It's a brisk autumn day, all sun and no rain, in the upstate New York town of Ithaca. The leaves are turning and the hilly landscape is alive with a profusion of colour; a good day for a walk. Meandering along tree-lined streets under blue skies, I look forward to meeting a legendary scholar from Cornell's golden age of Southeast Asian studies, an historian who had left before I arrived but whose stellar reputation lingers through books, classroom discussion and reminiscences of his colleagues.
Charnvit Kasetsiri, or Ajarn Charnvit as he is known here, is back at his alma mater for the first time in many years to talk about the seemingly intractable border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia, half a world away on the edge of the dry Isan plateau and the Dangrek Range.
We meet in the oak-panelled vastness of the Kahin Center, once the opulent home of a 19th century timber magnate back in the day when the Finger Lakes were bustling waterways linked to the Eire Canal.
We chat briefly over a light lunch before the talk, which gives me a chance to express my appreciation to the professor for his perceptive historical musings, and also his nostalgic "splendor in the grass" recollections of ivory tower life centred on the Arts Quad and Libe Slope of Cornell in the 1960s.
Ajarn Charnvit faces a room packed full of American students and faculty _ only two or three Thai students are in attendance _ with a bemused look, as if wondering how he can possibly begin to explain the complex nuances of things to an eager audience not necessarily well-versed in things Thai.
He opts for the visual approach, and a tongue in cheek style presentation, heavy on visuals, humorous quips and verbal irony, light on analysis and detail. His Powerpoint presentation wittily draws attention to the fact that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's predecessors were male prime ministers, as if to underscore the not insignificant distinction of her being Thailand's first female premier.
He sees the novelty of PM Yingluck's unexpected leap to power, and in it, the seeds of peace and progress, despite acknowledging that she had almost no prior training and only a month and a half to get ready for the job.
He jokes that she is so much better looking than the rest of her family that even the opposition likes her, though some have spread the silly rumour that she is not really Thaksin's sister.
And yes, appearances do count. Because the PM is a good-looking woman who maintains decorum and doesn't talk too much, she possesses a kind of mystical power that at once calms down a restive nation and makes her harder to remove from power than her overly talkative, overly combative male predecessors. He predicts she will finish her term.
Ajarn Charnvit then offers a series of photos showing how Thais and Cambodians are now at peace instead of fighting and dying on the border:
- Ms Yingluck sitting demurely at a polite distance from a haughty Hun Sen;
- Thaksin and Hun Sen sitting close, as if exchanging conspiratorial whispers;
- Thai red shirts in Cambodia;
- Hun Sen palling around with the Thai red shirts, posing for a group portrait;
- Hun Sen wearing a red shirt in solidarity with the red shirts;
- Hun Sen in a friendly football match with the Thai visitors.
The professor's presentation takes on a sly tack at this point, as if to say: I present these images and leave it for you, the viewer, to decide.
On the one hand he seems intent on demolishing the contentious arguments that characterise the highly partisan status quo; on the other he does not follow up on the many promising points of departure he invokes, instead calling on the audience to connect the dots of his seemingly random, eclectic remarks.
For example, he says it's not true that Preah Vihear is more accessible from the Thai side, despite its being situated on a bluff that is an integral part of the Isan plateau.
He adds that the Chinese are building a road that climbs up the steep slope on the Khmer side of the border.
While I find the "new road" argument a less than convincing answer to an old dispute about accessibility, I am re-engaged with the professor's charm when he says the feeling of arriving at Preah Vihear is better than arriving at the Acropolis.
My first visit to the windswept, mist-enshrouded temple on the southern extremity of Si Sa Ket province was a magical experience, like climbing a stairway to heaven.
Ajarn Charnvit goes on to cite Akira Kurosawa's "Roshomon", which was relatively unknown in Japan until it won recognition in Europe, as an example of how foreign opinion can change domestic views, or, in the case of the border temple, how being anointed by Unesco can serve to make Southeast Asians more appreciative of their own heritage.
He casts the great Khmer temples of the border region as three generations of the same family: Wat Phu in Laos, Preah Vihear in Cambodia and Phanom Rung in Thailand as grandmother, mother and daughter respectively.
He sees international cooperation as key: left solely in Thai hands, the rest of the family would be subjected to the Disneyfication that can be seen in the rebellious daughter.
He also invokes the delightful imagery of an "Emerald Triangle" where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia meet as a boon for developers. Imagine a golf course straddling three countries!
At moments like this, one has to pay very close attention to what the professor is saying and not saying.
Given the point he makes later in the talk about the need to turn the border region into an ecologically protected zone, it is clear he is not so much in favour of a golf course for fat cats as simply tickled by the transgressive notion of whacking golf balls across borders with impunity.
Otherwise, the logical conclusion of the golf course argument is that conflict can best be avoided by capitulating to capitalism and allowing the pristine environment to be turned into a borderless playground for the international elite.
After the talk, I express my appreciation for the "light touch" and humorous approach to a dicey topic, but wonder about some serious issues left unaddressed. Wasn't it improper for the leader of a neighbouring country to be showing solidarity with the Thai red shirts, given the divisive domestic turmoil in Thailand?
Yes, he says, but Thailand has long meddled in Cambodia.
That was certainly true. I recall with a shudder seeing Pol Pot escorted into a five-star Bangkok hotel during "peace" talks in 1991. But did one political misjudgment justify another?
I pose a follow-up question, pointing out that not too long ago one could see "Shinawatra welcomes you to Cambodia" billboards on the border, suggesting that former PM Thaksin had investments that might buy a degree of influence.
Don't understand the question.
Another questioner follows up, wondering whether the so-called eco-border region might be exploited by capitalists?
Yes, maybe there will be bad effects, he acknowledges.
Later that afternoon, I walked around the campus lake. Fall foliage was a riot of colour, yellows and reds vying for attention in the brilliant light of the dying sun.
Navigating a rocky path and stone bridge, while observing the riot of colour as reflected in the lake, it struck me as odd that cold, inert stones such as Preah Vihear/Khao Phra Wihan, not to mention rocky islets such as the Diaoyu/Senkaku, could arouse such heated passion in the hearts of humans.
Did it not have something to do with intimations of immortality? For creatures of flesh and blood, stone seems positively eternal.
I thought of the bust of Jit Phumisak that Ajarn Charnvit lovingly held in hand at the end of his lecture, announcing it as a gift to Cornell's Kahin Center, as a token gesture in support of a plan to erect a lasting monument to an under-appreciated intellectual giant.
Jit, a self-taught linguistic genius, maverick historian and uncompromising idealist was cut down in his prime during one of those unhappy eras when Thailand was at war with itself.
Sadly, Thailand seems to be sinking into another one of those divisive periods.
Philip J Cunningham is media researcher covering Asian politics
About the author
- Writer: Philip J Cunningham