If the S. E. Asian nations were teenagers at a junior high school dance, what would they be like? Laos would be the shy girl in the corner, unaware of how cute she is because she thinks she’s too short. Burma is the insecure bully who will survive heroin addiction and discover Jesus. Cambodia is in baggy pants and a hoodie, and raps alone in his room at home with his music loud. Malaysia does very well in math and chemistry. Indonesia and Philippines are just cutting loose on the dance floor. And Thailand? The teachers don’t understand why a kid like Thailand has this problem about “acting out”.
We are now in the middle of a full-blown crisis here. The issues – seemingly small compared to those faced by its neighbours – have triggered a response out of all proportion to what it should be. Briefly: part of the country doesn’t like an ex-P.M., Taksin Shinawatra, and with the help of the army got him overthrown in 2006 and exiled in 2008. The other part, who has a voting majority, want him back. Whenever a government of either side is in power, the other side take to the streets in massive numbers until they resign. Reset, and repeat. After 8 years of this, so much bad blood has taken place that it is difficult to see how a solution can be reached.
The current administration is of the Taksin “red shirt” variety, with his sister, Yingluck, as P.M.. Much of the present crisis developed from a bone-headed piece of legislation she introduced, just after we arrived in November. Perhaps she hoped that there would be enough to gain for both sided in her Amnesty Bill; instead there was perceived to be too much to lose, and nobody was happy. The bill proposed a wide-ranging pardon for those involved in the tragic events of March 2010, when the last major protests in Bangkok came to a brutal end. The Red Shirts thought it would exonerate the killers of their un-armed protesters (including, incidentally, the leader of the protests now, Suthep Taunsuban who ordered the army to move in). For the Yellow Shirts, it was the beginning of their worst nightmare: the pardon and return of ex-P.M. Taksin.
By Christmas the protests were picking up steam, led by the charismatic Suthep. Suthep was smart enough not to brand his movement as “Yellow Shirt”; he wanted the impression of a more inclusive opposition. Instead they use the tri-colour Thai flag for their paraphernalia. Their defining symbol, unfortunately, is the whistle – to be caught in a march of 10,000 people blowing whistles is an ear-splitting experience.
All this time the Yingluck govt. was taking a very soft approach; police and soldiers weren’t in evidence; the protesters went where and when they pleased. They blockaded the government offices: the government moved to an airbase. They blockaded police H.Q.: the police let them in, and then were handed flowers by the protesters outside. Chief among Suthep’s demands was the resignation of Yingluck and her government. In a canny move, Yingluck said sure, I’ll terminate my office now, and we’ll have elections on Feb. 2. For Suthep and the opposition, the problem with this is that they will lose this election by a wide margin, just as they did to Yingluck in the last one. In reality they have a point in declaring that the whole electoral process needs reform, but their proposal that an unspecified “reform committee” govern Thailand in the meantime comes across as somewhat disingenuous.
The situation now is that the unstoppable force of Suthep’s no-election protest is about to collide with Yingluck’s immovable election date of Feb.2. The really sad part is that no matter which way it goes, more harm will be done, and Thailand will be further from any solution than it was before.
The latest developments occured last night, January 21, when Yingluck declared a “state of Emergency” in Thailand. This gives police extra-judicial powers of detention, bans protests, and censors media reporting of events “to protect Thai people and ensure the rule of law”. In the paper this morning, for what it’s worth, Suthep said he was having none of it, and the protests would continue. Here in Chiang Mai, a “Red” (i.e. pro-government) part of the country, life goes on pretty much unaffected by events in Bangkok. That’s not to say we will be missing out on the action all together. Our time here is coming to an end, since our condo lease expires on Jan. 28. We get into Bangkok on Jan. 29, and have a ticket from there to Bali on Feb. 4.
JANUARY 30 BANGKOK
A small incident coming in from Don Muang Airport yesterday: approaching our neighbourhood, the taxi decided to try his luck and take a shorter route through one of the blockaded roads, Wisut Kasat. At the sandbags and piled-up car tires he rolled down the windows and told the bandanna-topped enforcer he had a couple of foreigners going to Khao San Rd. Always happy to play the dumb tourist in situations of civil unrest, we smiled like idiots, gave him the thumbs up, and were waved through. There was actually nothing tense about the situation, and the road after that was empty.
The big Jan. 13 “Shut Down Bangkok” protests were less effective than the opposition hoped they would be, but they have left blockades at half a dozen of Bangkok’s busiest intersections. Even so, Thais have been remarkably adaptive, as usual, and go about working, shopping, dining out and all the rest of it with little more inconvenience than if it was, say, a sore toe.
The only errand we have that takes us out of our neighbourhood is computer-related. You may remember a story in our Assam blog about hunting down a power cable in Guwahati: the temporary fix we found with the adapter there has now almost reached the end of its usefulness. The place to go for such things in Bangkok is Pantip Plaza, but by road there are three obstructed areas we would have to circumvent to get there. Fortunately there are alternatives, the best of which is the canal. It turns out to be a straight-forward operation: taking the canal boat to Pratunam, finding the cable, getting lunch, and taking the boat back. What is reassuring, in a city depicted as an intractable war-zone, is the sheer normality of the experience.
From the window of our guest house we have a wonderful view of the Chao Phraya River and Rama VIII Bridge. The odd thing about it, since we were last here, is that there is no traffic on it and it is covered by black fabric. This is to shelter the protesters camping out on the bridge deck. It’s only a couple of blocks away, so around 4 we decide to stroll over.
Rising 560 m from the river like an inverted “Y”, the massive supporting pylon of the bridge is a city landmark. If the design, with its taut cables radiating in artistic geometry looks familiar, it is because the chief designer and the engineer also built the Alex Fraser Bridge. There is a small barricade at the pedestrian access to the bridge, but no one troubles us, so we just walk up the stairs.
Suddenly I can understand why, apart from the political objectives, the protesters are using the tactic of blockading major thoroughfares. Walking down the middle of an empty 6-lane freeway feels like you are getting away with something bad, and it is exhilarating. You have effected change on the established order of the universe, you have planted your biped flag in the heart of the realm of lethal speeding metal, and the forces of internal combustion that seemed so dominant and unapproachable have been throttled.
The spirit of the protesters is so strong that the mood here, with just hours to go before the general election that they are opposed to, is festive. Tents and mosquito nets fill the entire bridge deck surface, apart from some lanes kept clear for walking. There is an infirmary tent, and a free kitchen; whenever we go by kind people try to ply us with food. A stage has been set up, and at the podium is a young girl – she can’t be more than 5 – regaling the small crowd with a powerful-sounding diatribe. Behind this scene a trans-gender classical dance instructor is stressing out getting her troupe ready for the next act. I’m beginning to like this “Shut Down Bangkok” thing. It’s so Thai. Vendors are pedalling protest T-shirts and mobile phone chargers; if you’ve had enough of the standing you can get a $2 foot massage.
ELECTION DAY SUNDAY FEBRUARY 2
What’s that they say about the best-laid plans? We have to be at Don Muang Airport at 4 a.m. on Tues, and partly to give us an hour more sleep and partly because no one knows how easy it will be to get out of here Monday night, we have booked a hotel close to the airport for one night. The problem, we gather from the news this morning, is that it is right in the middle of the most volatile voting area. Yesterday afternoon Lak Si intersection, a few hundred metres from our airport hotel, was the scene of a gun battle. All the polling stations in Lak Si and Don Muang have been shut down. At our local poll, however, where we pass to go for breakfast, all is quiet. It’s Sunday, and many businesses are shut. It’s election day in a deeply divided city; more businesses are shut. It’s hot. Really, this isn’t very exciting. Well, one can always go for a massage…
MONDAY FEBRUARY 3
According to the receptionist (who had to pause to get an opinion from someone else) Lak Si intersection is open, so getting to the hotel isn’t a problem. We are also following the situation on twitter, and there are no reports today on Lak Si.
This is how far we’ve come up in the world: our new hotel has a doorman. International class, I think they call it. Pool, sauna, more pool – and it’s time to get some food. The only place around with shops is – you guessed it – Lak Si shopping mall.
Anyone who has spent time in Thailand knows that here the mall can be your friend. A) It’s air conditioned. B) There is a food court. A Thai food court is a bio-reserve of indigenous cuisine. They should be declared UNESCO world heritage sites. The best have acres of independent options, brought from villages all over this country. The prices are fixed and posted, and they are the best deal in the land – usually about 35B – more or less $1/meal. The hardest part is deciding what to choose…
No one knows where Thailand is headed politically from here. The election will have resolved nothing, and the most likely scenario is months and years of more turmoil and uncertainty. Some are even saying that the North and Northeast should separate and form a new country, with Chiang Mai as the capital. On the other hand, the last few days here in Bangkok have left us with a feeling of hope in the Thai spirit of resilience, and faith that the basic good sense of these people will prevail. Take the Lak Si shopping mall. On Saturday bullets shattered the glass doors at one entrance – we couldn’t go in that way. Today, Monday, what are people doing? They are ignoring it, behaving normally, and, like us, getting a meal in the food court.