Monday, February 26, 2007

The Star of Siamese History

Every nation needs heroes, some historical figure who embodies the nation’s essence. Italy has Guiseppi Garibaldi, and America has George Washington – and Thailand has King Naresuan.

The story of King Naresuan, who liberated Siam from Burma in the early 17th century has been told many times, in books, oral histories, poems, murals, statuary - and now on film.

Thais has been immersed in their country’s history through the three-part epic The Legend of Naresuan which will run for a total of more than nine hours. The first installment opened in mid-January; the third and last is timed to open on the King’s birthday in December.

I have been fascinated by the debate over the historical accuracy of the script and scenes that has played out in the newspapers since the film’s release. That seems to belie the notion that Thais don’t care that much about their country’s history.

King Naresuan ruled Siam (actually the Kingdom of Ayutthaya) from 1590 to 1605, which makes him a contemporary of England’s Queen Elizabeth. King Naresuan died two years after Elizabeth, though he was much younger that the Queen.

The Elizabethan age, however, is copiously documented in histories, diaries, official documents and letters, not to mention the plays of William Shakespeare. Though it was 400 years ago, the era seems so vivid as to be almost yesterday.

By contrast, King Naresuan comes across as a semi-legendary figure, more like King Arthur. The director, M C Chatrichalerm Yukol, himself says that the film is a “blend of history, plausibility and imagination”.

Indeed, much of the film has no real historical foundation, as the director freely admits. In one of the more dramatic scenes of part one King Naresuan’s elder sister, Princess Suphankalaya, sacrifices herself to the King of Burma to gain her brother’s release.

It is a good film drama except that the princess appears nowhere in the Ayutthaya Chronicles. Nor is there said to be a record of King Naresuan being taken into Burmese captivity. Does that mean it is anti-historical? Not necessarily.

The problem with all of Thai history before the 19th century is that so little reliable source material survives. History was written on palm leaves, which were then recopied as the leaves degraded. Each time the chronicles were copied the history was “improved” to make certain kings appear more heroic, but in doing so the writers introduced inaccuracies.

Of course, Thailand isn’t the only country where history is sometimes “improved”. The first biography of George Washington introduced the wholly fictional account of the young Washington chopping down the cherry tree and confessing: “I cannot tell a lie.”

Much Thai history was lost in eternal wars with neighbors. In the 1767 sacking of the Siamese capital at Ayutthaya, the conquering Burmese used the royal library as fuel to melt gold off the images of Buddha.

Siamese history is, in parts, better recorded in the annals of Burmese kings and Chinese and Vietnamese emperors, who generally paint an unflattering picture of the villainous Thais.

Some of the best sources are Franciscan, Dominican and Jesuit reports to their superiors in Rome. A few Dutch and French adventurers also wrote accounts, but these are often inaccurate too, though often more reliable than Thai sources. But they were all written after King Naresuan died, sometimes as much as a half century later.

Chan Noi has an interesting column in The Nation newspaper detailing how the reputation of King Naresuan has waxed and waned depending on the state that Thailand was in. Typically, he has gained in stature when Thailand felt it was under siege.

The last big revival, Chan Noi writes, was in the 1960s when Thailand felt threatened by communist insurgencies in neighboring countries and at home. “The palace and the army looked to King Naresuan as a great historical symbol of Thailand’s ability to defy its enemies. Statues of the monarch were erected all over Thailand in places historically associated with his name.”

So what does the The Legend of King Naresuan’s release at this point in Thailand’s history say about the state of the country? One might say that the generals who run the country probably are not unhappy over the strong nationalist message that the films convey.

It would be a considerable stretch, however, to suggest that the films were in anyway designed to support the coup makers. This is, after all, the most expensive Thai movie ever made. It has the proverbial cast of thousands, expensive costumes and props, even 10 trained elephants.

Clearly it wasn’t something cobbled together in the four months between the September 19 coup and the January 11 opening.

But The Legend of King Naresuan is not just another action movie either. It is no coincidence that the first installment opened on Army Day and that the last one will screen on the King Bhumibol’s birthday on December 5..

The director even chose a rank amateur, a handsome serving cavalry officer named Major Wanchana, to play the lead role (he makes his appearance in the second installment that opened in early February – in the first episode Narusuan is a youth) because he was something of a blank slate.

The image of the Star of Siam’s history is not to be sullied by the usual theater crowd tittle-tattle that might surround a more famous and experienced actor.

Monday, February 19, 2007

What Took So Long?

What Took So Long?

The new nuclear agreement with North Korea represents a total capitulation by the George W Bush administration. No, not to Kim Jong-il – worse, to Bill Clinton. If there is any fundamental difference between this deal and the 1994 Agreed Framework accord negotiated under Clinton, it is hard to see.

Pyongyang has agreed to freeze – that word again – and eventually dismantle its nuclear reactor and reprocessing plant at Yongbyon and nuclear facilities in other parts of the country in return for tons of heavy oil to run its power plants. They will be provided by five countries except Japan which still nurses grievances about abducted citizens..

Down the line are promises of more to come, including the possibility of complete nuclear disarmament in return for a peace treaty, the North’s removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and ultimately formal recognition and diplomatic relations.

No mention was been made about providing any light-water rectors, or more accurately, restarting work on the units at Kumho on the coast, which were about 30% completed when the accord was broken. Presumably, this would have been too much of a climb down for the Bush administration, since the reactors have always been a red-flag for Republicans.

Never mind that the cost is being borne by South Korea and Japan, which have lost tens of millions of dollars on this project since 2003. Just last week Pyongyang rejected Japan and South Korea’s demand for $1.9 billion in compensation for money they have sunk into the project. No big surprise.

The North is eventually to provide details about and then dismantle its “nuclear program.” The purposely vague term would presumably cover any efforts at enriching uranium, which is not specifically mentioned in the agreement reached in Beijing.

I take this to be a tacit admission that Washington accepts Pyongyang’s assertion that it has no such program. It would be difficult for Washington to concede this explicitly since the existence of such a program was the reason – the pretext, if you will – for the US to brand the North a cheater and cut off oil shipments in 2002.

That prompted North Korea to kick out international inspectors, restart the Yongbyon plant and reprocess the 8,000 spent fuel rods that had been waiting shipment out of the country, obtaining enough Plutonium-239 to make perhaps six to eight atomic bombs.

The US maintains that the North admitted to the program back then; Pyongyang says its representative was misunderstood. In the five years since Washington publicly accused them of cheating there has been no evidence in public about the existence of such a program.
One reads constantly about Iran’s uranium enrichment program. The sites are well-known and bracketed. By contrast hardly a word has been mentioned publicly in five years about the North’s purported program or where any enrichment facility might be located.

The best part of the new agreement is that it should halt future production of plutonium for bombs. The weakness is that it doe not immediately address the bombs that North Korea has already fashioned from the spent fuel at Yongbyon.

The Bush administration’s move to break the accord hugely complicated any future efforts to disarm North Korea. After all, the reactors and processing plants were well known and mapped. They could be monitored – on site by inspectors or through surveillance.

But how do you find 8-10 atomic bombs or the materials to make them in a country of 24 million people? Nobody is even sure how many bombs the North has fabricated. Suppose they turned over eight bombs and declared itself disarmed but kept two in reserve?

Perhaps the North’s promise to provided detailed information on its nuclear program will include the precise amount of plutonium recovered through various cycles. That might provide sufficient information to produce an accurate inventory of the North’s arsenal, which would be the first step toward any verifiable disarmament.

I must admit it is rather sweet to read about how all of the neo-conservatives, led by former UN Ambassador John Bolton, are sputtering and complaining about how the administration has betrayed its principles.

In its defense, the Bush administration points to the success of decision to negotiate on a multilateral basis through the six-party talks hosted by China. Yet this deal was essentially reached the old-fashion way, through bilateral talks between US representative Christopher Hill and North Korea’s Kim Kye-gwan in Berlin.

But it would however be a little too cynical to dismiss the usefulness of the six-party format out of hand. China, after all, has emerged as a much more important factor in regional and global affairs since 1994, the year the first accord was negotiated.

It is not clear how much Beijing helped in persuading the North to make concessions this time, but it certainly must have been valuable. And it doesn’t hurt to have the five other representatives to the talks on board to hold the North’s feet to the fire in the coming months.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

In the Season of SARS


Back in early 2003, when I was living in Hong Kong, I got an e-mail from a friend and former colleague regretting that he had to cancel a planned trip to Hong Kong. “It’s that pneumonia thing,” he said.

Pneumonia thing? What pneumonia thing? I wondered. What is he talking about?

I was vaguely aware that some hospital in Kowloon had reported a few cases of what the newspapers were calling “atypical pneumonia”, but why this should be the cause to cancel a trip or why it should even have impinged on the consciousness of somebody living half-way around the world was a puzzle.

Not long afterward I flew to Japan and was away from Hong Kong for about three weeks. When I returned to the SAR (Special Administrative Region), I found a city that had been utterly transformed by SARS.

For by that time the “pneumonia thing” had acquired a name: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

A fellow traveler in the season of SARS was Karl Taro Greenfeld, then the editor of TIME Asia in Hong Kong. He has written a compelling narrative about the SARS outbreak, China Syndrome: The 21st Century’s First Great Epidemic (Penguin Books, 442 pages).

Greenfeld begins his story considerably earlier than the time I first became aware of it by exploring the fetid menagerie of caged animals, snakes, badgers, civet cats and other exotic ingredients of the “Wild Flavor” restaurants and slums of southern China, that great incubator of diseases.

People had begun showing up in Guangzhou hospitals with similar symptoms: high fever, coughing, clouded x-rays. They did not seem to respond to antibiotics, the usual way to treat respiratory ailments.

“As anecdotal reports of unexplained respiratory ailments filtered back across the border [with Hong Kong] , influenza experts perked up and local virologists began to suspect that an influenza outbreak might be afoot,” he writes.

SARS found its way into Hong Kong by way of a Chinese doctor, who, though feeling poorly, nevertheless traveled to the territory and checked into the Metropole Hotel in Kowloon, spewing his infection to the other guests.

In a similar fashion the disease spread to Vietnam, Canada and other parts of China. But health officials really understood they were under siege when SARS spread through Amoy Gardens. It is hard to overestimate the fear that this caused. Amoy Garden is a typical lower-middle class high rise apartment complex in Kowloon.

There are a thousand like it throughout Hong Kong. If SARS could race through this building infecting hundreds and killing dozens in a matter of days, no place in Hong Kong was safe. Why this dreaded scenario was not repeated in other complexes is one of the mysteries of SARS.

But, of course, it was in China that SARS had its greatest impact. Chinese officials deliberately stonewalled, obfuscated and lied. Reports of the disease that might have helped slow the spread to other cities were quashed, Reporters were told what not to report.

China’s authorities were loath to admit that an outbreak of unknown severity was racing through the country at a delicate time when the country was undergoing a leadership change. Greenfeld quotes one doctor as saying, “What mattered more? The Party Congress or a few doctors?”

Then surprisingly, the Chinese leadership did a complete about-turn. Rather than downplay the disease, they publicly acknowledged it and took measures to halt its spread.

President Hu Jintao decided that the issue gave him “the populist sheen that could lubricate his ascension to real power,” Greenfeld writes. He visited hospitals, and labs. He flew to “ground zero”, Guangzhou, to conduct a personal inspection.

“Hu had made a brilliant political calculation; he would personally take over the anti-SARS campaign making it a centerpiece of his inchoate administration and using it as a wedge to consolidate power.” .

It was as if a dam had burst. The number of acknowledged cases in Beijing tripled, quadrupled overnight. The news media covered the story 24/7. Special awards were made to health care workers – “Heros of SARS.” A Beijinger could have his temperature taken a dozen times a day.

Like all good medical narratives, China Syndrome is something of a detective story. Greenfeld gives plenty of space to the virologists who decoded the virus that caused SARS, not to mention his own TIME correspondents who “bombed” Beijing hospitals – that is, walked through the front door and asked nurses point blank whether they had any SARS cases.

Yet for all of its virtues China Syndrome already has a kind of dated quality to it. After all, SARS burned itself out in a few months – nobody really knows why. Was it all that temperature-taking in Beijing, the culling of tens of thousands of civet cats in Shenzhen, a change in climate, luck?

On the scale of the world’s deadliest plagues, the 21st century’s “first great epidemic” didn’t quite live up to its billing. Fewer than 10,000 people were infected; fewer than 1,000 died of the disease. Not exactly the Black Death.

SARS never impinged strongly on the English-speaking world. Only a handful of cases were reported in North America. Most of the world’s attention was diverted by the invasion of Iraq, which took place almost simultaneously.

Hong Kong may have been the world’s only media market where another story actually competed for attention with Iraq. But then we had our own nightly body count on the local news.

Moreover, the hope and expectation that SARS and Hu Jintao’s response would usher in a new era of openness in China proved to be fleeting, a promise unfulfilled, as China’s authorities have since moved to assert their authority over the media.

Even today we learn that a Chinese doctor, Gao Yaojie, acclaimed for helping fight the spread of AIDS, and coming into conflict with the authorities for doing it, is under house arrest and denied permission to travel to the US to accept an award for her work.

Yet those of us who lived through the season of SARS will never forget it. If nothing else it had demonstrated how fast a strange new disease could take hold and spread far and wide in this globalized age of air travel. The century’s first great epidemic was a bullet dodged. But it will not be the last.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

A Resilient Outpost of Tyranny

Myanmar’s generals have proven themselves more resilient to international pressure than any of the globe’s other “pariah” states, even North Korea.

Of course, Myanmar has assets that North Korea lacks, including large, untapped oil and gas reserves and powerful patrons. These two countries, China and Russia, joined in January in defeating a UN Security Council resolution condemning the regime.

The defeat came even after the US tried desperately but unsuccessfully to soften the language that called for freeing political prisoners, including democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, to persuade the two veto-wielding permanent members to abstain.

“We’re back to square one,” said Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Syed Hamud Albarm after the vote. To its credit Malaysia has been one of the few Asian nations to take at least a moderately hardline on Myanmar.

President George W. Bush made a passing reference to Myanmar and other “outposts of tyranny,” to use Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s phrase, during his State-of-the-Union speech, but it was clear that the this outpost, anyway, doesn’t concern his administration that much anymore.

The US and Europe imposed strict economic sanctions on Myanmar back in 1997. American and European firms that were active in the country have closed down their operations and withdrawn their investments.

But Chinese, Indian and other Asian countries have more than filled the gap. Foreign direct investment in Myanmar hit $6 billion in the 2005-2006 fiscal year ending in March, considerably more than the $158 million the previous fiscal year.

A case in point is India, which previously had advocated pressuring the junta to release political prisoners and permit the democracy, in keeping with its own democratic heritage. It has reversed itself to embrace the generals.

Realpolitik concerns trump democracy. India needs Myanmar’s cooperation in fighting the several insurgencies raging in its northeastern states. And it worries about China’s influence along the Indian Ocean.

In commercial terms, India’s national oil and gas companies covet the resources of the Rahkine fields off Myanmar’s northwest coast. It also desires more trade with Southeast Asia, and Myanmar lies directly on that path.

The Security Council vote had scarcely been recorded before India’s Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee paid a visit to Naypyitaw, becoming the first high profile foreigner to visit the mysterious new capital in Myanmar’s interior.

“We have to deal with governments as they exist,” he said. China’s Li Tieying couldn’t have said it better. The vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress also paid homage to the generals last month.

It has been speculated that the junta moved the capital from coastal Yangon to the interior because the generals worried that Yangon was too exposed to an American attack. They could have saved their resources. “Regime change” is nowhere on the horizon.

Remote from any serious American interest Myanmar presents no threat. It is just a mini outpost of tyranny on the far corner of the American radar screen.

The quagmire in Iraq, increasing involvement in the Middle East, talk of war with Iran, troubles with North Korea – all these suck up Washington’s energies. The tyrants in Myanmar can expect smooth sailing for years to come.