Tangled web we weave

Not only is Leonardo DiCaprio an award-winning actor, he's also an admirable philanthropist. But life is rarely fair.

In 1999, he was in Thailand filming The Beach. My brother got the job of babysitting the star for 80,000 baht per week. All he had to do was hang out with Leonardo and make sure he didn't get into trouble.

At the time I was getting paid 9,000 baht per month as a university lecturer, grooming the young minds of the nation. Life is not fair. It never was.

Life will also continue to be unfair to elephants and other species in Thailand, regardless of the letter to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), penned by Leonardo, a board member, and Carter Roberts, president and CEO.

Until Thursday, Bangkok is hosting delegates from 177 nations for a major meeting of the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) which began on March 3. According to the WWF letter, more than half a million concerned citizens signed a petition that was submitted to PM Yingluck calling on Thailand to ban its domestic ivory trade.

Thailand's intention in hosting this event was to shed the image of the country as a hub for illegal poaching. Notice the word "image" here. Not actually putting an end to its role in illegal poaching, just the image.

This reminds me of when Bangkok and the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) hosted a global Transparency International conference two years ago. That too was for the purpose of shedding an unwanted image of the country _ that it is swamped in rampant corruption. As for corruption itself, well...

Sure there will be uproarious applause, the clinking of champagne glasses, bold promises and congratulations all around. But as the prime minister stated and the letter has already recognised, there are already Thai laws banning ivory trade.

Thai laws already protect wildlife in general and endangered species in particular. Thailand has laws against all the evils that men might do, and even some of the good. But so what? Illegal activities cannot flourish without rampant corruption.

In Thailand, prostitution is illegal, but not really. Casino gambling is illegal, but not really. Drug trafficking is illegal, but only when the generals want their pictures on the front pages of local dailies _ in triumph and glory, standing over a pile of seized ya ba on a table, and a couple of bewildered low-rent traffickers with heads hanging down, wondering who their boss forgot to pay off.

The letter from the WWF stated "We have seen a growing global chorus, now more than 1.2 million strong, demanding action from the prime minister." The letter also stressed that the laws in place must be enforced.

But things are not quite so simple. To combat illegal poaching, and many other illegal activities in Thailand, the prime minister must target the patronage network that crisscrosses both the north-south and east-west axis of the Thai society.

This network involves everyone from peasants in rural areas to village heads and district councillors, to governors and government departments, to members of parliament and ministers, to urban businessmen and both green and khaki uniforms and many others I might have left out. Thailand is a patronage network built on connectivity. One way or another everyone is connected, directly or indirectly _ the Six Degrees of Separation rule applies.

For Thai laws to be potent, the country's patronage network must be dismantled. But it's a Catch 22, as those who've risen to positions of power were able to do so because of the patronage network. So why dismantle the source of your own success?

And even if you wanted to, how?

How would PM Yingluck target the 265 MPs of her own Pheu Thai Party and all their connections nationwide? What about the coalition partners? The business allies of her family? The police force ruled by the people carefully selected by her family? The military that she needs to appease so that room is made for family and friends to rise to the top ranks in the near future?

Perhaps it is better for the WWF letter to be sent to Dubai. But even that won't get the desired results. To be fair, on the flip side, we can throw the very same questions to the Democrat Party and the old establishment.

This is not to say that any of the aforementioned are directly involved in anything illegal, heaven forbid. But they are components of the anatomy of Thailand, the patronage network.

Follow the trails far enough and you'll get to somebody who knows somebody, who also knows somebody, who's actually a somebody, who may implicate a lot more somebodies, directly or indirectly _ and that just won't do.

Everyone is only a few people apart from somebody who's doing something illegal. The patronage network demands blanketed protection, otherwise the entire system crumbles, while sacrificial lambs are offered every now and again for the sake of making headlines.

As well, there are ingrained, superstitious beliefs that run through our veins. Elephants are a national symbol, the mighty beasts of kings. Therefore it is only logical to the superstitious mind that persons of wealth and prestige must own ivory tusks. Ivory tusks do not only represent your rightful power and place in society, they also ensure the maintenance of said power and place, and lead to even more prosperity. With such beliefs, how can one resist?

What's more, the lowly poachers and commoners know not to keep the ivory tusks for themselves. By birth, they are not worthy of such a majestic symbol. If they don't sell them to the powerful and prestigious, surely karma will damn their destiny for this lack of humility, this vain desire to jump the social ladder. One must know one's place in society.

The patronage network stitches up our anatomy, while superstitions dominate our belief system, what chances then do elephants and other species, endangered or otherwise, have?

So yes, we'll continue to revere the mighty beast as our national symbol, to boast proudly and make bold promises on cleaning up our "image", while at the same time, illegal poaching and the ivory trade continue.

It's a tangled web that we have weaved, this patronage system. But please, go ahead and prove me wrong by actually dismantling the system.


Contact Voranai Vanijaka via email at voranaiv@bangkokpost.co.th

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About the author

columnist
Writer: Voranai Vanijaka
Position: Political and Social Commentator