Saturday, April 24, 2010

Human Kindness is Overflowing

It's raining in Bangkok in the early morning today, something not all that common for this time of year. I can see dark clouds over the city from my 9th floor window. Lightning strikes unexpectedly close by and thunder rattles the walls. When it rains here, it really pours, but not for all that long. I love it. I stick my head out the window and let the downpour give me a shampoo.

Broken windows and empty hallways
A pale dead moon in the sky streaked with gray

No one writes bittersweet lyrics better than Randy Newman. He hands you strong medicine and gives you a sweet melody to wash it down so you don't notice the taste. Whether writing about slavery ("Sail Away"), short people, rednecks, consumption ("It's Money That Matters"), Hurricane Katrina ("Louisiana 1927"), the final solution for an ungrateful world ("Political Science"), a polluted river ("Burn On") or the U.S. Empire ("A Few Words in Defense of Our Country"), Newman stands the truth on its ironic head. What would he have to say about the mysteries and illusions that plague Thailand now?

Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles
With frozen smiles to chase love away

I can add nothing new to explain the political troubles here that have claimed more than 25 lives and injured nearly a thousand protesters, soldiers and innocent bystanders since the military's botched attempt two weeks ago to close down the anti-government red shirt rally that began March 14. Army Gen. Anupong has apparently refused to remove the demonstrators whose encampment has paralyzed the shopping and business centers of the city. He's in favor of a political solution to the standoff but the politicians seem incapable of solving anything. An emerging pro-government movement, led by the same yellow shirts who occupied Parliament for four months and closed Bangkok's airports in 2008, gave Prime Minister Abhisit seven days to end the demonstration or else (the deadline is tomorrow night). Many countries have issued travel warnings for Bangkok and the tourist industry is in the toilet. Last night, however, there was no reported violence and today the wet weather must be putting a damper on the conflict.

Lonely, lonely
Tin can at my feet
Think I'll kick it down the street
That's the way to treat a friend

Since returning from our vacation a week ago, I've stayed close to home. The areas of trouble are a good distance away, even though I can spot the tall buildings around Silom and Ratchaprasong from my window and watch the military helicopters when they fly over on observation missions with my binoculars. Last Thursday night the Foreign Correspondents Club held a panel discussion on the crisis and a fellow expat asked me to join him there. But the FCCT is located on the top floor of a building in Chid Lom close to the main gathering of red shirts and a stone's throw away from the stage where a procession of speakers have inspired their forces for several weeks. Going there seemed risky to me, and I used Nan's fears for my safety as an excuse to stay home. Sure enough, just as the meeting was scheduled to begin, several grenades exploded near the Sala Daeng Skytrain stop in Silom where a secondary confrontation was taking place between red shirts behind an improvised "Mad Max" kind of barricade and a large group of yellow shirts throwing bottles and stones at them from across the street. There were numerous casualties, including the death of a Thai woman.

Bright before me the signs implore me
To help the needy and show them the way

No one knows for certain who lobbed the grenades or from where, although the government spokesman said they came from behind the red barricade and the reds claim that a "third hand" force is trying to frame them. Silom was crawling with soldiers providing security who saw nothing. The same mystery envelopes the April 10 shoot-out when most of the casualties were red shirts. Who shot who, why, and and from where, cannot be answered convincingly for everyone, even though a movie actor tenuously connected to the reds has been arrested and has apparently confessed his involvement at the behest of red leaders. Too often significant crimes remain unsolved and unpunished in Thailand. No yellow shirt has been prosecuted for the chaos they caused in 2008, no culprits have been nabbed for a month's worth of random (and, until this week, harmless) bombings around Bangkok, and even the attempted assassination of yellow leader Sondhi Limthongkul was never solved. Thailand has an extremely well-funded and equipped police force and military (despite few external threats), and yet they seem incapable of maintaining a rule of law.

Human kindness is overflowing
And I think it's going to rain today*

The bombings in Silom confirmed my worst fears. I was certain that it was the beginning of a civil war. I was more afraid of the yellow shirts (hiding behind a "multicolor" banner) than the numerous security forces. Composed of mostly the discontented middle class from Bangkok, they are threatened by the uppity protesters and appeared belligerent and angry on the TV news, carrying signs and yelling impolite slurs (comparing the reds to water buffalo, lizards and other animals, the equivalent of "nigger" in America) at the darker-skinned invaders from the provinces who now proudly refer to themselves as "phrai" (peasant). Some commentators believe the royalist yellow shirts are guilty of fomenting violence in order to provoke a military coup that will preserve rule by the privileged Bangkok elite. They have openly advocated increasing the non-elected portion of government. What a contrast with the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), the red shirt organization, which actually lives up to its name by advocating democracy! The UDD wants to increase elected representation and is calling for a new election to undo to the damage to democracy caused by the illegitimate 2006 military coup that overturned an elected government.

If I were not with Nan, I would probably engage in more risky behavior, but now I know that she worries about me, understandably. Several westerners were injured in the Silom blasts. On Friday my monthly political discussion group was holding an urgent meeting in Sukhumvit across the city. I've been a faithful participant for six months. It would require me to cross through or over the demonstration sites, at least the main one in Siam. So I declined. By yesterday afternoon, it was apparent that all was quiet, negotiations were rumored, the military was not going to begin a crackdown against the demonstrators, and I felt like a wimp for not attempting to join my friends. Second-guessing is a foolish taskmaster.

*I prefer the version by Nina Simon, but others, by Newman himself, Judy Collins, Bette Middler, Joe Cocker, Dusty Springfield, and, more recently, Norah Jones, are also fine.


Ricefield Radio said...

An interesting and good read. Very enjoyable.

Kevin said...

Thanks for a nice blog that fits the mood and weather today here in Bangkok. I did, in fact, go to the FCC event Thursday night. I arrived at Sala Daeng station to wait for the next train at about 7:35 or so, fretting that I might be late to meet the friend who was getting me in the door. Funny the things we worry about sometimes.


Janet Brown said...

Thank you for this.