Cups of nun chai-83, 84 & 85: Inability to truly forget

This participatory memorial, by artist Alana Hunt, emerged in response to Kashmir’s Summer of 2010. In the face of the violence, the growing number of dead and the lack of serious media coverage, Hunt evolved ways to speak, to connect and to write in a form that would reach places where the news headlines do not. By July 2012 she had invited 118 people to share a cup of nun chai with her as a simple act that acknowledged this loss of life. Like an ever-growing memory the endeavour unfolded over two years of tea and conversation – across Australia, Europe, parts of South Asia and Kashmir – into a gentle yet challenging refusal to allow that loss of life to simply pass.
Since June 11, 2016 these memorialising words and images have appeared serialised here in Kashmir Reader thrice every week, except between Oct 3 and Dec 28 when the Administration barred its publication. The series resumes and will appear on this page every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

I met Tae, Aong and Kitti at Gallery VER, one of Bangkok’s alternative art spaces, where they all worked. They said I would find the gallery just beside the only public toilet at the Rod Fai Night Market. I arrived around midday and the grounds of the night market had that melancholy feel of an empty show ground. Nothing was open. Three paintings from a recent exhibition still hung on the walls inside Gallery VER, along with a small surveillance camera and projector that I suspect were also part of an art installation, though I was never certain.

Kitti, Tae and I sat at a table in the centre of the gallery, and I started to speak about Cups of nun chai and the summer of 2010 in Kashmir. After my long monologue about Kashmir Kitti spoke up, “This nun chai has a lot of meaning here in Bangkok too. You see, only two years ago more than 100 protestors were killed in just two or three days on our streets as well.” Kitti explained that these protestors were from the ‘Red Shirts’, a political movement mostly made up of poor labouring farmers from the rural areas of Thailand. It was rumoured that they were killed by a mysterious group known as the “Black Shirts”, who many suspected had ties to the state and its armed forces.

I remembered seeing this on the news in Australia—but I knew little beyond the headlines.

Walking through the streets of Bangkok, meeting people here, I found it astounding that over 100 people could have been shot here, on the streets, so recently. I asked if they thought it had shaken their society. And how people handled it today? “People forget,” Aong said, “It’s what allows life to continue. It’s easier to forget than remember.”

Considering that Cups of nun chai is, at its core, a refusal to forget I found this willingness to forget fascinating. I asked if forgetting meant forgiving. “No,” Kitti and Aong were adamant that no one could ever forgive what had happened, though it was possible to forget.

Yesterday in Bangkok I learnt that Thailand’s national anthem was broadcast twice everyday and everyone was required to stand. Now I wanted to know if the death of the Red Shirts came to people’s mind when the anthem was played. How did that anthem sound when these protests were happening?

Tae spoke about the complex intersection of the state, the monarch and religion in contemporary Thai society. Aong and Kitti explained in more detail the differing politics of the poorer Red Shirts, the middle class Yellow Shirts and the elusive state backed Black Shirts. “People choose to forget because if you don’t, when things come to the surface you could lose friends, fight with your family, or I’ve even heard of people being thrown from taxis for supporting the wrong coloured shirt.” Tae explained.

Aong made his point again, “People here forgot in order to avoid conflict.”

I never knew which group of shirts Aong, Tae and Kitty supported—it didn’t seem like something they wanted to share—but as they spoke on in more detail, comparing Kashmir with Thailand, they seemed to become increasingly dissatisfied with what they described as a Thai tendency to forget. It seems that no one really forgets, but instead turns away. The hunted, the haunted, and oppressed have to keep quiet. In that small gallery near the only public toilet at the Rod Fai Night Market our conversation came to be as much about the politics of remembering as it was also about the inability to truly forget.