The impurity of protest: Review of Democracy, Shaken and Stirred

The impurity of protest - by Ron Morris, November, 2005

Review of Democracy, Shaken and Stirred by Win Lyovarin and translated by Prisna Boonsinsukh
Winner of the SEA Write Awards 1997 and Thailand National Book Award 1995

[With protest and accusations of impure motives in the news it seems time for a review of Win Lyovarin's Democracy, Shaken and Stirred--a fascinating view of Thai political upheavals.]

The political upheavals of twentieth-century Thailand are still controversial. Newspapers report guardedly when old dictators die and families connected to past political power brokers still wield considerable influence. One way these political upheavals are taught is with Win Lyovarin's historical novel Democracy, Shaken and Stirred--required reading in many Thai universities. The book interweaves real events with fictional characters who live through them.

The Thai title of the book translates as "Democracy Along Parallel Lines" and this metaphor is repeated through the book as the two protagonists, one a rebel, and the other a faithful police officer, walk on opposite sides of the law towards the same reality and with the same moral view.

The characters are present at the places and events that made up the political life of the century--including the political gulag of Tarutao Island, Communist exile, the Manhattan coup, and the killing of four government ministers on a narrow, mahogany tree-lined street called Phaholyothin Road.

The seminal political upheavals from 1932 to 1992 are told in flashbacks, as if to avoid agitating the reader, with each section bookended by comments made by the two protagonists as old men sitting in Lumpini Park in 1992. The characters ponder the ramifications of the events with detached resignation. Those used to good-bad interpretations of politics or those who do not realize the profoundly middle view most Thais take of political life will find insight.

More than illuminating the intrigue that changed governments since the overthrown of the absolute monarchy, Democracy, Shaken and Stirred is a telling exposition that shows how Thais are taught not to see political shakeups in terms of black and white. The message is to look with skepticism on political changes and that all institutions are corrupt and tainted.

A normal way that one refutes charges in Thai discourse is to claim that one side has something to gain or has a hidden agenda. There is no room to suppose that a protest is both genuine and someone is gaining. If there is a hidden hand or if someone stands to benefit, the protest is looked upon with skepticism.

So instead of boldly proclaiming that Pol. Chief Phao Siriyanon was the worst man in the history of modern Thailand (as the New York Times famously did), Democracy, Shaken and Stirred is more likely to equally criticize the hidden agenda of those who tried to unseat him.

Even the October 1973 protests that overthrew Gen. Thanom--a time still memorialized
today as the moment when the people overthrew dictatorship--is described as "mostly a ruse by others to gain power."

In 1992, the main characters, now elderly men sitting in Lumpini Park, ponder the events of 1973: "The October 14 incident was billed as the People's triumph. But the real victors were well concealed. They were devilish clever in using the people power as their front to topple those rulers whose priorities were clashing with their own agenda."
"But the people believed that to be the period of golden opportunities..."
"Pure illusion."

The book recounts each successive political change as more Machiavellian, more complicated and more wrapped up in big money deals until the 1992 Black May protests are dismissed in a few paragraphs as merely a tussle between competing business interests. As time goes by, friends are unmasked as enemies, the pure are shown to be wicked, and all are seen to be potentially guilty.

But apathy is not being taught. The book is both a reflection on and lesson about the Thai world view. It teaches people to be skeptical about the black and white pronouncements of the evils of dictators by other "big men." It also expresses a fear that idealistic people can be too leadable.

In the traditional Thai world where everyone knows the social level of those around them, those below listen intently to those above and expect to be rewarded for not questioning. In this environment, there is always the fear that legions of gullible farmers might be turned on the capital by calculating politicians. People must be constantly made aware that the motives of political leaders are suspect.

Add to this a compromising political systems where alliances of political foes can suddenly materialize or disappear. No one deserves to be singled out as the villain because all are act as part of a group and can end up on the opposite side.

The act of protesting itself is a sign of being compromised. Those who protest are seen as already risking or even giving up their lives, because open protest is going outside the social compact by confronting. The honor of purity of motives is reserved for the Sovereign only. All others are tainted.

Many fascinating descriptions of political thought appear in the book. While fleeing through the countryside with deposed Field Marshall Pibul, his chief aide coolly muses: "Politics and power spares no one from their grasps. Everybody involved could have the curtain rung down on them unexpectedly just like his boss at this moment. In politics the roles of good guy and bad guy were easily interchangeable. He himself had learned from experience that in this game there were neither true friends nor permanent enemies."

So ultimately, in addition to an account of the events, Democracy, Shaken and Stirred is a lesson on how people should contextualize the tumultuous political events that regularly shake Thailand about every 10-15 years--beyond the "angels and devils" labels of the popular press.

By the end of the book it is the 1990s and a new era of "international businessmen" are entering Thai politics. The reader is asked, "Who would scare you more, businessmen who entered politics to protect and advance their own organizations, or politicians who use politics to build a trading empire?"

The answer seems to be that both should be afforded equal suspicion.

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