where the writers are
Bangkok at the Crossroad of History

If you follow the news, you are likely aware that a large political demonstration is underway for this weekend in Bangkok (13th to 14th March). Hotels are reporting cancellations. Personal friends from England who’d planned to visit me this weekend have also cancelled. Many people are watchful as events unfold. Who are the demonstrators? And what do they want? Two complex questions and the answers will depend on whom you ask. There isn’t one single answer that has a consensus. Political protests are messy affairs; fragmented into factions, rolling experiments that are unstable, and fueled by a hybrid mixture of emotions and political argument.

Will there be violence? The most fearful element of a crime is violence. Normally criminal activity is isolated. There is little potential for criminals to close down a city like Bangkok. But a large-scale political demonstration, which carries the potential for crime and violence, is another matter.

It is impossible to obtain reliable figures on the possible number of demonstrators coming in from Isan and the North. It depends on whose projected numbers you wish to believe. The figures range from several thousand to one million. Will we know by Monday what this number is, right? Probably not. Numbers that seems to precise, rational and logical are subject to differences of opinion. I suspect that both the government and the protesters will have another O.J. Simpson jury verdict moment.

The local press reported 50,000 military, police and government officials (no mention who is included in this last group) have been assigned to 33 hot spots throughout the city. My friend Professor John Paulos, an internationally renowned mathematician teaching at Temple University, has warned about being weary anytime someone starts throwing around the number 50,000. It’s almost always wrong. Will anyone go out and actually count the number of soldiers and cops? Not likely. The substitute is a big number: 50,000.

Rumors are flying fast throughout the city. Here are examples of some of the rumors that are impossible to verify. The prime minister is staying in a safe house. Three or four hour delays in getting to the airport. Petrol sales have allegedly been stopped to make it difficult for people upcountry to travel by car or pickup to Bangkok. Steps have been taken by the authorities to close down community TV and radio stations operated by the protesters. The authorities deny the rumor. Roadblocks are in place at crucial entry points into the city and delays are thought to be an attempt by the government to stop protesters from coming into the city from the provinces.

In Bangkok, at the best of times, it is difficult to get a static free signal. In the worst of times, it is impossible. There is too much noise rattling around inside the system. TV and radio is still under the control of the government and the information broadcast is generally pro government. But there is no longer a monopoly on broadcasting information. The Internet, Twitter, cell phone text messages are running hot with information, rumors, threats, warnings, and fear. The clash of messages has led to uncertainty and confusion. I was out on Sukhumvit Road this morning and it looked very much like any other morning. The big rallies aren’t scheduled until Saturday and Sunday. Things might change quickly.

For those of us living in Bangkok, there is the temptation to say this is a historical moment. That judgment, in my view, is a mistake. What is an historical moment? This isn’t a question to be answered by the participants in the struggle. They aren’t able to make that call. The weight and importance of events inevitably is debated and decided by people who weren’t born when the events happened. A future generation will look back to this weekend and with a cooler eye, with less fear and passion place the event of mid-March 2010 into a larger context.

What we have at the moment is fear, passion, anger, hatred and distrust. The information and knowledge is being filtered through these emotions. That may taint the immediate view of what information is important in the long-term once the emotions cool.

On what basis does a person selects information from the vast 24-hour stream of data? There are so many conflicting voices and points of view. What is unsettling when in the middle of something like the now of Bangkok, is how quickly we lose our confidence in testing the accuracy and reliability of the selection process.

Our knowledge of things, people, and events comes from this selection process. What we know advances slowly because the knowledge ultimately must find a place in a larger context. What seems overwhelming in the immediacy of the now is the big picture, the overall context in which the events are happening. How the events in Bangkok this weekend will shape and influence the views of others next week, next year, in a decade, or in fifty years make us think of the relationship of time, events and context.

By context I mean everything that has gone before and everything that will come after what is happening now. As I am in the midst of the now, like most people, the other elements of time—the past and future—evaporate. Our emotions won’t allow us to contemplate anything other that the immediate threat.

In George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, he wrote about his time fighting in the Spanish Civil war and in particular his frontline experience in Barcelona. What struck Orwell was how little he personally witnessed, and how little he knew what was happening around him. He was modest enough to admit the limits of his experience and to write within the confines of what he had seen or participated in.

That tradition of reporting integrity no longer holds. Google, live blogs, breaking Internet news feeds, Twitter, etc., create the machinery for the delivery of vast information flows. The problem is two fold: First, being in the center of a mob, a battle or a conflict has its limitations. What a person sees is only a small part of the action. To draw large conclusions from where you stand on a battlefield is usually a mistake. Just as drawing judgments about motives and objectives can be colored by self-interest and ideology. In other words, what seems to be real is often flawed by imperfect observation, assumptions about cause and effect, and ideological preconceptions.

Second, I expect there will be reports about this weekend written by people distant from the action. They haven’t talked with the people in the street. They will be far from the frontlines of what is unfolding in Bangkok. Orwell had a particular loathing for journalists who sat in their London offices and wrote about the Spanish Civil War without ever having been close to the war zone. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. But not all opinions are equally valuable or valid.

A novelist draws upon his creative resources to find patterns and structures in the daily flow of information; decode those patterns, connect them with other pieces of information from the past, and fit them into the priority of importance of the now. Most information is forgotten. The vast majority of information that people once debated, discussed, argued and died for has been lost, buried. Only a slender reed survives to the next generation. Authors are part of society’s filtering process for selecting the information that survives and becomes part of our collective knowledge. This knowledge is what we call art. It is a legacy to future generations.

Novelists also challenge misleading or false information, unearth the defects in and limits of knowledge, the inconsistencies, hubris, stupidity and ignorance that taints information, and reveal the ways that self-interest warps information. Games involving power are really information battles. Some information will win; other information will be buried and forgotten.

When the sun rises on Monday 15th March, we will have a new day to assess the casualties in the information war. We can better understand how the information flow will pass down stream to another generation.