Author Archives: Lucy Kang

About Lucy Kang

A California native, Lucy is currently exploring life in Bangkok, Thailand. She is a graduate of University of San Francisco's MAIS program and holds a BA in Art History from Reed College. All opinions expressed here are solely her own.

Space and Spectacle in the Bangkok Protests

Part of the spectacle at Democracy Monument.

 

Bangkok has been rocked with the largest political demonstrations since 2010, with protests escalating into isolated pockets of violence.

Yesterday’s D-Day is part of the “final battle” by the anti-government protesters, with morning marches from all major rally sites converging at Government House. Prime Minister Yingluck announced that she would dissolve the lower house of Parliament, as a reported 100,000-150,000 protesters flooded the streets of Bangkok and members of the Democrat party resigned.

Clashes on so-called V-Day last Sunday left a reported five people dead and 64 injured in the confrontation between anti-government and pro-government protesters, including one who died when a bus was attacked.

Over the last two weeks, anti-government protesters occupied key ministries, government complexes and police headquarters.

The police attempted to alleviate tensions after the worst of the clashes, as they opened up barricades to major government offices – even offering roses to protesters in a symbolic gesture just days after taunting protesters and firing tear gas at crowds.

These protests showcase the complicated intersection of history, social changes, and legitimacy in current Thai politics.

And the very spaces of the rallies themselves become entry points into these deep, complex waters. What do the protests and occupied sites in the city reveal about the myriad of claims and competing political aims among the factions? What can the symbols and aesthetics of this protest tell us about what is happening and why? Continue reading

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Fire, Spirits and Ritual Self-Injury in Phuket: The Vegetarian Festival

Photograph by Amy Devlin (2013).

Fireworks explode in a loud cascade in the middle of the street, but no one flinches. I watch as a young barefooted man passes me – a pair of guns are impaled in his face, the barrels poking into the open flesh of his cheeks and out of his open mouth. He’s dressed in a black costume embroidered with Chinese symbols.

He is a mah song, a spirit medium, and he’s not the only one. Throngs of men and women are parading down the street, with metal skewers, needles, and even weapons inserted into their cheeks, arms, torsos and elsewhere on their bodies. They are in trances – their heads are twitching rhythmically, eyes rolled back, and their hands are clenched. Groups of devotees reverently carry statues of the gods. As far as the eye can see, everyone is clad in white. Continue reading

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Art Exhibition: Yin Xiuzhen, Nowhere to Land (Pace Beijing)

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It’s a microcosm of how rapid consumer-driven development has taken root in modern China: 798 Art District, once an esoteric artists’ enclave on the fringes of the city, has emerged as a prime tourist destination in Beijing, replete with international galleries.  Fashioned from a former military factory complex from the Mao era, industrial Bauhaus-inspired spaces serve as stark galleries for an array of contemporary Chinese artists.

Among these, the name of Pace Gallery may ring a familiar bell – earlier this summer, their sister gallery in NYC made a splash when Jay-Z rapped for six hours as part of a performance art piece.

In slightly more subdued fashion – but no less telling for the times – the irregular arches of Pace Gallery Beijing make a striking backdrop for Chinese artist Yin Xiuzhen’s current exhibition. In evoking the human aspects of globalization, Nowhere to Land is especially timely in the dynamic Chinese context, and Yin’s work gives a compelling account of what the view from inside the seismic changes of the country might look like.

Yin (b. 1963), a true Beijing native, presumably bears the perfect vantage point from which to witness the massive Chinese economic transformation. Since graduating from Capital Normal University in Beijing in 1989 with a B.A. in oil painting, the artist’s work has been featured internationally. Recent exhibitions include solo showings at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands (2012) and New York’s MoMA (2010), as well as a smattering of group exhibitions in cities across the world, including Moscow, Shanghai, Venice, Sydney, Sao Paolo and San Francisco.

Yin’s work is all about the art of looking and deciphering. Incorporating homely, intimate and personal items into larger constructions, she emphasizes the superficial qualities of what seem at first impression to be straightforward sculptures. And in doing so, she problematizes the underlying assumptions behind glossy Chinese narratives of progress and globalization.

Yin Xiuzhen 2012_Nowhere-to-land

Yin Xiuzhen. Nowhere to Land. 2012. Mixed media.
Image courtesy of Pace Gallery. Continue reading

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The 3rd Annual ICIRD Conference, Part II

Previously, I introduced ICIRD 2013, a Bangkok-based conference exploring issues of development, greater economic integration, and the idea of the regional commons. This blog post will delve more deeply into the background of the commons, an alternative way of organizing public goods that circumvents the hungry advance of neoliberal globalization. 

By way of illustrating, one of the most pressing current issues surrounds the Mekong River, the classic example of a regional – and transboundary – commons in Southeast Asia. Crossing six countries, laden with social and historical significance, and layered with overlapping claims and uses, millions depend on its shared resources, while growing hydropower development threatens large-scale devastation and destruction of riparian ecosystems. But forms of the commons can range in scale from municipal parks and shared community fishing sites along river banks, to oceans and digital commons on the far end.

The Commons as Social and Historical

Certainly in the context of greater regional integration augured by the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), the concept of the commons becomes an increasingly important, if imperiled, way of organizing assets and resources within communities. Introducing the Focus on the Global South Round Table I, Shalmali Guttal offered the following definition of the commons: it is a collection of assets that are actively managed for the good of the collective and should be accessible by everyone. They include not only natural and physical resources, but social, cultural, political (e.g., concepts like justice) and intellectual wealth as well.

But that’s not all that the concept offers: there can be no commons without a certain type of social relations based on sharing. It’s important to remember that the commons are entwined within the history of Southeast Asia, just as its growing commodification is embedded within the larger context of globalization. As Dr. Victor Savage (National University of Singapore) mentioned in an earlier panel, historically the Southeast Asian region has lacked traditional notions of private land ownership. Here, instead, usufruct rights guaranteed the rights of access for communities, and the commons functioned as safety net and social insurance.

But over time, as  Dr. Walden Bello (Member of the Philippines’ House of Representatives) reviewed, the transition to capitalism became inextricable from the plunder of non-Western societies, in a process that continues even now. He argued, for example, that the ADB and World Bank are central in enforcing ideologies of private property and codes to delegitimize communal traditions.

The tension between these divergent worldviews, one based upon the primacy of private property and the other upon the social relations upholding the commons, is ultimately not about choosing between a given set of choices, but rather about entire ideological frameworks brought together in one current, historically-informed confrontation.

Resistance and Alternatives

Pervasive throughout the ICIRD panels was the idea that everywhere the commons are being threatened by a neoliberal logic that seeks its enclosure and commercialization. The growing commodification of nature makes itself readily felt in the rise of issues like land grabbing, water privatization, and rampant hydropower development in the region, all of which were repeatedly raised in the course of the conference.

Neoliberalism, in Dr. Bello’s account, lost much of its legitimacy, due in part to the role of research organizations and scholars who documented its high human costs, as well as the internal crises of neoliberalism, erupting spectacularly in the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and the global crisis in 2008. He argues that while neoliberalism has been largely discredited, the lack of alternative paradigms means that it remains a source of default strategies for technocrats.

It may be partially true that business as usual continues for lack of other competing visions. But power also incentivizes its own perpetuation. And raising alternative possibilities is one way to counter the naturalization and legitimacy of dominant neoliberal globalization as it is taking place.

In seeking alternative forms of state-community relationships, it makes sense to step back from the lens of the nation-state. Yong Ming Li’s presentation (subtitled “Seeing like a chao baan/neak tonle,” in reference to James C. Scott’s seminal tome) offers one such narrative. By shifting down to the scale of the local, social-natural relations take on a new centrality that includes “a multiplicity of grounded perspectives and practices from the chao baan (villagers) of Chiang Khong, Thailand and the neak tonle (villagers living on the Tonle Sap lake)” (from ICIRD paper abstract). These social-natural relationships defy conceptualization based solely on market relations with nature.

The role of the research and academic communities seems clear – to keep giving voice to critical analyses of the changes taking place in the region and what’s at stake. To illustrate, the “Encouraging Green Growth in Thailand” forum was based on the appealing premise that “green economies will lead to higher resource efficiency, and investments in green innovation will benefit green pioneers with new markets, higher productivity, and human capital development” (from panel summary). Yet the forum ended in a robust debate about whether green growth (with its undeniable focus on growth) represents merely another reconfiguration of capitalism being pushed towards a new frontier.

Ultimately, as former Philippines Senator Dr. Orlando S. Mercado (who holds the distinction of being the first permanent representative of the country to ASEAN) told me after the Focus panel:

“We have to struggle to have our voices heard. But we should not only just be making our voices heard. We have to be able to move within the system to affect changes by taking advantage of various crises that erupt. To me, as a scholar interested in disaster mis-management, I feel that the cause of protecting the commons is served very well by making sure that each crisis, each disaster, each calamity, is taken advantage of to show that there must be people championing the cause of those who are adversely affected by its lack of management and the privatization that is ongoing as a consequence of economic development – all on the altar of creating a community that is ‘prosperous’.”

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Filed under ASEAN, China, Current Events, Economic development, Environment and sustainability, Governance, Mekong River, Reviews, SLIDER, Thailand, water

The 3rd Annual ICIRD Conference, Part I

With the ASEAN Economic Community set to launch in 2015, it’s not surprising to see a heightened level of uncertainty, concern, and even apprehension about what this enhanced sphere of regional integration will mean for Southeast Asian nations.

Holding this backdrop firmly in mind, the 3rd Annual International Conference on International Relations and Development (ICIRD) recently commenced at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, on August 22-23, 2013. This year’s timely theme, “Beyond Borders: Building a Regional Commons in SE Asia,” showcased established voices, civil society organizations, and a new generation of scholars rising to the challenges of this historical moment. Over forty panels traversed diverse but interrelated topics from environmental justice and human rights, to sustainable economic growth.

While few would deny the problems of development in Asia as they have manifested so far (e.g., environmental degradation, growing income disparity, and resettlement), finding a consensus on a way forward proves much more difficult. As Dr. Siriporn Wajjwalku (Assoc. Prof., Thammasat University) noted with some urgency in the opening remarks, “2015 for us in the region is approaching… It’s extremely important for us to think about the commons and go beyond the borders that we are facing now.”

Dialogue and discussion are a good place to start. Thus Dr. Carl Middleton (Lect., Chulalongkorn University), a member of the ICIRD Executive Committee that organized the event, proclaimed the conference “a success in that there was plenty of sharing of knowledge, experience and ideas amongst the participants, and a wide range of examples of the commons and how they support peoples well-being and create public space were discussed.” Continue reading

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