Shadowed Country by Pira Canning Sudham
Out of Shadowed Country
When we hear about Thailand today, we are told mostly about the collapse of financial institutions, about 250 unoccupied office towers and condominium and 325 unfinished building sites, which expose their steel reinforcements to the elements. We read about the closure of many factories and the laid-off workers’ demonstrations to claim severance payments, with which employers were reluctant to part. Meanwhile potential visitors have been exposed to promotional materials that draw tourists to Bangkok, Pattaya, Samui and Puket. Occasionally we might see a scandalous documentary on sex-tourism, child trade and prostitution. But we hear very little about the parched plains of Isan in the northeast of Thailand, about the plight of the Isan people, who speak Lao rather than Thai.
Author Pira Canning Sudham has become the international voice of these forgotten people. In Isan, the questions of grinding poverty, exploitation by unscrupulous merchants, factory owners and government agencies, destruction of the ecology, greed and ignorance are inextricably linked. Pira Canning Sudham has written one story called The Gunman in which he narrates how professional gunmen are hired to murder a schoolteacher who is idealistic and courageous enough to try to protect a dwindling forest reserve, teaching the village children that they are entitled to a better deal. In another story, The Impersonator, he exposes the scandalous selling of children into prostitution, a sordid reality that required a special writing skill to make it palatable.
As Pira Canning Sudham shows, education for literacy and democracy is the key to overcoming this vile exploitation. But there is of course education and education. If education consists of nothing more than rote learning, which reinforces mindlessness, unthinking nationalism, subservience and absolute obedience due to local leaders and Bangkok authorities, it is worse than useless. But educators who encourage the children to question the authorities on various social issues including corruption and the selling of the young into prostitution and child labour in Bangkok’s factories are likely to be seen as a threat. Ten Isan schoolteachers have in fact been murdered.
As researchers, we humanists are morally useless if we focus only on the linguistics and the aesthetics of minority languages and traditional minority cultures. The larger issues are the politics of education, of literacy for the neglected and impoverished people, the human rights of the suppressed ethnic.
Following the heavy fighting with the insurgents in various parts of Isan in the 1970s, the authorities have set up ‘forced listening’ in Isan villages by broadcasting, through loudspeakers installed on tall steel posts, official government news and messages by Radio Thailand based in Bangkok. As Pira Canning Sudham explains, this daily enforced listening has regrettable consequences for the cultural literacy and ethnic identity of the Isan people. Broadcasts made in the Thai language are aimed at making the Lao-speaking Isan people feel that they are ‘Thai’ and should be loyal to the Thai government rather than foment insurgencies and demand separatism. The monopoly of Radio Thailand has succeeded in diminishing the opportunities of the Isan people to listen to broadcasts by local radio stations in the Lao language, which they previously enjoyed. Less and less frequently the Isan people hear Isan songs and music on the radio, and eventually they may be induced to forget their traditional culture and even their Lao language.
When one travels through Isan, it is not difficult to see the steel posts strategically installed in villages to hold the loudspeakers. The enforced listening would not come as a surprise in a country that is ruled by despots, but in modern Thailand it is really a remarkable occurrence. In the Western democracies if governments tried to impose such a blatant broadcast, the noise pollution alone would create an overwhelming outcry. But in Isan the voiceless people are afraid to speak up against the authorities.
It is clear that there are inextricable links between literacy, education, democracy and human rights. This could not be clearer than the case of the Isan people. It is in this context that the author would like to take readers on a journey to the hinterland of Thailand:
“I look at my life in this way: If I had not left my village at all, I would have become just another peasant, with a horde of children, going through the vicious circle of rural life in a poor village in Isan. If ignorance is bliss, I could have been a happier person. Like most villagers, I would believe that going through years of drought, scarcity and disease without medical treatment, without any relief, in a forlorn Isan village is my destiny, my fate or karma for what I committed in my previous life. So in this life, I am to suffer for the deeds done. The acceptance of one’s fate would make suffering in this life tolerable. It was in Sydney from 1969 onward when I began leading a life of a writer that I had to look deep into my heart and soul for a cure, a way to repair my maimed mind. It became obvious to me then that when young, I was gagged and blindfolded by the despotic regimes under which I lived for over fifteen years beginning in 1958 when military rule under Field Marshal Sarit Dhanarat took off. Worse still, it was rote learning, which is much alive and well in Thailand today particularly in rural schools that became a mind-maiming apparatus. I was taught and trained to become utterly obedient, subservient, unthinking, fearing the authorities.
“James Joyce says in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that when a child is born in Catholic Ireland, nets are flung to catch his soul. In my society, it is not the nets but the instrument to n!p the mind in the bud or to stunt it at any rate so that one grows up physically while one’s mind remains undeveloped. How could a man, whose mind during the formative years was not allowed to develop, write anything down that would be worth reading? This question haunted me every time I pick up a pen. Fortunately the learning years in New Zealand, Australia and in England re-educated me, giving me a newly formed mind as well as a new pair of eyes. I cherished this phase of my life so much that I made Prem Surin, the protagonist of Shadowed Country, go through in lurid details what I underwent in these democratic countries so as to demonstrate the mental reformation and the process of overcoming a crippled mind.
“Now living among the Isan people on the land on which I was born in my home village, Napo, I cannot avoid seeing daily the silent sufferers. You may say that they don’t know any better! On the whole most Isan people are not likely to complain or to voice their grievances. It’s their karma, remember? For centuries, they have been silent, without an effective voice. Only when they are pushed to the extreme, suffering beyond endurance, do they enter the capital to look for help from the authorities; their hopeful gatherings in Bangkok are so far peaceful. Each time they return to their villages with some promises from the government that their troubles would be looked into. But, alas, the promises turn out to be empty, and ironically those governments do not last long either, so then the suffering poor from rural areas keep returning to Bangkok the following summer again and again. Now their plea for help in front of the Government House has become an annual event under the band name of the Plea from the Assembly of the Poor.
I fear that one day, after so many failures to obtain effective assistance from the authorities, they might not walk into Bangkok empty handed. Then what shall we do? For now we pin our hope on the fact that the suffering mass in rural Thailand would soon be tired of coming to Bangkok year after year. These desperate people should succumb to the notion that nothing could be done to alleviate their plights, that they would hang on to their belief in karma, the inevitable retribution, so that they must continue to suffer silently in their rural communities. The people in power may consider themselves fortunate that the annual assembling of the suffering mass at their doors are orderly and non-violent as opposed to those taking places in some other countries. But here, we are indeed fortunate when it has proven time and again that the rote learning and education system that is mind maiming work exceedingly well on the impoverished mass.
“Though I do not stand idly by while the suffering poor make their annual plea for help in Bangkok, the voice of my guardian angel comes to my ears: “Don’t lead them. Let them wake up and emerge due to their own desperation. Your role is an observer, then write about them as you see them.” I heed the voice not only because I believe in my protector but also I want to be alive, at least to finish writing Shadowed Country. I keep in mind that more than thirty lives of teachers, the champions of the poor, labourers and the environmentalists have been brutally ‘liquidated’. As a responsible writer, I am much concerned not only with urgent social issues but also with the plights of those who have been excruciatingly affected by the Moonmouth Dam (Pak Moon Dam) in Ubol. It is difficult to blot out the image of squatting old women and defenceless men and a pregnant woman being clobbered like animals by armed men so that the relocation of the villagers, who were in the way of the construction, could be made. Now the Moonmouth Dam has been proven to be a disastrous flop since it could not generate sufficient electricity as purported at the expense of human suffering and ecological disaster while World Bank continues to make a handsome return from the loan. I too have made a ‘return’, definitely not in financial sense, but in a story: An Old Man and A Boy.
“Similarly, The Gunman does not stray from the fact that a group of villagers walked peacefully to Wapipratoom District Office in Mahasarakam Province to air their grievances. Their rice fields and river made salty by the brackish water from large-scale salt farms owned by powerful politicians and influential investors. When their farmland became salty, they could not grow rice, and in Naamsiaw River, fish died. Many farmers had to sell their once arable fields at very low prices and move away to find new land elsewhere. In front of the Wapipratoom District Office, the suffering farmers were battered and arrested and thrown in jail. Yes, for their sake, I protested against such injustice in my own way.
“The majority of the poor people of Isan remain meek and subservient and through their acceptance of their fate, they tend to avoid making outcries or demand. We know this. Employers know this only too well. Thus it gives sweatshop slave drivers and factory owners an advantage over the silent and meek ones. For this, Thailand’s Board of Investment can boast that the country is one of Asia’s cheapest production overheads with lenient environmental measures in order to attract investment from abroad.
“Taking it upon myself to speak out on behalf of the silent and meek ones, choices of tones and styles of speech are opened for me. In my books, particularly Shadowed Country, the current social conditions, the norms, the attitudes and the base on which the hierarchy rested are described along with the social ills, the corruption and injustice. By describing them in vivid details, I hope to bring to mind what should be corrected or changed for the better. When I wrote: “There are too many thieves in low and high places, cunningly and shamelessly making use of their positions and power, without conscience but with great capacity for avarice. These corrupt men aim at accumulating wealth as quickly as possible for themselves and for their families, without caring for the good of the nation” I hope that at least one or two of these broad home truths would make some Thai readers think. When I talk of the lack of conscience, I aim to make them ask themselves whether it is justifiable to say that conscience is what most Thais don’t have. Without conscience, one can bribe or take bribes, can be corruptible do wrongful deeds, without a sense of guilt. The corrupt may still claim that they have not done wrong. Then again it is up to me to make my writings ‘acceptable even to lying men’. If it is not acceptable, then it would defeat the purpose. It cannot bring about change. It cannot change the way they think and behave. In that case I would fail as the champion of the downtrodden, the cheated, the exploited and the silent people.
“Why do I write the way I do? Let me explain. In Isan I was raised in poverty. I suffered hunger, pain and abuse. I had a fair share of happiness as well as sorrow. As a poor boy from Isan, I was much despised and ill treated in Bangkok. In time I learned that a lot of Isan people receive similar treatment in Thailand’s large cities because many of us are illiterate, penurious and ready to accept any hard work at the lowest pay, without complaint, just like buffaloes. These experiences caused much pain in me. I wince when I think of them.
One may compare oneself with an oyster that suffers from a coarse grain of sand or a sharp foreign matter that strays inside it when it opens its shell. In order to lessen the pain, the oyster secretes a substance to coat the source of pain. After a long while the substance grows and eventually becomes a pearl. Pearl farmers use this knowledge to produce cultured pearls by keeping the oysters in the seabed until they grow to a suitable size, then bringing the farmed oysters up and prying open their shells to insert pain causing matters inside them. You can imagine the pain the poor creatures have to endure for years before they can produce the pearls. The end results are my books, my pearls. When I write, there is a sense of relief. In living in Isan, I draw my strength. What have been happening here and in Thailand as a whole challenge me to counteract with writing. The suppression of wages and farm produce, farmers losing their land and livelihood through forced relocation to give way to dam constructions and to eucalyptus plantations, the deforestation, illegal logging and the pollution of the air and rivers, the poverty and misery of the impoverished people have been taunting me daily. Then came the economic collapse in July 1997. A large number of ‘laid-off’ workers, who did not receive even the last month of their salaries, not to mention the severance payment, returned to their home villages in Isan, only to become dependent on those who have previously depended on them. Being unemployed, they hang around their villages, with a hope that they would be called back one day to resume work when the financial situation of the factory owners improves, but to no avail. The promise has proven to be empty in most cases.
To pick up a knife or a gun is definitely not my way for I hope very much that the pen is more powerful than any weapons available for use today.”