22 September 2006

thai military coup --not benign

i was telling a thai friend yesterday that i was confused by some of the media reports regarding the coup. thanks nc, for articulating that confusion.


The September 19 military coup has been described by some persons as benign. Their reasoning goes that the government of Thaksin Shinawatra was bad and intransigent. Whatever way it could be removed was good. Even normally well-informed news media have evoked images of a quiet and non-violent coup that is expected to just "slip in and slip out", in the words of one BBC correspondent.

The Asian Human Rights Commission rejects these arguments as naive and confused.

The Thaksin government was a civilian autocracy. It did not respect human rights, the rule of law or democratic principles. It manipulated the media, intimidated its opponents, and played with legislation and public institutions for its own advantage. It exacerbated violence, from wanton extrajudicial killings of supposed drug dealers across Thailand to the conflict in the south. It enormously expanded the power and influence of the police. It fixed an election and allegedly extorted vast sums of money.

But a military autocracy is worse than a civilian autocracy. Within hours of taking power, the army abrogated the constitution, banned political assemblies, commenced extralegal arrests, and authorised censorship. The Thaksin government sought to undermine the constitution, harass gatherings of political opponents, and control the media through advertising revenue and criminal defamation. But by its very nature, it did not have the audacity to abandon the country's supreme law and ban civil rights. By contrast, and by its very nature, the army has already done so.

Today Thailand is without a parliament and a constitution. Its executive is under control of the army. Its judiciary is hobbled. Its media is threatened. It is in a very dangerous moment.

The argument in favour of a military coup is akin to the argument used by proponents of torture. Torture, they say, is sometimes a regrettable necessity. Where the lives of many are at stake, the physical integrity of one may be violated. Likewise, a coup is sometimes described as a regrettable necessity. Where a country is at stake, a government's integrity can be violated.

Both arguments boil down to the same wrong-headed notion: that a coup, like torture, can be started and stopped with convenience. It cannot. Torture, once it is introduced into a system of investigation, mutates and spreads. It affects not only the victim but the persons who use it, their institutions and the perceptions of society about what is permitted and what is not. Likewise, a military that obtains power through a coup infiltrates and distorts all areas of governance, as well as public attitudes and expectations. Once admitted, it is not easily removed. Its presence is felt long after it is physically gone…

There is a saying that runs, "Afraid of the tiger, one invokes a tutelary, but the tutelary turns out to be worse than the tiger." Today, Thailand has replaced a tiger with a tutelary. Happy that the tiger is gone, the terrible implications of how and by whom it was removed are not yet understood. But there is one certainty: no military coup just "slips in and out". By nature, military rulers leave things behind to ensure that their interests endure. And by nature, those interests are contrary to the rule of law, human rights and genuine democracy. Proof of this can be found today in Pakistan and Burma, and in the leftovers of military dictatorships in virtually every country of South and Southeast Asia.

The question is not whether the coup is benign or malign. The question is, how much damage has it already caused, and how can it be mitigated?

The Asian Human Rights Commission reiterates its call to the Royal Thai Army for an immediate return to civilian control and restoration of the constitution, without any amendment other than that to pave the way for prompt and fair elections. It reiterates its call for continued strong international condemnation of the takeover, including from the United Nations. And it makes a special call to the international news media not to misunderstand and misrepresent the coup in Thailand through glib summations from casual observations: study the real consequences of the coup before reporting on it.

21 September 2006

lost potential?

i was looking through some old auc stuff, in the hopes of finding some readings for my current classes. i found one. i also found a recommendation letter written by one of my favorite professors. the letter made me sound so cool: intelligent, dedicated, passionate, talented. what struck me the most, was the letter's suggestion (or expectation?) that i was heading somewhere great, that i was capable of achieving many things.

the letter was written three years ago.

in that time, i cannot say that i have achieved all that much. reading the letter, i felt sad. i am left wondering what happened to the potential the letter hinted at..

16 September 2006

for chitra

when you first came back from illinois, you gave me a book. the inscription said, 'because it was yours from the moment i saw it'. i now return some of that sentiment:

i hope you never lose your sense of wonder
you get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger
may you never take one single breath for granted
god forbid love ever leave you empty handed
i hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean
whenever one door closes i hope one more opens
promise me that you'll give faith a fighting chance
and when you get the choice to sit it out or dance
i hope you dance .. i hope you dance
i hope you never fear those mountains in the distance
never settle for the path of least resistance
living' might mean takin' chances but they're worth takin'
lovin' might be a mistake but it's worth makin'
don't let some hell bent heart leave you bitter
when you come close to sellin' out reconsider
give the heavens above more than just a passing glance
and when you get the choice to sit it out or dance
i hope you dance .. i hope you dance
time is a wheel in constant motion always rolling us along
tell me who wants to look back on their years and wonder
where those years have gone
i hope you dance .. i hope you dance

15 September 2006

indeed, what is normal?

the following is quoted in the article 'What women are saying about the violence in the Middle East'

And a woman writing under the pen name of ‘Delirious’ writes about what ‘normal’ means in a time of war at Life or Something Like It… http://computeraidedelirium.blogspot.com/

"In a normal world, the masses would not be slumbering while their fellow human beings are being killed. (I wonder, how does everyone still go about their business normally? Do they wake up, switch on the news, and go: "Oh, it's these Arabs and Jews that are killing each other again, pfffffff.... bo-ring. Hummm... what am I going to wear today?")

In a normal world, the UN would be something other than just a prefix for the world UNABLE.

In a normal world, the media would not be biased or misinformed. (too many examples to link to here, but you all know what I'm talking about -- here's one anyways).

In a normal world, children and infants would not constitute 1/3 of killed civilians in a war.

In a normal world, a cease-fire would have been decreed a long time ago.

In a normal world, humanitarian convoys would not be bombed, and fuel would be allowed to reach port at least to prevent hospitals from shutting down.

In a normal world, bombs would not be dubbed as birth pangs of a New Middle East (Rice's now infamous metaphor).

In a normal world, an end to all this madness would have been sought a long time ago, instead of finger-pointing and more destruction.

But then... who am I to define what is normal?"

11 September 2006

value for human life

a few days ago, in frustration and puzzlement, one of my colleagues--a senior cambodian human rights defender--wondered whether in our part of the world (as well as other developing nations) human life was valued less than perhaps in europe or america. how else could we explain the great number of lives lost everyday, with such little attention and uproar? he noted that if we do not value the lives of our fellow countrymen, how can we expect others to?

the conversation inevitably moved to the new york world trade centre attacks and i voiced my disquiet at the local tv station's adverts for a two-hour documentary on the topic. five years after the tragedy, the hype has not died down. but what of the thousands of other world tragedies that have continued in those five years? why are their stories not portrayed as vividly, or at all?

i am aware that part of the answer must necessarily lie in the politics of media, power and capital. i am more interested however, in the responsibility shouldered by civil society, by ordinary individuals. earlier last week, a fellow indian, on learning that my family comes from the state of gujarat, asked me, 'what are you doing in response to the government of narendra modi, to the 2002 pogrom?' he did not ask me for an opinion or comments, he was interested in concrete actions. implicit in his question was my responsibility to be doing something.

one of my friends has this quote on his blog: you must be the change you wish to see in the world

(perhaps i can begin working towards this change by participating in class discussions this time around.. !)

06 September 2006

writing guru

one of my colleagues is without doubt the best writer--and editor--that i know. today, i read some of his work after a hiatus of two months. again, i was struck not only by his clarity and style, but also by his creativity. this latter is perhaps the quality i most envy. to be able to say the same thing for the umpteenth time in a different and unique way is definitely not easy. in fact, this is the one thing that particularly frustrated me several months ago; i was sick of repeating the same phrases, playing with the same expressions. when these are made up of 'extrajudicial killings',' official impunity',' lack of effective remedies' and the like, the frustration is not merely stylistic. inspirational writing like his is therefore greatly welcomed.

three years ago, when i first met him and was in awe, i told myself that he had ten years more experience than myself. i hoped that i too would reach that point after a certain amount of experience. now, i am not so sure. sure, writing (and the critical process associated with it) is a skill. it is also a talent. skills can be learnt, but talent cannot.

04 September 2006

the handmaid's tale

this is such a great book! i tried to read other stuff by her (margaret atwood) before, but could never get into it. not only is her writing amazing, but the plot was also compelling. it was disturbing though. not just the plot itself, but that you can almost identify with the society she's created; its existence is possible.

here are some quotes:

"I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed. There's a lot that doesn't bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last. I know why there is no glass, in front of the water colour picture of blue irises, and why the windown opens only partly and why the glass in it is shatter proof. It isn't running away they're afraid of. We wouldn't get far. It's those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge."

"Or I would help Rita to make the bread, sinking my hands into that soft resistant warmth which is so much like flesh. I hunger to touch something, other than cloth or wood. I hunger to commit the act of touch."

"We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn't the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.. The newspaper stories were like bad dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives. We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edge of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories."

"I wait. I compose myself. My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech."

"It's impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances, too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described.."

"The moment of betrayal is the worst, the moment when you know beyond any doubt that you've been betrayed: that some other human being has wished you that much evil."

"If you don't like it, change it, we said, to each other and to ourselves. And so we would change the man, for another one. Change, we were sure, was for the better always. We were revisionists; what we revised was ourselves. It's strange to remember how we used to think, as if everything were avaible to us, as if there were no contingencies, no boundaries; as if we were free to shape and reshape forever the ever-expanding perimeters of our lives."

01 September 2006

practical theory

i met up with my auc friends dalia and sean this summer. it was like a few stolen moments, or, as i told dalia, as though i was still in transit (which, in some ways, i was). regardless, at dinner that first night, we inevitably and so very naturally ended up discussing postcolonial theory and its implications for everyday life.

my issues with foucault, derrida, spivak et al rise from their lack of practical value. their ideas do not help me in dealing with everyday human rights violations. they say nothing that i can repeat to those suffering gross abuses.

this critique is directed not only towards postcolonial theory, but all theory. theories of ipe for instance, are unable to effectively address the cause and effect of female migration. i recall my frustrations at being unable to use the ipe theories to explain the numerous exceptions i was faced with for my final paper at auc. at that time, exceptions were seen as just that --exceptions, not the norm.

my experience over the past three years has taught me differently. in this time i have dealt with nothing but exceptions. which, in the course of time, have become the norm. is it that i am not grasping the theories in their entirety, or, as noted by carl jung,

Since self-knowledge is a matter of getting to know the individual facts, theories help very little in this respect. For the more a theory lays claim to universal validity, the less capable it is of doing justice to the individual facts. Any theory based on experience is necessarily statistical; that is to say, it formulates an ideal average which abolishes all exceptions at either end of the scale and replaces them by an abstract mean. This mean is quite valid, though it need not necessarily occur in reality. Despite this it figures in the theory as an unassailable fundamental fact. The exceptions at either extreme, though equally factual, do not appear in the final result at all, since they cancel each other out. If, for instance, I determine the weight of each stone in a bed of pebbles and get an average weight of 145 grams, this tells me very little about the real nature of the pebbles. Anyone who thought, on the basis of these findings, that he could pick up a pebble of 145 grams at the first try would be in for a serious disappointment. Indeed, it might well happen that however long he searched he would not find a single pebble weighing exactly 145 grams. The statistical method shows the facts in the light of the ideal average but does not give us a picture of their empirical reality. While reflecting an indisputable aspect of reality, it can falsify the actual truth in a most misleading way. This is particularly true of theories which are based on statistics. The distinctive thing about real facts, however, is their individuality. Not to put too fine a point on it, one could say that the real picture consists of nothing but exceptions to the rule, and that, in consequence, absolute reality has predominantly the character of irregularity (The undiscovered self, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1958).