Thongchai Winichakul on the Red “germs”

The “germs”: the reds’ infection of the Thai political body

The incident at Chula Hospital on 30 April 2010 epitomizes the political crisis in Thailand today. It could cause more damage to the Reds than the bogus allegation by the government a few days earlier that they are anti-monarchy, because the incident captures another essence of the social and political conflict at this historical moment even better. The monarchy issue, and more, can be understood by the trope provided by the Chula Hospital incident. The incident and how it is understood could have a similar function as the deadly photo in the October 6 massacre, namely intensifying hatred and arousing hysteria. It could trigger another crackdown, which the alleged anti-monarchy network failed to do, although I hope that it does not.

This essay is not an excuse for an inexcusable action by the Reds at the hospital. Yet we should not look at the incident in isolation from the larger context of the conflict. More importantly, regardless of the truth of the incident, this essay deals with how the Thai public understands the incident, and how such views inform their politics, biases, judgments and their actions.

The Chula Hospital incident is the invasion of the Red germs into the Thai moral-political body.

The incident as reported

I do not claim to know a tiny bit of truth about the incident. Rather, the interesting narrative comes from the various accounts in the Thai mass media (newspapers and TV), presumably consumed by millions of Thais, and from the communications among the Facebook community. No matter how true these accounts are, they reveal how the Reds and their protest are seen and conceptualized by those media and the Facebook community.

The media reports, especially on TV, are full of horrible eyewitness accounts. Doctors, nurses, patients, and their relatives are panicked. They frantically moved patients, many of whom are in a serious condition and should not be moved, to another building. What is shown on TV is not an orderly operation as precaution but a chaotic, disorganized action by medical personnel who were in fright! The Reds are coming! They heard the Reds are coming! People said the Reds are coming!

There is no need for a single picture or photo if the Reds were armed, or a report of a single shot, but the public assume that the Reds stormed into the hospital fully armed, threatening doctors and patients with weapons, causing horrific chaos as people tried to escape the armed invasion. A nurse was reported saying that she has to work with fear of bullets from the Reds everyday, as if there were a shot at the hospital even once. (Finally there was, in the parking area of the hospital when the UDD group actually encountered a few army officers. The soldiers shot at them. The UDD people escaped uninjured.)

Located on one edge of the protest site, the Chula Hospital must have been under stress for the whole month. In that situation, even a doctor supporting the Reds should heed the warning by the hospital for precautions. But those who are ready to believe do not need proof and do not ask why the Reds were coming. They are ready to be frightened, probably foretold by the perceived cruelty of the Reds alleged in previous incidents such as the bombing at the nearby Silom Skytrain terminal and others.

Both sides of the conflict, the media, and others are trying to piece together the truth of the incident. Some said that the hospital began moving some patients a few days before. The UDD argues that they had not been to the hospital yet when the chaos took place. The reports after the incident are still full of horror stories (from the anti-Red media) plus some rebuttals (from the non-anti-Red ones). Emails fly around arguing for one or another version. Regardless of those conflicting argument, it is perfectly understandable if people at the hospital were truly frightened. Their fear of the Reds is real, no matter if they have never witnessed a horror by the Reds. They can learn about the Reds’ horror everyday from the media. Meanwhile the UDD possibly told the truth too, that they did not storm into the hospital by massive force, that a small number of them went to the hospital to assure that no military officers were in the hospital, that they were unarmed, that most of the time they were accompanied by the hospital personnel, and so on. Some go as far as saying that the hospital over-reacted, or that the hospital helped instigate the horror for political purpose. The media and the larger Bangkok public despise the Reds for their reckless actions. Even a search of the hospital by a small unarmed group is unwarranted. (I agree.) Streams of anger flow through the media and Facebook not only condemning the Reds but inciting decisive measures to eliminate the Red threat.

If we put aside the extreme views (such as the accusation of a staged chaos by the hospital, or the alleged armed invasion), the contending accounts from both sides can be both correct. That is, the hospital personnel were extremely frightened. They were afraid of the Reds, and had to work with fear that bullets could fly into the hospital, and so on. Either rumors or truth, or exaggeration of facts, they reacted by moving patients frantically. Their fear was real, even though the UDD did not storm the hospital with arms or with a huge number. Even if all the facts could be pieced together, we might not get to the gist of the incident because the root of fear is not in those facts.

A very important note of fact: perhaps the most distinguished patient at the Chula Hospital at the moment is the Supreme Patriarch, who has been there for the past few years. He refused to be moved. A day after the incident, Princess Sirindhorn visited the hospital to request that he agree to move to a safer place, the Siriraj Hospital where the King currently resides.

The invasion of the hillbillies

To describe the incident as a hospital in the battle zone is not quite correct. It is more like an invasion by a cruel army; horrific invaders and the helpless victims. Yet such characterization of war still misses the point.

A Chula Hospital doctor wrote in his Facebook observing that the Red people walk in and out of the hospital to use toilets as if they were theirs at home, and on the day of the “invasion” (buk), he was frightened even by their faces and how they look. A journalist observed that the account of the incident in the media sounds like the bad guys in B-grade Thai films, usually the coarse, plebian, ugly and dirty males, who keep shooting with no reason but simply because they are bad guys.

While the mass media are cautious in characterization of the Reds people as the low-class “hillbillies,” such representation frequently slips through in columns and on TV. The representation is widespread on Facebook. In Thailand, it is a cyber community dominated by people from certain generations and social backgrounds. Although we cannot generalize about these people carelessly, it is safe to say that the Thai Facebook community is heavily populated by Thai “yuppies” (whose historical background may be different from those of other countries) and “snobs” (who are similar to other snobs around the world). They openly talk about the Reds as dirty, ugly, vulgar, low, inferior people who belong to the “bannok” (rural). A typical Bangkok snob remarked in her Facebook that she is terrified and trembling every time she thinks about the Red people because of their behavior and looks: dark complexion, dirty, awful face, and coarse.

At one of the anti-Red gatherings, a placard read, “Phuak bannok ok pai,” (rural folks Get Out!). The spatial term “bannok” literally means the rural, the countryside. Since the early 20th century, probably earlier too, it has been a spatial characterization of backwardness, uneducated, naïve and uncivilized quality. Like the notions of “savage,” it also conveys the state of being innocent, uncontaminated, near natural, a contrast to the modern. So, going “back” to nature in the forest parks or the countryside is a good holiday for people from urban centers. In social order, the “bannok”, like the savage, is supposed to be different, distant and separated from the urban.

The PAD is notorious in calling Thaksin supporters stupid and uneducated, thus unsuitable for a democratic election (equal rights to vote), hence the need for the “new politics” that privileges the educated and people with moral superiority. The PAD is not the originator of these condescending views of the rural folks. They are part of the typical hierarchical ideology in Thai culture.

Ironically, such contemptuous characterization of the Reds is mirrored by the Reds’ themselves, although they turn the contempt upside down.

Phrai versus ammat: a class war of the bannok

The UDD discourse of their struggles as the “phrai” against the “ammat” reveals as much as belies the configuration of class and hierarchy in Thai context. Many Thais and foreign reporters translate the word “phrai” as serf, or bonded subject in the Thai feudal society. The pro-government scholars argue correctly that such a feudal social order no longer exists. But the “phrai” in the Reds discourse does not mean the historical bonded subjects. Phrai and its opposite, “ammat” (the noble, the lords) in the UDD discourse targets the oppression and injustice due to social class and hierarchy such as the one in Thai political culture. The struggle of the Reds is a class war in this sense of the revolt of the downtrodden rural folks against the privileged social and political class, the “ammat.”

The anti-Red intellectuals vehemently deny that it is a class conflict. They believe and repeatedly assert that the Reds are merely Thaksin lackeys and the deceived (fooled) rural folks. They and the Facebook snobs are never shy of reinforcing their view of the Reds as the lowly foolish “bannok”.  Although the Reds are no longer exclusively the rural folk but also include a large sector of the urban poor and those educated middle class in Bangkok who advocate democratic rights, their mass base and strongholds remain upcountry. The disdain of those snobs described earlier confirms such image.

I have argued elsewhere that in Thailand the differentiation of peoples has been configured in spatial terms: the city (krung), the rural (bannok), and the wild (pa), each representing different scales of civilization. This is not to deny other differentiations of class and ethnicity. But, I would argue further, the economic classes and ethnic differentiation in Thailand have been muddled up with the spatial differentiation because they have evolved in tandem. “Class” and “race” in Thai cultural and political discourses have been articulated, confounding in spatial terms. Although they are not identical and cannot substitute for one another, they have spatial overtones. The spatial hierarchy of people, in turn, informs not merely the geographical habitation, but also class, social hierarchy and sometimes race as well.

The disease

Since the conflict was heating up in 2005, the opposition to Thaksin focuses on the allegations that he is the most corrupt politician Thailand has ever known. The corruptions here are in many senses of the word. It includes the abuses of power and public resources for personal gain. It includes dirty politics, the worst of which is vote-buying. But beyond electoral dirtiness and personal fortunes, the more dangerous threat by corrupt politicians like Thaksin are the moral degradation brought about by vulgar capitalism and the threat to the supreme virtuous authority in the land, the monarchy.

Democracy in Thailand is never merely a political system for conflicting social, economic and political interests to fight and compromise. Given the legacies of its Buddhist polity, a good political system, including the one known as democracy, is supposed to be based on moral politics. Political authority and moral authority are inseparable, one lending to another, with the variable notions of “moral” over time. Thai democracy is the modern incarnation of the virtuous rule by moral authority.

Thaksin is an ultimate threat to Thai moral politics because he represents the utmost unclean or contaminations of many kinds. Like the communists before him, even though they have nothing in common, he is a disease to the Thai moral body. The Reds are contagious with the Thaksin disease.

The communists of the years past were alien pathogens contagious to the innocent youths and made them un-Thai. The Reds cannot be accused for being un-Thai easily. Even as some quarters among the Reds are critical of the monarchy, it is not easy to portray them as un-Thai or anti-Thai. The mass base of the Reds is people who remain deeply religious, nationalistic, and royalist, although with some disappointment at the royals. The leaders of the UDD reflect the politics of their people. They have not shown any signs of anti-monarchy but to the contrary. The strongest comment is disappointment and they beg for some royal sympathy.

But to Thaksin haters, the bannok people are fertile soil for the Thaksin disease, thanks to their lack of education and moral inferiority. Especially lured by shallow and short-term rewards, thanks to their greed and materialism, the bannok people become the germs that are invading the moral political body that have been represented by the urban elite throughout Thai history

There are many elements in the UDD that reflect the characters of the rural folks that probably annoy the Bangkok upper class and those snobs tremendously. Unlike political demonstrations in the past to which most working people were indifferent, the Reds demonstration is greeted by the low and lower middle class people, including street vendors, stores clerks, gate keepers, taxi and bus drivers, and sex workers. The styles of leaders of the UDD are never seen in previous political movements led by intellectuals. They are “nakleng” – the masculine folk hero of rural society. They are humorous but brave, often flirting with women but polite. They are rude and coarse to enemies. They speak no abstract political jargon, except the phrai and the ammat, and rarely care political correctness about homosexuals or ethnic people. In fact their public speeches are not sophisticated and the contents do not improve at all over the month-long demonstration. But they don’t seem to care. They sing folk songs (luk thung) and tasteless pop music far more often than the “songs for life” of  the old Left. The Red mass are coarse in their manners, rather rude, and decidedly … (for the lack of a better word) … bannok!

The behavior of the Red leaders and the movement that is probably most troubling to the urban upper class is the fact that they are prone to violent actions and reactions. Despite the movement’s vow to non-violence and peaceful demonstration, they cross the line verbally almost everyday. Their actions court violent reactions. They promise everyday that they would fight back every attack. Non-violence to them simply means being unarmed and never initiating an attack. Theirs is a cosmic distance from Gandhian non-violent actions, but perhaps akin to the “nakleng” concept of non-violence. The Chula Hospital incident was their spontaneous reaction to the information that the hospital allowed soldiers to hide in there possibly to execute the UDD leaders. Without thinking over political repercussion, a few leaders led a group of “nakleng” straight to the hospital to find out the truth. They should have realized that “nakleng” are not appreciated by the urban elite, who usually put them in the same category as thugs.

The Red thugs are contaminating the dominance of the urban elite. They are invading the city!

The incident unreported: the red germs

In October 2008, after the PAD’s clash with the police, a group of medical doctors led by some at Chula Hospital threatened that they would not admit or treat the police any more as the police were Thaksin’s instrument to quell the PAD. Despite strong reactions from the public, there was no criticism or reprimand by any medical authorities. There was no report if the threat was ever carried out, but there were a few reports of medical personnel elsewhere refusing to give service to Red supporters. The incident made doctors at the Chula Hospital notorious as strongly “yellowish”. This reputation is reinforced by the fact that one of the most active supporters of the PAD, who in recent months is also the top leader of the “pink” and the pro-government gatherings against the Reds, is a medical doctor from Chula Hospital. Regardless of other doctors at the same hospital and the administration, the Chula Hospital is placed on the frontline of conflict, literally, spatially, politically, and figuratively.

The accounts of the incident at the Chula Hospital in the media and their reactions, and the ones in Facebook community of the Yuppies and snobs read like a horror film or an alien invasion. This is not a coincidence. The UDD mistake is inexcusable. But how their actions have been taken by the media, those Facebook people, and by the consumers of those media, is informed by the deeper spatial, hierarchical differentiation that underlies the current conflict in the larger context.

The media, academic, civic groups, and the Facebook community condemned the Red invasion strongly in chorus. Their condemnations are much louder and incomparable to their mild criticism, if not silence, to the government uses of force and live ammunition that resulted in twenty-five deaths on April 10. The invaded body of the clean moral politics represented by the hospital seems to have higher value than the deaths of the Reds. This reinforces the earlier message that the deaths of army officers who commanded the violent crackdown on April 10 were of higher value than the Red victims of the same crackdown.  The alleged “double standard” by the urban elite and media is strikingly consistent. It is in fact a single set of standards that laws, reasons, rights, rewards and punishments, and other value judgments should be applied to people according to their different hierarchy. The consistent “double standard,” cannot be explained otherwise except as a form of segregation.

The Red demonstration at Ratchaprasong is not only an occupation of the most lurid and lavish sector of Bangkok. It is the seizure of the angelic city – Krung thep – by the unclean, the dirty, the coarse bannok – the germs. “The Reds are invading” may be much more frightening than the words convey. The Chula Hospital is on the frontline against the germs and disease. It was invaded by the disease.

The looming crackdown might be seen as, and said to be, a sanitizing act, to stop the infection caused by the invasion of the bannok into the political body in order to restore the health of the Thai moral political body.