respect. His first boss was the last absolute king; his last boss was the first democrat Pridi Banomyong, whom he became close to in the Free Thai during the war. Both his beloved bosses, the most decent of men, suffered slander & died in exile after helpless years of watching their country fall into the fascist abyss. He himself became a farmer & died bankrupt in internal exile. These men’s lives ended in their prime, their gloomy destinies discouraging people of like mind from public service for at least a generation.)

When Queen Rambhai died peacefully in Bangkok in 1984, no royal funeral of such magnitude had taken place for many years. They had to seek out & resuscitate the proper craftsmen and other experts of tradition to conduct the rites & build the cremation pavilion on the royal ground in front of the Grand Palace, like the one they’re building now for King Bhumibol. Her funeral was also the last time when the body was actually placed inside the golden royal urn like an embryo back in the womb, seemingly ready for rebirth, according to ancient custom for royal ceremonies. Now the urn is empty; the coffin is lying behind the curtain.

King Rama IX shrine for the public to sign book of condolences, National Stadium station

On the last evening as the people filed in to pay their last respects, the atmosphere was indescribable, electric. Queen Rambhai was a sincere, gentle & unpretentious royal, a kind woman happily at home on her farm in Chantaburi for many years. She had lovely charisma and was loved, but you knew that people came to say goodbye not just to her but to her husband. In my memory the massive crowds, the rising sandalwood smoke, the overcast evening sky, the eerie ancient music, the Brahmin priest blowing the conch shell to summon the cosmos and the ancestors, have intermingled, become inextricably one. I remember thinking: these people are really good at this; they know exactly what they are doing; I know now how it works, how everyone becomes one entity. Finally I thought I understood the I Ching’s description of this transference.

Change of Picture: the Royal Anthem for King Rama X in the cinema

One week after the 100th day ceremonies for King Rama IX, people continue to wear black. Some office girls may never stop. Repeatedly I hear the words “It’s easy for work. I don’t have to match anything & black always looks smart.” Many people actually seem to be in deeper mourning than before. “We went nowhere & did nothing for the holidays, & we’ll go nowhere for Chinese New Year either,” said a local furniture shop owner, a young family man of Chinese descent, “Not in the mood.”

Depression has a foul psychic odour, as unhealthy as any other toxic emission. An inward retreat, neither fight nor flight. Into this passive aggressive cauldron the government has just thrown in the R word: (National) Reconciliation. Knowing from bitter experience how closely allied with A for Amnesty this is, the grieving Beast has cracked open an eyelid; its gloom has acquired a nervous edge. Anyone would be insane to remotely contemplate the resurrection of the Amnesty Bill in any guise. In the presence of unresolved & unacknowledged injustice, amnesty perpetuates injustice and leads to war, not peace. National reconciliation is impossible without a reckoning on the basis of truth. This is common sense.

Durian head on TV: Guess the ID of the celeb behind the prickly, stinky mask.

When the noose tightens, hypersensitive Thai society reacts immediately. TV news showed PM Prayut berating newspapers for reporting that the new King Rama X had asked for a change in the impending new constitution, which as it stands says the Privy Council President (currently Gen. Prem Tinsulanond) automatically becomes the Regent when the King is overseas or is otherwise indisposed. His Majesty did not ask the government to change the constitution, the PM said; the Privy Council had made the recommendation. Stop making such a fuss; this didn’t affect the people’s rights in any way, as it only concerns royal powers.

As Kevin Kirk of the Devawongse Varopakarn Institute of Foreign Affairs writes in his letter to the Bangkok Post (18 Jan 2017): “Much is being made of the Privy Council’s observation as concurred by His Majesty the King of the need for some minor changes in the draft constitution. The changes, which have no bearing on the rights and privileges of the people, are all about the powers ascribed to the monarch and are, on the whole, mainly procedural, for instance: under whose auspices a regent’s appointment falls or whether the Constitutional Court or the monarch is the final arbiter in times of political strife.”

Framed pictures of the new King for sale

In the Thai art world it’s the end of an era too—let’s say the end of Chapter 2 of Thai contemporary art (Bhirasri Institute having been Chapter 1), with the imminent closure of Chulalongkorn University Art Center, which held its last opening party on January 19 for its last exhibition, ‘Acknowledgement’, a group show of 50 artists who have displayed there since its founding in 1995.  The Art Center manager, Ajarn Suebsang Sangwachirapiban, giggled to me, “I wasted time worrying over your work [portrait of Chit Singhaseni’s widow]—turns out the only problem we’ve had was with Ajarn Apinan’s.” He meant Apinan Poshyananda, the founding director of the Art Center himself, and newly retired Permanent Secretary (#1 bureaucrat) of the Ministry of Culture. Alas it wasn’t the ministry that has blacked out words that form a part of his work, but self-censorship by university eminences.

Apinan Poshyananda’s censored work at Chula Art Center’s swansong

 Two days later at another exhibition opening, of pioneering Thai photo-artist Pramuan Burusphat’s retrospective, ‘Destination: Still Unknown’ at the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre, I came face to face with a stunningly simple image: a black & white photograph of a hand grabbing the seat of a chair backlit by a curtained window. Here was the whole of Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ condensed into a single vision. After watching Trump’s ascension to the Imperial Throne, I suppose I was in a receptive frame of mind.

The Chair’ (1977), part of Pramuan Burusphat’s ‘Destination: Still Unknown’ at BACC

Through such a prism, my focus having been recalibrated by Pramuan’s ‘The Chair’ (1977), I see these larger-than-life, archetypal creatures for what they are: Monsters of God. This is how villagers in the Sundarbans perceive man-eating tigers, the sacred ride of the blood-thirsty Goddess. Trump, Duterte, Thaksin, Mao, Hitler, Mussolini: by their fateful impact these are no ordinary humans like you & me but irresistible forces of destiny, acquiring their exquisitely appropriate form from the emanations of the masses’ secret fears & desires. They have been woven by us from our nightmares to embody our darkest self, which can then be exorcised. As anyone knows who’s ever seen an exorcism movie, you can’t expel the demon until you know its true name.

Strange ball of floating light, claimed to be a ‘phee grasue’, spotted by a forest scavenger
in Isan on 26 Jan at 6 pm. 
“I’ve seen her often, a head with long hair & long fangs.”
No mention of flying intestines. (Nation TV)

Like many filmmakers who’ve nursed the fantasy of making an exorcism movie, I’ve done some research for such a script. All sources & traditions seem to agree: Rule #1: Never be tempted to argue or debate with the demon, especially on abstractions & philosophy. He is the master of deception who will weaken & confound you. Rule #2: Focus all your will on forcing the demon to reveal its true face & name. Rule #3: Expel the demon in the name of something sacred, never arrogantly rely on your own powers or make it personal, otherwise disaster strikes. (Let’s see what the obsessive occult fact-checker says about that.)

The cock is crowing. Awake, arise & shine, my friend. Happy Chinese New Year of the Rooster to you, though it might turn out to be an entirely different animal. I overheard a talking head on TV call it the Year of the Fire Swan (“Hongse Fai”). The heedless man might lick his lips, anticipating a delicious outcome, ie. Gai Yang barbecued chicken. But the talking head explained this meant the Phoenix, when long-buried & apparently dead people, stories, secrets & cold cases rise from the ashes. Good luck with that, my dear. Here’s to hoping you haven’t buried anyone or anything that’s still alive.

With Love from Bangkok,
Ing Kanjanavanit


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.