The eighty-third, eighty-fourth and eighty-fifth cups of nun chai

02.05.12

Located just beside the only public toilet at the Rod Fai Night Market in Bangkok, Tae, Aong, Kitti and I met at Gallery VER, one of the city’s alternative art spaces.

Three paintings from a past exhibition still hung on the wall, along with a small surveillance camera and projector that I suspect was part of an installation during the show. Kitti, Tae and I sat at a table in the centre of this room, and Tae asked, very gently, if I could talk in a little more detail about Cups of nun chai. I spoke for a long time, explaining everything from how I first came to Kashmir, through to the region’s political history and the occupation that continues today. I spoke of the death in 2010 and these cups of nun chai. As I finished Kitti said that this nun chai had a lot of meaning here in Bangkok, and then she went on to explain why.

Less than two years ago, over two or three days more than 100 protestors from the “Red Shirts”, a political movement Kitti said was made up mostly of poor labouring farmers from the rural areas of Thailand, had been shot on the streets of Bangkok. I remember this as a news headline, but I knew little more.

Thailand is not militarily occupied in the same way that Kashmir is. In fact, like India, at an international level Thailand is commonly perceived to be a very stable democracy.  The current monarch of Thailand has been in power since 1946 and his images fill billboards around the city. Walking through this place, meeting people here, I found it astounding that over 100 people could have been shot on its streets, so recently. How did this shake Thai society? And how do people make sense of it today?

Aong, Tae and Kitti all agreed that Thai people were accustomed to forgetting, it was how life continued through difficult time. People simply chose to forget about troubling things. It was easier to forget that more than 100 Red Shirts had been shot by the Black Shirts, a mysterious group rumoured to be linked to the state and its armed forces, than it was to remember.

Considering that Cups of nun chai is, at its core, a refusal to forget I found this willingness to forget as a means of getting on with life interesting. I asked about the relationship between forgetting and forgiving, but both Kitti and Aong were adamant that no one could ever forgive what had happened, though it was possible to forget.

At 6am and 6pm each day in Thailand people pause and stand for the national anthem, which is publically broadcast through loudspeakers across the country. There was immense social pressure to stand for its duration, if even one does not want to. I wondered if this tune sounded different on the days surrounding the deaths of the Red Shirts.

Tae spoke about the intersection of the state, the monarch and religion in contemporary Thai society. Aong and Kitti explained in more detail the differing politics of the poorer Red Shirts, the middle class Yellow Shirts and the elusive state backed Black Shirts. People choose to forget because when things were at the surface you could loose friends, feud with your family, or even be thrown from a taxi for supporting one particular coloured shirt over another. People forgot in order to avoid ongoing conflict.

I did not know which particular group of shirts Aong, Tae and Kitty supported, but as they spoke on in more detail, comparing Kashmir with what they know of their home, they seemed dissatisfied with this tendency in Thailand to forget. And so it seemed that no one really forgot, but instead turned away and swept their troubles under the carpet. And so, in that small gallery near the only public toilet at the Rod Fai Night Market our conversation came to be as much about the politics of remembering as it was also about the inability to ever truly forget.

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