Plus Ca Reste La Même Chose (The Elephant and the Crisis ten years on)
See, when the outside world is closed (the eerie dusk and the early morn) I sit in my eyrie office and read the internet, watching the steady flow of words, thoughts, facts and opinions drop out of the ether over the past few months under the heading "Thailand Elephant" I began to get the strangest feeling of having read it all before.
In the opening piece of their (apparently more than one person) brilliant "Jungle Book: Thailand's Politics, Moral Panic, and Plunder, 1996-2008" Thai political pundit Chang Noi (and no, we don't just like them for their nom de plume which means baby elephant) links, trunk in cheek as they put it, elephants as they make the Thai news to the local political and economic crisis.
The only thing is, it was written in 1999, now we're in 2009.
Being lazy I'll cut and paste the whole of Chang Noi's 1999 text below, any insertions, links and parentheisised words are from 2009 (or at least the last 12 months).
The elephant and the crisis
22 June 1999
22 June 1999
In Thailand, the elephant is a sacred beast in a very special way. It figures in the religious culture – in the Buddha’s birth story, in the Hindu god Ganesh, and in many Jataka tales. It is central to royal history as military equipment, parade transport, and as the magical protector of the realm, the white elephant. But the elephant is much more than a religious and royal icon. It is sacred in a very popular way. Elephants are loved for their unique combination of power and vulnerability. In a curious way, the nation’s experience of the crisis has been transferred onto the popular national symbol of the elephant.
To begin with, this has simply been a matter of prominence. Since the crisis hit, elephants have been in the news a lot. There has been a glossy coffee-table book about elephants, at least three art exhibitions on elephant themes, another exhibition of art by elephants (the inspiration of a Russian pop-artist) and a documentary film. The prime minister’s wife in late 1997 went everywhere clutching a pink elephant doll rigged out in a wedding dress and diamond necklace. Mahidol University announced plans to clone elephants. And of course the mascot for the Bangkok Asian Games was inevitably an elephant.
But the elephant has also conveyed important messages. While nobody had much success in predicting the crisis, close observers of elephants in mid-1997 should have twigged that something was amiss. In the month before the baht floated and sank, an elephant ran amok and hurt a young boy in Samut Prakan; another killed his own mahout in Phayao;
(Elephant Goes on Rampage in Thailand, Stomps 3 Workers to Death)
two were possibly poisoned by pineapple-growers in Prachuab;
and another was rammed by a car in Rangsit.
(Why we do what we do)
(Pang Kamlai Dies)
Things were going wrong.
We know now that the worst impact of the crisis came in early 1998. The economy shrank 12 percent with amazing speed. Over two million lost their jobs. The numbers in severe poverty shot up by a fifth. The public reaction to all of this was deceptively quiet. No major riots. No mass demonstrations. No noisy public diatribes. No disastrous violence. Of course, in the background there was a gradual and terrible disintegration. More drugs. More gunmen. More violence inside families. More petty crime. More summary killings. But this huge social hurt was somehow disguised. The nation transferred its sense of injury onto elephants. There were lots of news stories about elephants in trouble.
In February 1998, mahouts seized fourteen which were being maltreated by tour operators in Mae Rim. In March, two elephants were killed and burned by pineapple-planters in Kanchanaburi. Another fell off a cliff in the forest divided by the Yadana pipeline. In May, a baby elephant in Surin died from eating pesticide-laced grass. Another adult died from possible starvation. Another was shot in the leg by a poacher.
And yet another was badly injured falling down a hill. In October, at least six died in Chiang Mai in disputes between rival tour operators. Another was rammed by a car in Chonburi. In early 1999, one elephant was wounded by a poacher in Chachoengsao, and a pregnant one was killed by a train in Kanchanaburi.
The epicentre of the crisis was Bangkok, and through mid-year, the press focused on the plight of elephants in the city. Like everyone else, the elephants suffered from unemployment. Like everyone else, they were forced to make a living in desperate and risky ways – tramping the city streets. They were hit by cars and trucks. They were harassed by officials. They stumbled fatally into canals, potholes and sewers.
They fell sick from Bangkok’s pollution. The prominent cases were followed night-by-night on the TV news.
Towards year-end, this theme was used as the plot for a whisky ad. A young Adonis drinking in a bar for the rich and beautiful is suddenly drawn to the plight of an elephant mother and child in the crush of night-time traffic. He rushes out and hands over not just all his money, but also his Rolex watch, one of the iconic symbols of affluence in the boom years. Perhaps it was significant that two of the elephants killed in falls into Bangkok’s subterranean infrastructure were called Pang Thong Kham (gold) and Phlai Setthi (millionaire). The elephant had come to represent not just the shock of unemployment, but the collapse of dreams of wealth, the fall of the god of money.
The elephant also became the clearest focus of national feeling. In early 1998, reports trickled in about six Thai elephants which had gone to work in Indonesia. One had already died. The others were being mistreated. They were increasingly at risk as Indonesia’s crisis worsened. As months passed, the story became darker. The Thai mahouts had been tricked, short-changed, and packed off home. The deal had been set up by shady middlemen and "politicians". The story took on the shape of tales from the world of human trafficking – initial promises of wealth giving way to trickery, exploitation and slavery. A campaign was launched to bring these "Thai" elephants home. Groups got up petitions. The prime minister’s office, commerce ministry, forestry department and foreign ministry were dragged in. International law was invoked. The Indonesians refused to negotiate. Emotions rose. Street demonstrations demanded that the Thai government do something. Activists threatened to bring 80 tuskers into the city to storm government house to enforce their demand.
This was almost certainly the major threat of public disorder throughout the entire period of the crisis. The call to "bring the Thai elephants home" evoked more nationalist sentiment than all of the protests against the IMF, "selling the country", and the bankruptcy bills. When the five elephants were finally shipped to Phuket, they were welcomed by the governor, the local MP and a flag-waving crowd who garlanded them as returning heroes. In this crisis, nationalism has been rather half-hearted. But elephantism has been strong.
Elephants also predicted the timing of recovery from crisis. The Thai government and IMF had been forecasting recovery "within 6 months" since the crisis began, and had long since lost any credibility. But elephants were another matter. Towards year-end, the stories of elephant sorrow dwindled away. In retrospect, we can see this was the time the stockmarket perked up, exports bottomed, and production indices turned north. Again the clearest message came in an ad, this time for a beer. An elephant is coming through the gate of the ancient city of Ayutthaya, whose destruction in 1767 was evoked many times in comparison to the current crisis. Unlike in the earlier whisky ad, the elephant is not oppressed and threatened. Rather, he is upbeat and resurgent. He is clad in finery, bathed in sunlight, surrounded by traditional dancers, trunk aloft, and preceded by Ad Carabao singing a jubilant anthem and prancing in obvious triumph. Witnessing this display of national resurgence are groups of Japanese and farang, who smile and raise their glasses in gestures of restored international confidence from east and west. If you had read this message of imminent recovery correctly on the first day it appeared, and put your entire fortune on the Thai stockmarket, you would be over fifty percent richer by today.
[This is Chang Noi’s 100th piece, and maybe slightly trunk-in-cheek. But only slightly.]
History does seem to be repeating itself, though perhaps not as badly, the final paragraphs, though, point to a way out - over the coming months we, amongst others, will be publicising projects that will hopefully turn elephants in the public imagination from animals of pity and shock to potent symbols, partners and teachers once again.
Time to put your money in the stock market again?