Poet's death casts chill on our society

Poet's death casts chill on our society

To remember a poet, we read his poems.

Life extinguished… but aspiration sparkles

Shining through the mantle of darkness

A bullet cuts through the heart

But never nips the dream of freedom

A bullet indeed cut through his heart, extinguishing his life in broad daylight, a tyrannical sacrifice for his dream. We don’t have to agree with Mainueng Kor Kunatee’s politics, we don’t have to weep, but we shouldn’t have a shred of doubt in our heavy throbbing hearts that murder isn’t a path to freedom, regardless of how you define that term.

The red-shirt poet, whose real name is Kamol Duangphasuk, was gunned down on Wednesday in Bangkok. An investigation is under way, the motive hasn’t been established — as in most other deaths in the past few months on both sides of the rift — but it wouldn’t be too alarmist to suspect political trigger-pulling.

Mainueng was a staunch activist who campaigned for the release of political prisoners and against the lese majeste law. His activism relied on words and not sticks, and his verses sting like a thousand pinpricks and, at their best, hit like a hammer blow.

Saluting the grassroots,

the elephants’ trampling cannot flatten them

In profusion they cover the earth,

where they were born and feed with integrity

Saluting those whose eyes have seen the light,

released from the shackle of illusion

Knowing their human rights,

knowing they’re not dust underneath the feet

Literature can be violent, but it doesn’t kill. Poets can be terrorists, but poetry isn’t terrorism. Writing shouldn’t be criminalised, and writers, unless you lived under Stalin or the Gestapo, shouldn’t be punished, jailed or executed. Stalin presided over “The Night of the
Murdered Poets” in 1952, and a Nazi
shot dead Bruno Schulz, one of the finest writers of the 20th century, in rural Poland in 1942. Mainueng, who published widely over the past two decades, has now joined that unfortunate dead poets’ society, the other prominent member of which is Jit Phumisak, a respected Thai writer and philologist who fled into the jungle to join the communist movement and was shot dead in 1966. Jit was gunned down in the forest at the height of Thailand’s anti-communism mania; Mainueng, in a mark of the mastermind’s criminal arrogance, was attacked in the capital, in a crowded neighbourhood, at noon.

Not that it makes any difference; it’s just that the circumstances of Mainueng’s violent death at a time of our violent politicising and intolerance made it all the more frightening — again, regardless of whether you share his stance. It’s a fatal irony that Mainueng had campaigned for Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, a red-shirt editor who was jailed for printing highly sensitive material. It turns out that for some writers, it’s safer to be locked up in jail.

Someone has already called for solidarity, if not from everyone then at least within the writing community. It gives you vertigo knowing that something you write can cause your unnatural death, and I think everyone who makes a living by putting words together, on any side of the schism, should strongly condemn the murder of Mainueng because, who knows, it could happen to you when the sun changes course and the cards change hands.

Writer/critic Sananjit Bangsapan has demanded that the Writers’ Association rise above the colour-coded divide and come out to denounce the killing, and although I don’t always agree with Sananjit, I’m with him on this one.

Forget the messages of hatred from online fools, because there’s light after Mainueng’s death. Poets of all colours have written hymns for the shocking loss, notably Surachai “Nga” Chantimatorn, a song-for-life-statesman who’s appeared on Suthep Thaugsuban’s stage. Surachai’s heartfelt ode — A poet was shot dead/I mourn for his life/Heart sinks/Who put a price on his head — is too real and too elegant for me to translate its full flavour. What’s important is its spirit: Ideology should never trump humanity, because when that happens, you start counting only the deaths on your own side and laugh at the others.

Death is death. Even if Mainueng’s murder has nothing to do with politics, the gravity of the loss remains huge, especially to his family. But if it has, as everyone suspects, the chill running down our spines becomes chillier.

The poet is dead, let’s hope he’s the last one.

Kong Rithdee is Deputy Life Editor, Bangkok Post.

Kong Rithdee

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.

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