Friday, June 21, 2013

The King and I

Often it’s hard to see the State in countries you don’t live or pay income taxes, much less to characterize it. From what I can tell, outside of Paris, New York and the poorer districts of major developed cities, beat cops are invisible. And unless you stray into ‘problematic’ zones of troubled countries – which you don’t – poll taxes, roadblocks and the like are largely unheard of. That’s not to suggest that behind closed doors some bureaucrat or state-run monopoly isn’t bleeding you in some way: let’s go on the assumption they are (India, China, Russia, yada, yada, yada).  

The State characterization of which I speak is one of visibility – whether hygienic (ex: health warnings), cultural/aesthetic (ex: grandeur) or punitive (ex: CCTV). From what I can gather, the vast majority of governments haven’t the time, energy or resources to give their presence a visual life of its own – that is – to dress power in a way that makes it seem cultural rather than political. Of course, the easiest way to do this is an excessive display of flags, though we know any two-bit warlord can string a spray-painted towel to a lamppost and call it sovereignty. What we’re interested in are the willing and outward trappings of an internal capitulation. Like when people in third-world beach towns buy knockoff t-shirts advertising Starbucks. Or girl scouts selling war bonds in a time of peace.

In much of Southeast Asia, however, this is not the case. The Singaporean government, as we’ve tried to stress, does a most splendid job of reminding people how to live. In this they exercise a crucial prerogative in ‘steering’ outward signs of culture to norms of public order. To the outsider it seems like people are on board, though I could be wrong. Like the late-night US Army commercials that creep between episodes of South Park and Robot Chicken, Singapore’s government makes hilarious attempts to take credit for people’s quotidian preferences. Take the metro, for example – that land of milk and honey for public indoctrination! – where 10-foot posters remind the city’s strapping young suits of their (obligatory) reserve duties by showing beautiful six-foot Singaporeans sipping beers on servant-laden terraces: friendship, solidarity and style await you in the barracks! Or as to say, “Civilian is the new martial” – it’s really quite ingenious.

The Burmese government, on the other hand, must take a different course. Given the military’s role in thwarting its people over the past six decades, the State seems to have fallen back on rampant displays of indigenous culture to do the trick. Rather than flaunt the State’s ties to modernity or prosperity (as they may well do in 20 or 30 years’ time), they’ve plastered the principle roads of Yangon and beyond with massive posters of hill-tribe women doing the samba, as though to say, “Don’t worry, we’re not going to raise your village just yet.” Or, “We publicly applaud your efforts to sing and dance!” It’s as though the IRS draped posters of family reunion barbecues along the I-95 to remind people in Prince George County they can buy all the Doritos and charcoal they want come April 16th.

However, the most hilarious display of Burmese state-sponsored ‘culture’ was on the long-haul buses. Of course, television is a marvelous way of promoting public culture (I should be taken to the gulag for such a truism), but Burma takes it one step further. For hours on end, the television in the bus would beam nothing but slow-motion films of traditionally dressed peasant women doing wonderfully placid dances – again, ostensibly to remind passengers of their gloriously temperate, balanced and timeless national ways. Not that we haven’t our equivalent – we do. The Americans among you will recall the halftime ads for the Big Ten Conference when Michigan plays Ohio State: it’s only natural – and fitting – to remind the audience who its Daddy is. And rightly so. Imagine, however, that every time you went to the movies – that perfect monopoly of the public’s attention! – you were reminded by public broadcast what a first-rate job the Fed was doing in keeping down inflation. Or how wonderful smores tasted. Or how we gave the Indians such a righteous licking. You get the point. It’s bad enough when Gillette and Revlon get their two cents when you’ve already paid for a ticket, though moderately more annoying when done so by the State.

Such is what happens after seamless decades of a siege mentality and a self-imposed permanent state of war. Governments get to air far more public infomercials than otherwise. We too were encouraged to buy Liberty bonds when every time we went to see Greta Garbo – but that was when the Blitzkrieg was making Shoreditch look like Martin Luther King Boulevard. Of course, I could be wrong. What I take to be government-imposed takes on the Burmese Bob Ross could be the hottest thing out of Mandalay-y-wood since the arrival of Velcro. I suppose I’ll never know.

Yet when it comes to wanton displays of State-backed Public Culture, Thailand must surely take the cake. Those of us who pretend to stay abreast of world events will vaguely recall reading something about Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté laws in the past year or two (or five or ten). French for 'your Mamma', they basically mean, 'Don't talk shit about the king or we will lock that ass up. Internet and shitty blogs included." (Your 'correspondent' may find himself in a pickle). And they certainly mean it. Just last week the son of the American ambassador was given 18 months for tweeting about His Majesty's virility. 

Not really, but similar instances crop up all the time. But why? From afar, we've all heard of the red- v yellow-shirt beef that spills into the streets every time the tide washes up a drunken Swede. To the ignorant observer, these lead one to assume the country is roughly split between the forces of republicanism on one hand and monarchy on the other. Indeed, that the institution of Thai monarchy (or at least some of its prerogatives) was openly challenged I had taken for granted. Yet to the naked eye, nothing could be further from the truth. You cannot go more than twenty meters in any Thai city, large or small, without crossing the bespectacled image of their beloved king, whether he's saluting the troops, reading the newspapers or taking a bubble bath. Indeed, the Thais make Joseph de Maistre seem like a card-carrying member of the Socialist Workers Party 

They say that keeping the House of Windsor afloat runs the average British taxpayer about a pound a year. (We'll leave the sunk cost of royal property holdings to the economists among you). It's a pittance compared to tourism and tabloid revenues it generates in turn. And yet persnickety public opinion polls persist: one year only 78% of Britons support the institution whereas the next it's back to 92%. The underlying assumption being that Princess Eugenie's take from gift store royalties relies upon the tacit and sober support of Joe Bloggs. When that dries up, the show is over. Nothing further from the case exists in Thailand. To not prostrate oneself at the mention of the king's new penchant for Bridge would lead to suspicions of the highest order, if not the gallows themselves. 

Throughout the entire expanse of the country - in town and country, slum and leafy suburb, dentist's office and back-alley brothel - there isn't a single establishment or place of public gathering that isn't decorated with the image of the king, usually accompanied by his stately wide, and rocking one of several iconically somber postures. In the classic portrait, he's donning traditional military garb and staring off into the bottom lefthand side of the picture frame, gazing at something stuck to my left shoe. He is slight of build and always clean shaven, with pouted lips and spectacles that often look more like pince-nez due to what looks like a mild revulsion he can scarcely contain. Oh it must be tiresome, putzing about with these plebeian photographers. 

In the second most popular rendition, the king is in classic civilian gear: a light-blue blazer worn comfortably over a sea-green button down and a pair of khakis. He is holding a 35mm camera and staring rather pensively at my left shoe. There are a great many variations of this portrait; sometimes the blazer's burgundy, at others the button down's a sweet, mellow magenta. In every one of them he exudes the poise and precision of a well-heeled, late 1970s Japanese tourist. The Russians may have been the first to orbit the Earth, but the Thai royal line has an eye for capturing decisive moments that make Cartier-Bresson look like a middle-schooler sexting on his smartphone. 

I could go on to list the 3rd, 4th and 5th most popular poses as you stumble upon when entering your neighborhood laundry-mat (rowing through the jungly swamps snapping pictures of alligators and local fauna, for example), but I fear I'd be trying my readers' patience. Suffice to say you cannot fart or eat a chicken leg without the king sneaking a peak at your left shoe from some corner of the room. Yet strangely, albeit somewhat morbidly, it's endearing.

One final example and I'll leave you be. Yesterday at a convenience store a friend of mine put a bottle of water on top a 50-baht note ($1.80 USD) to keep it from blowing away while he searched for spare change. (I'll let you clever people guess the image on all their currency). By the time he found his coin and looked up, several of the staff were staring at him as though he'd dipped a Koran in pigs fat and fedex-ed it to Karachi. Perhaps they forgot that for much of the day many of us are plopped rather comfortably upon the king's image, his pinched, bespectacled face somewhere between my right cheek and an expired Social Security card. 

Yet however easy it is to knock the Thai obsession with their sovereign, there is something moving about the entire spectacle. Though the effort seems feigned at times in the capital - where for instance 25-foot billboards of the royal couple playing scrabble are strung about the expressway - there does seem to be a genuine identification with the king and his person. And if that can transcend the advent of the camera, democracy, 711 and legions of horny old European men prowling the streets at night, then perhaps it's not such a bad thing after all. 

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