Bangkok Cuts: Blacking Out Black May

I’ve explained above that this is “a running commentary” on both writing my dissertation and “listening to music.” It’s inescapable that so much music gets funneled into my eardrums given the amount of time at the computer writing, and yet the drama of research becomes a passionate and invigorated politics when, at key junctures, my random ‘shuffled’ Itunes plays a track that seems to merge naturally with the theme being written about. In those cases, I write make a note of the song in a running playlist below the dissertation chapter heading (See M. Bull’s Sound Moves: Ipod Culture and Urban Experience [2008] for more on this). For the violent yet ironic tone of the section I’m writing on 1992, a “Black” period in Thai street politics, these songs stood out: “Cut” by The Cure; “Killing Game” by Skinny Puppy; “I didn’t mean to hurt you” by Spiritualized; “Max Ernst” by Mission of Burma; “Shelf Life” by Love & Rockets; “What did your last servant die of” by The Wedding Present; and “Outside My Window”, a song by a defunct early 1990s band from South Carolina called Blue Heaven, who would’ve called it quits around the same time as the aforementioned event detonated a new Thai era.

Not sure why the The Foundation for the Promotion of Social Science and Humanities Textbooks Project  chose not to call the event "Black"
As the title of this entry suggests, these past few weeks I’ve been focusing on a three unique approaches to the field of Thai Studies and three underlying themes of their work: Duncan McCargo’s (1997) ‘cutting’ across the surfaces of Thai media, Marc Askew’s (2002) reflections on the participatory acts of ordinary subjects who ‘cut’ into the administrative policies of urban governance in Bangkok, and Alan Klima’s (2002) political meditations on the dead which make ‘incisions’ into the corpse as a means of making ‘cuts’ in the larger visual culture of the Thai nation-state. In all three masterfully-written accounts, the role of the city and the Black May events of May 1992 converge in a unique interplay of montage and ‘black’ screens that underpin the cinematic space of Thai politics. And furthermore, as Kim Dovey (2001) has noted, the ‘cut’ occupies a unique place in Thai politics: “Later in class, when a pencil line was drawn across the image of Sanam Luang to signify the possible cutting of a canal, one of the Thai students recoiled in horror as if a surgeon was at work on her body. (265)” Sanam Luang is a central urban green space that conjures images of protest and violence in the Thai imagination. But it is well understood that only legitimate figures are authorized to ‘cut’ into its soil.

Most accounts, like David Murray’s (2002) less lyrically-written scrapbook of the events, narrate the violent May 1992 events known as Black May as a strange precursor to a new visual culture. More recently, some journalists are calling this year’s protests between the ‘red’ (UDD) and ‘yellow’ (PAD) shirts as its culmination. In 1991, a government headed by Prime Minister Chatchai Choonavan was ousted in a military coup led by Thailand’s Class 5 generals known as the National Peace Keeping Council (NPKC). Declaring Choonavan’s ousted Chart Thai party, the bastions of ‘unclean’ politics ridden by corruption and illegal deal brokering, the broadly supported coup-makers began to project an imagined campaign of cuts. The first cut: to black out the “unusually rich” and undisciplined business practices of Chart Thai with the yet untarnished image of ‘cleaner’ politicians. But in the following year, with mounting public protests in Bangkok, it became apparent that the junta had forged alliances with the same Chart Thai millionaires it had earlier deemed corrupt. And to further complicate matters, NPKC leader Suchinda Kraprayoon (AKA, ‘Big Su’) reneged on a public promise not to assume the position of PM. At the pinnacle of the public’s growing distaste was the military junta’s institutionalization of their longevity by successfully passing a new constitution.

In fact, much of the Black May literature reads like a film, since visual culture undergoes a new face life when engaged toward contesting and representing the legitimate space of politics or, as Ranciere states in The Politics of Aesthetics (2004), the reconfiguration of the boundaries of the visible. Into 1992, several ‘arresting’ and lasting images lead up to injurious moments of death and ultimatum as Chalard Vorachart’s hunger strike in front of the Government House was met with the delivery of two coffins—possibly gifts of the military regime. When this hunger strike ended, when he was rushed to the hospital for IVs and insulin treatment after fainting, former Bangkok Mayor Chamlong Srimuang began his own. But, as McCargo (1997) notes, Chamlong opted for a faster route to death by allowing himself a mere glass of water per day. His 7-day covenant entailed a vow of silence, a 7-day ultimatum for Big Su’s resignation since he’d die on the 7th of starvation, and a refusal to seek future political gain. More people arrived into the Old City area of all protests past, present, and future, to observe the death symbols and a possible end to years of dictatorship in its garden variety of forms (a military dictatorship of the 70s with a three year interruption, the parliamentary dictatorship of the 80s, and the subsequent return of the military in 1991). At around 5 in the morning on May 19th the military fired on protestors. Further consolidating the space of the disrupted streets, they occupied and wielded a campaign of brutality at a hotel used as a make-shift infirmary used either for the protestors or street vendors caught in the cross-fire. Television captured none of this, but instead broadcasted a relatively serene narrative of the days events, while the BBC documented the violence. This censored video footage was later circulated in both black market vendors and university auditoriums throughout the area in the following weeks. Video culture, in this way diametrically opposed to what Ranciere would call ‘policy’ culture (the space of legislated activity), became the most solid ground of truth. What had been ‘cut’ from domestic screens had been re-assembled for public view in the aftermath of Black May. As a practicing artist (Bancha Suvannanonda) in the area noted, the juxtaposition of two scenes, between witnessing the event and watching the news coverage is one of two simultaneous worlds. “I was living two streets away from the action and witnessed most of it with my own eyes, but saw something totally different on TV!“” A cut is exactly this, a juxtaposition.

Part of the ‘cut’ is between street, where an event unfolds, and a screen where it can be en-framed. McCargo, Klima, and Askew each make use of this visual cut in ways that hinge upon Black May. McCargo, for instance mentions how democracy activists compared Big Su’s dictatorship to a “knot, the meeting point of a complex network of political connections. (244)” Instead of untying the complex knot, it needed to be cut. This cut was necessary especially in the climate of media censorship whereby public awareness was ‘blacked out’. On the other side, central protest figure Chamlong Srimuang ‘cut’ speech from his platform through his vow of silence (a juxtaposition to the silence of censored broadcasts). Instead, he placarded his key positions on posterboard and surrounded himself by these silent cinematic inter-titles. I won’t say much about this now, but what McCargo is illustrates is the realm of the visual that Burgin calls the sequence-image (and in fact, it could be read through a concept Ranciere calls the sentence-image). The paratactic assembly of ‘messages’ is a protest (silent in Chamlong’s case) against the mediation of other media screens.

To my emphasis on the event, and visual imagery in particular, is owed to a particular politics of writing engaged by Klima in The Funeral Casino (2002). In particular, Klima juxtaposes a cut between two worlds of the visual, between the “off-camera place” of a dictatorship and a camera-like subjective lens influenced by Walter Benjamin, where “history cut through the core of truth without providing a totalizing frame. (8)” The associations with death that Klima pins down render part of symbolic references to the “Blackness” of May, but also an alternative history to violence in Thailand that pins neoliberalism between dead bodies and death imagery—as an emancipatory clause in the stake of legitimate politics, the relatives of the dead are likely the most well-equipped to realize the cost of this morbid global modernity. It is quite morbid, as are the videos now available on Youtube. The illustration of a violent cartography, the “off-camera place”, is connected to a “blacked out” economic history where murdered protestors have disappeared (rumored to be hidden in containers off shore as recent newspaper articles report as of 2009) for the sake of modern business practices. It is an irony that the after-images of Black May would be, as Klima so eloquently narrates, the campaign to cleanse politics in Thailand.

If we flash-back to the black screens in the slums of Bangkok eight months earlier, we get a sense of what was at stake in the visual management of a new global modernity. According to Marc Askew’s account of the September 1991 World Bank/International Monetary conference in Bangkok (Big Su’s military regime being firmly rooted after their coup several months previous), the attempt to hide bodies was an attempt to clean the image for the eyes of the meeting attendees. This required blacking out the slums. Askew mentions past infrastructural methods that had already ‘cut’ through the middle of communities six years earlier but now the cuts were more obvious: “new walls were constructed to obscure these unsightly habitats of the poor. (139)” But then the slum residents painted murals upon the walls to remain visible. The conference organizers then parked busses in front of the walls, Askew notes, to black out their presence.

Now I live in the center of political cuts, in an area of town where streets are perpetually closed for either political processions or abrupt protests. All of the books mentioned above read more like everyday films, and with more soul than Youtube. Today I witnessed a police officer cleaning a begging woman and her child from the sidewalk. The cuts continue.

Works Cited
Askew, Marc. 2002. Bangkok: Place, Practice and Representation. London and New York: Routledge.
Dovey, Kim. 2001. Memory, Democracy and Urban Space: Bangkok’s ‘Path to Democracy’. Journal of Urban Design 6/3: 265-282.
Klima, Alan. The Funeral Casino: Meditation, Massacre, and Exchange with the Dead in Thailand. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
McCargo, Duncan. 1997. Chamlong Srimuang and the New Thai Politics. London: Hurst & Company.
Murray, David. 1996. Angels and Devils: Thai Politics from February 1991 to September 1992—A Struggle for Democracy? Bangkok: Orchid Press.

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