Coup Deux – Come Visit

Thailand is a country that likes its “collect stamps” cards. Patronize a business ten times and get a free coffee, or the like. When it comes to coups d’etat, it seems to have a similar proclivity. Depending on your count, this is the 17th, 18th, or 19th coup since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. For me, I have collected two “coup stamps”. After my fifth, I get a free t-shirt.


The last coup was in 2006. A link to some of my entries about it is here. As for why Thailand has so many coups, there is an interesting article here. And if you want some insight into what is going on and what the next steps may be, the Economist has a useful article here.

As soon as the coup happened, and even when martial law was announced two days earlier, I was flooded with messages from friends who were worried for my safety. Thank you to everyone for your concern, but I’m afraid the important message is this:

Keep Calm

The words “coup” and “martial law” seem to promptĀ a visceral response, aided and abetted by the media showing close-up photos of soldiers, protesters, and political violence. In reality, the political violence over the last six months has been limited – only 28 people killed. Not to minimize the importance of that loss of life, but we regularly have bus crashes on the road here that take that many lives.

Considering the size of the country, and even the size of the city, political violence in Thailand is not sufficient reason to be alarmed or for governments to issue travel alerts warning their citizens not to travel to Thailand.

The last thing this country needs is for its economy (which is teetering on the edge of recession) to be further damaged by tourists staying away. It is an excellent time to visit the country – the weather in the early summer has cooled a bit from the Songkhran highs but the full monsoon has not yet arrived. Plus, hotel prices are amazingly low because… well, because of the political unrest.

I would ask you to help me be a de facto ambassador for Thailand. As you hear people talk about the country, let them know that your friend Chris lives there and assures them it is okay to visit. And, if anyone you know is considering travel here, urge them to come! They can always contact me for recommendations!


Trying for Some Perspective on the Gun Control Debate

Half a world away, I have read, watched, and listened to the debate over gun control in the United States, dismayed by the rhetoric and disturbed at how two hyperbole-fueled extremes frame the discussion. That distance, I hope, has made it easier for me to step back and consider the subject.

As an attempt to add my two cents’ worth to the public discourse, I would like to share some conclusions I have reached. I do not expect everyone to agree with me and I welcome constructive comments. Just a forewarning: comments that are not constructive, that rely on name-calling or otherwise do not contribute to a civil discussion, will not be entertained.

Many of my friends and family members are gun owners and people who enjoy guns recreationally. While my first-hand gun experience ended with BB guns in late primary school, I recognize the appeal of guns and do not think that guns are inherently bad.  

Our Rights

I think we need to look at this discussion through the lens of “gun safety.” Our individual right to bear arms must be balanced with the right of all people to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

The Second Amendment clearly states that people have a right to bear arms. Our courts have already confirmed several abridgments to those rights, though, for example limiting the types of weapons you can own (no nuclear or chemical arms – too many innocent bystanders harmed when you use them to protect your life or property).

Legitimate limits are placed on our constitutional rights routinely. My First Amendment right to freedom of expression is tempered when the safety of the larger public is affected. I cannot incite a crowd to violence. I cannot expose state secrets. I cannot shout “fire” in a crowded movie theater. 

The safety of the general public is a compelling reason to place some restrictions on our constitutional freedoms and I think this can be done in a way to balances those competing interests without unduly infringing gun owners’ rights.

Of the proposed Congressional actions, there are three I would like to see enacted:

  • Require criminal background checks for all gun sales, including those by private sellers that currently are exempt.
  • Increase criminal penalties for so-called “straw purchasers,” people who pass the required background check to buy a gun on behalf of someone else.
  • Fund research by public health agencies into deaths and injuries caused by firearms.

The Effectiveness of Legislation

Some members of the gun-rights lobby make the claim that criminals do not follow laws, therefore any gun safety legislation we pass will harm only law-abiding citizens. This seems to imply that we should not bother setting any laws about anything, because criminals will break those laws.

The setting of speed limits and the passing of laws requiring seatbelt use do not ensure that nobody speeds and everybody wears a seatbelt. These laws have resulted in a reduction of deaths and injuries and provide a basis with which to prosecute those who break the law.

Universal background checks would work in much the same way. They will not prevent all gun violence – the Newtown shooting, for example, might still have happened. Currently, it is estimated that between thirty and forty percent of gun sales happen with no background check. (These would be private sales, gun show sales, etc.) Universal background checks will place an additional barrier in the way of people with criminal records or a history of mental instability, making it more difficult to get a weapon with which they can do great harm.

Conducting background checks on private gun sales and increasing criminal penalties for “straw purchasers” could help stem the flow of guns into the criminal underworld by closing potential loopholes. Many people purchase guns for personal protection. Making it more difficult for people who should not have guns, to obtain them, should help increase everyone’s safety.

Having a right to bear arms does not inherently give you the right to privacy when you purchase a weapon. Universal background checks would go a long way to ensuring that the people who purchase guns are law-abiding. 

The Need for More Information

On the issue of funding research, there is much we do not know about the causes and effects of gun violence. Congress (at the urging of the National Rifle Association) has routinely cut funding to the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health when the results of studies they undertook demonstrated a need for gun legislation.

In fact, despite more than four million gun-related deaths and injuries in the United States over the last four decades, the NIH has awarded only three research grants on the subject. Compare that to diphtheria, which has caused only 1,337 deaths in those four decades but for which there has been more than 50 NIH-funded studies. Even influenza, which regularly kills fewer people each year than gun violence, receives much more research funding.

Effective legislation can increase public safety and it needs to be based on empirical evidence. Some things we should better understand, as outlined in a recent Atlantic Cities blog post, include whether magazine limits actually work, who should be excluded from owning a gun, and whether there is a relationship between levels of gun ownership and levels of crime.

What We Should Not Do

Among the proposed legislative actions that I do not think we need to take are reinstating the assault weapons ban. While I do not see a need for anyone to own an assault weapon, that’s the purview of an individual gun owner or collector. So long as he or she is law-abiding and undergoes a background check, it does not matter to me what kind of gun is purchased.

Without a doubt, this debate will continue. It is fueled by loud voices and, especially in the case of the National Rifle Association, a lot of money. However, I think it behooves each of us to try to move beyond the hyperbole, gather facts, consider our own values, and then add our voice to the discussion – especially by letting our legislators know what we think.

Well, that is my opinion on the matter. I welcome your comments and remind you that only constructive comments will be entertained. The First Amendment does not prevent me from squelching name-calling and uncivil discourse!

Thoughts on Politically Motivated Violence

Reflecting on the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and eighteen other people on Saturday morning in Tucson, Arizona, an attack that appears to have political motivations, I’m concerned that not only is the political discourse in the United States growing increasingly shrill, but that in the past several years it has also become increasingly violent. 

Threats of violence as well as cases of vandalism and assault have become more frequent, especially in the wake of significant legislative battles such as those over health care reform.  Sadly, we can look at some talking heads in the media, commentators whose motivations are rating (and thus, earning) driven more so than purely ideological, as well as politicians who stir the pot (Sarah “lock and load” Palin) to see who fans the flames of political passion.

There is nothing wrong with passion in politics.  It speaks to a robustness in our society.  But that robustness unravels when disagreement can no longer be had with civility.  All of us, regardless of our political stripes and partisan beliefs, need to condemn politically-motivated violence.

To that end, we need to remove the rhetoric of patriotism and Americanism from our vocabulary.  While we may be at odds about the role of our government and the best way to address various problems in society, none of us is more or less patriotic or American than the others.

Addendum January 14: While we don’t know the motivations of Representative Gifford’s shooter, whether they were political or not, I still stand by my statement that we need to condemn politically-motivated violence and bring the level of rhetoric down, especially casting others as unpatriotic.


Materialism, Violence and Monks

Materialism is widely decried as a negative trait, something that stains us as people and harms our society.  Buddhism is not alone in teaching that materialism is undesirable; all major religions and philosophies arrive at the same conclusion.  The Buddhist take is that materialism fosters a sense of attachment to something in the material realm.  Since the underlying principle of Buddhism is that of impermanence – all things are transitory – that sense of attachment can only create suffering in the long run.


Of course, it is one thing to look at materialism from a philosophical perspective and quite another to avoid being materialistic!  I greatly admire the saffron-robed monks whom you see on the streets and around the temples here in Thailand.  They take a vow of poverty and generally live very simple lives.

As with any religion, of course, there are those who do not seem to follow the teachings as closely as they might.  At a recent trip to MBK, a bazaar-like mall with hundreds of little stalls, I was surprised to see a few monks shopping.  At a bookstore, one monk was handing money from his wallet to the female cashier – a double no-no in Buddhist teachings!

Of course, there is some question whether these “monks” are actual monks.  I know that when traveling in Singapore and KL I have seen saffron-robed monks who are collecting cash alms on the streets.  Again, a no-no.  It seems that there is not a mechanism in place to authenticate those who claim to be monks.

Negative Depictions of Monks

In a related issue, there is a movie finally coming out here in Thailand called Nak Prok (“Shadow of the Naga”) that will serve as a test case for Thailand’s new film rating system.  You see, one thing Thailand’s censors (officially known as the Ministry of Culture) particularly don’t like, it is the negative depiction of Buddhism.  (Thanks to Wise Kwai for writing about this.)

Consider the case of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century, which was heavily censored because of scenes showing, among other things, a monk playing a guitar.  (Yet another no-no in the rules that monks must follow.)  The full-length, uncensored version of the movie has never shown in Thailand nor is it available on DVD.

Nak Prok takes things to an even higher level.  The film made its premier at the Toronto Int’l Film Festival in 2008 but has been sitting on a shelf here in Thailand ever since.  The story is about a gang of thieves who bury their loot on the grounds of a monastery.  When they return to dig it up a few years later, they discover that a temple has been build on top of it.  They ordain as monks – forcing the head monk at gunpoint to ordain them – in order to recover the loot.

The film depicts monks holding guns, a gun being held to the head of the senior monk, and the thieves behave in unseemly ways while in monks’ robes, including raping a woman.  If this film doesn’t push the censors’ buttons, what will?

(Sorry, no English subtitles but I think you’ll get the gist of it anyhow!)

Actually, it looks like an interesting and emotionally-charged movie.  We’ll see if it gets the highest restriction – restricting audiences below the age of 20 – or if it gets banned outright.  We take our depiction of religion very seriously here, as you can tell.

In fact, it occurs to me as writing this that the Ministry of Culture may very well choose to censor this entry!  Let’s hope not…