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Blog Archive December 2013

2013 Ends With Information Overload and a Deepening Divide

The reality check idea is we need to be mindful of how we find information, where we find it, how we analyze it, and finally how we act on it. Along with my fellow bloggers in 2013 we expanded our essays beyond the limit of the law enforcement sphere.

Barbara Nadel, Quentin Bates, and Jarad Henry, my fellow bloggers, have added an international element to the joint enterprise, covering the UK, Iceland, Turkey and with me adding Thailand. We sent to each of you our very best wishes for the New Year 2014. And we hope that you will return in 2014 to read our latest take on crime, courts, justice, language, culture, politics, economics and technology.

This will be my last blog for 2013 and I’ve thought whether to strive for something memorable until I thought for a moment—that never works. If something is memorable we almost never know it when we see it. It is only later with the engine of memory that certain things stick, and most things are blown out the back of the large harvester as so much chaff.  That is an introduction to the topic of this essay.

The big story is the sheer, unimaginable quantity of information that we process each day.  When this blog started in July 2009 we had a glimmer of this happening. The idea was to zero in on a social justice or law enforcement story at issue, and examine the reality of the events, causes, connections, and outcomes. The idea, in one way, now seems quaint as a social gathering in a Jane Austen novel. Edward Snowden’s revelations showed how every dance floor, every dancer and their cellphones were being processed into a vast, secret system.

How does a democracy deal with the capacity to collected unlimited information about everyone? Or do we have to accept that information of this quantity, with the capacity to exploit it, means another form of government will emerge?

I started International Crime Authors Reality Check with several goals in mind. Since the Enlightenment, rationalism and empiricism have been urged as reliable tools to discover reality through experience and evidence. Were the facts knowable, testable, and true? What were the limitations on what we know? What (and whose) interests were being served? Were outcomes consistent across class, ethnic, gender, age or sexual identity groups? I am beginning to think that I had it wrong—at least with so much information it is possible to say the information, and those who control it, is the force that drives and shapes our perception of reality.

Those perceptions are also a product of emotions and traditional morality. Neither logic, critical analysis, evidence nor experience have tamed or limited our capacity for rage, anger, or hatred. What is being called the Age of Endarkenment evidenced by the emergence of neo-reactionary forces who wish for a pre-enlightenment world and are active in engineering that return. David Hume in the 18th century identified the tension: that “the rules of morality are not the conclusions of our reason”. It follows that people who are vested in the traditional rules of morality are mostly likely to co-operate in efforts to ‘kettle’ the assault forces of reason.

In a more information scarce world the events close to home were the ones we paid attention to—and I suspect the ones most of us still pay attention to. We have a horse in the local race. We can cheer or boo from afar at some foreign race being waged with attack helicopters, mines, drones, tanks and small arms, but we are wired to care (as a general rule) about how those races are played. Unless our government claims there is some immediate stake to protect, then we have a dog that enters the foreign race.

The government collects big data; corporations collect it has well. Most of this data we freely hand over each time we go online or make a phone call or walk down a street lined with CCTV cameras. We are watched, tagged; our preferences, biases, choice, medical and family histories recorded in words and images. We not only consume huge amounts of data; we leave a large data trail behind us every day.

We are, by nature, tribal. Whether the locus of the tribe is a football team or a research department of Google, we co-operate with other members of our tribe and that means we can compromise with them to keep the co-operation intact.

The world of big data has spawned thousands if not millions of new digital tribes. Whatever your belief system, hobby, obsession, fantasy, dream, or talent, you can join a tribe that thinks, believes, shares, and promotes your worldview. We take the ladder down the echo chamber that replays our thoughts in other voices. And suddenly our tribe culls through the large data and finds those parts that are supportive of tribal affiliation and loyalty.  Because there is so much data to mine, random chance alone guarantees a steady stream of self-serving data will enhance the core beliefs of the tribe.

That becomes a problem as tribes are manufactured with big money to colonize the political, economic and social spheres. The top 1% has the resources and technical knowhow to have ushered in a new era of colonialism where they are the colonial masters. The very rich stand to gain even more wealth as they occupy and exploit the thoughts of vast numbers of data consumers. In prior colonial times, the colonials felt the oppression. In the new colonies, political, entertain and consumer choices merge into the artificial reality that consumers are free to choose.

Big data, if it is one thing you can count on, is the pathway to loss of personal freedom. I suspect that freedom has always depended on limited information possessed by rulers. People could slip between the cracks. Now even people who supposedly live ‘off the grid’ are profiled on social media. And no one seems to notice the irony.

There is another important side to information overload. It has played hell with the censorship regimes that have kept elites as the only source of information. That enormously powerful ability to control communications from phones, radio, and TV is over. The Internet has shot it in both knees and it continues with a brave face to struggle ahead as if nothing has happened. Like the scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian when the knight’s arms, one at a time, and then legs one at a time, are hacked off and still he continues the fight.

In Thailand, there are many reasons for the current political unrest. But among those reasons, one should include the social media, computers, and cellphones. Everyone is plugged in. On the BTS or MRT (the two public modern train systems in Bangkok), you find more than half of the passenger absorbed with their cellphones. Few of them are using them to make phone calls. They are playing games, checking Twitter, Facebook, or email. Keeping in contact with their tribe. What is remarkable is how the various sides of the political divide have herded their followers in cattle pens on Facebook or Twitter. They feed on the emotional hay thrown to them. Though it looks like information it is actually misinformation, disinformation, opinion, gossip, sprinkled here and there with source information that shares their bias.

Big information is making it very difficult to govern a large group of people. The use of myths to create a designer identity for the group worked when the government was the sole author of stories, the source of facts, the fountainhead of reality. When reality can be fact checked, the weaknesses, lies, deceit, and misinterpretation can be exposed. That causes conflict. Challenging an official version of a founding story has always been dangerous and dealt with swiftly. That approach worked when critics could be picked off one at a time. It works less well when the critics are clustered in small tribes, scattered around the world, interconnected in ways that picking off one person only incites more people to replace him or her. The old state monopoly over violence was always its Ace up its sleeve. Like the information monopoly, the violence monopoly is fractured. In Thailand, for example, it appears the police are unable to arrest demonstrators who have committed acts of violence, or otherwise broken the law. In fact, the demonstrators have even held the police inside police stations in what looks like custody for hours.

Big data is breaking down how we are governed, what the notion of government means, and how to factor in the consent of the governed. Once the veil of government-controlled messages was lifted, even slightly, the whole governing enterprise became unstable.  Appealing to tradition is one way of responding to the challenge. The tradition paradox becomes evident as the most conservative and traditional members of the society are also the ones that benefited the most from the explosion of wealth unleashed by a full-blown global consumer-based society.

Consumers, whether in the city or the provinces, want pretty much the same thing. They want something new.  They have grown accustomed to leaving messages, having a voice, being counted and participating in the way that their parents and grandparents never had.

To try and reset that consumer mind to value old traditions, beliefs and mindset is a large challenge.  Consumer culture fed by limitless digital information and shaped by tribe membership has been overtaking political culture.  In Thailand, that conflict of mindsets is scheduled into the New Year. The new identity is shaped by this new culture and way of thinking. That’s what makes the divide in Thailand so dangerous. Neither side will compromise—or perhaps the gap between them is too great for that to happen—as they want and value different identities and no longer respond to the threats, structures of authority, or nostalgia.

For the first time in my memory in Thailand the Thais are no longer avoiding confrontation and the possibility of conflict. They seem resigned to it happening. No one is fact-checking reality. When that capability is switched off, a cold darkness shoots through as you realize all of those Hollywood endings where everyone shook hands and kissed were a delusion. In 2014 the world will, now and again, check in on the Thailand story. People should pay attention and here’s the reason why—how things go down in Thailand will have implication elsewhere.

Thailand’s politics is like the ancient Greek Oracle—tell us the future of how a divide between the traditionalists and those seeking broader participation in the process of governance can be resolved peacefully or spin into civil war.

In 2014 remember that great noir philosopher The Joker, who had some advice for Batman:

“Don’t talk like one of them, you’re not! Even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak–like me. They need you right now. When they don’t…they’ll cast you out. Like a leper. See, their morals, their code: it’s a bad joke. They’re dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. You’ll see, when the chips are down these civilized people will eat each other. Ya see I’m not a monster, I was just ahead of the curve.”

For a weekly update of what gets dropped, what is broken, what can be salvaged and the costs of the whole enterprise, we hope that you will drop in at International Crime Authors Reality check if for no other reason than to see if 2014 will be the year of the Joker.

Posted: 12/26/2013 7:52:14 PM 

 

Lost in a Cloud of Selfies

Selfie is an ugly word that conveys what we’ve let ourselves become. At Nelson Mandela’s funeral, the President of the United States is taking a selfie with the Prime Minister of Denmark. Smiling, self-absorbed faces removed from the place, time and mood of the funeral for a great man.

Remember that moment. A funeral. Technology seducing our sorrow. The seduction is just beginning. This is an essay on where it is leading us.


Global Post

In Thailand, the political turmoil, the time of great discontent and violent, hateful speech demonstrators in the street also took pictures of themselves. We are on display for ourselves, in love with these selves, and can’t wait to share ourselves through vast digital networks.

Selfies are our gateway out of paying attention to those around us. Once we no longer pay attention, finely tuned attention to the details of those around us, we retreat further into our own world. Technology has found our sweet spot of narcissism and imprisoned us with our own smiling faces.

We are in the midst of a grand succession. We are the first intelligent species to engineer our own replacement as the most intelligent life form. AI (Artificial Intelligence), stimulations, emulations, or machine intelligence—the name of our successor isn’t settled. But it will be. And it won’t be taking selfies of itself. We are close to inventing a technology that will ultimately render its own intelligence  an obsolete, low grade system constricted by inferior, slow, unpredictable and biased filters, and degraded search, storage, access and low level information capture and conversion. We won’t understand what means. But we’ll get the hint we’ve fallen behind. Once that succession takes place, we will find ourselves in a race we can’t and won’t win. We are harnessing the tools of evolution and building new technology at the same time. This evolution is accelerating at a rate that Darwin couldn’t have predicted.  It’s only a matter of time before this process blows past us like the Roadrunner.

We aren’t there. Yet.

We are in transition. That selfie by President Obama may be the defining moment years from now, as others look back and wonder what happened to us on the way to our second-class status. We were so worried about our status, our power, our wealth that we forgot that we were one species that had so much in common. That our differences, as great as we perceived them, were minor compared with our position in a world where a form of intelligence slipped out of our control.

The evidence for this transition is everywhere. But we are too blind to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The advances in robotics, the algorithms, advances in nanotech, and physics are reported as small, isolated steps within a particular domain. One day these domains will merge. At that point, whatever grievances we have with one another will pale in comparison with an intelligence that dwarfs our ability to understand and comprehend.

How will we know when that day comes? We will have advance warning: we will have long since stopped paying attention to each other in the analog world of the restaurant, living room, subway, or the street. Our attention will be focused on our place, our face, traveling inside the digital world, linking into that network on its way through an intelligent universe. We hitch a ride and find that journey is the only one that provides pleasure. Our endorphins rush through our bodies as we plug into the grid. Like a flea on a dog we will we will one day owe our very existence to another species. This is how it starts. The most powerful man in the world snapped a selfie at the funeral of a great man who endured years of imprisonment to achieve an ideal for his country. Think for an undistracted quality one minute what that means for you.

When Nelson Mandela died, an age, a feeling, an attitude and a way of living died with him. Had he lived in a world of selfies would he have had those admired human qualities that allowed him to rise above his sacrifice? Look around at our world with Mandela no longer amongst us, and ask yourself, and see the trend line. Selfies define the stage we occupy. We are cut off from our surroundings, from the past, from the greats who brought diagrams of our lives fit together as families, neighbors, friends, and strangers. And how we struggled to understand their body language, gestures, and words, and attribute meaning. Our lost art is paying attention to people in our presence. We filter them out. We erase them from our days and nights as we go for our digital fix.

We are addicts of the worst kind. Machine intelligence will know best how to feed that addiction. Look around you. How hard would be? Not very. And like all junkies we will do whatever it takes to hear that magically ‘bing’ noise as someone, somewhere, ‘likes’ our selfie.

And what does that mean for you and for me, or our children and grandchildren?

After the great succession takes place, it means their future will no longer be in your hands. They will likely have enhanced intelligence and have infinitely greater resources at their disposal. We will be small part of their overall digital relationships, and like an icon they would send a message as and when needed. But we will no longer control the encryption keys. It is open to question whether our signal will be lost in the noise of the system. That will also be a transition period of short duration. The future won’t be in our hands or our children’s.

Look at the way we have treated each other. Look at the way we’ve treated other species. How can we expect a super-intelligent entity to treat us any differently than the top 1% treated the bottom 99%. The elites will have the toughest time adjusting to joining the species and in a place as they never assumed was possible—a world without them at the top of the food chain. We will spend more and more time in the cloud chasing after selfies, those butterfly like moments, forgetting the fields of flowers have changed hands.

The selfie is our new expression of ‘self’ and in our mirror we find ourselves bewitched by this most seductive of all illusions—the reality of self, its unity, coherence, and permanence.

Others have written similar pieces. You will find them nailed them on digital lampposts . In fifty years, what appears here, and lodged in a few other places, will be evidence that we had an inkling of what was coming. But we largely ignored the warning signal framed in the famous presidential selfie. That image will be defining moment when we celebrated rather than questioned our central vulnerability. Once we no longer define our identity through our relationship with others but through our own mirror, we will hardly notice AI will upgrade that mirror until we disappear inside it. By then we will have forgotten how empathy was at the heart of what we once were, and what was required to claw back this principle that defined our humanity. Not that long ago, it was normal to pay attention to those around us.  Empathy worked best face-to-face and once it is gone, no intervention of a technological will bring it back. In the end we will have surrendered our humanity as the last selfie is posted in the cloud.

Posted: 12/19/2013 7:51:51 PM 

 

Ordinary Shareholders and Thailand’s Political Buffet

I like this quote:

“The poor have objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.”–G.K. Chesterton

When I posted it on Twitter this week a lot of other people liked and retweeted it. The reason G.K. Chesterton’s quote resonances today in Thailand and many other countries is it sums up the class dissatisfaction that both the rich and the poor feel about being governed.

Let’s face it. Government is a necessary evil we need in order to find a way to live with each other. Anarchy as an alternative creates a dystopia more bleak, dark and dangerous than just about any political system (unless you have the misfortune to live in North Korea or Somalia). Most other systems are in various degrees of crises, revolution, or civil war. Government is a tough racket to keep from running into the ditch.

In Thailand, on the political front, no one is happy with the current impasse. Two polarized sides blame each other for every failure, problem, or mistake over the last dozen years. Now it has all come to a head. The last couple of weeks saw an increase in strong emotions on both sides and once that happened, finding a way to lower the temperature inside the political cauldron has proved elusive.

Over the last few weeks, the traditional elites and their middle-class allies in Bangkok have taken to the streets. Their initial action was in the best traditions of a democracy where people march and give voice their objections to Government policy and decisions. The right to demonstrate is healthy for a democracy. Like freedom of expression, protest demonstrations are an essential part of the democratic process.

The initial goal of the most recent round of demonstrations was to pressure the government to drop an amnesty bill that would have cleared criminal and civil actions against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and that goal was achieved. Success didn’t stop the protest but embodied it to moved on to pressuring the government to accept the validity of a questionable decision by the Constitutional Court that effectively bars the government from amending the Constitution.

The controversial constitutional amendment passed by the Government would have returned the partially elected Senate into a wholly elected body it was before the 2006 coup. And finally the protest demanded that the prime minister and cabinet resign and a caretaker government be appointed. A house dissolution and election were insufficient. The protesters demanded a “People’s Council” to take over governing. But who elects the People’s Council?

There lies the rub. Elections. Thailand’s urban Bangkok elites, who mainly support the Democrat Party, have failed to out vote their upcountry cousins in the North and Northeast who consistently walk away with an electoral majority for the Pheu Thai Party headed by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the ousted Thaksin’s sister. The last time the Democrat party formed a government they had the assistance of the military to lever them into the driver’s seat. Following the 2006 coup that tore up the 1997 constitution and removed the government, the Democrats replaced the government, which had won an election mandate to govern.

The demonstration leadership under ex-Democrat MP and ex-Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, having tasted success and had the Government on the run, saw an opening to implement his plans to radically alter the existing constitutional and political system and install a wholly new system. It is no longer an anti-government demonstration; it was a strange bird, part-coup, part-revolution, part-rock concert with portable toilets, tents and bamboo matt and a well-stocked mobile kitchen. It turns out the real complaint is not just the Government but the political system enshrined (irony alert) in the 2007 Constitution written under the careful eye of the military. How can we put it—the military inspired constitution proved too much on the side of a liberal democracy for the Bangkok elites.

A couple of metaphors might be helpful to understand evolving political handbook the opposition wishes to replace the one in the Constitution. Although I am aware that arguing by metaphor presents dangers and distortions and this attempt will be no exception—especially when the metaphors are “corporations” and “food”.

Despite the polarized political divide in Thailand, both sides are pro-business, pro-capitalists. No one is arguing the free-market economic system in Thailand (where there is full-employment) needs to be destroyed and replaced with a different economic model. It’s not that kind of revolution.

The political issue arises because of a fundamental disagreement of who should be in charge of economic and political systems. Like a large company, Thailand’s resources are spread over a large number of people. Call them voters, or stakeholders, or call them shareholders. In a company, the dividend paid out depends on the earnings and the Board of Directors determine the amount of the distribution to the shareholders. Also the members of a company board of directors stand for election and the shareholders vote. In a parliamentary system, the government acts as the board of directors. Citizens, like shareholders, they choose with their votes among those competing for positions of authority and power.

Political systems also distribute dividends and that is why the stakes are so high and elections are so important. This is where the food metaphor kicks in. To add another layer to the metaphorical cake, think of a buffet. Everyone demands a big share of the buffet and for someone else to pick up the check at the end of the meal. The buffet isn’t unlimited. As the number of chairs around the table expands, it is viewed by the original diners, that these new people are threatening to eat them out of Bangkok condo and holiday house.

The problem for the opposition in Thailand is the new diners feel they’ve had enough of the traditional Bangkok elites who offered them crumbs and leftovers. They had started demanding their fair share of the main course and the pie, cigars, and brandy. Competition comes into play. Like in the corporate world, in the political world those who have a monopoly see no reason to give it up. What we witness in this drama is a page out of the human nature newsreel as people fight over a place at the table, one of the chairs, the food, and the bill. Greed rears its head, talons and fangs appear, and fat cats and skinny cats circle each other around the table. Voters choose candidates for all kinds of reasons, but an important one is they will fairly distribute that buffet to them. Another way of looking at populism is the buffet line becomes much longer.

To return to the idea of political system having similarly with a corporate governance system, it is important to understand the purpose of a stock market, which  is to raise capital. Capital formation depends on convincing shareholders to invest in shares. The democratic political process operates on a similar idea. Politicians need to raise political capital and are willing to pay hard cash to do so meaning that political capital is more than an ego trip. A company raises capital on the financial markets by persuading investors to part with their money. Politicians raise political capital by promising voters benefits so they will vote for them. And in Thailand that can often involve a cash transaction (and no side has clean hands in vote buying). A political system also needs to raise political capital. We judge the legitimacy of a political system by the ways it sets the rules as to how politicians are required to raise political capital sufficient to send them to parliament. Once elected many of those promises may be compromised or forgotten but sooner or later a politician knows that he/she is answerable for an accounting at the next election.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, has a plan to restructure the political process, which would result in eliminating a citizen’s right to vote. Viewed from a company standpoint, the effect is to replace the ordinary shareholder with the preferred shareholders. Other than calling them the ‘good people’ these preferred shareholders are entrusted with the right to vote, and they will vote for the board of directors of ‘good people’. In other words, the minority calls the shots and there is no mechanism for voting the minority out of office. Back to food: The buffet line is closed. No more chairs at the table. The newcomers are shown the door.

This suspicious looks like a backdoor, hostile privatization of a public company. It is more like an old-fashioned nationalization of shares without compensation for the loss to the ordinary shareholder. In the capitalist world, throwing shareholders out of the buffet room is viewed with suspicion. Drones were built for that eventuality. No ordinary shareholder is going to except the excuse that their interests are better served by the preferred shareholders.

In the case of Thailand, should a trial balloon to suspend election become a reality and should the appointment of a self-governing People’s Council come about, the effect would be to annul general elections. And perhaps be the spark for considerable violence. Inside this, the newly privatized political process, the preferred shareholders, call all of the shots, including the suspension of ‘populist’ policies tricks that anti-democracy proponents believe are the heart of the problem.

As the weekend approaches in Bangkok, there are many unanswered political questions being raised in Thailand. Voters, like ordinary shareholders, like the buffet spread that Thaksin Shinawatra’s political parties have delivered to them. Taking away their plates, spoons and forks and chase them from the table won’t be an easy task. What price will the preferred shareholders, the Bangkok urban elite, pure capitalists in their hearts, be prepared to pay to take back the buffet room for themselves? The answer is unclear.

What is more clear is that many anti-democratic protestors unite around the idea that political capital is only raised from the ‘good people’ and ordinary shareholders aren’t clever or educated enough to be considered ‘good’ and are excluded from direct involvement in the political process. That idea underestimates them. Once you’ve been to a good buffet no one can take away that memory. To be tossed out the door not because you’ve lost an election but because an elite thinks you’re stupid is the kind of argument that won’t win a lot of friends.

The opposition argument isn’t about winning friends; it’s about defeating an enemy. And at the end of the day, a basic complaint by conservative forces is that liberal democracy helps ‘bad’ people obtain political power over the ‘good’ ones. The assumption is that ordinary people should be happy that the good people, the preferred people, are committed to running the system according to old values, traditions, and customs as to running the ‘company’ and the ‘buffet’.

But you other lot—you go back to your bowl of sticky rice, fish sauce and som tum. And this is your karma, actually it is your own fault we are protesting. You, the ordinary shareholders, with your upcountry snout in our Bangkok buffet are enablers of an evil, corrupt family that abuses political power. Besides you are trying to sit in my chair and eat off my plate!

It is doubtful that members of this group of anti-democratic elites would ever go to the capital market to raise funds for one of their companies with such a policy statement set out in their prospectus. But when it comes to the political buffet, in Thailand people are debating the idea in the streets as to when the good people will once again have the authority to decide menu and decide who gets to stay at the head table and second helpings.

Posted: 12/12/2013 7:54:32 PM 

 

Thai Political Super Storms: Kreng Jai System Under Attack

A series of political super storms has hit Thailand in recent years—in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2013. That’s a lot of bad weather. The turmoil and fallout have occurred with the frequency of super typhoons, with each bringing more damage than the last. At the moment a number of commentators in Thailand and abroad, like weathermen, are trying to forecast the political weather in the days, weeks and months to come. Most are finding it difficult to make predictions with any degree of confidence.

Political predictions in Thailand suffer from limitations comparable to those of weather forecasting. The political climate involves complex systems that constantly change, reassemble, merge, expand or shrink in ways that are uncertain until they happen. I’d like to examine one feature of the ongoing turmoil—the cultural world of kreng jai—that may partially explain the political instability of Thailand’s recent past.

Some years ago I wrote a book titled Heart Talk, which reviews the large (seemingly limitless) Thai language vocabulary about the heart. The Thai expression kreng jai has the longest entry in the book and was the most difficult to explain in English. I wrote: “The phrase reflects a rich brew of feelings and emotions—a mingling of reverence, respect, deference, homage and fear—which every Thai person feels toward someone who is their senior, boss, teacher, mother and father, or those in powerful positions such as a high-ranking police officer.”

What is driving the political turmoil, in my view, is a breakdown of this ancient kreng jai system that has until now been the bedrock of the political establishment. The patronage system, the pii/nong—older and younger person system and the automatic deference to rank, uniform and position were built from the stone and cement of kreng jai. Even voting has been fenced in by the unwritten rules of deference.

There is much talk recently of vote buying, talk that is aimed at undermining the legitimacy of a popularly elected government. The historical record indicates that the exchange of gifts and benefits for votes has long been a feature of Thai politics and is another example of the kreng jai tradition. Poor villagers deferred to the educated, well-dressed “betters” with more power and money because that was how the system worked. Gift giving was the oil that lubricated the system.

In the kreng jai system it was inappropriate, rude and unforgiveable to question or criticize people in power or who hold positions of authority. From a policeman to a village head man to a schoolteacher or civil servant—the status was sufficient to guarantee compliance without worry of being asked to justify an action or a policy or a belief.

Until recently there was a widely accepted faith that an older person would take care and protect a younger person. That those with power, in return for deference to them, would keep the poorer, “powerless” people from harm’s way. What has happened in Thailand is that the faith in this grand bargain promised by kreng jai has been broken—with a new political consciousness arising from a fledgling system of electoral politics.

Once the general population of voters understood that they had power in their vote, they started to wonder about the role of kreng jai in a world of newly empowered voters. This modern, new power to elect officials promised to secure for them a better life than the one they had traditionally received under a pure kreng jai system. What happened next? Pretty much what you’d expect—people’s previously unshaken belief in the old faith that had driven the political process was replaced by doubt and skepticism. In response, both anti-government and government officials have attempted to reinforce the kreng jai system by taking advantage of the legal tools of criminal defamation as defined by Article 112 of the Criminal Code (lèse majesté) and the Computer Crime Act.

A yawning political divide has opened up between those who wish to institutionalize a political system based on the old notion of kreng jai and those who wish a substantial modification of automatic deference as the appropriate attitude toward the political elites. To this extent the elites on both sides of the current political impasse share the same interest. It shouldn’t be overlooked that a separate kreng jai system operates inside the class of elites. In fact, the more one investigates kreng jai, the more one starts to see that, like the weather, it quickly becomes very complicated.

Thailand’s anti-democratic forces are embracing the idea of kreng jai to preserve their world. That means a code of conduct based on deference within the elite class and between the elite class and everyone else. The Bangkok elites rail against Thaksin Shinawatra, who comes from a Chinese political/commercial family in Chiang Mai, with the kind of deep, committed hatred that can be understood as emerging from their existential fear of his growing power. Like the Israelis’ hatred for the Iranians, nothing and no one is going to change the emotional voltage.

Thaksin Shinawatra’s mistake was to play the popularity card to trump the informal kreng jai code among the elites—one that kept a rough parity of power so no one was hugely more influential than the others. The Bangkok elites saw Thaksin’s political agenda as a betrayal of the long-standing elite power arrangements. He refused to honor those informal arrangements in a way that made them feel threatened. The Bangkok elites had every reason to support the 2006 coup against this internal kreng jai violator and encourager of the upcountry voters’ growing inclination to seek political power rather going through the old patronage system.

Of course, it might be said that Thaksin created his own personal kreng jai system, perverting the original one for his own personal profit. Another view is that Thaksin saw an opportunity to ride a wave of cultural and social change. He hadn’t created that wave that threatened to wash out the old temple walls of kreng jai. But he found clever political ways to tap into the power of that wave through health-care programs and other populist policies that kreng jai had never delivered.

The start of the current round of turmoil began when the government tried to enact a grand bargain among the elites. The idea was to pass an amnesty bill that would have absolved Thaksin and the opposing Bangkok elite side of all crimes since the 2006 coup.

The opaque nature of power arrangements and agree-ments on the informal side of Thai politics hints without any solid evidence that a deal was struck and provided cover for the government’s push to enact the amnesty bill. Whatever the deal was (assuming there was one), it excluded the possibility for justice for the people who had gone into the street to protest against the regime installed by the 2006 coup. a number of whom had been shot, injured or killed. Those responsible for the camage would be let of the hook. No one would be made responsible for any of the wrong doings. The stark reality sent a clear message—the “little” people would have to accept their karma. It was a deal by, for and between the elites only.

The political struggle over amnesty ironically ignited the current turmoil. What went wrong? A couple of factors fall into the category of miscalculation. The Bangkok elites have traditionally enjoyed the type of immunity that normally extends to foreign diplomats. The traditional elites had no real fear of criminal prosecution for their activities. Why would they need an amnesty bill when they already enjoyed virtual immunity? Thaksin had, in their view, betrayed them, and he was allowed to go and remain in exile. No one tried to stop him from leaving Thailand. For his betrayal, he’s hated at a distance. So for Thaksin, living in exile to use Skype and other high technological means, to go over their heads with an amnesty bill was intolerable. They perceived, from a distance, he’d found yet another way to overrule the traditional elites. His continued influence was an insult, another thumb in the eye and a display of power to force them to acknowledge his right to run the show.

What is interesting was the uproar the legislation caused. The hatred among the elites and their supporters for Thaksin’s betrayal intensified as they saw the amnesty bill as another attempt by Thaksin to pull the strings to overrule the verdict of exile and asset confiscation by the unofficial power structure. To add insult to their injury, he pointed to his legitimate right to have his way as he had gained the popular vote from what are, in their view, the “uneducated,” “stupid” and “unwashed masses.” The non-Thaksin elites were livid—how could these people who historically owed kreng jai to them ally with Thaksin to undermine their position and power?

Those same unwashed masses who delivered Thaksin his power also felt betrayed. They turned on him. For a brief moment the shared hatred of the traditional elites and the upcountry masses gave them a rare glimpse of solidarity. That didn’t last long. The elites might have funneled that joined hatred into meaningful political reform. But no, they seized the opportunity to go in for the kill by scotching a constitutional amendment to allow for a wholly elected Senate. While the little people felt let down by the amnesty bill, the proposed amendment would empower them to extend their political voice to the upper house. The traditional elites saw the extension of the voting franchise to the Senate as another power grab by Thaksin.

With the amnesty bill Thaksin managed to alienate his friends and supporters and bring them in common cause with his old rivals. It would have been his weakest political moment. He was vulnerable. The traditional elites saw an opening to root out what they’d started to call the “Thaksin Regime” and to return Thailand to the pre-Thaksin political era. That was a far bridge to cross. How to get from the present to that ideal past? The big idea was for a government ruled by an unelected “People’s Council” which would complete the job of destroying the remaining elements of the “Thaksin Regime.”

The government’s and Thaksin’s miscalculation on the amnesty bill showed that they had not read the hearts and minds of the Thai masses very well either. This mistake gave the traditionalists an opening to attack the government, democracy and elections. The government is only lucky in that, as disappointed and betrayed as its supporters had felt with the bill, they understood a much higher cost would be paid if they were forced to return to the old full-blown kreng jai system enforced by edicts of the People’s Council, handpicked by the elites.

The yearning for the stability of a strong kreng jai underpinned the calls for the government not to dissolve parliament and hold new elections but rather to put democracy on hold. The elites have not quite caught up with the rank and file who have opted to leave their feudalistic deference behind. Kreng jai hasn’t vanished. It remains a value for many Thais. But the nature of deference is changing.

Globalization, social media, cheap travel and the Internet are forces that have chipped away at the Thai kreng jai system. Once exposed to the crosscurrents of ideas, thoughts and images, kreng jai begins to have a dated, worn and artificial quality. The ritual wai remains. I remember years ago buying a poster at the Weekend Market that showed more than a dozen different wais. This was a poster used in schools to teach students the intricate but meaningful differences in the kinds of wais and who was entitled to which kind. The wai a tourist receives, for instance, is part of the hospitality industry; it is a commodity, a product, one that makes foreigners feel special. It comes with a warm smile.

These political storms mask a greater change in the cultural atmosphere. The jet streams have shifted in the way most Thais perceive their relationships. It would be premature to say that kreng jai is gone. Indeed the kreng jai aspect will remain for a very long time. That said, the core faith has evolved from a kind of quasi-religion to a secular position that honoring and respecting people is a good thing—only they should earn that respect. That’s a big change. And that those with rank and status should be accountable to the masses is a full frontal assault on an ancient system that continues to resist, protest and posture.

Can a self-governing non-elected “People’s Council” of “good” people reinstate, defend and protect this cultural cornerstone of the political establishment? Think how long it has taken for Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to change minds and hearts, and how incomplete that process is, and you start to have an idea that great shifts in belief systems happen over many generations. We live in a world where change has accelerated. Information is widely available and information is empowerment. So long as the schools and universities, the civil servants, the military and the courts draw ranks to retain the kreng jai system, the political turmoil will continue.

There are certain to be more political super storms as the existing elites have put their finger into the air, and they don’t like way the wind is blowing. It isn’t the government or the constitution that is the problem. It’s that Thais are changing a key feature of their hearts. The political climate is complex. There are hidden forces we can only guess at. There are connections and undercurrents that we are only vaguely aware of. No one element, in isolation, is ever the whole story. Shifts inside Thai culture are part of the political instability matrix. But there are other elements, such as technology, social media and the values and ideas flooding in from all directions.

To return Thais to the old system of kreng jai would require sealing off the country and imposing re-education camps. There are voices, here and there, that suggest such an alternative, but the reality is that going back to an idealized state of deference would be like speeding backwards on a moonless night on a mountain road without guard rails. It would no doubt end in a terrible accident. The question is, what will the new rules of the road be? That’s like asking what the weather will be next month. We can only guess at the most probable outcomes. No one knows.

Posted: 12/5/2013 7:55:27 PM 

 

 

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