We've got mail: 'Postbag' letter men open up
Burin Kantabutra, Eric Bahrt and Dom Dunn are familiar names to 'PostBag' readers and can be at times thought-provoking and infuriating. 'Brunch' interviewed these three prolific writers to get to know the people behind the posts
Often infuriating and occasionally illuminating, the section of the newspaper that often draws the most visceral response from readers is the letters to the editor column.
Here we have one of the most tried and true formats in the history of newspaper publishing: an open forum where "ordinary" people can vent their spleens on the issues of the day, often inviting responses, responses to those responses and so on in a cycle that ensures the section is rarely tough to fill.
But while for most the letters column offers a one-off chance to sound off about, say, the deteriorating state of taxi service in the city or _ shock, horror _ casual everyday corruption, there are a select few who have carved out identities all their own through this forum. These contributors, through consistency and longevity, often attain name recognition akin to that of paid columnists.
Readers of this newspaper's "PostBag" will undoubtedly recognise the names of three letter writers who fit this bill: Burin Kantabutra, Eric Bahrt and Dom Dunn.
When he was still in office, Thaksin Shinawatra met Mr Burin at a business function.
When they were introduced, Mr Burin recalls, the former prime minister recognised his name immediately: "Oh, yes, you're the letter writer."
Their names are familiar, but their faces and stories are not. Brunch interviewed these three men in an attempt to change that and found stories just as interesting, if not more so, than those they comment on daily _ a Thai national whose political consciousness was awoken during the American civil rights movement, an expat American who walks a lonely road advocating against meat and a British man dying of cancer who was bashed for his support of the red shirts and would do it all again if given the chance.
While their backgrounds and philosophies diverge wildly, all three are men in their sixties and have shown a commitment to the letters to the editor section over the years that is unlikely to ever be replicated in this age of technological advances and social media glut. These may well be the last of the letter men.
BURIN: 'DON'T BE SHEEP'
To Mr Burin the stark reality of segregation in 1960s Florida was evident from the moment he opened his eyes upon arriving in the state. "I knew I was in the South when I woke up in the Greyhound Bus at the station and saw the signs above the restrooms, 'coloured', and 'white'.
"I wasn't coloured, I wasn't white, so where to go to the john?"
Those who haven't met Mr Burin may imagine that he speaks in a thundering, authoritative timbre _ in keeping with the serious tone of his letters _ but in reality he's gracious, a thoughtful, deliberate speaker prone to long pauses. And, as his recollections of arriving in Florida made clear, he's quick to look on the lighter side of things.
Nearly 40 years after arriving at that Florida bus station and a world away from the racially segregated southern United States, Mr Burin, an economist, sits in a sparsely decorated, book-filled Bangkok office and reflects on how that period awakened his social consciousness.
"Most Thais who had moved to Florida had been discriminated against one way or another, [though] certainly not as frequently as the blacks ... mainly remarks."
That sense of solidarity combined with a desire to help right what he saw as a major social injustice led Mr Burin, a University of Florida student at the time, to become a picket in the civil rights movement.
"We always made sure that we were within the law, within our rights," he said.
"We didn't have any problems as far as expressing our opinions."
The fight to end voter segregation spoke to Mr Burin's sense of fair play and would lead him to write his first letter to the editor, to the University of Florida's newspaper.
"I didn't see why people should be treated differently because of their skin," he said. "I tried to give another viewpoint as to how other countries perceived them. That's why I always signed my name to show that I was from Thailand."
In that same spirit, Mr Burin credits his time in the US _ high school, university and later working there for several years when he lived in Hawaii _ as enabling him to "see things through other people's lenses".
"My American experience has helped me compare _ not to say that the American way is better or that the Thai way is better but to help me see a given situation through two different lenses ... and to help judge what's better for Thailand in the long run."
While Thaksin may not have taken him up on his suggestion that the former prime minister write in to "PostBag" _ "I invited him to reply, but he didn't," Mr Burin recalls _ the 69 year old has done more to encourage informed debate on the issues of the day than most.
Mr Burin, who works in the financial services industry (he asked that his employer not be named), attempts both in his speech and in his letters to effect a dispassionate manner.
He seems to measure his words when he speaks and says the approach he takes in his "PostBag" submissions is also carefully thought out.
"I like letter writing because I can reach a pretty large audience and also I have the opportunity to go back and screen my thoughts ... to make sure, 'Is this what I really want to say?'
"And it also gives the audience a chance to reply, hopefully in the same vein. I always try to be constructive. I try to show a way that what I think should be done, whether or not it is practical."
When asked if he has ever considered entering politics himself, Mr Burin barely pauses before replying with an emphatic "No.""I don't see a party that I would want to join," he says.
"It could not last very long and stay clean.
"One thing I don't like about the current state of politics is that there is no black and white, it's different shades of grey.
"It's not like the Pheu Thai are the devils and the Democrats are the angels, far from it."
Mr Burin says that despite politicians' failings, it is important to strive for ideals.
On his desk he keeps a book of quotations that he references for his letters and has several of his favourites on his desk, among them the one that most frequently appears in his letters, from British statesman Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
"I'm pretty cynical. If you show me that people I think highly of have another side, I'd say 'Yes, I know.' But that doesn't mean that they should not try to live up to those ideals."
At the age of 69, Mr Burin has decided that this year will be his last spent working full time.
Although retired, he intends to remain active with the Books for Thailand Foundation, an NGO that distributes new donated textbooks.
''We give only to not for profit libraries, mainly schools but also orphanages, hospitals, public libraries and we aim for the rural underprivileged.''
Last year his group distributed 40,000 books in Thailand.
''It's a lot of fun because I'm a book worm from way back and I want to encourage others to become book worms,'' he says. ''And you know, Thai people read only about five books a year compared to the Japanese, who read about 50.''
Mr Burin's sons are building their homes next to his and will live there with their families. As such, he intends to enjoy his retirement watching his two granddaughters grow up, while also indulging his love of reading, Louis Lamour's Westerns and Wilbur Smith's historical novels topping the list.
And, of course, he'll be writing in to ''PostBag'' about the issues of the day, hoping to spur discussion, or, better, action.
''I would like people to know that it is the common man that counts in a democracy, that they should not be a nation of sheep ... that their leaders are public servants with an emphasis on the servants,'' he says. ''I wish people would speak out more [and] take a stand, become involved.''
ERIC: LONER VOICE FOR VEGANS
Mr Bahrt is one of the most contentious letter writers currently contributing to ''PostBag''. His anti-meat eating letters often draw vociferous condemnation. The ratio is such that one of his letters is often enough to draw three critical responses.
So it seems incongruous that the man who greets Brunch in the lobby of the Nana Hotel in Bangkok is a wiry, somewhat antsy fellow who is constantly smiling and, far from raging, speaks softly. Mr Bahrt, 62, sports a New York Yankees baseball cap, T-shirt and shorts. His casual appearance and deep tan mean he wouldn't be out of place on any beach in the country.
Mr Bahrt is a self-described loner who, when he's not researching, writing or responding to comments regarding his latest letter, can be found walking ''all over Pattaya''.
''I'm not a people person,'' Mr Bahrt says, adding that he likes Thailand in part because ''nobody really bothers me too much''.
He has a few select friends in Pattaya _ ''three or four'' _ but his strongest connection to others remains his letters.
Mr Bahrt was born and raised in Larchmont, New York and says that while his parents weren't strictly conservative, the prevailing atmosphere of the time was. He went to high school and college during the Vietnam War era but was a latecomer to the protest movement. That was reflected in the first of what would be hundreds of his dispatches to newspapers.
''In high school, I wrote a letter, believe it or not, supporting the Vietnam War,'' Mr Bahrt says. ''But that was before I went through a lot of changes.''
Mr Bahrt left Larchmont and went to university in New York City and California, where he was exposed to ideas that would change his outlook on several issues.
''A lot of people think I'm a real extremist, but I've really gone through a lot of changes in a lot of my thinking,'' he said. ''I was much more of a conventional thinker when I was growing up.
''For example, I'm Jewish and I used to be extremely pro-Israel, but as I went to college and met a lot of leftists I became much more sympathetic to the Palestinian point of view.''
Political consciousness awakened, he promptly recanted his earlier stance on the Vietnam War in a follow-up letter to his hometown newspaper.
After graduating from university, Mr Bahrt spent his twenties doing various odd jobs, a bit of writing, tending bar. When he was 30, his mother passed away and left Mr Bahrt with an inheritance that through careful investing would keep him financially independent for the rest of his life.
Mr Bahrt was single then and remains so to this day. His only family, a sister, passed away years ago. The lack of a connection to Larchmont and a keen dislike for New York state winters saw Mr Bahrt seeking out sunnier climes, first in Hawaii then in Manila, Subic and Angeles in the Philippines before finally settling in Pattaya.
It was while in the Philippines when he was in his early thirties that Mr Bahrt had the revelation that would change his life and influence the bulk of his letters to the editor.
He was on his motorcycle stuck behind a truck crammed full of pigs en route to a slaughterhouse.
He had up until that point been a meat eater, but had always harboured niggling doubts about eating what he would later term ''dead flesh'' Seeing the pigs stuffed into the back of a truck, destined for pain and plate, convinced him to finally swear off meat.
In each of the countries he's lived in Mr Bahrt aired his views _ largely on vegetarianism _ in letters to the editor columns. He was a regular contributor to the Honolulu Star Bulletin and later the Philippine Daily Inquirer before making his debut in English-language press in Thailand.
For Mr Bahrt, the letters section is a forum where average people can have their voices heard. ''McDonald's and KFC have billions of dollars behind them. I can't compete with that,'' he said. ''[The letters section is] the one section of the paper you don't have to be connected to anybody or have power. It's a chance to get publicity you wouldn't get anywhere else in the paper.''
He is frequently defending himself against letter writers who he says have made ditched the facts in favour of ad hominem attacks, such as one writer who claimed to have seen Mr Bahrt in Pattaya and likened his thin appearance to that of a concentration camp survivor. He was so thin, the writer said, because of his vegan diet.
''They say I'm intolerant [but] I would never personally attack another letter writer unless he personally attacked me first.''
When he does respond in kind, Mr Bahrt says, ''PostBag'' online forum comments quickly stack up against him. ''It's a double standard,'' he said. ''I don't turn the other cheek when people insult me over and over again. They can dish it out but they can't take it.''
Far from dissuade him, his critics embolden him, Mr Bahrt says, likening himself to others who have suffered for holding contrary views. ''There are people who go to jail, get killed for fighting for what they believe in, so if this is all I have to take that's not so bad.''
Mr Bahrt says that he has received positive feedback from people who have taken his advice and made the switch to vegetarianism but that critics tend to make more noise.
While still cutting the solitary figure, the minds he does change through his letters clearly make all the difference for Mr Bahrt.
''My philosophy about life is [that] to believe in a cause, something bigger than yourself, gives [it] meaning. That's why I speak out when I see something that's unfair, whether to humans or animals,'' he says. ''It's my way of being useful, of making my life matter by speaking out and hoping that some people will connect with it.''
DOM DUNN: AWAY FROM HOME
Mr Dunn knows that some people despise him outright for his pro-red shirt views and he has news for them: he doesn't care.
A one-sentence letter to the editor from December of last year sums up how many people regard one of the most prolific _ and provocative _ contributors to ''PostBag'': ''I've always assumed Dom Dunn is a pen name of Thaksin.''
Mr Dunn maintains that he was never a ''Thaksin mouthpiece'' and says that while the former prime minister is ''deeply flawed and no friend of democracy but he too has human and legal rights, both of which have been repeatedly abused ... I make no apologies for defending his rights.''
He has passionately defended the rights of the wider United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) movement in letters over the past few years and for nearly the past two decades he has called Thailand home.
Now, at the age of 65, Mr Dunn is in the UK and has accepted the fact that he probably will never return to his adopted country.
''I was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in Bangkok in December 2011 and returned to the UK for treatment; unfortunately the operation was not a success and the doctors have given me six to eighteen months to live,'' Mr Dunn wrote to Brunch in an email interview in May. ''It is unlikely that I will ever return to Thailand.''
''I avoid talking about 'fighting cancer','' he wrote. ''It's against my principles to pick a fight with an opponent who is bound to win in the end, so I prefer to say that I am 'cooperating with cancer'.''
Mr Dunn's contributions to ''PostBag'' have remained remarkably consistent despite his illness.
''Having lived in SE Asia since 1993 I have few friends in the UK and being fairly ill I can't get out much, so trawling the internet for news of the Thai political scene and dashing off letters to the Bangkok Post are an enjoyable way of passing the time and a connection to happier times.''
Mr Dunn was born in London but holds an Irish passport. He says he was ''useless at school'', leaving ''at 16 without a single exam pass to my name. For the next 10 years I bummed around doing jobs like beach deckchair attendant in Gibraltar and encyclopaedia salesman in Sydney, Australia.''
When he was 25 he got a ''proper job'' as a salesman in the finance industry and 20 years later ended up managing a merchant bank in London.
In 1993 at the age of 45 he took a year-long sabbatical to Asia and never looked back. '' [It was] not because I didn't enjoy banking but because I found I enjoyed bumming about even more. Plus, I figured it was better to give up banking before someone realised that they had made a terrible mistake.''
Mr Dunn, who was single then and remains so, says that he hasn't had a proper job since except for a stint in the Czech Republic teaching army officers there to speak English, while also learning how to drink vodka shots. '' [It's] probably the most enjoyable job I've ever had, but not one for the long term.''
His first experience in Thailand was running his own bar in Krabi. He kept that going ''until I decided that drunks were only bearable if you're drunk too and moved round the other side of the bar and stayed there''.
In 1998, he discovered Baan Pra Ae, which at the time was unspoiled and cheap. After the 2004 tsunami, luxury developments began to spring up, but by that time Mr Dunn said that he had made so many Thai friends and was ''Leung [Uncle] Dom'' to so many of their children that he decided to stay, finding cheap accommodation.
''For 12 wonderful, happy years from October to April I paid 200 baht a night to live in a fan-cooled bungalow with a toilet that you flushed by pouring a bucket of water into it,'' he said. ''I rented out my house in London and sold most of my possessions until everything I had fitted into four suitcases. Bliss!''
Mr Dunn said that he started writing letters to the editor to entertain his friends. One of his first letters was in response to a column by Kanjana Spindler in which she asked if women needed men any longer.
''My answer was that women would always need men because only a man can give the desired answer to the question, 'Does this dress make my bum look fat?'''
The focus of his letters changed when he became more deeply interested in the issues of the day in his adopted country.
His interest in politics took over, especially after the UDD protests in 2009/2010. He blasted the Bangkok Post, which he believed was acting as a ''mouthpiece for the old power clique and a dangerous rabble-rouser against the UDD''.
In 2010, Mr Dunn met several UDD supporters in London at a meeting organised by academic Giles Ungpakorn and later that year met more in Dublin. He says the red shirt supporters urged him to continue writing his ''left wing'' letters to the Post to counter what they saw as the paper's ''right wing'' editorial stance and similar views expressed by letter writers.
''Intriguingly, one group told me that there was an ideological split among Bangkok Post staff and letters like mine added fuel to that fire _ true or not the thought was irresistible.''
Now back in the UK, Mr Dunn has come to terms with his illness, though he has one lament. ''I'm 65 and have had a good life and I don't have too many regrets about my life ending early, but one thing that does piss me off is that I will never find out how the present political situation in Thailand is resolved.''
About the author
- Writer: Noel Boivin