Monday, March 31, 2014

Thai Senate Election

A man casts his ballot in Sunday's senate election in Thailand. 

What if they gave an election and hardly anybody voted? Thais woke up to that reality this morning. Turnout for the Senate election was somewhere around 40%, very low by Thai standards. 

Even in the confused and disputed election in February, when gunmen tried to intimidate voters and polls in a large swathe of southern Thailand never opened because anti-government protestors prevented people from registering as candidates and blockaded polling places, preventing people who wanted to vote from doing so, turnout was about 44%. So the 40% turnout for a peaceful, undisputed election is very low. 

The upper house of the Thai parliament, the Senate (originally modeled after the British House of Lords) is partially elected and partially appointed. The breakdown is nearly 50/50 - 77 elected, 73 appointed. The people who stand for Senate election are supposed to be non-partisan, they aren't allowed to run if they've engaged in any partisan activities in the last five years. 

The appointed senators are selected by independent organizations, like the judiciary, the Anti-Corruption Commission, Constitutional Court etc. These bodies are widely perceived by Red Shirts and Pheu Thai (the ruling party) members as being anti-government. I don't know if that's true, but I do know Suthep and the anti-government protestors he controls made no effort to prevent people from voting Sunday and polling proceeded peacefully everywhere in Thailand, even in the south which is the power base of the anti-government protestors. 

I went out to photograph people voting, except turnout was so light there was hardly anyone voting or anything to photograph. 
A polling place waits to open. Ballot boxes are left open on their side so people can see the boxes aren't stuffed before the polls open. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Really Dry Season

A farmer in Pathum Thani province tries to start a water pump to irrigate her rice fields. There hasn't been any significant rain in the area since November. 

It's the dry season in Thailand. The rainy season usually ends in late November but even during the dry season it normally rains a little bit. Maybe only once or twice a month but we get something. Last year it rained so much through January that the salt collection season was cut by a month.  

A drought in Thailand doesn't look like a drought in Australia or Arizona. Arizona is bone dry, desiccated almost. There's no surface water to speak of and the state's main river, the mighty Colorado River, is so overstressed it can't meet the needs of all the people that depend on it. 

Central Thailand is in the middle of a vast flood plain. The Chao Phraya River flows into the Gulf of Siam just south of Bangkok. Water from the canals, creeks and tributaries of the Chao Phraya flow through the region. But those canals, creeks and tributaries are at record lows this year and the water stored upcountry behind the dams, is running out. 
People cover their mouths and noses as smoke from a fire in a garbage dump fouls the air over Samut Prakan, southeast of Bangkok. The fire started spontaneously in the dump, where it hasn't rained since November.  

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Tattoo You 2014 Remix

A man channels his inner tiger during the Wat Bang Phra Wai Kru Saturday.

Wat Bang Phra's annual tattoo festival was Saturday. Thousands of Thais come to the temple to make merit and get their religious Sak Yant tattoos renewed or activated. Sak Yant tattoos are thought to have mystical powers of protection or omnipotence. A lot of people who work in harm's way - soldiers and police, gangsters and bandits - and their loved ones have Sak Yant tattoos. 
A man whose spirit is a tiger gets a tattoo refreshed at Wat Bang Phra

The tattoos are given by monks and holy men. There's always a line of people waiting to get tattooed at Wat Bang Phra. The tattoos originated in what is now Cambodia more than 2,000 years ago. The tattoos have been incorporated into Buddhism in Thailand and Cambodia but they predate Buddhism here by centuries. They've recently become very popular with Westerners and tourists who don't really understand the belief system behind the tattoos. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Photos from Burma

People at Greg Constantine's show in Bangkok sitting under a photo of Rohingya refugees. 

Bangkok based photographer Greg Constantine has a show in an abandoned bank building in Bangkok. It's a show of his photos of the Burmese Royhingya community, called "Exiled To Nowhere." The pictures are stunning and the setting is really wonderful. 

The show is just a few blocks from the BTS Chong Nonsi or MRT Sam Yan stations, easy walking distance from either. The neighborhood is full of small restaurants and markets. In other words, there's lots to do before or after going to the show. If you're in Bangkok and you're a photographer or interested in history and / or human rights issues you should really try to get to the exhibit. The show will be hanging until March 22, so don't dawdle. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Unintended Consequences

A child at the Mae Tao Clinic, in Mae Sot, gets post surgical exam in the clinic's surgical ward. 

There are unintended consequences to almost decision we make in life. Most times we go through our routines and don't even consider them. Sometimes though they have ramifications for people far removed from the decision makers. The situation for Burmese refugees and migrants on the Thai border is an example of unintended consequences on a large scale. 

There are hundreds of thousands of Burmese living in Thailand. Some are living in refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border but many, many more are living in Thailand as migrant workers or economic refugees. Even though the political and economic situations are improving almost every day in Myanmar, Burmese are still coming to Thailand.

Even as Burmese are coming to Thailand, the assistance available to them is diminishing. This isn't because there isn't a need or because NGOs and aid organizations don't care. Ironically, it's because Myanmar's improving political situation is drawing aid dollars from Thailand to Myanmar. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Things Sometimes Go Awry

Young men play "takraw," a Southeast Asian game that is sort of a cross between soccer and volleyball, in a no-man's land between Thailand and Myanmar. 

I set out one morning to photograph the market between the Thai and Burmese border in Mae Sot. It's in Thailand, but the vendors are all Burmese. They sell a selection of black market liquor, black market cigarettes and a bewildering array of sex toys. There are also some seafood vendors selling shrimp the size of my forearm. The lobsters at Red Lobster are smaller than the shrimp in this nameless little market. 

The market vendors live in a Burmese community that is on the Thai side of the border but apparently run by Burmese gangsters. I was walking by the community on my stroll through the market and a couple of guys were playing takraw on their side of the line so I went down to their net, about 5 feet west of the Thai line, technically in Thailand but in the area controlled by Burmese gangsters.

I photographed the guys playing for a few minutes and two drunks came up and told me to stop photographing. The drunks were pretty belligerent (the takraw players were fine with my photographing them) so I stopped photographing for a bit. Then they started poking me and I decided to leave.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014


A patient at a tuberculosis sanatorium north of Mae Sot swallows some of the 30 pills he takes every day while other patients wait for their medication

I visited a TB clinic north of Mae Sot. It's really more of an old fashioned sanatorium. On a hill within sight of the Burmese border but unlike most of the other clinics I've visited here, there's no village or anything nearby, just barren hillsides (this is the dry season, so everything is parched and desiccated). 

The sanatorium serves Burmese migrants in Thailand. The clinic's reputation has spread though and now people come from as far away as Yangon (about 30 hours by car or bus) for treatment of tuberculosis. 

TB is endemic in Myanmar. The infection rate is about 600 of every 100,000 giving Myanmar one of the highest TB infection rates in the world (Thailand is only about 120 of every 100,000 people). Because TB is contagious, patients are kept in relative isolation, which explains the Spartan setting for the center. 
A doctor (center) talks to a patient while the patient's daughter listens. The patient is 33 years old. Her daughter is 11 and is her mother's chief caregiver. Her father, the patient's husband, is a laborer who comes to the sanatorium when he can. 

TB used to be called "consumption" because the disease causes dramatic weight loss. I was struck by how emaciated the patients were. More than anything they looked like walking skeletons, aged well beyond their years. I thought the 33 year old woman was in her 50s. I thought the monk in the picture below (38 years old) was in his 60s. 
A monk waits for his medication

TB has a very high mortality rate. More than 50% of the people who contract the active disease die. Treatment is difficult and expensive. It costs more than $6400 (US) for a two year treatment regimen for a patient with drug resistant TB (a growing problem in Myanmar). 
Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Home Improvements

A Burmese woman waits for her husband to put up an exterior wall on their home in a Burmese village north of Mae Sot, Thailand

I went back to the Burmese village that's just north of Mae Sot. This is technically in Myanmar but there's neither Thai nor Burmese border control at it and people come and go with no regard for whatever border is there.

I was walking through village and saw this woman standing in her home. You can see right through it and all of their worldly possessions stacked up in it. The exterior wall she was waiting for her husband to put up? It was a rattan mat. Something for us to think about when we complain about slow internet service or a cable outage. That is all.