The Bureaucrats' Utopia :

11:43 PM, Nong Pue Commune,
Kon Kaen Province

The sound of clinking glasses and roaring laughter can still be heard from a neighboring shack. The old boys – men with iron livers - are having fun again. Card games, gossips, cigarettes, alcohol, and comradeships are vices which are much harder to give up than sex. This is just one of those many nights when you wish you could escape to the southern beaches had they not already been taken by the farangs. It has been like this for many years now. The old boys – “retired” bureaucrats - are holding one of their many “forums” again.

Virat serves the old boy’s club here for almost as many years as he had served the country as a civil servant. He bought them cool beers when the night was too hot. He lent them his old pipe when they were running low on cigarettes. Although he already went bankrupted – from which his wife divorced him - he continued to donate money when his drinking pals were hospitalized. He was born to serve. And he is still pondering whether it is more rewarding to serve high-ranking politicians - working in the interest of the nation - or to serve this band of drunken bureaucratic hippies working in their makeshift farms. After all, he is a Ka Raj Karn.

Being a civil servant in Thailand – the Ka Raj Karn – is comparable to being a member of the Nomenklatura in the socialist bloc countries. It is the prestige of the Ka Raj Karn that keeps one alive – not its material compensation. For some, it is the prestige of wearing medals, various colored belts, and robes. But for Virat however, it is the prestige of being a clog in a large corrupted machine.

The Ka Raj Karn is the bedrock of Thai ruling class for as long as 80 years ago ever since the time of absolute monarchy. It has survived through many political unrests and over 19 coup d’état. The 2000s was the time of neo-liberalist crusade. It had been delayed a few decades late – lagging behind Latin America, Britain, and the US - because it took some time for the students of the Chicago School to filter their newly acquired dogma through the trenches and fields of the Keynesian bureaucrats. The privatization of state-owned enterprises led to massive layoffs and early retirements. Adding to that was the Asian financial crisis which turned the situation from bad to worst.

Right after the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, the IMF required a wholesale privatization of state-owned enterprises as a condition for their loans. Many Ka Raj Karn retirees found themselves cut off from the mainstream society. Their civil servant’s pension, in the wake of inflation, was inadequate at best and insulting on the average. Many retired bureaucrats became so debt-ridden that they were forced to sell their homes. So after 40 years of living on a little more than $200 per month salary, the retired members of Ka Raj Karn now find that they are being robbed of their very essence – dignity.

Many of them ended up going back to their village to work the land; growing food for themselves. For those who could not pay off their debts – and there were many – found their new homes in the slums. In the northeastern region, there are over 280 slums - or ‘squatter settlements’ - as they were often called by populist politicians. In every squatter settlement, there is at least one Ka Raj Karn in their unholy fellowship. But there is one particular community that seems to have a strong gravitational pull; drawing together a large collection of retired Ka Raj Karn: the Nong Pue commune.

The question as to how the Ka Raj Karn found this “utopia” still remains unanswered. But Virat has his own explanation. He says that most people came here because they have heard from words of mouth that it is some sort of utopian commune with a collection of interesting characters roaming about. Although the land belongs to the State Railway of Thailand, they could have cared less. It was the spirit of rebellion that people were looking for. The notion that one could live outside the consumer society and grow one’s own food (on other people’s land) is tempting enough. They settled alongside the tracks; forming a long and linear community.

“There are now 24 households here,” says Virat. “Many of them are skilled technicians – electrician, carpenters, plumbers, farmers, and even accountants! We do all our own construction here – we’re all Chang Chumchon.”

I light up a cigarette, take a puff, and slowly wait for the smoke to rise towards the moon above.

“Are there any family here?” I ask.

“Oh yeah, there are many. Let’s see….including the women folks and the kids…. I think there are now 76 people in total,” he says.

“How do you guys earn money here?” I ask.

“Well… we all have our civil servant pension and whatever’s grown on our farm, we’d sell them after we eat them, y’know what I mean? And because we’re squatters – we pay no rent,” says Virat as he lights up his pipe.

We start strolling; enjoying the warm tropical night.

The sound of crickets turns up automatically – like garden sprinklers – so that the entire field is now drenched in it. Though it lacks the conductor, this nocturnal orchestra synchronized itself tirelessly; keeping its own rhythm and timing.

Virat tells me that several years ago the old boys had decided to form a saving group. It now developed into a certified financial cooperative. The cooperative requires that each member put in a few hundred baht per month for the common pool. This money could be used in an emergency situation – such as Tawin’s liver checkup appointments – or it could be use to build a common infrastructure such as a newly paved walkway. It is like paying an insurance company; the only difference is that the co-op can be trusted because it is owned by the community. When its member gets into trouble, it pays – without asking about “pre-existing conditions.” Most people in the United States could not even afford this luxury.

Things started to change dramatically after the formation of the financial cooperative. People felt that they were doing something important once again. There was unity in their action. They were in charge. *

“Last year we’ve saved enough money to build a multi-purpose pavilion (the shack) for the community,” says Virat. There was a renewed sense of pride within the community. For the retired bureaucrats who have been casted aside by society, shunned by their peers, and deserted by their family - this commune is all they have left to be proud of. It is their new utopia

I glance back at the shack; it now looks like a tiny illuminated Spirit House. We have unknowingly covered a distance of over 200 meters during our smoke break.

“Now if you’d excuse me, I’ll have to go back (to the shack) again. There is still some more tweaking to do on the roof structure,” Virat says as he quickly paces towards to the shack; it is now 1:06AM.

He turns back suddenly and says “Wanna join us again tomorrow? We’ll have a forum on what constitutes a city.”

I manage to blurt out a “yes!” knowing full well what a “forum” is to these old boys.

“Tomorrow, Gane is coming,” says Virat.

“Gane Who? I mean, who is he?”

“He is one of our village teachers, but legend has it that he was part of the October Men” Virat hints in a low voice. The October Men, as he later explains, were a group of students who had joined the communist rebels in the jungle back in the 1970s. They were later pardoned by the Royal Thai government in the 1980s; many of the October Men came out of the jungle then. They later became lawyers, doctors, architects, musicians, and activists working for various social causes. There is some speculation that Gane was an architect prior to joining the rebel forces. But nobody knows for sure what he did or where he came from. There is always an air of mystery around the October Men.

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* This year the Nong Pue community cooperative has applied for financial subsidies; they have saved enough money to be eligible for subsidies from the Community Organization Development Institute (CODI). In October 2008 – during the World Habitat Festival – they celebrated their newly planned collective housing projects to be implemented this year. They have received 600,000 baht in grant money from CODI to do improvement in public facilities and sanitation; and 420,000 baht to fix up their houses. CODI is also in the process of negotiating with the State Railway of Thailand so that the community could finally lease out their land in legal terms.