Piyabutr plays House role by the book
How thick does a book need to be to stop a bullet? Perhaps, I imagine, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul is asking himself that same question.
An unconfirmed anecdote reported that Allied soldiers holed up in a French library during WWII barricaded themselves with the canon of Western literature, hoping that Voltaire and Homer could protect them from homicidal Nazis, came to the conclusion that a book had to be at least 600-page thick to slow down a bullet, so something like a single copy of the King James Bible would suffice (a scientific and historical heresy, it seems).
Then consider this: In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt's life was saved by a 50-page copy of his speech kept in his breast pocket when a man shot him. Just 50 pages, fatefully placed at the perfect position over his heart (though his eyeglasses, which he kept in the same pocket, might contribute to something, too). The kick was that Roosevelt refused to go to a hospital and gave his campaign speech from the same copy that minutes before had helped extend his (political) life.
So, how many pages does one need in order to stop a bullet? How many books would one need to defend oneself from fascists, assassins and law-benders? Mr Piyabutr of the Future Forward Party may have pondered this in the solitude of his study. The former law professor and freshman MP has declared last week — to the orgiastic delight of bibliophiles and booksellers — that he owns 2,500 books worth over 1 million baht. He didn't catalogue the full content of his library, but it's alright, because the fact that he includes his book collection in the mandatory asset declaration is something we never expected from a Thai politician. Cash, cars, houses, watches — yes, a lot of watches. One even listed 500 cows, naturally, for a Ratchaburi cowgirl-slash-MP.
But books? Never before were physical, ink-blotted books considered valuable, or valuable enough in the calculus of the anti-corruption agency that monitors the MPs' net worth.
Other surprises from last week's asset revelation: Mongkolkit Suksintaranont of the Thai Civilised Party has over 100-million-baht worth of Buddha amulets, while Katathep Techadejruangkul of Phalang Thai Rak Thai announced that he owns a one-billion-baht collection of lek lai or "elastic metal", a powerful talisman that renders its owner invulnerable to all harms, physical or constitutional — a scientific heresy of the highest order, not to mention its perverse price tag. Those amulets, too, are supposed to stop knives and bullets; I would rather put my faith in 50 sheets of paper in this instance.
In Thai politics these days, you can't blame our distinguished representatives for relying on amulets and bulletproof metallurgy. In a place where the law is bent at will, where rule is defined by exception, and where hard questions are deflected towards the impenetrable glass ceiling that annuls all answers — even when it's something sacred like oath-taking errors — you no longer know what can be trusted, what to believe in, who to turn to, and what can save you from physical and constitutional perils. In short, our MPs need talismans.
For Mr Piyabutr, I believe books are his talisman. I suppose they have long been. Books are also the only talisman that we need, not necessarily to stop a bullet, but to prevent chaos and barbarians from breaking down the door.
Among the books Mr Piyabutr owns are books that were written by deputy PM and law scholar, Wissanu Krea-ngam, who in essence is effectively a talisman himself, a legal amulet worn by the invulnerable prime minister.
So it was supremely ironic to see Mr Piyabutr, grilling Mr Wissanu in parliament about the PM's oath blunder, stacking books authored by Mr Wissanu on his desk, then using Mr Wissanu's own words to slash legal wounds on his target. Mr Wissanu, once a literal, exact interpreter of the law, said Mr Piyabutr, has become the Father of Exceptionalism when it comes to shielding his boss from legal accusations. Which PM needs elastic metal when he has the Lawmaker on his side, ever-ready to make law at any second?
Mr Piyabutr's declaration of his books to the anti-graft agency is unusual — eccentric, perhaps tactical, but altogether touching. At least to those who still have faith in the sanctity of the written words, and the status of books as the stronghold of human intelligence. He's not fighting the Nazis, thank God, but will his library of 2,500 books — plus 2,000 more declared by his party chief Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit — stop a bullet? Not a real bullet, but a metaphorical bullet fired by conservatives and constitutional contortionists hell-bent on inflicting harm on his party. When the time comes when they actually have to barricade themselves in their libraries, I will contribute my own set of paperbacks. Books, wisdom, law and integrity — these are what we need to fight this long war.
Bangkok Post columnist
Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.