Another trip to Thailand and another government deposed by massive protests. When we left last spring, P.M. Samak had won the election to end a military care-taker government. He was deposed over the summer on the pretext of having benefited financially from his popular day-time T.V. cooking show, putting himself in a real jam while his term in office went to pot. Now his successor, Somchai, is in a similar pickle. Two weeks before we arrived, on Oct. 7, the opposition party, the PAD, held a huge rally which turned into a confrontation with the police and government supporters, and a suicide bomber killed himself and another person, and scores were injured. In response, the PAD activists took control of one of the major streets lined with government offices, and barricaded themselves in with sandbags, tires and barbed wire. They are still there, and yesterday Katheryn and I went down to have a look.
They have chosen the location well, being protected from opponents (who have shown up with weapons and petrol bombs) by the police HQ and a major Wat (the Marble Temple) on one side, and a canal on the other. The police have taken control of Phitsanulok Rd, on their southern flank, with a massive presence. This is where we showed up.
It’s often best with armed road-blocks, I’ve found, to play the dumb tourist card, and if confronted seek safety in stupidity. So we just go up to an opening in the barrier, and slowly walk in. Since nobody stops us, we keep on going. Riot gear is lined up against the fence, and the officers are lolling in the shade of row upon row of police vans, out of the mid-day heat. This being Thailand, enterprising vendors have set up noodle carts, and there is one guy selling holsters, cartridge belts and other police paraphernalia, along with fake pearls and costume jewellry – for after-hours, perhaps?
This is nothing, however, compared with the commerce going on within the PAD barricade. As we approach, loud music is pumping from a truck on which is painted “MURDER Bring the Killers to Justice”. A very pleasant young man apologizes that he has to search my bag, and then we are in. After the dour menace of the police side, it is very much like a carnival. There are loads of little eateries, the streets are lines with pavilion tents selling political merchandise, and there are at least three places I spot where you could stop for a foot massage. The hot ticket this oust-the-prime-minister season is the hand clapper. They started showing up at rallies in the spring – two glove-like hands on a stick that make a great clackity-clack when you shake them – and now they are a must-have for every demonstrator. Stomping on Somchai’s face is another popular theme, with his visage adorning flip-flops and bath-mats. And of course there are the T-shirts. Unfortunately the vendors here cater to a local crowd, so there are no XL sizes for me, and Katheryn doesn’t wear yellow (the PAD party colour), so we don’t buy anything. The sentiments, expresses as only T-shirts can, range from anger to resentment, with a smidgen of hope that the year 2551 will bring peace and change.
People are friendly, but there is a tension in the air. For one thing, a pro-government rally is planned for tomorrow at a stadium and 100,000 people are expected. Although the party denies it, most people believe that former P.M. Taksin – the champion of the cause, now exiled in London, and due to address the rally on a giant T.V. screen – will say something provocative, and a large pumped-up mob will move downtown to try to force the PAD camp out of the barricades. If this happens, it will be very ugly. When we leave the occupied area we see some of the preparations for this conflict: in a tent are a collection of bats, sticks, rods and golf clubs. We will see what happens tomorrow.
The air is heavy and torpid, and we are sweating profusely. It’s always this way before the rain. A thick black cloud hangs over the east, over downtown Bangkok, and we decide to pop into the Marble Temple just around the corner, in case it pours. An German tour group is being steered around the ground, taking snaps of the famous gold Buddha inside the shrine. It’s probably their 5th one today, and you can tell many are suffering from temple fatigue.
For much of the past week I have been prone in a dentist’s chair, getting fitted with a crown, which is much cheaper in this Kingdom than it is at home. Another thing that is cheaper is software, especially at the notorious Pantip Plaza, five floors of shops dealing with everything computer. I pick up a program that allows me to blend three different exposures of the same photo into one picture, making an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image. This lets us take pictures of high-contrast scenes, parts of which would previously have been over or under exposed, and produce some amazing results. Please bear with us while we indulge, and check out some of the pictures on our flickr site.
And Happy Halloween! Katheryn was talking to a thai friend about the holiday. The Thais have embraced the occasion as a way to sell little battery-operated red devil-horns, which look very cute as you bop around a club. Katheryn asked if she knew what they were, and she took a stab: water buffalo horns? No, said Katheryn, they depict the devil. Do you know what the devil is? The friend thought a second. Is it an animal? So not having deep cultural roots, Halloween is just an excuse to party, which last night on Khao San Rd. is what everyone was doing. And then what happened? At around 10, just as the crowd was getting really thick, the thunder crashed and the lightening flashed and the sky finally opened. Everyone got soaked, but the party kept on going.
Protest update: As of the news this morning, it seems that violence was avoided last night. Let’s hope a peaceful solution can be found.