Stomping Around the Jungle
Reading about our adopted motherland is always a good read – learn
something, cry a little, laugh a lot. Now, we have a new book that takes
these three sensations to new heights. But the best part is that it’s
written by…hold on…an elephant!
Who would have known? I thought elephants could only paint, play musical
instruments, and wait tables, but authoring a book takes the intelligence of
the beast a bit beyond. And to top it, the book is penned by not just any
lumbering beast, but by a clever little one, Chang Noi by name.
Possible/not possible? I don’t know, but I like it already.
Is this just-off-the-press Jungle Book about flora and fauna? Not really –
it’s subtitled ‘Thailand’s Politics, Moral Panic, and Plunder, 1996-2008.’
Now, this subtitle definitely has an academic ring to it, similar to, say,
those written by the formidable socio-political commentators Pasuk
Phongpaichit and Chris Baker. But, of course, the similarity ends there.
This book is way too cute by half for that renowned duo at Chula U.
Chang Noi is not a new writer. She/he — we don’t know the gender of this
‘chang’ so we’re saddled with the cumbersome task of doing the she/he,
her/his business. We could just be politically incorrect and write ‘he’
throughout, which is what I’m going to do. Since I’m writing as a man, I’ll
take my natural-born prerogative.
At any rate, Chang Noi is a periodic columnist for The Nation and, in fact,
the Jungle Book is a collection of his best articles during the years
1996-2008. We’re dealing with a respected writer here, no matter if it is an
elephant. Thai equal opportunity employment is a worldwide best practice.
So, what does this little elephant have to say about Thailand’s rollicking
good time politics? Plenty, plenty it turns out – more than enough things
for any self-respecting Guest of the Kingdom to chew on, if he cares to come
to the table….
The problem is where to start describing what’s in this book – there’s so
much going on out there. Let’s just pick a topic at random and see where it
takes us: “She was raped twice. She was abducted against her will, and kept
locked up with chains. She was hit several times…punched in the stomach
and…threatened with guns and other weapons. She appeared week-after-week
with…blood trickling from her mouth.”
Is this a quote from another one of those farang-authored books about bar
girls? Is it from wee-hour cable TV? Again…hold on…all this takes place on
prime time TV. This is Thai family entertainment. I guess something similar
must be what one outraged farang wrote about in a letter to the Bangkok Post
recently: “What was shown on Thai TV Channel Seven at around 3pm on March 21
was a national disgrace. In the name of ‘entertainment’ a 6-7 year old girl
was shown being raped by an adult male.”
I have one question: Shouldn’t this farang be playing golf at this hour
instead of being so-o-o critical? Chang Noi can say things because he’s so
cute…and because he’s Thai. You couldn’t make this stuff up. Chang Noi was
probably thinking, ‘Amazing Thailand’, (but don’t quote me on this. I’m just
Keeping with the theme of violence, here’s another a little gem: Chang Noi
explains the rise of godfathers, (jao pho), in the provinces. They were
feared, admired and catered to – the stuff of legend. Because of their
wide-ranging business interests, they had as many enemies as friends.
Bullet-proof cars were a must and commonplace, and having many hired guns
goes without saying.
But invariably, each would meet an untimely death: the usual gun
assassination was routine and passed with little note. But my all-time
favorite is the ending of one, Sia Jiew of Chonburi in 1991, “when his
Mercedes was blown off the Bangkok-Pattaya road by a rocket launcher.”
Now, if this were a 1940’s movie, I could imagine the characters saying,
‘that’s grand!!’ Only it’s not the 1940’s, and it’s for real. This must be
an example of what is meant when some scholars remark that Thailand
modernizes but doesn’t develop. That’s OK, Thailand, don’t fret. For us,
your mojo still works.
There’s more good stuff, let’s move on. Chang Noi comments, “many of you
would like to have a country.” No, no, we’re not talking about having a
country to live in, cherish, call your own, and die for. We’re talking
‘buy’. Once, the rich only wanted to buy islands as a way to get some
private surf n’ sand. Now, they want to own their own country. And the
kicker is they can. Chang Noi sets out the process in ten easy steps. It’s a
snap. And then when you want to sell, this can be done via a ten-point guide
as well. All it takes is money.
Chang Noi says that, “when the Thai economy hits trouble, the government
turns to tourism.” In 2001, the prime minister said “tourism is quick,
cheap, and easy. The ingredients are already there. Sun, sea, sand, smiles,
…” You know. With better marketing, billions of baht more can be squeezed
from the Rose of the North. Yeah, we saw this already in Chiang Mai, the
Night Safari. We’re all really tickled. But, sadly, we don’t have the sky
In 2000, the World Bank produced a report on Thailand’s economic prospects
after the 1997 crisis. Chang Noi says, “shorn of all the formal language,
the report said: everything else is hopeless, turn Thailand into a theme
park.” This isn’t me talking – it’s this elephant, (note the little ticks
around this sentence). Welcome to Lanna World.
You’ve gotta love it. Reading about it is safer, though. Trite, trite but it
begs to be said: it’s a jungle out there.
Look for the Jungle Book coming to an AUA Library near you.