End of Summer

IMG_3522

A moment’s hesitation. The inevitable
Tearing open the cocoon of dreams and chatter.
That crease of a smile subsides.
The face once familiar twists and dissipates into emptiness.
I find myself at the shores of a black lake,
Its silent surface ablaze with a million stars above.
I search the dark expanse but there is nothing
And no one.

Falling short of sexual assault

cello-lessons

When I was around 13, I started taking private cello lessons at home. My teacher was (and still is) the principal cellist of the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra. He was a big man with a booming baritone voice, didn’t smile very much, and I was scared of him. I remember him telling me about another female student of his who he said was very beautiful. He also said I’d be really pretty if I didn’t wear glasses. He always used the formal, adult pronouns for you and I in Thai which I was not used to. I always addressed him as “teacher” and myself with the humble Thai word that most kids use when talking to their elders.

One time, he criticized my posture and placed his hand on my upper chest, the area between my neck and my breasts. Then he put his hand at the back of my neck and ran it all the way down to the small of my back, while explaining something about my posture. Afterwards, he instructed me to play while he sat directly behind me where I couldn’t see him, presumably to observe my posture.

How does one react to behavior that isn’t overt? Even now, more than a decade later, I can’t find the right label for that incident. In my mind, sexual assault conjures up a violent image. This was not violent; I wasn’t groped. Neither was it done in a sensual manner, which I would have definitely interpreted as creepy behavior. Instead, he was rough, such that the initial physical contact jolted me, and he spoke in a tone that was gruff and serious rather than lascivious. I thought that perhaps that was his style of teaching and felt ashamed for thinking that it could have been sexual. But it made me extremely uncomfortable.

My experience is mild, compared to what many people endure and I’m not necessarily traumatized by it. It just occasionally pops into my head and makes me angry. But the fact that I catch myself questioning if it was really a big deal, or whether I had misinterpreted his behavior, makes me think that yes, it is always intentional. The grey area—or at least what is perceived to be a grey area—that extends beyond what feels comfortable, but falls short of overt sexual assault, is there to be exploited. It is there to create doubt and redirect shame back to the person who conjured up such dirty thoughts, for suspecting that there was anything other than innocuous intent. Be wary of the grey area. Be wary of terms like “sexual assault” and particularly “sexual assault survivor”, which seem to rule out all non-violent and non life-threatening offenses. Don’t rule them out.

The uncertain future of Thailand’s renewable energy sector

bangkok-wallpaper-1

I’ll soon be joining a team working on a clean energy project in the Lower Mekong region. So, I decided to do some preliminary research into the current investment climate and government policy towards clean energy in Thailand, where I am now based.

*************************************************************************************

The current structure of the Thai power sector is a highly centralized system with the government maintaining its monopoly over transmission and distribution, while there is partial private participation in generation. The three state-owned utilities comprising the power sector are the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), the Metropolitan Electricity Authority (MEA), and the Provincial Electricity Authority (PEA). MEA and PEA are responsible for distribution, while EGAT—by far the largest and most influential of the three—manages generation and distribution.

In the 1990s, under Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun, Independent power producers (IPPs) were allowed to enter the market. These IPPs competed with EGAT in the generation market, while the latter remained the sole buyer for transmission, resulting in a bizarre setup where EGAT acts as both buyer and seller of electricity. Furthermore, with increased competition in generation, EGAT responded by creating a full subsidiary, the Electricity Generating Company (EGCO), to compete as another IPP.

Screen Shot 2017-09-27 at 2.08.06 PM

*SPPs: Small Independent Power Producers; VSPPs: Very Small Independent Power Producers. SPPs and VSPPs comprise much of the country’s renewable energy supply.

EGCO shares were divested and traded on the stock market in 1995, with EGAT retaining the largest stake. Needless to say, the conflict of interest arising from EGAT’s roles as both buyer and seller poses a potential threat to the competitiveness of IPPs.

Energy Insecurity

Nevertheless, a bigger problem facing the Thai energy sector—although somewhat related to competitiveness of IPPs—is the issue of energy security. Thailand is heavily dependent on natural gas, accounting for 76% of the country’s generating capacity. The natural gas supply in the gulf of Thailand is being rapidly depleted and could run out within the next decade or so (Thai PBS, PDP2015: The Return to Coal, aired September 7, 2015).

Screen Shot 2017-09-22 at 3.08.40 PM.png

The Thai energy sector is guided by 20-year power development plans (PDP), revised every five years or so, which forecast electricity and energy demand and map out generation needs for the medium to long term. Yet the PDPs have proven to be less than binding, with some projects being pushed for consideration even before they are included in the PDP. Examples include the 1,260MW Xayaburi dam in Laos and the 4,000MW coal-fired power plants in Dawei, Myanmar. Further, some project proposals lack transparency, with a tendency to overestimate projected demand for electricity. The need for electricity generation is measured by the reserve margin, or the capacity in excess of peak demand, which must be at least 15%. The current reserve margin of 25% is well above the minimum (International Energy Agency 2016).

Policy Earthquake

Prior to 2015, the government had seemed supportive of the renewable sector. Since 2007, power purchase agreements (PPAs) were offered to mostly small (SPPs) and very small (VSPPs) independent producers who generated energy from renewable sources. The price of renewable units sold through these contracts was the wholesale price of electricity plus a premium which varied depending on the type of renewable source—known as the “adder” pricing system.

The Power Development Plan 2015–2036 (PDP2015), however, signaled a shift towards coal rather than renewables to counter the projected exhaustion of natural gas reserves. Included in the plan for construction are three coal-fired power plants at Krabi and Thepa in the south, which continue to face fierce opposition from NGOs, local activists, and communities directly affected. Meanwhile, the adder pricing system for renewable power producers, which allowed prices to fluctuate with the wholesale price of electricity, has been abandoned in favor of a fixed price, known as the “feed-in tariff” system (FiT).

The move was a policy earthquake for the renewables sector. SPPs and VSPPs awarded contracts under the adder system were given the option to switch to a FiT contract, while for submitted applicants awaiting contract approval the switch was mandatory. This presented a potential problem since investment decisions made by those producers were no doubt done under the assumption of adder pricing.

Another major issue is that of transmission grid overload in certain areas, causing the utilities to halt purchasing of renewable energy. To operate as an IPP, different licenses need to be obtained from different ministries; for instance, a license to construct a power facility must be obtained from the Ministry of Interior, while the license to sell electricity must be obtained from the Ministry of Energy. The two ministries do not coordinate in awarding licenses, resulting in scenarios where IPPs are granted licenses, only to be refused sales of electricity.

One example is a palm oil company in Krabi that has a 4MW biogas facility. Due to halted electricity purchases, the plant has resorted to burning off its biogas to avoid excess pressure and risk of explosion, costing the company roughly 100,000 baht per day since last September (Thai PBS, aired February 16, 2017). Krabi is also the province in which the new coal-fired plants are to be located. This raises a lot of questions about the necessity of such plants when renewable resource facilities exist, ready to meet demand. Furthermore, the plans seem at odds with the aforementioned reserve margin of 25%, which far exceeds the minimum of 15%. EGAT’s investment in an Indonesian coal mine was another source of controversy regarding potential conflict of interest.

Clear Signals Needed

Up until now, Thailand had been a leader for renewable energy in the region. However, if it is to continue in this role, the government needs to send out clear signals that it intends to continue supporting the sector and maintaining its commitment to reducing emissions, as per the country’s Alternative Energy Development Plan (AEDP2015). This includes increasing transparency and civil society engagement in the PDP process to ensure that renewables are properly considered. For the PDP2015, which proposed the three coal-fired power plants, town hall-style meetings were held only in Bangkok (even though some of the major plans for plant construction were in the South) and after the PDP draft had already been finalized.

To conclude, until the government offers clearer policy directions, the future of the Thai renewable energy sector remains uncertain and investment in the industry will remain low.

 

Trump and Thaksin: the striking parallels between US and Thai politics

trump_thaksin-420x278

A year ago (or perhaps as recently as the eve of November 8th, 2016), few would have thought to draw comparisons between the politics of the US and Thailand. The former is/was the world’s model liberal democracy, while the latter has suffered through a tumultuous cycle of elections, mass protests, parliamentary dissolutions, and coups d’état. Each time Thai politics became destabilized, the US envoy was quick to express concern for the situation, issue travel warnings, and encourage Thailand’s swift return to democracy, much to the chagrin of Thai officials. Yet, with the US now on the brink of turning into a fascist state, some smug Thai diplomats would no doubt savor the opportunity to ‘express concern’ for the freedom of the American people. Alas, doing so under the current military regime would be all too ironic.

Trump’s rise to power closely mirrors that of Thaksin almost two decades earlier. Both were successful (?) business moguls who, while immensely wealthy, successfully marketed themselves as the poor man’s champion. That Trump left a string of bankruptcies and unpaid contracts in his wake is no matter, since his deal-making persona and lavish lifestyle—signaling financial success—had already been widely propagated to the reality-tv-consuming public. It is immensely curious how two rich men endeared themselves to the lower class so successfully, despite making no attempts to hide their wealth. While they were members of the economic elite, both Trump and Thaksin were political outsiders rather than career politicians. This boosted their appeal to voters who had become disillusioned with the existing political elite. Thaksin’s platform was to run Thailand like a business, with him as its CEO. He referred to the country as “Thailand Company” during his campaign. Similarly, many Trump voters were attracted to his straight-talking, deal-making style, as well as his experience as a businessman.

Many people have attributed Trump’s victory to a “marginalized” white working class, neglected by their government. Whether this marginalization is real or a mere reduction in privilege relative to minorities is irrelevant, because the feeling of being marginalized is enough to create discontent. Social cleavages create opportunities for the rise of radical leaders. Trump and Thaksin rode waves of discontent in much the same way that the Nazis did in the wake of the Great Depression. The only difference would be the lines along which those social cleavages are formed. The exit polls of the 2016 presidential election indicate that the political divide is largely racial rather than income-driven (those above the $50,000 mark voted predominantly republican, although this was also the case in the 2012 elections). Even accounting for education, the racial factor cannot be dismissed; the majority of white college graduates voted for Trump.

In racially-homogenous Thailand, on the other hand, the political divide appears to run along class lines, pitting Thailand’s affluent urban dwellers against the rural poor. The latter largely sat out the economic boom of the early 90s while Bangkok flourished. Furthermore, the bubble and subsequent collapse of the baht during the Asian Financial Crisis drove a large wedge between those crushed by foreign debt that tripled overnight, and those who got out early. The stark inequality was another source of tension which likely fed discontent, paving the way for Thaksin’s radical economic policies.

Another similarity that has emerged is the tendency to wield patriotism as a political weapon. In Thailand, patriotism and loyalty to the monarchy are expressed interchangeably. The blurred line delineating monarchy from state is by design and has its origins in the official nationalism of the 1910s (see “The Origins of Thai-Chinese Identity”). At the height of the anti-Thaksin movement, protestors donned yellow shirts to declare their loyalty to the monarchy, thus granting their cause a moral legitimacy of sorts. Likewise, in the panic since Trump’s executive ban on visitors from seven muslim-majority countries, a term that gets thrown around a lot is “un-American”. Patriotism is powerful: calling someone or something un-American equates them/it to a threat to national values and identity—a sovereign threat.

The reasons for the 2006 coup that deposed Thaksin can be debated, but Thaksin is widely seen as a figure that threatened to unseat the monarchy; and in Thailand, any threat to the monarchy is a sovereign threat. The question is, what kind of sovereign threat would it take for America to see its first coup?

 

Thailand’s Existential Crisis: Turmoil Looms as the Country Mourns the Loss of a Beloved King

399a11a000000578-0-image-a-2_1477125805528

The passing of King Bhumibol has brought out the best in Thais, but also the worst.

Alongside heartwarming stories of unity and kindness, of volunteers handing out water and snacks to the hundreds of thousands of mourners gathered outside the grand palace gates, there are also alarming videos of angry mobs. One mob surrounded a police station, demanding the arrest of a woman who allegedly committed lese majeste by insulting the late king on social media. Another mob stormed a food stall in search of the owner’s son who also posted offensive remarks. The crowd eventually agreed to disperse, but not before singing the royal anthem.

The cultish reverence Thais express for King Bhumibol has been the tenuous bond bridging the political divide over the years. During the brief decade of democratic rule between the mid-90’s and 2006, now-exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra emerged as a divisive figure in Thai politics: his populist policies made him highly popular amongst the rural poor, while the urban middle class saw him as corrupt. His critics also accused the pro-Thaksin faction of aspiring to the establishment of a Thai republic — an aspiration that was perhaps prevalent among just a subset of Thaksin supporters. Of course, Thaksin was not the source of division, but he certainly catalyzed the polarization of fragmentary tendencies.

Love of the king was at times brandished as a political weapon, perhaps like patriotism in America. To be accused of being disloyal to the monarchy would have elicited a social wrath similar to (or more extreme than) what Donald Trump faced when he derided Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star mother who accompanied her husband onstage at the Democratic National Convention.

However, another side of this collective respect for the king was its ability to bring people together. Concerned that conflicts and disunity would burden the king, Thais have kept turmoil from boiling over and descending into violence — or, they at least preserved the rarity of such occurrences.

King Bhumibol earned the love and respect of his subjects by devoting himself to development projects and making himself visible and accessible during his active years. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, however, does not enjoy the level of reverence that his father did. This begs the question: can a king who is deemed less legitimate in the eyes of the Thai public maintain unity? Or will existing political fault lines reemerge, freed from any need to respect the wishes of a revered king?

If the latter plays out, the monarchy as an institution may be at stake and, because of the historical political alliance between the military and the palace, it is the junta who stands to lose the most. Thailand has been under military rule for most of its history since becoming a constitutional monarchy, but even during democratic rule, the military was never far removed from politics. It has managed to maintain political legitimacy by claiming to defend the interests of the crown.

With the accession of the Crown Prince, underground anti-royalist factions may start gaining traction. Whether the public will acquiesce to the accession — and if not, what the military’s response would be —remains among the many questions in the minds of Thais during this disorienting period. The death of King Bhumibol marks the end of an era, a definitive shift in the monarchy’s place in the hearts of the Thai people, and possibly edges Thailand closer towards institutional reform.

 

Originally published in The SAIS Observer, the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Newspaper, on November 6, 2016.