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“The world saw the truth on the other side of the wall”

The eleventh part of a Southeast Asia Globe series that shines a light on the region’s finest poetry

Compiled by Nathan A. Thompson      Illustration by Mike Stone

Following the slaying of ‘red-shirt poet’ Mainueng K. Kunthee earlier this year and the country’s continuing political turmoil, it seems like a good time to take a look at Thai political poetry. Kunthee was an activist who railed against what he saw as a corrupt elite interfering in democracy, even going as far as criticising the monarchy – a highly taboo act in Thailand, which has some of the world’s strictest lèse majesté laws. “Molding the Passion” seeks to unite red-shirt supporters by describing their commonalities, the “low class people” armed only with bamboo sticks who must battle against bullets. He elevates their campaign using religious language to invoke the Bodhi tree – the tree under which the Buddha gained enlightenment – that protects their struggle against the “Kingdom of Satan”. He also draws upon the disconnect between city life and the traditional rural existence – a prevalent theme in contemporary Thai literature that would not have been lost on the poem’s audience, particularly in the sarcastic catcall: “Wanna keep it? The city of angels, of heavens?”

Bangkok is also in the firing line in Siriworn Kaewkan’s “The Berlin Wall in Downtown Bangkok”, the first of a two-part poem that is too long to print here. While the title is provocative the poet avoids taking sides, preferring to lament the division in Thai society. The repeated image of dividing “wind and sunshine” draws attention to the aberrant nature of division, conflict and its awful effects. He builds up a sense of dissonance throughout the poem with Kafkaesque scenes where people offer flowers so as not to “turn commoners cursed with planting flowers”, until eventually another Berlin Wall is built in Bangkok with “bricks of hate” on a “foundation of insanity”.

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“Molding the Passion”

By Mainueng K. Kunthee

Molding the violent passion for democracy,

We are blamed terrorists amid the capital.

Oh, the great capital city, yet so empty, so hollow.

Is this the Kingdom of Deva or Satan?

 Molding the violent passion for democracy,

We are blamed terrorists, hanged to be killed.

Wanna keep it, the city of angels, of heavens?

Let us make the legacy of the absolute oppressor to an end!!!

 Molding the violent passion for democracy,

We, with no guns, grip the bamboo stick against the bullet.

Under the shade of the merciful Bhodi,

Why? So cruel, so inhuman!

 Molding the violent passion for the people,

We endure against the attack of the heaven’s destiny.

Our feet stand on the justice.

Low class people strive for peace all our hearts.

 Molding the violent passion, we are those who are passionate,

We break the chain for the freedom of the commoners,

This is the last struggle!

We shall fight wholeheartedly, and we shall win!

(Trans: Ruda Rangkupan)

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“The Berlin Wall in Downtown Bangkok (Part 1)”

by Siriworn Kaewkan

Barbed wire fence and concrete wall

Propped up in downtown Berlin

Dividing wind and sunshine in Germany

Dividing sunshine and wind in the twentieth century

Turning an ideal concrete

Penning a people, cleaving them in two

A proud communist government

Put Rousseau’s saying to good use

Man is born free

And everywhere he is in chains

Fog and flowers

Were turned into criminal daydreams

Idealism and class consciousness

Became sacred truths

Citizens became forbidden scriptures

Even God could not mess with

Man is born in chains

So the world over seeks freedom

Some groups thus turned to planting flowers

To sell to those men on watchtowers

To worship all godly protectors

For them not to fall into hardship

For them not to fall from on high

And turn commoners cursed with planting flowers

Fog and flowers

Criminal daydreams of the twentieth century

When the Berlin Wall in Germany

Was smashed to pieces

The world saw the truth on the other side of the wall

Idealism and class consciousness

The dream of sacred truths

Became even more of a daydream

Slowly took shape in downtown Bangkok

The Berlin Wall of the twenty-first century

Dividing sunshine and wind in the Chao Phraya basin

Dividing darkness and light in our hearts

With one brick per man

Piled up on a foundation of hate

With one brick per man

Piled up on insanity

Nobody asked since when a wall was needed to get rid of classes

Known to all and plain to see

Man consents to keep churning power

Man consents to keep making mistakes

To write his own history

Even though he knows that ahead

When the wall is smashed

On the other side the truth stares at us

(Trans: Marcel Barang)

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Keep reading:

“His lumpy hide was transformed into a mountain range” – The tenth part of a Southeast Asia Globe series that shines a light on the region’s finest poetry

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