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One Year On: The Road to Hell

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is a traditional English proverb.

One year into the 12th successful military takeover of Thailand, progress has been made in some key areas. There is at least a Draft Charter, though the public, civil society, and political parties have been banned from meeting to discuss it. Furthermore, Thailand is beginning to uncover the true horror that lies at the heart of its socio-economic order: abductions, slavery, sexual slavery, debt bondage and death camps. Nonetheless, grand corruption – Transparency International’s term for systemic state-level impunity - will continue as long as prosecutions of senior officials do not take place.

Crucially, there needs to be a mechanism for understanding what has been happening in Thailand in the past year – a lens through which to view the developments. It is easy to accuse the junta of totalitarianism and authoritarianism. However, what flavor of authoritarianism is being pursued? Certainly the plan for a committee for moral oversight – the National Moral Assembly – suggests a communist form of moral oversight of politics and the people in a way somewhat similar to the path taken by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

However, probably the best fit for the year’s developments is the concentration of a form of rule that is ultra-nationalist in nature, given the fact that Prime Minister General Prayut is now, due to Section 44, a de facto dictator, and because the 12 Cultural Mandates of Field Marshall Pibul Songgram remain in the institutional memory of the Thai military and in that of the broader Thai polity.

One of the definitions of fascism given the most weight by academics is Umberto Eco’s 14 Characteristics of “Eternal Fascism” or Ur-Fascism. Eco notes that only one of these characteristics needs to be in play because some of the characteristics are self-contradictory. However, a review of the characteristics in the Thai context suggests multiple characteristics of Ur-Fascism, perhaps actually all of them, are in play in Thailand at the moment.

The first of Eco’s characteristics is the cult of tradition. Of course, not all traditions are fascistic. Eco notes that a cult of tradition is syncretic, combining unusual or even incompatible characteristics, and fixed in stone, without possibility of challenge. It becomes the acknowledged, unquestioned, and unquestionable truth.

The most obvious cult of tradition in Thailand is the monarchy. It must be underlined that the Thai monarchy is not fascist. In fact, the post-1932 dhammaraja (dhamma king) aspect of the monarchy may be seen as an indigenous, Buddhist version of a Western constitutional monarchy. Western concepts of constitutional monarchical rights such as the right to be consulted, the right to encourage or advise, and the right to warn directly map to the Thai monarchy. As with any individual who happens to be a leader, the weight given to all three rights depends on an individual’s barami (Bhuddism-derived charisma).

However, observers of Thailand, both Thais and non-Thais, view the devaraja (god king) aspect of the modern Thai monarchy with some alarm, with the two schools of thought sometimes being called the “Sukhothai” and “Ayutthaya” traditions, the first drawing more on the teachings of the Emperor Ashoka and the first Thai dhammaraja, King Lithai, and the second incorporating more Hindu beliefs from the Khmer tradition. The deva raja tradition is still evident in the royal Coronation Ceremony in which the spirits of Shiva and Vishnu are invoked to empower the new monarch, as well as in the Hindu aspect of the greatly-respected Royal Ploughing Ceremony (the “auspicious beginning of the rice growing season” or Raek Na Khwan part), where Brahminical cows at Sanam Luang indicate future weather patterns and quality of harvests. At this point, it should be noted that the author has great respect for indigenous ceremonies especially when the observers are sufficiently educated to be able to interpret them without resort to superstition.

The mysticism associated with a Thai god king is in many ways incompatible with Theravadan Buddhism, which emphasizes an individual path to Nirvana where the intervention of gods is not required. The syncretism of both traditions - the sammuti devaraja – virtual god king - has emerged in the past few decades and is the one presently being pursued by the military junta in psychological indoctrination classes. For example, the author was personally present at a recent event hosted by a leading Thai academic institution which appeared to be a Thai psychological warfare operation to promote national unity where students were lectured to by a medical doctor who claimed that his lectures were attended by the spirits of dead Thai kings. This was proven by him showing photographs of previous lectures which contained smudged white spots, which he alleged to be the spirits. Men with short haircuts photographing the event then had pictures of the lecture printed and displayed. These photographs also had smudged white spots, apparently proving the presence of dead Thai kings at this event. The use of spots on photographs to suggest the presence of spirits of course has a long history in the West, with a Wikipedia page dedicated to the topic of spirit photography. Whether this psyops event is an extreme case of the manipulation of the Thai royal family to promote the devaraja cult is admittedly uncertain, but that this lecture was sponsored by one of the best Thai academic institutions should be a cause for concern. The author is prepared to provide the name of the doctor and the name of a Western witness of good repute if contacted but does not want to be sued for defamation or worse so will not include the doctor’s name in this article.  

It is also noteworthy that via the 12 Core Values of Thai People, the junta has assigned by diktat an extra-constitutional role for the Thai monarchy in Values 1, 7, 9, and 10. That this is a form of syncretism of traditions in itself is obvious when compared with the last major act of syncretism undertaken by the military, the 12 Cultural Mandates of Field Marshall Pibul Songgram from 1939 to 1942, which blended Western fascism with the Japanese bushido concept and where the only mention of the monarchy was the need to respect the royal anthem.

The second of Eco’s characteristics is an irrational rejection of the ideological aspects of modernism, perhaps also of capitalism, even though industrial and technological progress is pursued. One example of this irrationalism is the death of history in Thailand, which lies at the heart of the problem of a failed education system where the average Bangkok NIETS score is 40.8 compared to the Northeast’s 32.8. Even though digital classrooms are presently being pursued, there is an inability to reform the education system because of its permeation by the ideology of the state. For example, the doctrine of the inability of the Chakri dynasty kings to do wrong has now been confirmed by developments in lèse majesté (LM) case law, which now apparently also extends back to King Naresuan in a recent case involving a Sulak Sivaraksa seminar at Thammasat University in October 2014. Lèse majesté has thereby come to symbolize an anachronistic ideology of the state to which modern historical and philosophical interpretations of society as presented by Durkheim, Marx, and Weber cannot be applied without threat of prison sentences. This has now reached the state where there are approximately 204 active investigations of LM, with sentences up to 50 years (reduced to 25 for pleading guilty), the most recent conviction being of a 65-year old woman with a medically-certified psychological disorder. Finally, any hope of educating Thai students in contemporary history has also been savagely attacked by the omission of the self-exiled former-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from school history textbooks.

Moreover, anti-capitalist sentiment was expressed in 2006 by some of those advocating the existence of the “Finland Plot”, which alleged former members of the Communist Party of Thailand such as Deputy Transport Minister Phumtham Wechayachai had conspired to develop a theory of orthodox Marxism to map out a TRT strategy to promote capitalism. A synopsis of the conspiracy theory is that Thailand during the 1970s was still a semi-feudal society and needed to transition to capitalism so that it could finally embrace socialism. Communists then worked with Thaksin with the aim to develop a capitalist economic system, remove feudalism, and privatize state-owned enterprises. Ultimately, the aim was to found a single-party dictatorship which would then lead to pure socialism. This plot was revisited in 2010 Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation in the midst of redshirt related political turmoil in April 2010 in the form of a crudely drawn flipchart and was then reinvigorated more recently in the position, occasionally espoused by the PDRC, of a form of radical conservative or “New Politics” which harks back to the period of Chamlong Srimuang and the Palang Dhamma Party, the aim of which was to install a decentralised Buddhist order on Thailand. Interestingly, the PDRC stated this month that it would support the Democrat Party, bringing this borderline anarcho-syndicalist wing of Buddhism back into the mainstream. At this stage, it should be pointed of that the author is not a proponent of an unchecked global capitalist order based on the expansion of multinational corporations and is a supporter of Buddhist economics serving as providing a framework for corporate social responsibility in Thailand as an additional layer to capitalism.

The third of Eco’s characteristics is the linkage between irrationalism and action for action’s sake, particularly against the intelligentsia. In the last year, this is perhaps best exemplified by the case of the self-exile in the face of death threats of Thammasat University history professor and lèse majésté critic Dr. Somsak Jeamteerasakul. Without dialogue and with public debate stifled, the entire twenty-year academic career of one of Thailand’s pre-eminent historians was snuffed out, and the event precipitated a March 4 letter of protest signed by 238 intellectuals from 19 countries. At present, university students and lecturers are routinely monitored both in person and electronically by Internal Security Operations Command and barred from meetings, their families intimidated. It is noteworthy that these restrictions do not apply to all academics but mainly to those intellectuals of the Left. At the same time, in the last few months the Constitution Drafting Committee called for input on the draft from society, particularly the youth, and lamented the fact that people were not participating in the formation of the draft. This is disingenuous to say the least.

The fourth characteristic of Ur-Fascism is the fight for unity over disagreement, which is condemned as treason (disagreement as treason) and which is, however, both the foundation of the whole scientific method and at the heart of a functioning democracy. Perhaps the best exemplar of this trait in the military junta is condemnation of the investigative media, including a death threat, which must be taken seriously given the history of the Thai military, the most recent deaths of innocents being the unsolved killing of three Muslim brothers, aged three, five, and nine during February 2014. This condemnation of the media (and specifically, Channel 3) in particular applied to investigation of the illegal and unrestricted fishing industry, which has since been proven to be at the heart of a slavery empire and connected to death camps.

Allegations of treasonous activity (Article 116 of the Criminal Code, instigating uprising and violence) were levelled this month against three Thai citizens for hanging banners calling for the north to rise up against Bangkok in Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, and Phitsanulok Provinces. This follows a direct statement by General Prayut that reporters who investigated illegal practices in the fishing trade which might lead to economic losses would be held directly responsible for those losses. This leads us to recall parts 2 and 3 of Field Marshall Pibul Songgram’s Cultural Mandate Number 2, which, in the translation provided by Wikipedia, read as follows: “Thai people must never reveal anything to foreigners that might damage the nation. These actions are a betrayal of the nation" and “Thai people must not act as agent or spokesman for foreigners without considering the benefit of the Thai nation, and must not express opinion or take the side of foreigners in international disputes. These actions are a betrayal of the nation". The use of implications of treason obviously stifles investigative journalism as well as any expressions of intellectual curiosity and democracy.

The fifth characteristic is fear of difference, such as fear of the internal or external “Other” – xenophobia and racism. Fear of the internal other is usually directed against the Thai Lao and Khon Mueang supporters of Thaksin, as expressed in comments via ASTV or on the stage against “Red Buffaloes’ over the past four years, including slogans such as "Kill Thaksin’s red buffaloes", "Shoot all the reds shirts" and "Stupid buffaloes go home". However, similar slogans indicating fear of the other have also been directed against Thaksin as a Thai Chinese and Yingluck for being a woman. There is also the ongoing problem of the Muslim insurrection in the Deep South, which has steadily worsened in intensity in the last year. Moreover, mountain peoples are typically characterised as drug dealers and illegal loggers in Thai soap operas. Thailand’s hyper-nationalism can also be seen in how it neither recognizes its largest minorities, the Thai Lao and Khon Mueang, nor has any organic law on minority rights, including linguistic human rights, nor has it signed many key international treaties in this area such as the UNESCO (2003) Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ratified or accepted by 143 other countries) and the UNESCO (2005) Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (ratified or accepted by 125 other countries).

Fear of the external other has been very evident in the last year in the junta’s reaction to the comments by the American US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel and by periodic demonstrations by ultra-nationalists outside the American Embassy. In its worst and most recent form, it can be seen in hypocritical (given the strong emphasis by the Lord Buddha on vegetarianism) Thai social media gossip suggesting predominantly Hindu Nepalese were responsible for the earthquakes due to their sacrifice of animals as part of Hindu religious practices. Thailand’s ingrained racism is also evident in how it has treated Myanmar immigrants, such as the Rohingyas.

Basically, Thailand has made little progress in this area of minority rights except for permitting a few scattered pilot studies promoting mother tongue education and a few under-powered initiatives such the Inter Mountain Peoples Education and Culture in Thailand Association (www.impect.org), which is still lobbying for justice for the latest disappearance of one of its activists, Por Cha Lee Rakchongcharoen, arrested on April 17, 2014, in Kaengkrachan National Park in Petchaburi Province and never seen again.

Eco’s sixth characteristic is the appeal to a frustrated middle class, particularly in the face of pressure from lower social groups. The People’s Democratic Reform Committee (consisting of the PAD, Dharma Army, and members of the Democrat Party and which reached 200,000 at its  zenith)  under Suthep and the ‘Yellow Shirts’ are the obvious embodiment of this middle-class urban fear, as was the more short-lived ‘multicolour group’, which took to waving Thai flags and numbered about 10,000 at its height. The main appeal of the military at the present, of course, is to stability in the face of four years of mob conflict which is feared to have the potential to become similar to the Cambodian situation, which saw Pol Pot destroy the middle and upper classes by genocide. Consequently, economic and political stability is what has been promised to Bangkok’s middle and upper-class business owners and entrepreneurs.

Arranged against them from the ‘lo-so’ class are the Red Shirts and the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (General Prayut’s ‘Human Trash’), who were criticised by Yellow Shirts for not bringing portable sanitation with them to their Bangkok street protests, and who probably outnumbered the Yellow Shirts by a factor of two at the height of their own protests, one reason being sheer numerical advantage in a country with far less people in the middle class than in the poor/lower middle classes. Crucially, they are seen as being bought by cash payments from Thaksin which serve either as travel expenses and compensation for giving up their work or as bribes to bring mob rule to the streets of Bangkok. Both Red Shirts and the UDD are mainly from poor, historically exploited ethnic minorities in the Northeast (mainly Thai Lao) and North (mainly Khon Mueang), together with urban lower classes (historically maids, gardeners, taxi drivers and construction workers, etc. from the same ethnic minorities), though the best analysis available suggests the most active are actually from the burgeoning lower-middle to middle-middle classes.

The Red Shirts also include intellectuals of the Left and former communists, which serves to raise the spectre of communism returning to Thailand, though a successful Marxist revolution in Thailand has never been viable due to widely-held social values condemning violence, especially against civilians. In the past year, ‘Red Shirt’ events have either been very closely monitored or banned, and the UDD leadership has been systematically disbanded by the state security apparatus. And, if the economy collapses, the military’s appeal to the middle classes of Bangkok will falter unless the tempo of Ur-fascism is increased.
 

The seventh characteristic is an obsession with a plot that Eco identifies as lying at the core of nationalism. The plot at hand revolves around the issue of the succession and in its present form originated in the previously mentioned “Finland Plot” as explained by Sondhi Limthongkul and the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) in 2006. This alleged conspiracy, building on sentiment from the Cold War era, described a plot developed by Thaksin and former left-wing student leaders to overthrow the Thai monarchy and establish a communist state with Thaksin as the President. Despite absolutely no evidence for the Finland Plot and precious little evidence for any kind of plot, the idea of a Thaksin takeover still carries much weight with Thai establishment figures. The latest updates to the plot mentality are that the US, the EU, and quite possibly the UN are conspiring against Thailand regarding human rights, fishing, and the Rohingyas.

Moving to the eighth characteristic, humiliation by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies, this has been most recently demonstrated in the remark by General Prayut that Thailand, in order to survive the fishing crisis, needed to rely on the mercy of the European Union. This essentially promotes a doctrine of victimization by the foreign “other”. Moreover, Thai ultra-nationalists also frequently appeal to sentiments of anti-American imperialism. While there is no doubt that a form of American imperialism still exists, the anti-Western ideology which has been allowed to appear in the last year echoes the anti-Western sentiment routinely pumped out by the Thai state when it was a vassal of the Japanese Empire in the Second World War. For example, in January a group in favour of martial law calling themselves “The Network for the Protection of Thais’ Benefits and Dignity” gathered at the US Embassy and read a statement noting, obviously erroneously, that “Thailand has been independent continuously since the Sukhothai Kingdom… No country ever interferes in our domestic affairs… today Thai people are very proud and we are proudly nationalists because nationalism is the immunity of the Thai people.” This remarkable statement overlooks the destruction of Ayutthaya by the Burmese, the Japanese subjection of Thailand, and the fact that the US basically ran, at great cost to themselves, Thailand’s infrastructure development, military training and internal indoctrination programmes from the 1950’s to the 1980’s as a close partner in the Cold War due to Thailand’s initial stated position, as laid out by its foreign minister and reported in the US media by Stewart Alsop, being to surrender if the communist Chinese invaded.

 Another holdover from the Second World War is seen in Eco’s ninth characteristic, the conceit that pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. Pacifism is seen is negative because life is permanent warfare. Thus, mandatory military conscription without a community service option (though there is an equivalent military track for secondary schoolchildren) in what is essentially a Buddhist state appears anachronistic given the pacifist teachings of Buddhism. There is also no doubt that the past year has seen an increase in militarism. While tanks and armoured personnel carriers are no longer on the streets, the video of Suthep Thaugsuban’s infamous celebrations of the military coup, which saw elite Thai party-goers wearing camouflage at the birthday party for a PDRC supporter in May 2015, set the tone for the year’s developments. In particular, the 2015 continuation of The Legend of King Naresuan series has been critically well received for its cinematography. However, providing free screenings for the public, bussing in regiments of soldiers to view it, and using public funding for it at the expense of other art projects at a time the Fine Arts Department is considering closing national museums due to a lack of investment and trained staff all smack of militarism.

The tenth characteristic is contempt for the weak. This has been demonstrated most recently by the apparent focus on rooting poor villagers out of national forests while permitting scrutiny of hundreds if not thousands of encroaching resort developments to slide. Hundreds of villagers have been deprived of a home and livelihood without compensation while illegal few resort owners have been successfully prosecuted. However, contempt is also clear in the uncovering of the slavery and debt bondage which underpins sectors of the Thai economy. The life of a slave in Thailand is now estimated at a couple of hundred dollars, which is less than that of a slave at the height of the American slave trade. And, the previous government’s policy of pushing back boats containing approximately 6,000 trafficked victims was confirmed this month in cooperation with Malaysia and Myanmar. If outside Thai waters, they are now provided with rations sufficient to eke out their existence for a couple more weeks. If inside Thai waters, some refugees may be housed in temporary camps before repatriation. However, the Thai navy is alleged to be pushing back boats from Thai waters, in contravention of international maritime law, with the justification that the refugees are trying to reach a third country.

Unfortunately, one aspect, sometimes pressed into service, of the underlying Buddhist concept of karma explains why the weak should be held in contempt – it is the result of unworthy previous lives or misdeeds in this life. This may explain at a societal level why income inequality in Thailand is rising, according to the Gini coefficient, and why the richest 20% now earn 13-15 times more than the poorest 20% of society. In most Western countries, the ratio is approximately 5-8 times, and even in Thailand’s ASEAN neighbours, the ratio is 9-12 times. The upper 20% also owns 70-100 times more than the lower quintile. In absolute terms, the Northeast, the home to most of Thailand’s ‘Red Shirts’, experiences 18.1% poverty compared to 7.8% in Bangkok. Unfortunately, the contempt even affects logical-mathematical IQ (Bangkok = 104.5 vs. 96.0 in the Northeast), which relies both on an education system geared towards such a goal as well as early childhood development not affected by the stunting and wasting problems the children of the Northeast experience. It must be stressed that IQ is not genetic and changes within a generation depending on the nutrition and family and educational environment. That the military has vacillated over income reallocation projects such as the land and property tax as well as the inheritance tax, while threatening a rise in the regressive tax of VAT, only confirms the thesis of contempt for the poor and needy.

Turning to the eleventh characteristic, that everybody is educated to become a hero, it is noteworthy that the Thai rate of voluntary conscription increased by 10% this year, up to 44% of the year’s take. This is likely in no small part to the steady stream of nationalistic movies exemplified by the well-produced and certainly impressive King Naresuan saga. Moreover, there are suggestions that the Royal Thai Police will also start imposing conscription, possibly 5-10,000 men, a proposal which has been agreed to in principle by the National Council for Peace and Order. It is generally accepted, however, that the Thai military is over-staffed, especially at the upper echelons, and inefficient in its planning.

The twelfth characteristic is the transfer of a will to power to sexual matters. Leaving aside General Prayut’s comments on foreign women dressing inappropriately on Thai beaches, Eco contends that machismo leads to phallic symbolism in the military sphere. While the Thai military is generally seen as robust by regional standards, possibly the best known example of Thai military exuberance is its giant inflatable airship, the 350 million baht Aeros 40D Sky Dragon, technically an observation platform, which has the unfortunate problems of deflating due to the glue melting in semi-tropical heat and of being blown around by the wind. However, in the last year Thailand has gone ahead with plans to purchase submarines (possibly the Chinese-made S-26T), the phallic nature of which is obvious and extends to its main weapon capability. There is no doubt that the Royal Thai Navy has a crucial role to play in combatting modern-day slavery and human trafficking, as well as in defending the Gulf of Thailand, presumably against Chinese expansionism. However, the tactical uses of submarines in detecting and rescuing trafficking victims are limited, and the victims may be better served by Thailand purchasing additional light patrol vessels.

The thirteenth of Eco’s characteristics of Ur-Fascism is selective populism, the concept that parliamentary governments can be rotten. This is essentially the justification for the military coup of May 20-22, 2015 as well as the entire premise of the new Draft Constitution. The Draft Constitution is notable for a number of extraordinary committees and assemblies to be peopled by “good people” who shall act as guardians of Thailand’s morality by being upstanding citizens (pol-la-muang) or a superior sort of Thais. The new bodies, adding to the existing Election Commission, National Counter-Corruption Commission, includes the National Virtues Council, which will set ethical standards for civil servants, conduct background and morality checks for political candidates seeking public position, and impeach those guilty of ethical violations; the Reform Council and the National Reform Strategy Commission, which will plan and direct the NCPO’s version of Thailand’s reform; and the National Reconciliation Commission, which will promote unity. Meanwhile, the National Human Rights Commission, the only institution which Thailand has to have by international treaty obligation, will be downgraded by being merged with the Office of the Ombudsman. Furthermore, the present Draft Constitution contains no substantive moves towards decentralization or minority rights, a combination of which would lead to more stable and less corrupt government.

That there is a desperate need for “good Thais” is not contested at a time when rampant grand corruption is becoming evident, nor is the possibility contested that the roots for good behaviour by Thais may be found in Buddhism. The main problem with the Draft Constitution is that it is likely to become a power-grab by a Bangkok-centered elite which at times appears to be systemically incapable of empathy for Thailand’s minorities and victims of human trafficking. As such, it is putting in place the causation for further divisions along social cleavage lines which the vast majority of Thais do not want.

The fourteenth of Eco’s characteristics is newspeak – complex concepts simplified to a state which does not permit complex or critical thinking as well as an impoverished syntax, though Eco also admits of other possibilities for newspeak. Unfortunately, the National Council for Peace and Order has excelled in this area. Its “Returning Happiness Campaign” neither defined nor explained happiness other than through free haircuts, dancing showgirls dressed in army fatigues, parades in Bangkok, and sincere monologues by Prime Minister General Prayut which served as status updates.

Furthermore, the 12 Core Values of Thai People, now seen as slogans on banners in primary schools throughout the country, reduce to a few sentences each what are in many cases complex philosophical constructs which form what is essentially a charter for Buddhism. There is no doubt that teaching the 12 Core Values could form part of a well-reasoned humanistic and progressive education sourced from Buddhist principles. However, the state of the Thai education system outside of elite demonstration schools or international schools is sadly such that learning and testing the slogans will surely triumph over inculcating an understanding of the concepts and values involved. This manipulation of citizens’ ability to engage with the world around them is already demonstrated in the inability of the vast majority of the Thai population to understand the byzantine language of the Thai bureaucracy, the phasaa ratchakan.

To conclude, the duty of an educated Thai citizen – or in the present author’s case, the duty of the father of three Thai citizens – must be to point out the failings and inconsistencies of what is being presented to the Thai people. In particular, the doctrine of loss of territory currently being promoted by ISOC and encapsulated in this recent New Mandala article is intensely troubling both because it is potent propaganda and because of historical parallels in the twentieth century, where loss of territory and concepts of a need for more living space have been used as justification to start wars. Eco’s words on the matter of what to do are clear:

“Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier for us if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, ‘I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Blackshirts to parade again in the Italian squares.’ Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances — every day, in every part of the world… Freedom and liberation are an unending task.”

John Draper is the father of three Thai children

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