Monday, December 21, 2015

Saturday, February 1, 2014

From ‘Land of Smiles’ to ‘Land of Snarls’ – An Exploration of Thailand’s Descent into Hatred and Intolerance

By Yvan Cohen

A lot has been written about the various political dimensions of Thailands deepening crisis. But what about its emotional and psychological roots? How has this so called Land of Smiles become so riven by hatred? How has a nation predominantly populated by Buddhists, for whom compromise and tolerance is a central part of their credo, become so intolerant and polarised?

I see a number of key factors fueling the current climate of unrest - namely a growing sense of injustice (on both sides), deep rooted frustration caused by unequal opportunities, intense disappointment in politicians and the political system and, more broadly, the destabilising effects of a society that has lost its traditional anchors and finds itself off balance while searching for a new status quo.

These factors offer entry points for an exploration of what might be seen as the emotional and psychological dynamic – now often expressed violently and irrationally – behind the ongoing crisis.

The language of hatred that has flourished (on both sides) in the period of polarisation leading up to the current crisis has been particularly disturbing for its intensity and for its tendency to dehumanise the opposition.

This is a psychological strategy typically deployed prior to conflict. It is easier to maim and kill another human when you have internalised a belief that your opponent is less human than you. In Rwanda ethnic Hutus referred to rival Tutsis as cockroaches before they massacred them. The Nazis spoke of Jews as subhuman vermin. And there are many more examples of such behavior in times of war.

Worryingly, in the political speeches being delivered in Thailand today it is common to hear leaders characterising their opponents as animals or using specific grammatical references (e.g. man in Thai) that are normally used when speaking of animals or inanimate objects. Comparisons to Rwanda and Nazi Germany are surely exaggerated in Thailand's case but the risks of conflict and considerable loss of life are nevertheless real.

Hatred has also found fertile ground in the widening space between economic strata and geographic regions. It is easier to hate (or at least not empathise with) people with whom you have little connection.

To appreciate how Thai society has changed it is worth looking at the traditional structure upon which it is based.

Traditionally, Thai society has been defined by its pronounced hierarchical nature – a structure that was most visibly expressed in the sakdina system which codified the stratification of society with the monarch at its apex.

Even beyond the end of sakdina, the reality of Thailands social hierarchy persisted, relying for stability on a delicate balance of mutual interest and acceptance. Thus Thais (though this artificial ethnic designation seems barely accurate when referring to earlier historic periods) were willing participants in a hierarchical system that was seen to divide power and material benefit acceptably if not entirely equitably.

The philosophical and theological underpinning for this system were largely drawn from a mixture of Buddhist concepts of Karma and ancient Indian concepts of caste (Varna). Ones status, therefore, was owed not to a nexus of economic and social forces but to merit accumulated in previous lives and to ones destiny.

Against a backdrop of intense economic, technological and social change, however, this traditional hierarchical structure, and the philosophy behind it, is being challenged. In todays Thailand the distance between groups within this hierarchy has grown far wider while acceptance for such inequality has declined. 

Growing economic disparities combined with increasing access to the basic tools of education and communication (high rates of literacy and almost universal access to media throughout the provinces) and a broader understanding of the political empowerment embodied in the democratic system of one man one vote, has made traditional hierarchical values appear increasingly unjust and anachronistic.

Acceptance for the status quo of the traditional social order is crumbling.

As a result, Thailands social contract now needs rewriting. Thai society has lost the fragile equilibrium that relied on a degree of acceptance and reasonable mutual benefit. In short, Thai society is now out of balance and key groups in society (both economic and regional) have become increasingly estranged one from the other.

A new social contract will need to encompass a spirit of inclusion that ensures the benefits of economic growth are more evenly shared throughout the country among social, economic and regional groups.

Alongside this loss of social balance, the spiritual pillars that might have anchored Thailand and pulled its people back from the displays of hatred and violence we are witnessing, have also been eroded.

The role of the temple as the core of spiritual life has declined. A series of scandals involving monks has reduced their credibility as moral guides while the practical demands of modern life, and of intense consumerism, have left little time for the cultivation of spiritual and moral values.

Thus Thailand appears morally adrift with no spiritual or religious institution strong enough or respected enough to stand above the current environment of polarisation and preach the tolerant, peaceful ethic of compromise which lie at the heart of Buddhist philosophy.

Indeed, with the extreme Buddhist force known as the Dharma Army playing an active role in anti-government demonstrations, alongside more moderate monks who have also offered their blessings to protest leaders on both sides, it is clear that Thailands Buddhist establishment is unlikely to hold the key to peace, at least for the moment.

Alongside the decline of Thailands spiritual institutions, the question of the kings eventual passing – and of the succession to the throne - are placing additional stress on the system. Without the King, a much loved figure in whom ultimate moral and political legitimacy have been invested, there is a sense that the nation will be without guidance and without the ultimate arbiter on whom it has traditionally relied in times of trouble.

It is imperative, therefore, that Thailand evolve from its investment purely in personal power and prestige (exemplified by the popularity of the two political leaders Suthep Thaungsuban and Thaksin Shinawatra) towards a less personality driven, more institution based, system where independent organs of State provide the checks and balances (within the framework of a democratic constitutional monarchy) that will allow a minority to live alongside a majority secure in the knowledge that its rights – and to a certain degree its interests – will be protected. 

Lastly, much has been made of the social dimension of the current crisis with suggestions that we are witnessing something akin to a class war (between the rural poor and the wealthier urban middle class). Or that this is something like a mini French Revolution with the peasants rising up to topple the ancien regime.

Though tempting, such comparisons are, I believe, misleading.

Though the red shirt movement likes to refer to a struggle between the phrai (underclass or serfs) and the amat (the ruling class), and though this characterisation has found traction in the minds of many in the red shirt movement, the roots of Thailands polarisation result from a change in society that has seen a much broader group of Thais competing to access the same social and economic space as a smaller, more privileged, generally urban minority. Many rural red shirt supporters are not seeking to overthrow the system but instead are demanding a louder voice within the system and a greater share of the pie.

Thus, while economic the economic gap between the city and the countryside has surely widened, the social and intellectual space inhabited by these disparate economic groups has actually narrowed. Though there is a deficit of opportunity for many rural folk, they increasingly inhabit the same aspirational space as their urban peers.

Among certain anti-government protesters in Bangkok the claim has been made that rural folk are not educated enough to vote. In reality, however, it is their increasing education and their increasing awareness of their democratic rights which is driving rural constituencies to play a more active role in national political life. Paradoxically, therefore, it is their increasing education – not the lack of it – which is feeding current tensions.

This increased proximity of aspirations between rural and urban Thais has intensified a sense of frustration for many rural people who feel they lack opportunities with little chance of climbing the social and economic ladder.

Much has been made of the problem of corruption. Anti-government protesters rightly complain of the excesses and corruption of Thaksin Shinawatra and of his proxy governments. But the current crisis is perhaps much less about resolving problems of corruption (though this is clearly important) and much more about re-establishing a new equilibrium in Thai society, about creating a neutral political space, complete with democratic protections for the minority, where a much broader segment of the population can share in the opportunities created by Thailands economic growth

The focus should be on strengthening the foundations and apparatus of an independent democratic state with a bureaucracy and judiciary that functions independently of political interests, while protecting the rights of all of its citizen regardless of political affiliation. The infrastructure is already in place, it just needs nurturing and protecting. 

Sadly, in the current climate of polarisation, mistrust and bitterness it is hard to see how any of the key political players will be able to lead Thailand towards this goal. None possess the broad moral and political legitimacy needed to initiate a process of unification and neutralisation; the only ground upon which the legitimacy of the state can be rebuilt.

Thus Thailand finds itself caught, helplessly it seems, in the historic spasms of a deep social and political transition. One can only hope the transition is not too long, or too violent and that it does not tear Thailand as we know and love it apart.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Digital Manipulation - How Much is Too Much

'The camera never lies' goes the adage, and for a long time we almost believed it.

While photographs could never lay claim to being entirely truthful, there was a sense that an image recorded on film was as close as we could get to a freeze-frame of real life. Photography has long been seen as way of expressing the poetry and finding the meaning, some might call it truth even, in the reality that surrounds us.

It's not that film photography was ever completely free of visual trickery. Think Man Ray or the Russian propagandist Rodchenko. But it was rarer, if only because convincing transformations were more difficult to achieve. Most film-based photographers, especially photojournalists, confined themselves to adjustments that could be made in the darkroom - tweaks in contrast, tone or saturation.

With the advent of digital technology, however, image manipulation became easy. Mere configurations of ones and zeros, photographs are now infinitely malleable. Data, unlike a chemical reaction to light, is simple to re-arrange. A click here and a click there, a careful selection of this or that, a well placed cut and paste and within seconds a picture can be transformed.

As it has become easier to manipulate photos, so the credibility of the photographic image as a faithful representation of reality, and the camera as a purveyor of 'truth', have waned.

Armed with tools like Photoshop, it is easy for photographers to get carried away. Who, after all, can resist the allure of making a good picture look even better.

Wouldn't my picture look so much nicer without those electricity pylons in the way? And what if that ugly cardboard box were to disappear from my otherwise idyllic rural scene? Even if the cardboard box was there when I took the picture, it's not as if it really belongs there.

These are just some of the justifications photographers may make to themselves before re-arranging their pictures with the aid of some digital wizardry.

So just how much manipulation is too much? Where does the invisible frontier lie before photography, stripped of its credibility, sinks into the digital oblivion of irrelevance?

One answer is surely that the dividing line is more moral and ethical than technical. If you claim a photograph is an honest representation of reality, meaning you're categorising it as editorial (or informational), then it would clearly be dishonest to manipulate the image so that it looked real without faithfully portraying what was actually recorded at the moment you pressed the shutter.

The case of landscape photographer David Byrne (see his photo above) is an interesting one. He was recently disqualified from the UK's Landscape Photographer of the Year 2012 competition because the Photoshop work on his winning pictures was found to have broken contest rules. It was revealed that Byrne had added clouds and cloned out certain physical details of his image. (Read more about Byrne's disqualification "here")

Interestingly the competition organiser, Charlie Waite, didn't accuse Byrne of trying to cheat but rather of inadvertently breaking the rules. For his part Byrne asserts that he hadn't read the rules properly noting that "I don't think what I have done to the photo is wrong in any way."

"I have never passed off my photographs as record shots and the only reason this has come about has been due to my openness about how and what I do to my images. The changes I made were not major and if you go to the locations you will see everything is there as presented," he continued.

The issue relates partly to expectations. Is the viewer expecting the image to describe reality? Or is the purpose of the image, which is nothing more than a two dimensional representation, to illicit a response from the viewer at an emotional level, to create an understanding or to intimate a meaning much as any work of art might do?

If the photograph is art what does it matter that a cloud looks a little different? The clouds look different every day, every second of the day even. What does it matter that a small physical element might have disappeared from an image if that element does not change the essential meaning of the image? Are we being mislead or deceived by such changes?

After all, when Magritte painted a realistic representation of a pipe and wrote under it "this is not a pipe" (Ceci n'est pas une pipe), was he not reminding us that all images are 'unreal'? That we are perhaps being best deceived by images which look most real because we are most tempted to believe them.

Byrne seems to argue that though he broke the rules of the competition he entered, his work does not try and present reality exactly as we might see it with our own eyes. The very fact his images are shot in black and white using HDR techniques gives them an appearance which sets them apart from reality. So perhaps it is only a small and harmless step to start removing clouds and other physical elements that were present at the time he took the original picture.

The problem here is that once you start down that particular metaphorical road where do you stop? And once the process has begun whereby all photos are mere starting points for digital manipulation, then what credibility can the photograph have as a tool of witness - which has, after all, been its primary function for photojournalists.

Perhaps what matters most is context and intention. Digital manipulation is fine when the context in which it is taking place is self evident. We don't expect commercial images to be truthful - so go ahead and manipulate them. Their purpose is to manufacture message, not to report. And when a picture is purely art, then surely digital manipulation is no more deceitful than the whims of an artists brush. Art is not about reality or, more precisely, not about reproducing it faithfully.

Where digital manipulation seems most harmful is when it is applied to photographs whose sole claim to credibility is the truthfulness of their representation. Photographs that purport to describe reality, that bear witness, that report, must be built around truthfulness.

This does not mean to say that they should not be artful or poetic, nor that they should aim for hum drum neutrality by being purely literal. Even journalistic and editorial photography comes with a point of view - as all photographs must. If the credibility of photography as a means of reporting is to be preserved, however, strict limits must be placed on the use of digital manipulation techniques.

A good rule of thumb is to compare the manipulation of an image to what might have been achieved through normal darkroom techniques - lightening, darkening, increasing contrast etc.

Of course the clouds in a darkened photograph might not have actually looked like that, and may have been darkened expressly to produce an effect. But at least the viewer should be assured that those clouds were recorded by the photographer along with every other physical element before the lens at the moment the shutter was pressed.

There is an ethical and moral core of truthfulness to this approach which must be maintained if the credibility of editorial photography is to be sustained. While photographers like David Byrne may choose to remove clouds or other elements from their photographs for the sake of their art, it is essential that they be truthful about their approach. If not, the saying that "camera never lies" will be as devoid of truth as the photographs that march before our eyes each day.

Following are some links which highlight some of the issues relating to digital manipulation:

"L.A Times Photographer Alters Iraq Images"
"Some Famous Altered Images"

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Photojournalism is Dead! Long Live Photojournalism!

By Yvan Cohen
Archive picture from the American Civil War...

Depending on who you talk to the diagnosis will vary. Some will tell you photojournalism is dead. Others will argue that, on the contrary, photojournalism is alive and kicking and perhaps healthier than ever.

So what’s it to be? Dead or alive? What is the state of photojournalism today?

The truth of course lies somewhere between these extremes. With the advent of digital technology and the universal means to create and disseminate photographs (read smart phones), photojournalism, or at least the role of photojournalists as a distinct group within society, has changed.

In many ways, and for obvious reasons, the story of photography, like cinema, has been defined by technology. When the technology changes, so does the art.

Though the roots of photojournalism reach back to the earliest cameras, it was the creation of the first portable cameras in the mid 1920s which generated the momentum for photography and journalism to merge, thereby sparking a revolution in photographic communication and spawning an entire generation of photojournalists.
Fittingly Leica was first into the fray with the release of its Leica 1 in 1925. As more hand held cameras arrived on the market, it wasn’t long before photographers began recording every detail of daily life, spontaneously capturing ‘moments’and giving them new meaning – to borrow a turn of phrase Henri Cartier-Bresson so famously made his own.

Photojournalists soon began publishing images taken in the heat of the action. Robert Capa’s picture of a soldier being struck by a bullet in the Spanish Civil War in 1936 is perhaps the most striking early example of how photojournalism had begun capturing ‘moments’ in extremis; changing people’s understanding of conflict and of the world they lived in.

Portable though they may have been, early 35mm cameras and film were still well beyond the means of the ‘everyman’. The first generation of photojournalists was, for the most part, an exclusive club of well-to-do adventurers who combined photographic art with a desire to communicate the reality of the world they encountered, both at home and abroad. Theirs was a new visual language, a new medium for describing and explaining current events, culture and history.

As the appeal of photography broadened and as the images of photojournalists became the staple of magazines and newspapers, the demand for images describing events as they were happening intensified. In these early days demand for fresh imagery quickly outstripped supply and photojournalism as a profession was born.

For some 75 years the 35mm film camera, in the many forms it was to take, became the workhorse of modern photography. Cameras in general became cheaper too so that, at least in the wealthier nations of the developed world, it became common for every family to own one. Meanwhile the ranks of the world’s photojournalists swelled as, cameras slung over their shoulders, they fanned out across the planet in search of ‘truthful’ pictures that would deepen our understanding of ourselves, and perhaps encourage us to avoid some of the most painful lessons of history.

For many photojournalists the unspoken credo was that photography by virtue of its immediacy and its innate truthfulness, and if wielded by professionals endowed with skill and ethics, had the power to move people and even bring about fundamental change.

During these ‘golden’ decades there emerged a growing pantheon of photographs that seared themselves into the public consciousness. Nick Ut’s image of a young girl, victim of a napalm attack in Vietnam, fleeing naked along a road in Vietnam comes to mind. Or of stick like human figures crawling across a barren landscape in famine-struck Ethiopia.

Modern photojournalism seemed to reach its apogee in the gritty and often terrifyingly raw photojournalistic coverage of the Vietnam war. Many of the mainly black and white photographs of the Vietnam war have become iconic and central to our understanding of what it means to fight a war. Photographic coverage of the Vietnam war, perhaps more than any other, cemented the role of photojournalism as a vital tool of communication and of the photojournalist as an essential witness to world history.

The ‘organic’ nature of analogue film lent photographs an authenticity and credibility they were later to lose with the advent of more malleable digital images. Indeed, much of the weight of photojournalistic testimony was drawn from the adage ‘the camera never lies’.

The fragile nature of film, combined with the way in which it records images by responding to precise doses of light meant it was also a medium that required mastery, thereby creating a natural barrier to casual amateurs. Since you could only know if film had been properly exposed hours and sometimes days after a picture was actually taken, it was often all but impossible to correct errors in the field. This made it even more imperative for editors and picture buyers to rely on trained professionals whose mastery of the medium could guarantee their pictures would be publishable.

Digital technology changed everything. It was a seismic technological shift that has re-shaped the world of photojournalism, much as the invention of portable cameras did from the late 1920s onwards.

In the digital age pictures are no longer the manifestations of a mysterious permanent-seeming chemical reaction but of a mind-boggling mosaic of raw data whose form is determined by light falling on a sensor and whose ‘reality’ can be re-arranged with a few clicks. Mastery of film has thus become an obsolete skill.

The technological, economic and skill barriers that once kept the masses out of photography, or of photojournalism at least, have now definitively fallen.

The relative exclusivity once enjoyed by professional photojournalists has all but disintegrated and the hordes, toting digital cameras in every shape and form, have come rushing in. The falling cost of digital technology and the ease with which pictures can be correctly exposed and focused means anyone can take a usable, publishable picture.

Most importantly, the camera in its broadest sense has evolved from being a specialised tool designed for a specific and unique purpose to become merely one function among others on the digital devices that accessorize our lives. The camera, or the means to record images, has become as commonplace as the ballpoint pen: almost everybody has one in their pocket.

As pictures have become cheaper and easier to produce, and as they have become easier to share online, so their value has naturally eroded. It’s simple economics. The supply of photos available to picture editors and publishers has exploded. Demand meanwhile – at least from professional media outlets – has not kept pace. So prices have fallen, pushing many photojournalists who relied on license fees from traditional media outlets into hard times.

The tsunami of digital imagery that has flooded our lives, inhabiting every nook and cranny of our consciousness, depicting everything from the most banal reality to the most dramatic news events, has changed our perception of photographs too. Digital images, like all forms of information, have become as universal and as instantly available as the air we breathe. As a result, the unique aura of the photograph has been devalued and its impact diminished.

The digital revolution – as it should be known – has quite simply made it harder to create photographs that will move people, even change their understanding of the world, in ways that once were possible. The sheer volume of images to which people are exposed has numbed their senses. Constant exposure to raw visual information – both still and moving images – from every war and disaster as they unfold is having the perverse effect of making us more aware yet less sensitive.

When it becomes harder to change the world through photography, the value of the photojournalist’s vocation is called into question. When it becomes harder to earn a decent living by publishing photojournalistic stories and imagery, the very profession does seem threatened, at least in the form we have known till now.

Of course this does not mean that photojournalism is dead. Rather it is changing. The universalization of the means to create and distribute digital photographs has democratized the world of photojournalism, opening the field to almost everyone with a camera, with an ‘eye’ and an internet connection. In such a crowded context and in a world drowning in images, the challenge for the dedicated photojournalist to touch viewers through original, creative, honest and visually moving reporting has become greater than ever before. The bar has been raised.

The multiplication of outlets while crowding the picture market and creating a glut of supply also means a multiplication of opportunities. For those with the energy, dedication and talent to push their way to top of the pile the rewards of recognition remain…and with recognition will come the ability to earn a living, of sorts.

Photojournalism is and has always been about communicating so while many of the old channels of communication – like the traditional broadsheets and news weeklies – may be fading, new channels are rising, such as social media and a plethora of online media platforms.

Photojournalists living and working in this new reality must adapt if they are to survive. To be sure, photojournalism is far from dead, but it has changed almost beyond recognition. The challenge for the photojournalists of today is to change with the times, to swim with the tide of technology as photography has always done.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Thailand's Hollow Elections

By Yvan Cohen

As Thais prepare to go to the polls, political observers are fretting over what the outcome may be and, perhaps more importantly, what the result will mean for the future of this nation.

Making sense of the complex, ever shifting and sometimes downright bizarre forces of Thai politics is an unenviable task.

In all probability, Thailand’s next Prime Minister will be Yingluck Shinawatra, the youngest sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist telecoms tycoon who won two consecutive mandates but was ousted by a military coup in 2006 and subsequently found guilty of corruption.

Just 44 years old, with youthful energy, a telegenic smile and a CV that includes precisely no political experience, Yingluck’s most convincing political argument is that she will serve as the dutiful ‘clone’ of her elder brother.

Yingluck’s nemesis is incumbent Prime Minister Aphisit Vejajiva, 46, who leads the Democrat party. Smooth-faced, smooth-talking and Oxford-educated Aphisit also has a telegenic smile but unlike Yingluck he is a career politician who, on paper at least, should make mincemeat of such a seemingly lightweight opponent.

At times the campaign has veered close to farce. One candidate, Chuwit Kamolvisit, had himself photographed clutching a baby while declaring that politics is like diapers: the more changes the better! Chuwit, a kind of super pimp-turned-politician who built his fortune running massage parlours, created his own party called Love Thailand. His political aspirations have undoubtedly been funded by a lot of ‘loving’.

Neither in their speeches nor on the thousands of party placards that line streets throughout the country has any politician spoken of his or her vision for the nation.

There have been promises of tax cuts, of higher economic growth, of new roads and even a high-speed train. And there has been much finger pointing as the Democrats in particular heap blame on Pheua Thai, Thaksin and the Red Shirt movement he spawned for the violence that saw Bangkok and other parts of the country descend into deadly anarchy in April and May last year.

Somewhat incredibly, and with tears in their eyes, Democrat leaders claimed that government troops didn’t kill any of the 91 people who perished in the fighting last year. Arguments that will do little to foster the reconciliation the Democrat party says the country so desperately needs.

With so much recent bloodshed and such deep polarization within the country, the stakes at this election seem particularly high. The future form of Thailand’s democratic landscape may depend on the actions and respective visions of the politicians standing for office.

Yet not a single politician has explained how they hope to restore the institutions – an independent judiciary, a free press and a neutral bureaucracy - that should serve as the pillars of Thailand’s democracy but which have been all but demolished in the past decade.

The demolition work began in earnest in 2001 when Thaksin Shinawatra became Prime Minister after being cleared of a charge he had illegally concealed assets. That ruling, despite convincing evidence of Thaksin’s guilt, was seen by many as a political decision, reflecting establishment support for Thaksin’s unprecedented popular mandate.

It was a first and crucial blow to the credibility of Thailand’s judiciary.

In the ensuing years, the judiciary has been used repeatedly, more or less blatantly, as a political tool, with the only significant difference being that since 2006 when the establishment turned against Thaksin, none of the judiciary’s rulings have been in his favour.

In May 2007, Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party was found guilty by a Constitutional Tribunal of electoral fraud and disbanded. The Democrat party, by contrast, was cleared of all charges. A total of 110 Thai Rak Thai politicians were banned from politics for 5 years.

In December of that year, the People’s Power Party (PPP), which was sponsored by Thaksin, won a convincing victory at the polls. Samak Sundaravej became Prime Minister but was considered a nominee for his political master, Thaksin.

Less than a year after coming to power, however, in September 2008, the judiciary struck again; bringing charges against Samak that he was in a conflict of interest because he received money for appearing in a televised cooking show. Samak was found guilty and forced to resign.

Political bias within the judiciary became even more evident in the wake of the October riots by yellow shirt supporters of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and their subsequent occupation and closure of both Thailand’s main airports in December 2008.

Despite the violence and flagrant violation of multiple laws, none of the PAD’s leaders have been brought to justice or imprisoned. Indeed, one of their supporters who got up to address the crowds at the airport, Kasit Piromya, went on to become Foreign Minister in Aphisit’s government.

By contrast, in the wake of the Red Shirt demonstrations and their violent suppression hundreds of Red Shirt sympathisers and their leaders have been imprisoned - a policy that has poured oil on the fire of Red Shirt claims of ‘double standards’.

Disregard for basic democratic institutions seems almost to have become an item of faith across the entire political spectrum in Thailand.

During his time in office, Thaksin famously used his popular mandate to establish what has been described as an illiberal democracy. The press was muzzled, opposition was quietly suppressed and the independence of key institutions was undermined.

Thaksin’s mandate though blessed by the support of a democratic majority became an opportunity to dismantle many of the safeguards put in place by a reformist constitution promulgated in 1997.

It is ironic that, ostensibly in defense of democracy, the erosion of Thailand’s democratic institutions was accelerated by the military with the drafting of a new, more conservative, constitution a year after the coup of 2006.

Today, the very factions who evicted Thaksin from office, charging he had become a virtual dictator, are wielding State power to suppress dissent, manipulate judicial decisions and stifle the media.

In this context to assume the colour, vibrancy and diversity of Thai politics is the expression of a true democratic system would be a fundamental mistake.

In the preceding decade Thailand’s political elite have hollowed out this nation’s democracy leaving the shell of democratic process – elections – but none of democracy’s flesh and blood – a system of independent checks, balances and ethics - that give the empty form credible life.

The sad reality is that whoever wins Thailand’s elections will garner an affirmation of support that is more an expression of the deep rifts within Thai society than a transition towards a more mature, more honest, more ethical and more reliable democracy. Instead, we are left with the anxiety of trying to guess what elite shenanigans will be triggered by a popular mandate.

Friday, January 14, 2011

America's Love Affair with the Gun Feeds its Fear

The debate over America’s gun laws chimes like a recurring refrain.

The aftermath of yet another shooting spree has become the grisly closing act of an all-too-familiar drama.

Same story different people.

We know the plot too well. An individual who should never have been able to purchase a gun opens fire on unsuspecting innocent people. The killing seems random. Children often lie among the dead.

America and the world is shocked. There are outpourings of grief. Opinion columns are penned. Candles are lit. Tears roll down the cheeks of uncomprehending mourners. The politicians don black and wear appropriately somber expressions.

How could this have happened?

And, like a familiar chorus, the old debate is trotted out. Should Americans be as free as they are to purchase and carry guns?

A few timid intellectuals proffer sensible arguments explaining that if people are allowed to carry guns then other people are likely to end up getting shot.

Cause and effect.

Across the philosophical aisle voluble, power-wielding gun lobbyists point to the Second Amendment, which enshrines an individual’s right to keep and bear arms.

Little matter the second amendment was drawn up in 1751 when America was surely (one would hope) a far less sophisticated, far less modern, far less crowded society than it is today.

Little matter that in nations where guns are strictly controlled such tragedies are few and far between. Little matter it stands to simple reason that a nation without guns is likely to see far less shootings (even if violent crime remains).

Looking in from the outside, America often seems like a bizarre and confusing place, a place of stark paradox living in direct contradiction of its own ideals.

In the post 9-11 era America has been at war with Terror. It has been on a mission to bring freedom to those who don’t have it; an obligatory ‘gift’ handed over at gunpoint.

America’s war against Terror has taken its troops into battle in Iraq and Afghanistan: wars being fought, ostensibly, to protect America’s national security, to make Americans feel safer at home.

Yet Americans seem to feel less and less safe, its enemies are multiplying and victory, however it may be defined, seems as elusive as ever.

In the years since 9-11 Americans have learned that fighting Terror means being alert. It means living in fear of an armed enemy, foreign and most probably Muslim, who may strike at any time.

Yet, as America has also learned, more often than not Terror doesn’t come from a dusty village in Iraq or Afghanistan. It lives next door. He or she carries a gun concealed in a glove compartment or snuggled under their jacket, loaded and within easy reach.

Terror lives at home and is very likely American.

As Michael J Moore so poignantly illustrated in his documentary ‘Bowling for Columbine,’ America’s is a society built on fear, a society whose very momentum, fuelled by the media, is driven by fear. Fear and Terror live side by side.

The statistics speak for themselves.

In 2009 more than 9,000 Americans were murdered in crimes involving firearms. Extrapolate that number out over the past ten years and we can estimate that close to 100,000 Americans may have been murdered with a gun. Even if the exact number were 50% of this figure, the magnitude of gun related violence in such a modern nation is astounding and shocking.

There are those who would argue that for all its guns America is still far from being the most violent nation on the planet. El Salvador and Mexico are way ahead in the homicide charts. But for a nation of such wealth, with such ambition and whose politics are often infused with such moral fervour, America’s sea of firearms and its dramatic homicide statistics can only be a source of shame.

In the end, what separates the gun toting American from the gun toting Afghan? Law? Wealth? Morality? Religion?

While the positive language of freedom, progress and democracy is the brand America would sell to the world, the reality is that its own society has proved unable to move beyond an amendment drawn up in 1751.

For all America’s sophistication, for all its laws, for all its political rhetoric, for all the safety norms that are imposed in every facet of American life, you can still be shot tomorrow on the street, or in your school, by a guy with a gun.

And no it’s not about freedom, its not about principles or rights as gun advocates claim. It’s not about feeling comfortable and safe with a gun on your hip.

Peel away those spurious claims and you are left with the raw reality that guns are designed to kill and maim. To carry a gun is to empower yourself with the immediate click-of-a-trigger power to destroy life.

Almost exactly 100 years before the Second Amendment was penned, it was the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes who pointed out the need for individuals to yield up a part of their freedom to the State without which society would return to what he called ‘a state of nature’ which in turn would lead to a ‘war of all against all’.

His ideas formed the based of the social contract whereby civil society is based on the rule of law.

His point, an obvious one today, was that freedom in and of itself is not a good thing. There needs to be balance and there needs to be some areas where the individual agrees to yield up a part of his or her freedom to the State and the rule of law.

The right to bear arms in America is a clear example of excessive freedom, the bloody side effects of which are there for all to see. Without controls on gun ownership, America slides towards Hobbes’ ‘state of nature’, cloaking its society in fear.

The Freedom America so loves cannot exist in a nation condemned to live in fear.

If Americans believe in their own State, if they wish to build a truly civil society as an example to the rest of the world then they must impose laws curtailing gun ownership.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

In Remembrance of My Father

The man on the horse is my father. He is seen riding across a snowy landscape in Lesotho, Southern Africa. This image epitomizes how I would like to remember him: laughing as he gallops forwards, full of energy as he leans into the wind; keen for adventure, thirsty for the thrill of life, a little bit wild.

An only child, Nicholas’s story began in Cape Town, South Africa, where he was born on April 9th 1938. It was fate, and some rather bad holiday planning, that brought him to England. In 1939 his parents found themselves trapped in London at the outbreak of World War II. Apparently unaware of the impending conflict, they had arrived in the UK just two days before Churchill’s declaration of war.

Nicholas’s father, Solomon, worked as a surgeon in London’s hospitals, patching up the maimed and wounded while the family took up residence in a hotel. Nicholas’s earliest memories were of room service and of German bombs raining down on the British capital.

After a traditional English education at Westminster School and Trinity College Cambridge, where he obtained a First in Medicine and developed a love for literature, Nicholas seemed set to follow in his father’s footsteps and enter the lucrative world of private medicine.
The Cambridge Graduate in the late 1950s

He had other plans.

After brief spells at Guys Hospital in London, which he described as an “endless soap opera of pretty nurses and paunchy consultants with fob watches and gold chains”, and the American Hospital in Paris, where he nurtured his early love for France, Nicholas began to move further afield.

He was keen to escape the life his parents wanted for him. And he was about to begin a lifelong journey, one that saw him traveling the globe, forever seeking a place where he might belong, that he might call home.

Perhaps his was the curse of the exile? His ancestors had fled Lithuania. His parents, perhaps still traumatized by their past, sought stability, comfort and status. Nicholas on the other hand was looking for something more. He wanted to give his life a deeper meaning.

Though he became the doctor his father wanted him to be, and though he never abandoned his Jewish roots, he seemed always in flight. Always caught in the paradox of being proud of his status and yet always wanting to transcend the banality of social labels. He resisted being defined. He wanted to be a doctor and a scientist and an artist and a bohemian too. He wanted it all.

His life choices seem, with hindsight, like a series of mini rebellions. Statements that said, I am not my parents, nor my ancestors. His love affairs and his marriages were always with non-Jews – to the chagrin of his parents and especially his mother who committed suicide while he was on his honeymoon (with my mother) in 1967.

Nicholas never wanted to be seen as English nor, god forbid, as South African. And he was, in truth, neither of those. In many ways, his was a restless, searching soul - a spirit that belonged fully to no nation.

Behind his grey-green eyes, which sometimes resembled glacial pools and sometimes glowed with such warmth, there were, I sensed, always the shadows of solitude and doubt; legacies, perhaps, of the many contradictions in his life. At times these shadows would eclipse his sparking spirit, plunging him into periods of torment and darkness.

But in 1968, with a golden future to play for, with good looks, intelligence and a first class education to thrust him forwards, the opportunities must have seemed endless.

It was in that year that a three-line advert in the Lancet caught Nicholas’s eye. A 35-bed hospital in Lesotho needed a doctor.

Thus, shortly after I was born, and just a few years after his marriage to my mother, Nicholas left England (without my mother or myself) to begin a life of travel and adventure. It was at this point that he effectively exited my life until I was 18 years old.
Nicholas outside the hospital in Lesotho

For the next two years, a missionary group called the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel employed Nicholas. He lived in a remote place called Mantsonyane and was the only doctor in a tiny rural hospital.

When the missionary priest was absent, the youthful Jewish physician extended his duties into the realm of the spiritual, conducting church services for the local Christian congregation.

Living rough in stone huts with thatched roofs and traveling to see patients over rugged mountains on horseback, he discovered the realities and hardships of life in the Third World.

Nicholas outside his hut in Lesotho

In his own words he “learned what it means to live on one meal of maize flour a day, what it feels like to go barefoot, clothed only in a blanket in the freezing winter days, and how many children die of diseases that elsewhere are entirely preventable.”

He began to ponder how improved nutrition and health could be delivered in places where resources were desperately scarce, resolving under an African sky to use his life “to improve health and survival for poorer communities in Africa and Asia”.

This was the purpose he had been searching for.

Nicholas found himself pulling teeth, dressing wounds resulting from alcohol-fuelled violence and even performing cesarean sections - with the help of a few textbooks and some advice from his father. Payment for his services was often in the form of live chickens.

When he ventured into South Africa proper, he made a point of displaying his opposition to apartheid, carrying bags for black African women and using his camera to document the regime’s injustices. He was eventually banned from South Africa, a status he wore as a badge of honour.

By 1970 Nicholas had met Therese Blanchet, with whom he was to share his life for next twenty or so years. In that same year, during a freak snowstorm in the highlands of Lesotho, their first child, Natasha, was born. She was also given an African name, Melehoa or “Mother of Snow”.

A year later Nicholas moved back to England where he read Epidemiology and Medical Statistics at the London School of Hygiene. He then traveled north to Nottingham University to work alongside Professor Maurice Backett at the recently founded Department of Community Health.

Ever the traveler and always determined to spend as much time as possible in the field, in 1976 Nicholas was on the road again, this time as part of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) smallpox eradication campaign.

Crisscrossing the remote and beautiful landscapes of Ethiopia in a yellow helicopter, Nicholas enjoyed the thrill of being on the frontline of medicine. His numerous photographs of that era depict a rustic society living in a manner that had changed little in centuries.

Nicholas in Ethiopia

A talented writer, Nicholas’s Ethiopian adventures are best and most evocatively described in his own words:

“We tracked smallpox from the green fertile slopes of Arussi, across the sand scarred start of the great African Rift valley at Awash, along the vertiginous eastern escarpment of Shoa and north west with the Afar towards the Danakil desert. Wilfried Thesiger trained his men on the same terrain before his crossing of the Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia, recounted in Arabian Sands.

Waking at night in village huts, schools or tents, I could sometimes hear the hoarse coughing of lions. The yellow WHO helicopter flew me over random herds of zebra, frightened ostrich, baboon on the move, nomads carrying Italian 1930s rifles and families of hippo bathing in the crocodile infested Awash river. On the high plateau, bright red circles of spicy pepper could be seen drying beside every village. The beauty, the quality of the light, the mix of so many peoples – Amhara, Agober, Afar, Issa, Oromo, Yemeni, Arabic – made the backdrop of the landscape quite majestic. I felt that somehow we were at the centre of the Universe. I have not known sights and days like that before or after.”

Having returned to the gray skies of the British midlands and just a year after the birth of his second son, Alexis, in 1978 Nicholas was again packing his bags this time to move to Bangladesh where he lived for over a decade, working first with the Save the Children Fund and then with Helen Keller International, for whom he became Country Director.

With Natasha and Alexis in Bangladesh

His interests had by now almost completely shifted from conventional medical practice to the realm of public health and epidemiology. The challenge, as he saw it, was to formulate and implement policies that would improve the health and well being of entire populations.

In Bangladesh Nicholas had chosen one of the poorest nations on the planet. The problems were gargantuan. Typically, he sought to understand his adopted home from the inside out. He learned to read and write Bengali and immersed himself in the cultural life of the country.

With his full ginger beard and traditional Bengali attire, Nicholas cut a striking figure. He became a popular, well-known and sometimes controversial personality in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. A Jew living in a predominantly Muslim society he would sometimes explain that the letters M.D. after his name actually stood for Mohammed!

With Alexis on a trip to Calcutta

Determined to put his medical knowledge to good use, Nicholas also spent months at a time volunteering at Mother Teresa’s hospice for the dying at Khalighat in Calcutta, India. This was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with Calcutta, a city to which he returned to live briefly later in life and of which he always talked and dreamed.

Much of Nicholas’s most important work for Helen Keller International in Bangladesh focused on Vitamin A deficiency and its role in causing blindness among the most vulnerable and malnourished sections of the population, especially children.

His colleagues remember him as a brilliant and daring thinker. His suggestion, for example, that stopping Bengali fathers from smoking might have a positive impact on child nutrition was originally met with skepticism, though it was later proved that economic resources diverted away from tobacco were often used to purchase healthier food. Stopping smoking wasn’t just better for people’s lungs it could also lead to a better diet.

In 1988 Nicholas celebrated the birth of his third son, Louis Felix, and moved back to Europe to take up a position at the World Health Organisation in Geneva where he worked as a consultant for seven years. Although he did not take easily to the bureaucracy of the UN, he nevertheless battled to get his ideas accepted.

Rare sighting in a suit

One co-worker at WHO described Nicholas as a “genuine pioneer” in his quest to see Vitamin A widely administered to children at risk in developing countries. A policy, wrote his colleague, that “has saved the lives of countless infants and the sight of even more.”

It was while working for WHO in Geneva that Nicholas met Nancy Jamieson, an American public health consultant he was to marry in 1997.

Nancy shared Nicholas’ fondness for the quirky side of life, his thirst for adventure and his love of Asia. In Nancy Nicholas found a kindred spirit, a global citizen who had led almost as many lives as he – working on trawlers in the wild seas off the Alaskan coast and bringing relief to communities on Pakistan’s wild northwestern frontier - a woman who had committed the latter part of her career to educating communities about the risks of AIDS.

Wedding day to Nancy

Nicholas and Nancy spent a number of happy years living in Delhi, Calcutta and Jakarta. Both worked as consultants traveling in the region. They spent many long days ferreting out the most interesting corners of the cities they lived in.

But by the mid 90’s, Nicholas was already beginning to show clear symptoms of the Parkinson’s disease that was to afflict him during the latter part of his life. Nancy, whose own father had suffered from the disease, knew what the future would hold.

Nicholas confronted his illness with courage and good humour, refusing steadfastly to be defined by it. Even as Parkinsons gradually stole from him the ability to travel and move around freely, he remained as dignified, as fun loving, as curious and as determined to savour the poetry of life as ever.

In 2000, Nicholas moved to Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. After years spent in France – a country he loved – and after the colour, intensity and vibrancy of life in Asia, Nicholas initially found life in North America dull.

But if British Columbia’s seduction was not immediate, he grew to love his life in Victoria. It was among the immigrants of Canada, and most especially amongst Victoria’s cosmopolitan Jewish community, that Nicholas felt most at home.

With Nancy’s help he found an apartment with a spectacular view across the straits of Juan de Fuca, looking towards the majestic Olympic Mountains on the American coast. His daughter Natasha, her husband Mutang and his two grandchildren Noeli and Agan lived close by and became a source of vital support and a focus for his love.

Despite his declining health, Nicholas remained a man whose zest for knowledge and love of life never diminished. He read widely and embraced new technologies, using Skype and Facebook to communicate with friends around the globe. He studied Thai, Russian and Italian in addition to the Bengali, Hebrew and French he already spoke fluently. And despite his handicaps he was always planning trips, always ready for a new adventure.

In December 2009, Nicholas returned to the UK, bringing his life full circle. He entered a nursing home in the town of Thames Ditton, close by my mother, where he noted that the cosmopolitan staff seemed a perfect reflection of his globalised past. Characteristically it was not long before he cut a familiar figure among local librarians and café owners.
A couple of hours after arriving in the UK. "Let's go to the pub!"

In September 2010 Nicholas fell ill with pneumonia. When doctors at a local hospital examined him more closely they found extensive cancerous tumours and informed him that he had but a few days to live.

He faced death with the same courage and dignity with which he had lived his entire life. He called those he loved to his bedside and waited patiently and peacefully for the end to come, smiling on his family and reciting prayers in Hebrew.

Looking back on my father's life, one can only feel sorrow. Sorrow that such a wealth of talent, that such depth of knowledge and culture should be lost. Such loss is akin, I feel, to an amputation. A part of one's life is forever gone and one must learn to adapt to a new, seemingly incomplete, world.
With me in London earlier this year

Looking beyond the immediate sorrow of mourning, looking beyond Nicholas's achievements and his talents, it is his extraordinary charisma that defines him most.

He was a man blessed with that invisible spiritual electricity that lights people up. He could arrive anywhere and instantly turn heads and before long he would be making new friends.

It was this charisma, combined with his rich life experience that made him a mentor for so many young people. For if his body deteriorated over time, the energy of his soul was ageless.

It is this ageless energy and charisma, mixed with many beautiful memories and the enduring warmth of his love, which remains.