In the wake of Yingluck’s departure: poetry as food for thought

By Peera Songkünnatham

In the wake of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s decision to leave Thailand right before the Court’s verdict on alleged mismanagements of the rice-pledging scheme, there has been a spate of poems on the subject, many of which reduce Yingluck to her genitalia.

Thanya Sangkhaphanthanon, a National Artist and professor of Thai literature at Mahasarakham University, felt inspired to pen a poem called “Kha-dii huu” (“The Case of the Ears”), posted publicly on his Facebook profile (the post has since been deleted). Toying with Yingluck’s nickname “Pu” and her citing an ear problem as an excuse for her leaving the country, the four-line poem condemns her vagina through kham phuan (flipped words) wordplay:

อ้างเรื่องหูหลบหนีตามพี่ชาย
ang ruang huu lob nii taam phii chaai
(Using your ears as an excuse to flee the country like your big brother)

หูคุณปีช่างร้ายเหลือประมาณ
huu khun pii chang raai luea pra-maan
(How immeasurably vile are the ears of Ms. Pi [once flipped, the vagina of Ms. Pu])

Of course, a call for decency and/or a condemnation of misogyny is warranted here, but there really isn’t a lot of hope for change in such matters from Thailand’s celebrated writers. After all, Dr. Thanya Sangkhaphanthanon wrote a book called Ecofeminism in Thai Literature!

I don’t expect politically-minded poetry to transcend political divisions. Rather, poems like this strike me in terms of how shallow Thai poetry has become — merely a medium for political mudslinging beautified by a rhyme scheme.

But can’t poetry do something more–can it help us think through important issues, like the plight of farmers, or Thai politics after the Shinawatras’ departure?

Economy of words and the attention to word choice make contemporary poetry especially fertile grounds for condensing public discourse into a play of symbols. We can look at poetry to investigate how words like “poverty” and “farmers” can be articulated in relation to opposing terms. Some oppositions may prove to be more helpful than others in our attempt to conceive of a future beyond the current political gridlock.

In search of such food for thought, I am going to analyze a selection of poetry from two Isaan-born poets.

Both poets write about the plight of rice farmers. Both engage in nostalgia for the bygone era of traditional peasant society. Neither identifies with the “red” camp dominating the Northeast. Yet, they elaborate distinct political oppositions in their portrayals of hopelessness.

Fooled farmers vs. enlightened urbanites

Published in February 2014 at the height of People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC)’s protests against the government headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, “Chao na phuk kho tai tai ton khaow” (“Farmer Hangs Himself under Rice Stalks”) is written by prolific poet Ponchai “Good-G” Saenyamul.

Early in 2014, a rice farmer in Sisaket Province committed suicide over the overdue payments he was supposed to receive from the rice he’d pledged to the Yingluck government. A book of poetry capitalized on this tragic event. Today, in the aftermath of Yingluck’s departure, I recall the book’s opening poem (translations mine).

The Farmer hangs himself under rice stalks
The Prime Minister kills herself in her seat
Their deaths come from the same knot in the rope
One end is tied around the Farmer’s neck
The other is tied around the Prime Minister’s wrists
Before the rope gets torn apart, the Farmer’s already dead
Before the rope gets torn apart, the Prime Minister’s already fallen from her seat
The Farmer’s death is final
The Prime Minister’s death still pending in impunity.

ชาวนาผูกคอตายใต้ต้นข้าว
นายกฆ่าตัวเองตายบนเก้าอี้
ความตายมาจากเชือกปมเดียวกัน
ปลายเชือกหนึ่งขึงคอชาวนา
ปลายเชือกหนึ่งขึงมือนายก
ก่อนที่เชือกจะขาด ชาวนาได้ตายไปแล้ว
ก่อนที่เชือกจะขาด นายกได้ตกเก้าอี้ไปแล้ว
ชาวนาตายแล้วตายเลย
นายกตายแล้วยังลอยตัวได้

The volume “Chao na phuk kho tai tai ton khaow” (“Farmer Hangs Himself under Rice Stalks”) is written by prolific poet Ponchai “Good-G” Saenyamul. Born and raised in Roi Et, Ponchai joined the 2013-14 protests against Yingluck Shinawatra’s government. The vast majority of the poems were written during the Bangkok protests against Yingluck’s government following the passage of the Amnesty Bill that would have absolved her brother Thaksin from criminal proceedings. The book was published and distributed in February 2014, in the midst of ongoing protests before the coup d’etat in May.

The poetry volume is divided into two sections: chao na “farmers,” and chao muang “urbanites.” The rural-urban divide in the book’s organization informs much of the underlying theme. The first half talks of rural society in general, and the plight of farmers fooled by populist politicians in particular. Most poems in this half conclude with the death of each poem’s main character — if not by the government’s neglect and oppression, then by personal vices like greed, lust, or unquestioning faith in modernization.

The second half consists mostly of poems denouncing the crackdown on anti-Yingluck protesters all the while positioning the protesters as enlightened members of society. The introductory poem to the section on chao muang spells out this division. Titled Thon phit “Antidote,” the poem tells the tale of a monkey society divided into the enslaved and the free. The former group has become enslaved through addiction to poisonous fruits, while the latter bands together to uproot the intoxicating trees of poison.

[…]

Ripe fruits / ผลไม้สุก
Bearing in abundance / ออกลูกเต็มต้น
Seeing that, the monkeys / ฝูงลิงยินยล
Go eat the fruits / เก็บผลไม้กิน

The more they eat, the more they want / ยิ่งกินยิ่งอยาก
Greed multiplies / โลภมากไม่สิ้น
The monkeys offer their lives / ลิงมอบชีวิน
For that tree’s sake / เพื่อต้นไม้นั้น

The poison fruits / ผลไม้พิษ
Are born each day / ออกฤทธิ์ทุกวัน
The monkeys don’t think far ahead /  ฝูงลิงคิดสั้น
They propagate the tree / ขยายพันธุ์ต่อไป

Poison trees / เกิดต้นไม้พิษ
Shoot up everywhere / ทั่วทิศใกล้ไกล
The monkeys get sick / ฝูงลิงป่วยไข้
Their minds debased / จิตใจเสื่อมทราม

The more they eat, the more debt they have /  ยิ่งกินยิ่งเป็นหนี้
The worldly flames spread / ไฟโลกีย์ลุกลาม
No way to stop / ไม่อาจหักห้าม
Desire and habit / ความอยากความชิน

Another group of monkeys / ฝูงลิงอีกฝ่าย
Who’ve never got a taste / ที่ไม่เคยได้กิน
Hope to save the lives / หวังช่วยชีวิน
Of the monkey serfs / ฝูงลิงขี้ข้า

So they band together / จึงร่วมแรงใจ
To fell the culprit trees / โค่นต้นไม้ปัญหา
Uprooting them all / รากโคนถอนมา
Not a single one left / อย่าให้เหลือซาก

[…]

The free monkeys / ฝูงลิงเสรี
All over the land / ทั่วปฐพีแน่วแน่
Committed to the struggle / สู้ต่อไม่ขอแพ้
To plant genuine trees for the earth!! / ปลูกไม้แท้แก่แผ่นดิน!!

The evil hunters / หมู่นายพรานร้าย
Intent on exterminating the monkeys / หมายปราบลิงสิ้น
Now end their lives / จบแล้วชีวิน
With poison weapons. / อาวุธออกพิษ

Note the name-calling of the fooled monkeys khi kha (serf), a derogatory word for servant or slave, while the other monkeys are called seri (free, liberated). Needless to say, the political content of Ponchai’s poetry is overly simplistic and downright insulting. Frankly, “Chao na phuk kho tai tai ton khaow” is premised upon the most uncreative of political oppositions–only a level above the nadir of political mudslinging. I am not persuaded by his assumption that urbanites have never tasted the poison fruit — whatever that represents. Nor do I agree that urban middle classes are more enlightened than rural farmers. Reading this volume, I could identify the unhelpful premises that reinforce the victimhood of gullible Isaan farmers while still placing the blame squarely on the farmers themselves for allowing themselves to be fooled by the Shinawatras.

Looming over the opposition between the enslaved and the free are the predators, who come out of nowhere in the last stanza of “Antidote.” The poem ends with a group of evil hunters intent on exterminating (all?) the monkeys. Ponchai’s “evil hunters” probably refers to the political likes of Yingluck, yet the phrase inadvertently foreshadows Thailand’s current predatory rule under the military junta.

When political division is transposed upon the rural-urban divide like in Farmer Hangs Himself under Rice Stalks, there seems to be no way out. The enslaved cannot save themselves, the free get trampled by the predators, and there is no viable arbitrator in sight.

Futureless farmers vs. nostalgic civil servants

Published in July 2017, An wa e-wang (And so it goes) is a book of poetry by Khimhan Hommala mourning the collapse of farmers’ society.

The rich grow rice
The poor grow debt
The rich grow rice and get rice
The poor grow debt and get more debt
The rich grow rice and get fertilizers and weeds
The poor spray chemicals killing everything

คนรวยทำนา
คนจนทำหนี้
คนรวยทำนาได้ข้าว
คนจนทำหนี้ได้หนี้ตื่ม
คนรวยทำนาได้ปุ๋ยได้หญ้า
คนจนฉีดยาฆ่าทุกสิ่งอย่าง

In this short poem, the opposition between rich and poor already complicates the picture painted by the monkeys’ tale in “Antidote”: it makes explicit the social differentiation between rural classes. More interestingly, the poem refuses to call the poor’s rice farming “rice farming” — the poem calls it “debt farming” instead.

Published in July 2017, An wa e-wang (And so it goes) is a book of poetry by Khimhan Hommala mourning the collapse of farmers’ society — their economy, their ecology, their kinship. Born and raised in a shallot-farming community in Sisaket Province, the author is a schoolteacher who has self-published three poetry collections and one memoir.

The rural civil servant emerges as an interesting figure as opposed to the debt farmer. Presumably, he is someone who, as a child, was told by his parents and relatives that he should prioritize his studies so he could get out of poverty. Now, he has become a civil servant — the people’s master — but still he is driven by the desire to reconnect with the fields.

Civil servants
Own rice fields, farming on the weekends
Farmers
Escape from their fields, attending meetings with officials
Getting compensated, too

Civil servants escape from their bosses
Not happy until they get to the fields

ข้าราชการ
มีนา ทำนาเสาร์อาทิตย์
ชาวนา
หนีนา ไปประชุมกับทางการ
ได้เบี้ยเลี้ยง

ข้าราชการหนีงานเจ้านาย
ลงนาสวนทิดถึงสุข

Pointing out a complexity within rural society, Khimhan locates the rural civil servant’s happiness in his reconnecting with farming, while the farmer’s happiness doesn’t seem to exist — the farmer’s life seems to be purely dictated by economic necessity and driven by desperation.

Rice farmers love their rice fields
Fruit farmers love their plantations
Rice farmers are in the fields
Fruit farmers are at the plantations
FarmerFarmerFarmerFarmerFarmerFarmer
Civil servants born of farmers love the fields very much
Employees born of farmers love the fields very much
Quit their jobs to be in the fields, and
Watch their siblings sell the fields away

ชาวนาฮักนา
ชาวสวนฮักสวน
คนนาอยู่นา
คนสวนอยู่สวน
คนคนคนคนคนคนคน
ข้าราชการลูกชาวนาฮักนาสวนหลาย
ลูกจ้างลูกชาวนาสวนฮักนาสวนหลาย
ลาออกมาอยู่นาสวน
เบิ่งพี่น้องขายนาสวน

Having chosen to come back to farm for their love of the fields, the civil servants and the company employees find their siblings selling the farmlands away instead. It would be wrong to read the act of the (less wealthy) siblings as a result of their ignorance or their abandonment of agriculture. What is much likelier, rather, is that these siblings are so deep in debt that they have to sell their farmlands. The love is commonly shared, yet it is only practicable by part-time farmers.

The book’s next-to-last poem explicitly rejects the moralism so prevalent in Ponchai’s volume, but points its finger at a nebulous i nyang (‘what’) that has been forcing the condition of poverty on farmers for a long time.

Don’t do it der, Television
Don’t overgeneralize
Don’t prejudge
Don’t point fingers in condemnation

Who would want to get in debt
If one has enough to start off with?
What’s forced poverty on us?
What’s kept us in line?
What’s threatened us into submission?
What’s done what over however many lifetimes?
What’s done what for a long, long time?

อย่าเด้อโทรทัศน์
อย่าเหมา
อย่าตัดสิน
อย่าชี้นิ้วด่าประจาน

ใผอยากเป็นหนี้บ้าง
ถ้ามีเงินมีทุนเจ้าของพอ
อีหยังบังคับให้จน
อีหยังล่ะตีเส้นให้ย่างตาม
อีหยังล่ะขู่เข็ญให้ยินยอม
อีหยังอีหยังมาจักชั่วคน
อีหยังอีหยังมาดนนาน

What is this “what” the poet is gesturing towards? The singling out of television as the agent that prejudges and condemns Isaan farmers is telling here — it suggests that the mainstream media neglects to talk about the underlying causes of household debts which are out of farmers’ control. This “what” goes way back. It is an agent that has turned “poverty” into a reality forced upon farmers.

Unlike Farmer Hangs Himself under Rice Stalks where the farmer’s desperation is causally linked to Yingluck’s immoral governance and back to the farmer’s own fault of ignorance and addiction, in An wa e-wang the farmer’s desperation is tied to an oppressive force of cash-crop production which dictates the use of expensive fertilizers and pesticides and the cycle of loans, in which populist policies are but a wishful distraction.

Beyond unhelpful oppositions

Looking at both volumes side by side, I am struck by the absences in one compared to the other. In Ponchai’s book, there is no class differentiation within farmer society — all life ends in death. In Khimhan’s book, there is no mention of the urban middle classes, except occasionally as merchants and loan sharks.

What roles can urbanites play other than self-righteous saviors, whistleblowing protesters, and predatory creditors in the case of Isaan’s rural-urban dynamics?

Partisan reactions aside, Yingluck’s departure from Thailand has resulted in the general feeling that now, more than ever, we the people (who either can’t escape or choose to stay despite everything) must depend on ourselves if we are to survive this hard time of economic downturn and political dictatorship.

In order to effectively oppose this regime, we have to organize with a different set of oppositions that cuts across our entrenched, at times oversimplified, oppositions of red/yellow and rural/urban. Apart from a necessary return to a truly nuanced class-based analysis, more creative coalitions need to be built as well. The khao luk chaona initiative by “farmers’ offspring” in Kasetsart University who did direct sales of their parents’ harvest late last year might be a small example of novel ways of organizing the people. At any rate, we have to rethink this whole thing, and we can’t afford to write poetry calling Yingluck “a vile vagina” anymore.

Peera Songkünnatham

Peera Songkünnatham is a writer and translator based in Sisaket City, The Republic of Lao Lane Xang. Contact: peera@isaanrecord.com