Monday, May 28, 2007


Nakhon Si Thammarat lies at roughly the same latitude as Phuket, except that it is on the Gulf of Thailand side of the Malay Peninsula, instead of the Andaman Sea. It is an ancient city, tracing its present incarnation back to the 13th Century. One can easily discern the outlines of the old city in the current layout of streets and in the remnants of the city wall.

Lately, this city has become a tourist destination, possibly the biggest tourist destination in Thailand. Four flights a day from Bangkok disgorge visitors. They stream off buses and trains. The city estimates that 1.6 million people visited in 2006, straining the city’s modest accommodations.

None of the visitors are foreign tourists, of course, no sun-seeking Europeans, no back- packers no beachcombers. During the weekend I spent there, I encountered only one other farang, a Dane who was attending his brother-in-law’s wedding, and he seemed happy enough to get back to Chiang Mai.

The visitors, more accurately pilgrims, are all Thai. They don’t come because of the city’s rich history, the Makhalon archeological site to the north or the Phrom Lok Waterfall or any of the other attractions touted by the Tourism Association of Thailand, Southern Region. No, they come for just one reason:


All of Thailand is in the grip of Jatukam fever, but nowhere else is it so all-consuming as in this southern Thai city, where it all began. Here it seems like every other citizen is wearing one of the amulets.

They are easy to spot, since they look like Olympic bronze medals suspended by a chain around the neck. Sometimes more than one. (Thai joke: A man goes to the doctor complaining of neck and shoulder pain. The doctor points to the five Jatukam medallions strung around his neck and suggests he lighten the load.)

It is impossible to ignore the phenomenon here. Bill boards plastered on the side of buildings display the latest models. Sound trucks that in any other Thai city might be advertising boxing matches or the candidates in local elections, blast information on new medals.

Along Ratchadamoen Road, the town’s main street, whole shops are given over to display cases stocked with the medallions in their little plastic cases, generally priced from 2,000 to 5,000 baht. Even stores that sell ordinary household items still have a few cases displaying the latest amulets.

The Jatukam craze has become a huge bonanza for Nakhon Si Thammarat and the Buddhist temples that give the medals their blessing. Of the city’s 560 temples, 200 produce the amulets, and more are planning to do so. The sales and visitors have brought in more than 10 billion baht.

Jatukam fever is bringing in so much money that the Thai Revenue Department is considering whether to tax them, helping to offset loss of tax revenue from the general downturn in the economy. “There’s a tremendous amount of money floating around in the amulet market,” said department director general Sanit Rangnoi.

What is Jatukam?

It is actually two people, Jatukam Rammathep, and their origin is obscure and difficult to understand for someone not steeped in Hindu-Buddhist mythology. By some accounts, they were princes in the Srivijay Kingdom of which Nahkon Si Thammarat was the center.

Another theory is that the names are a corruption of Khuttugama and Ramadeva two Hindu guardians, that can be seen alongside the stairway leading into the inner sanctum of the Great Stupa of the Wat Pra Mahathat, which is said to be the most important and historic Buddhist temple in southern Thailand.

The first Jatukam amulets were stuck and sold in 1987 (they now fetch prices in excess of a million baht). But only a few of the amulets were sold for many years. The craze only took off last year.

Most Jatukam enthusiasts associate the amulets with a much more contemporary figure, Police Major General Phantarak Rajadej, the provincial police chief who died only last September at age 103. He was said to have magical powers and instrumental in building the holy site called the City Pillar, now a center of the trade.

His cremation ceremony here in February drew tens of thousands of people, some hoping to obtain one of the talismans distributed to mourners. His Royal Highness, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn presided.

On a rainy Saturday in late April I found my way to the City Pillar to observe the consecration of a new Jatukam amulet. The pillar is a golden stele, with a four faces of Buddha at the top enclosed in an alabaster white structure.

In the late morning the courtyard was already crowed with people. A huge offering table displayed a feast of symbolic offerings: heaps of grapes, bananas, crabs, durians, even two hogs heads. A loudspeaker blared out constant announcements or prayers. Every now and then one heard the crackling of fire works.

At 1:30 p.m. ten saffron-clad monks took their seats on a long bench on one side of the pillar and began a steady, droning prayer chant that lasted for 40 minutes as people paid their respects by listening respectfully, their hands folded in prayer.

On the far side of the pillar complex several men were kneading clay that would be pressed into amulets. The chanting came to a close, and a senior monk took his place on front of a press, having the privilege of striking off the first amulet.

Then he stood up cupping the newly minted medallion in the palm of his hand for all to see. People crowded around to look and take pictures as if it were some kind of an exotic and fabulously expensive rare jewel. Another little Buddha was born.

There plenty of theories to explain the enormous popularity of the Jatukam amulets in Thailand at this time in its history. And there are plenty of people happy to testify about motorbike accidents survived, of diseases cured by the miraculous power of the amulet.

Some argue that the phenomenon is symptomatic of the “confused state of Thai Buddhism” – to quote The Nation newspaper - where temples and monks are willing to debase their calling for the enormous profits that can had from amulet sales, sales that dwarf the traditional temple trinkets by a huge margin.

Some argue that Thais are feeling insecure given the country’s political turmoil and the aging of their beloved King and thus put their faith in objects they think can bring them good fortune.

One should not discount their sheer collectability. New amulets are issued almost every day. Glossy, four-color catalogues display the latest models complete with the numbers of each edition and their prices.

And there is also the simple excitement of one young woman at the City Pillar as she struggled to convey in her limited English to this unenlightened farang why she was so happy to be present at the consecration of a new Jatukam amulet. “It gives you everything.”

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Shanghai Noir

At the beginning of Qiu Xiaolong’s mystery novel When Red is Black Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau is sitting in an elegant bar, sipping French wine with a property developer.

His name is Gu, the CEO of New World Group, and they are discussing a business proposition. “You have to translate this business proposal for me, Chief Inspector Chan, not simply for my sake but for the city of Shanghai.”

The project that Gu wants to sell to American investors is to raze a neighborhood of old shikumen houses, replacing them with a row of private luxury apartments. “It’s a grand project,” Chen agrees. “Have you gotten approval of the city?”

“Of course, the city government is all for the project. When the New World goes up, it will not only enhance the image of our great city but also bring in huge tax revenues.”

Welcome to contemporary Shanghai.

Welcome to the world of Qiu Xiaolong, a Chinese writer who making a name for himself and finding a wide readership with his Inspector Chen mysteries, of which When Red is Black is the third in the series.

A native of Shanghai, Qiu has lived, worked and taught in the quintessential middle-American city of St Louis for the past 18 years. There could hardly be a starker contrast between his adopted home and the wild, bustling, corrupt Shanghai, the setting for all his mysteries.

Qiu is one of two exiled Chinese writers living and working in America. Perhaps the more famous of the two goes by the name of Ha Jin, though he works in the literary fiction genre, not detective novels.

Their careers have followed similar trajectories. Both were in the United States as visiting scholars - Ha Jin at Brandeis University in Ohio and Qiu at Washington University in St Louis - when the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre occurred in Beijing. They decided to stay.

“Ha Jin is a friend of mine,” says Qiu. “In some Chinese reviews we have been lumped together - not all that favorably. They ask, ‘why are you writing in English instead of Chinese?’ Are we just trying to please a Western audience?”

Well, in fact, they are pleasing a growing number of Western readers. Ha Jin won the National Book Award in 1999 for his book Waiting. Qiu’s first novel, Death of a Red Heroine won the 2001 “Edgar” Award for the Best First Mystery.

There is a lot of Qiu in his Inspector Chen character. Both are intellectuals. Like Qiu, Chen studied English literature and is fluent in English (which is why he is commissioned to translate the New World brochure). Both have a passion for poetry, especially that of T.S. Elliott, a native of St Louis.

But Qiu hastens to add, “I have never been a cop or a [communist] party member. Indeed, he says he doesn’t much like Inspector Chen. “For me Inspector Chen is a kind of anti-hero, a survivor in the system, although he is trying his best to do a good job as a cop.”

Inspector Chen is also something of a prude. In When Red is Black Chen is provided with a lithesome “K”[araoke] Girl named White Cloud to serve as his “little secretary”. Toward the end of the book she expresses disgust at his lack of attention. Even the fat cats of Shanghai “know what to do with a woman”, she says.

The Inspector Chen character merits some comparison with the fictional Scotland Yard Detective Adam Dalglish, who is also a poet. Except that author P D James never lets her character write poems in her novels (probably because she isn’t a poet).

In contrast, snippets of classical Chinese poems and some by Chen (Qiu) himself are scattered throughout Qiu’s novels. “It is in the tradition of Chinese novels to have poems in stories, sometimes a lot of poems.”

In fact, Qiu thinks of himself as both a poet and a mystery writer. Before he started writing novels, he wrote poetry for years, both in English and in Chinese. His English language poems have won awards.

Qiu’s mysteries are, of course, cast with the characters of modern Shanghai: triads, ex-model workers, communist party cadres, children of old revolutionary leaders, and simple honest cops such as Sergeant GuangmingYu, who does most of the donkey work investigating the death of a dissident writer, which is the core mystery of When Red is Black.

For Yu owning one of the New World luxury apartments would be for him, as for millions of other Shanghaiese, “a dream he could not dare to dream.” His is the old world of a low-level Chinese cop with a monthly salary of 400 yuan, whose highest aspiration is to one day qualify for a modest state-provided apartment after years of waiting.

Qiu’s books have been translated into a several languages besides English and Chinese. In fact, his latest work, Red Mandarin Dress, came out this month in French but won’t hit the English-language books stores until November of December.

The books have been translated into Chinese and are available in China though often heavily censored. That is not hard to understand given that they deal with sensitive issues such as corruption and greed by party members. The locale is cunningly disguised as “S-City”.

Qiu travels frequently back to China to refill the well of inspiration. “I was in Beijing and Shanghai in March, and what I saw was more new houses, more cars, more people in the stock market, more corruption in the newspapers” – in short, more good material for the next Inspector Chen mystery.

Monday, May 14, 2007

More Trouble for Thailand

Kenneth Adelman is one of the United State’s best known neo-conservatives, who famously predicted that the Iraq war would be a “cakewalk”. He is a former nuclear disarmament chief and still serves on the Defense Policy Board. His latest hobby horse is Thailand.


Adelman has turned his energy against Thailand, which recently angered the US, and more importantly, the large American pharmaceutal companies by its compulsory licensing of three drugs, two for HIV/AIDS and a third for heart trouble. Compulsory licensing allows a country to override patents and lower prices on life-preserving drugs.

Last week Thais woke up to find full-page advertisements in Thai and English-language newspapers under the headline: “The Wrong Prescription for Thailand.”
The text read in part: “Thailand is refusing American and European medical technology at the expense of the poor and sick of Thailand.”

“Thailand’s AIDS patients are forced to buy ‘locally manufactured drugs that have not even been approved by the World Health Organization’.” It went on to challenge the efficacy of one of the government-produced drugs.

The ad invited readers to visit the website:, where Thais were in for more shock. Virtually every post reported on some attack on Thailand’s handling of intellectual property issues – letters to Congressmen, an op-ed article in the conservative Washington Times, an embedded website detailing “ThaiMyths.”

“For some unknown reason USA for Innovation’s [executive director Ken] Adelman, is obviously and alarmingly obsessed with Thailand,” wrote a columnist for the English-language newspaper, The Nation.

There is nothing particularly mysterious about this particular “obsession”. He is paid to be obsessed. USA for Innovation is an offshoot of the Edelman Public Relations firm, a powerful and well-connected “K-Street” PR and lobbying outfit, hired by Abbott Laboratories, makers of one of the AIDS drugs.

Thailand is not used to being the target of a full-court press, high powered, well-funded and sophisticated American-style public relations campaign. It left Thai government officials sputtering and wondering how to counter attack.

The Government Pharmaceutical Organization’s first reaction was to threaten to sue USA for Innovation for “publishing advertisements containing misleading details”. To which one can only say lottsa luck.

Poor Wasun Chantratita, chief of the Mahidol University virology and molecular micro-biology unit, naively complained that USA had taken some of his research out of context and plastered its ad with “half-truths”. What does he expect? Half-truths are lobbying firms’ stock and trade.

Thailand has a number of issues with the US these days, ranging from the drug controversy to restrictions it wants to impose on foreign investment, to its September, 2006, military coup d’etat.

But Thailand’s leaders are used to dealing with the US government, which in some ways is easy for them to manipulate, since Washington has many conflicting interests and priorities, such as the War on Terror and competition for influence with China, in addition to looking out for the interests of private corporations.

The US Trade Representative’s office, which is supposed to look out for America’s trading interests, is hamstrung in this matter by the fact that compulsory licensing for lifesaving drugs is legal under international treaties and the World Trade Organization.

Abbott Laboratories would not be the first American corporation or business group to think that official Washington was too wimpy to look out for its interests and to take matters on its own hands. And its representatives do not feel the same constraints of diplomats.

Thailand, of course, is particularly vulnerable now because the September coup has left the impression with most Americans that generals run every department of the government, sort of like Myanmar.

This allows publicists, such as Adelman to drop such bon mots as this gem appearing in an op-ed piece in the Washington Times this month: “Now the [Thai] military has set its sights on stealing U.S. innovation, the cornerstone of the American Economy.

Wonder how long it is before CNN’s popular protectionist commentator Lou Dobbs sets aside his usual hobbyhorses, China and immigration, and takes up Thailand-bashing?

Thailand is not bereft of people with public relations smarts. The Tourism Authority of Thailand is fabulously successful in selling Thailand as a tourist destination. It needs to divert some of those talents to political lobbying, joining other Asian countries, such Japan and China, that have learned how to play the Washington game.

In some ways Thailand has been lulled by the fact that nobody in Washington paid much attention to Thailand, except in those days when it was a valuable ally and base during the Vietnam War. Today Congress is too obsessed with Iraq, immigration and other matters to get too riled up over Thailand.

The danger is that this is the perfect atmosphere to slip something truly damaging to Thai interests it some congressional bill, sort of under the radar. This is how powerful K-Street lobbying firms earn their big fees. The next move? Keep an eye on www.usaforinnovation.,org.


Saturday, May 05, 2007

Toward a Japanese Constitution

Japan celebrated the 60th anniversary of its constitution on May 3. “Celebrated” might be a little strong, considering that the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is hell-bent on scrapping the charter and promulgating a new document, one that weakens the famous anti-war clause that makes Japan unique in the world.

The current constitution was written in 1947 in a week of frenzied activity by two dozen Americans after the Supremo, General Douglas MacArthur, rejected several attempts by the Japanese government to do the job. He judged that their results were not sufficiently different from the Meiji Constitution under which Japan went to war.

Since its founding in 1955, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has advocated scraping the American-written document and adopting a “Japanese” one. In November 2005 on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the party the leaders unveiled a draft. Abe is now working to have it adopted.

For months it seemed as if the LDP drafters would try to inject every reactionary idea they could think of. They seemed intent, for a while, on scrapping or curtailing Article 24, Japan’s Equal Rights Amendment. Or they might add some limitations on freedom of speech by permitting restrictions on publications that might have a bad influence on youth.

Fortunately, the draft that was published in 2005 contained none of these ideas. Indeed, the draft proposed relatively modest changes to the constitution, including its recommendations on the anti-war clause.

The irony is that this proposed new “Japanese” constitution retains about 99% of the “American” constitution. The changes, with the possible exception of a proposed new preamble, could easily be effected by simply amending the current document. But then it wouldn’t be a “Japanese” constitution.

The main changes include: a new and more nationalistic preamble which former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, chairman of a drafting subcommittee, says he wants all school children to be required to memorize and recite.

The proposed constitution tweaks Article 20, which guarantees freedom of religion and spells even more plainly than the US Constitution the separation of church and state. This was designed to end state Shinto, which was judged to be part of the apparatus of war time emperor worship. The new wording would permit the Shinto, and perhaps Buddhist organizations to receive money from state coffers to perform certain ceremonies and functions.

And, of course, it modifies the constitution’s most famous clause, Article 9, which prohibits Japan from maintaining military forces.

The proposed LDP draft retains the first sentence of Article 9, which reads, “The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation.” It modifies the second to specifically allow Japan to maintain defense forces and participate in collective defense.

For years Japan has had to go through legal contortions to justify its fairly large “self-defense” forces, participate in international peacekeeping operations, such as those in Cambodia, and, more recently, to be a loyal “ally” of the US in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq (the quotes are used because technically Japan doesn’t have “allies”).

Article 9 has long been the stumbling block to any kind of constitutional reform in Japan, even innocuous housekeeping amendments. It was thought that any attempt to amend the constitution would inevitably lead to changes in Article 9, which was, and still is, sacrosanct for many sectors of Japanese society.

The situation was somewhat analogous to the US. Many who favor more controls on guns would love to modify the Second Amendment to the constitution but are restrained by the taboo of tinkering with any one of the original Bill of Rights.

In the several decades when Japan’s political system revolved around the LDP and its main opposition, the Socialist Party of Japan, it seemed as if the socialist party’s only purpose in life was to keep enough seats in the Diet to deny the LDP the two-thirds majority it needed to monkey with the constitution (another element in the draft would lower this threshold to a simple majority, retaining the need for a national referendum).

With the political changes that took place in the 1990s, sending the socialists into history, the climate for constitutional change brightened considerably. The current main opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan, jettisoned knee-jerk opposition to the self-defense forces and revising the constitutions (which isn’t to say it will back every LDP proposal).

After all, the leader of the Democrats, Ichiro Ozawa, is the man who coined the term “normal nation” in his book, a Blueprint for Japan. The reasoning behind the phrase was that Japan should possess a legitimate armed force, just like every other “normal” nation.

The sad thing about the current debate is that there are numerous constitutional changes that should have been debated to give Japan better governance. For example, the draft simply retains the American formulation of the emperor as a “symbol of state” but does not wade into the highly controversial matter of providing for the succession.

A new constitution might have done more to balance the rights of individuals versus the collective good in the matter of imminent domain, which has vexed infrastructure development throughout the postwar years.

A genuine debate might have raised constitutional issues that were not on the horizon in the 1940s, such as the right to privacy, public access to government information and possibly issues concerning the environment.

What has emerged is the fruit of a bunch of old pols working behind closed doors to change a document that was written by a bunch of foreigners working behind closed doors. Why couldn’t Japan convene a constitutional convention to write a new charter? Then it might have a genuine “Japanese” constitution.