ST correspondent Nirmal Ghosh: Getting up close to Thai power play - and an elephant

Mr Nirmal Ghosh recalls covering some of Thailand's most tumultuous times in recent years in his book, Unquiet Kingdom: Thailand In Transition. In his 13 years there, he covered five elections, two coups and endless street battles.
Mr Nirmal Ghosh recalls covering some of Thailand's most tumultuous times in recent years in his book, Unquiet Kingdom: Thailand In Transition. In his 13 years there, he covered five elections, two coups and endless street battles.ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

In his 13 years in Thailand, Straits Times correspondent Nirmal Ghosh covered five elections, two coups and endless street battles. Yet one experience that resonated most strongly with him was not of the hurly-burly of politics, but a quiet face-to-trunk encounter with a thirsty bull elephant in a wildlife sanctuary.

The episode, along with the tumult of power play in the corridors of power and the streets of Bangkok, is captured in his book, Unquiet Kingdom: Thailand In Transition, out later this month.

"I was sleeping in a sleeping bag on a platform near the ranger's station... I was woken up by something - it was an elephant walking past," Mr Ghosh said of his visit to Salak Pra, Thailand's oldest wildlife sanctuary, last year.

Startled, he made a slight movement that made the imposing beast, which was looking for water in the midst of a dry season, turn back, he said. "It stuck out its trunk towards my face. Its eyes were looking at me." After what seemed like an eternity - 15 seconds - the animal turned and left.

He also recalls his experience covering some of Thailand's most tumultuous times in recent years. The confrontations in 2010 between anti-government "red shirt" protesters and the military stood out. "It showed to what extent society could deteriorate," Mr Ghosh, 57, said of the months-long stand-off which killed some 100 people.

His book is a 268-page account of not just political turmoil, but also an essentially feudal nation's trial by fire as it experiments with democracy. "Unquiet Kingdom is not an academic analysis by a learned scholar, nor a typical 'instant expert' book by a farang (Thai for Caucasian) journalist, nor an exotic travelogue," said Mr Ho Kwon Ping, founder and executive chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings.

"It is a completely unique insight into Thailand by the true insider-outsider: Someone whose deep love for and knowledge of Thailand, its culture and people, plus the detachment of a professional observer, has produced a work which I have rarely come across," said Mr Ho, who grew up and studied in Thailand.

The book will be available at major bookstores and at www. stpressbooks.com.sg from April 22, and retails at $32, including GST.

Mr Ghosh has been with ST since 1994, reporting from the ground in Manila, New Delhi, Bangkok and, now, Washington as US bureau chief. He is also a wildlife conservation advocate, and has written three books on the subject.

On his latest work, Mr Ghosh said it is based on what is, rather than what he feels ought to be. "It is not a foreign correspondent's role to lecture Thais on what they should do. I would rather report what I saw and let the facts speak for themselves. Eventually, it will be the Thais themselves who will write their own script."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 17, 2017, with the headline 'Getting up close to Thai power play - and an elephant'. Print Edition | Subscribe