Making a book is the most exciting and at the same time terrifying experience – you live for your subject matter for a very long time, and it becomes very personal. It is terrifying to go public with what you passionately believe in, but others may not share.
On the other hand, the exciting part is that making such a book is what I see as the best expression of my profession as a photographer and journalist, and a great tool of communication.
I will try to talk here about the story behind the book. How this whole thing started, what motivated me, and how I got involved in Thai politics.
For years after my book on Bangkok’s nightlife scene, I have concentrated, in my personal work, on social problems in urban and rural Thailand, inspired by what I encountered then but had not covered in that project. This has led me to politics, when they began to turn visible enough to be captured by a camera in the end of 2005.
Like many other journalists I followed the pre-coup PAD protests. But I also got interested in the other side. One of my key experiences was when I visited the caravan of the poor in their last campsite before Bangkok in Navanakorn, an industrial suburb – those were the Thaksin supporters who came on these small lot I-den to Bangkok. I expected some simple paid for protesters, but I when I chatted with these mostly poor farmers, I found they were far more diverse in their views than I previously thought, when they talked about Thaksin.
They have all said that they knew that Thaksin was in many ways a faulty character, but explained how his policies have improved their lives. I have to admit that they have out discussed me. That made me think a lot. Especially that when I report about Thailand’s politics, it is not really important what opinions I hold, but the opinions of the people I report about, which they base on their experience of life, and that I will have to try to put myself in their shoes if I report on them.
After the military coup, when only very small protests happened, most ignored the situation. But I was convinced, because of the emotions expressed by those villagers, that the coup was just the beginning of major social and political shifts in Thailand, regardless of the initially small numbers of protesters. People just had to recover from the shock of having lost their prime minister through a military coup.
Being a freelancer, I am not exactly blessed with regular assignments, I had the time, and it did not need that much money as all happened ten minutes away from my house. And I saw this as a unique opportunity to record history as it is made.
What I also felt was very special, and unprecedented in Thailand’s history, is that for the first time large regions and social classes were suddenly involved in a political struggle, and not, as before, a mostly educated and/or money elite. That made these developments so different and unpredictable.
At the beginning I was rather intimidated, often being the only foreign journalist, at times even the only journalist working on this, surrounded by protesters and spies. At times there were actually more spies than protesters.
But that gave me the unique opportunity to meet people, and get to know them early on – both protesters, and agents of the different intelligence services. To be on the safe side, I have always approached them first, introduced myself, asked them not to mistake me for an activist, but see me as a journalist. And I asked them that if my presence is a problem, or if I make a mistake, that I am always open to talk and listen.
Over the years meeting at countless protests, some of them very violent, with many I have formed close personal friendships, and I have learned much from their knowledge and experience. Often they have advised me, and at times protected me, yet never was I hindered in my work, or put under any pressure by those agents.
As much as the topic fascinated me, as much was I depressed about the lack of interest. I think that I have sold the first photos of these political problems after 2 ┬╜ years, from the October 7 riots. Even until now I have not made a fraction of what I have invested in time and money.
Almost every time I have read articles in the medias, I have not found that they reflected what I have experienced while working on the ground. I had no outlet to communicate what I felt were tremendously important developments in a very important country, and a country that is very dear to me.
Dr. Michael Nelson, with whom I regularly discuss events and issues, persuaded me to begin writing for New Mandala, a small academic website. At first I was not very enthusiastic, as there was no payment involved, and I am always broke. But I started writing for them, because I thought at least I will have a respectable outlet to write what I thought has to be published, and read by the few people that actually were interested.
My third story there, about the October 7 riots, had a massive impact which took me completely by surprise. It was straight away translated into Thai by Prachatai, reposted on countless internet forums and blogs, was then printed in one Thai newspaper, and even read in full on national television, in the truth today show, the pro red TV station on channel 11.
Many people liked what I wrote, but there were many that disagreed, mostly from the more fanatic quarters of the PAD, and accused me of having been bribed with large sums by Thaksin. Which is completely absurd. I received many threats at the time. Even today you can see on many web forums insults, and accusations of me having been bribed by Thaksin’s lobbyists.
The serious threats after my report lasted until people started to hate somebody else more, about a month later. Fortunately my friends in the different intelligence services looked out for me, and one police officer accompanied me when I went to public events, until emotions calmed down.
A frightening part here in Thailand is that for many people the subject matter is not dealt with rationally but on a purely emotional level, which can be quite dangerous.
At first I wanted to include these political problems into a book project I have been working on for the last 9 years – on Thailand’s social problems and changes. But last year the political deterioration was so rapid that I had a huge amount of images and an incredibly complex topic at hand. Somebody said to me that this could be a book project by itself. After thinking a bit I thought that this is indeed so, and that this is a book that has to be published soon.
Therefore I did not bother to look for an international publisher. I thought a local publisher is ideal for the book I had in mind, somebody who appreciates that this subject has to be dealt with in detail. A much smaller budget than with international publishers I thought was secondary – even with a small budget we can make a very nice book. So I called up Diethard Ande from White Lotus, who straight away accepted the idea.
Fast forward. When the songkran riots happened I had to think hard if I should change the by the time already finished and edited manuscript to include the events. But I decided against it. First of all, to do justice to all the images the budget would have not been enough, I would have had to make a far too tight editing. The delay would have been too long. I still get new information about the songkran riots, and much more is to come. We decided to make a break with the end of the year 2008, and come up with another volume when events of this year are more clear.
Than a strange thing happened. Suddenly 4 printers refused to print my book. I have made sure that this book is clearly within the law, that is the parameter I work under. The fourth printer was actually very nice, and explained me why they cannot be associated with this project. They said that they liked my book, that it doesn’t break the law indeed, but it shows too well the problems of Thai society, and that it could cause them problems later on. They recommended me to approach midsized printers, and also said that if I can’t find one, they would help me finding one. A day after a good friend of mine connected me to a printing company who accepted the book. Their only concern was that my book cannot break the law, which it doesn’t.
I would like to say something about the many accusations going around of me being biased. I do not feel that I am biased. I work the story on the ground, and go to both camps. Of course I have sympathies, in this climate anybody who works this story closely and says that he hasn’t sympathies would be a liar. But I do not let my sympathies interfere in factual and fair reporting. I have never whitewashed anything I have seen.
My sympathies are, and have always been with poor people, with people who do not have a voice in the mainstream, when they demand a better life for themselves, and important ideals such as equal opportunities. And here it happens that most of these underprivileged sectors are with the red shirts.
I do not accept the reasoning that these people are too uneducated to make a choice for themselves. This is a highly patronizing and elitist view. Much sophistry and polemics are used to explain THIS POSITION, WHICH FOR ME IS UTENABLE, COUNTER TO the humanistic ideals I try to follow.
My wife of 15 years does come from such an underprivileged sector of Thai society, and she has a lot of common sense, which often is more important than education. I believe that I have learned at least as much from her as she has from me.
The government, Thaksin, or leaderships of protest groups do not need the sympathy of people like me, they have many other avenues to express their views to the public.
It is irrelevant if I like or dislike Thaksin, in this context. What matters is that his supporters have their valid reasons to have elected his government. Even if I may disagree, I have to respect their choice.
The point here is, that the ones who hold those elitist views have difficulties to relate to the experience of life in Thailand of these social classes, and to their struggles in everyday life.
But I also want to point out here, that I have also sympathies with many ordinary yellow shirts. I am convinced that in their way they also want to create a better Thailand. Many of their complaints are absolutely justified. Nobody in his right mind could possibly deny that they do not address very valid issues.
The tragedy here in Thailand is that there is very little exchange between the classes happening in this rigidly structured society, and very little common ground between, lets say, to simplify the issue, the Isaarn farmer and the city based thai Chinese, or also, for example, those rural and urban poor and most people in this room.
This lack of communication is strongly contributing to the vehemence of the present conflicts. Thailand is an emerging democracy, and beginning to change into a pluralistic society. It will take more time before the state and the people are able to build a platform where these differences can be fought out in an orderly, nonviolent and productive manner.
I do view these conflicts from a historical perspective – they are very painful, but a necessary learning curve. I feel very privileged that I was, and still am, allowed and able to witness history in the making. I have learned more than I could have possibly imagined when I started.
I am sure that one day these conflicts will be solved (not before much more pain and blood though, I am afraid), and Thailand will come out the better, and will be on track to become a developed and successful country.