A Reception with Vasan Sitthiket

'A Good Prime Minister,' 1994. Drawing: Vasan Sitthiket / Courtesy

One good thing about diplomatic receptions, besides nice drinks and canapes, is the bringing of unlike-minded invitees together. Nevertheless, you are not forced to talk to some if you don’t want to because there’re plenty to space to move around and others to chat with while sampling various food, wine and champagne.

French Ambassador Gilles Garachon threw one such beautiful reception earlier this month to celebrate 160 years of formal Franco-Siamese relations. It was at the lovely riverside lawn of the ambassador’s Residence that I spotted Vasan Sitthiket. The well-known artist-cum-activist has been an acquaintance for two decades though we hadn’t met in person since the 2014 coup.

Vasan campaigned for the ouster of Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra while I could never approve of military juntas, be it the 2006 coup or the latest one in 2014.

Holding a glass of Mumm champagne, Vasan was imbibing his fourth alcoholic elixir. For me, I was into my first cognac. I believe old ties should be rekindled and I approached the artist who is a decade my senior to inquire about his health.

I heard a year ago that a significant proportion of his heart muscle had died. He fortunately survived, though doctors instructed him to not drink too much.

Soon we casually dived into serious topics that no live music at the French residence could have smoothed over.

Vasan made three points worth contemplating.

First, he was upset because he believes that others, including this writer, consider him a junta supporter. He insisted that he’s no lackey.

Second, Vasan warned that my criticism if the military regime has led to my being “used” by Thaksin-Yingluck forces for their gain. Essentially he believes I have become a pawn in the ongoing struggle.

Third, Vasan said he no longer talks to pro-Thaksin Redshirts, including Weng Tojarakarn, whom he said happened to be an invitee at the very reception that evening too. They just stroll past one another.

Since I didn’t want to spoil the joie de vivre of the evening, I decided not to go the whole hog debating with Vasan at length and kept things civil and light.

On point three, which is the last, I reminded Vasan that despite our differences, I know that he wasn’t being hired by someone to express his political stance the way he did and whatever political stance I made was also done in good faith and not paid by Thaksin or Yingluck. Differing political opinions are normal and there’s no reason to hate anyone who thinks differently, I stressed and grabbed his aging bicep.

Unfortunately, as a result of a decade long political conflicts, a number of Thais sever their personal ties from those who think differently. Listening to Vasan talking about how he wouldn’t even say hi to Weng, whom he said they he knew for over three decades, was painful and tragic. The two were not alone. I have heard of stories of some family members who don’t see eye-to-eye any longer.

As for point one, this is almost a natural result of binary thinking. I myself too have been accused of being pro-Thaksin/Yingluck simply because I oppose the coups in 2006 and the current one. And I told Vasan I don’t think of him as be pro-junta per se, but that he set the stage that led to the coups.

It’s easy for any nuance to be lost when people become too emotional and simplistic.

As for point two, the perception that I am used as a “pawn” by pro-Thaksin/Yingluck forces simply because I am against the coups, is understandable.

What you write or say, once made, can be cited or interpreted for whatever political purpose. In the present socio-political context, even saying or doing nothing can be interpreted as tacit acceptance if not support for dictator Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha and his military regime.

In this politically charged environment of today’s Thailand, there’s no action or inaction that won’t be interpreted and used for political gain, one way or the other.

Our accidental rendezvous ended well enough as I reminded him I will continue to seek his views for future reports on Thai politics.