Friday, May 21, 2010

The Aftermath

When I wrote about living with uncertainty a week ago, I had no idea how fast uncertainties could multiply. This past week has been a roller coaster ride out of control. The impact of Bangkok's political troubles on me, however, has been minimal compared to the sufferings of the 52 that died and over 400 injured in six days of street fighting. Since the military dispersed the anti-government demonstrators from the city center on Wednesday morning (with less than feared casualties), angry mobs have torched over 30 buildings in the city and town halls in several provinces. I watched from my 9th floor window as plumes of smoke rose over the Bangkok skyline. Transportation remains extremely limited and many stores and banks are closed. We've had two nights of curfew that silenced the city. Birds could be heard singing before dawn this morning.

During the Battle of Bangkok I remained mostly rooted to my couch, watching the often horrifying scenes unfold over Thai TV without understanding much of the commentary. Twitter has become the news source of choice for instant comment on dangerous events, although the wild rumors often outweigh verified facts. I regularly read the tweets of several dozen people in Bangkok, many of whom were in the midst of the fighting and sent out incredible photos from their mobile phone cameras. I used Google Reader to keep track of over thirty bloggers in Thailand and the local English press, and these sources along with twitter often provided links to important articles in newspapers and online sites all over the world. On Facebook I frequently posted comments and links to numerous stories and coverage of events. Many videos of the fighting were instantly available on YouTube. The journalistic output was astounding and overwhelming, as was the plethora of incredible photos available online of the action on the other side of the Chao Phraya River not that far from my apartment.

Because so much as been written and photographed, I won't attempt a synthesis, or add my two cents worth to the chronology. In the videos I've seen of the fighting, sometimes there are more press photographers and cameramen with their green arm bands than combatants. Bangkok has been a magnet for prominent conflict journalists who roam the world looking for trouble. With digital photography and cell phones, everyone today can be a journalist. But it's also very dangerous. Several reporters and photographers have been injured or killed while covering the anti-government protest in Bangkok since the first major battle with fatalities on April 10th. Many rumors claim journalists are even targets, some say of the reds and others blame the military. One of the first buildings set on fire was television Channel 3 even though their coverage has been relatively balanced, and the staffs of The Nation and Post were evacuated from their buildings due to the danger.

Despite the widespread news coverage of events in Bangkok since the protest started on March 12th, it's hard to know whom to believe. Thai politics and social relations are so complicated that nothing is what it seems. "Black shirts" or "third hand forces" have been blamed for the deaths of five soldiers on April 10th and for numerous attacks since then by bombers and snipers. Although almost all of the 83 fatalities and over 1,800 injuries since April 10 have been civilians, the government continues to label red shirt factions as "terrorist" (as many as 500) and blame them for much of the killing. Why would reds kill reds? You might also ask why Thais would kill Thais, as many Thais are doing, and there are no easy answers.

Jerry is stuck in Sukhumvit and I doubt that I can travel across the city to visit him since the conflict area blocks my path and the military continues to restrict access. His wife wants him to take the train to their farm in Surin. But since the banks are closed, he can't get to his money. I have to take a van from Wat Mahathat to my university in Wang Noi near Ayutthaya this afternoon for a conference this weekend and hope that I encounter no difficulties. The Immigration Office is closed all week which gives me only a few days next week to secure a renewal of my visa and work permit. The skytrain and subway remain shut down, but if the power brokers have their way, perhaps the road in front will be cleared and Siam Paragon will open its doors this weekend. The curfew is in force again tonight, from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., and the city's massage parlors, bars and strip clubs are in crisis. Tourists are fleeing for the flights home from Souvarnabhumi Airport and many are vowing never to return again to the city of angels.

For some, the supreme tragedy is the destruction of Central World, Bangkok's largest luxury shopping mall and the second biggest in Asia (top photo). It stood alongside the main protest site at Ratchaprasong, the intersection surrounded by five-star hotels, stores patronized by the wealthy, and several important Brahmin shrines. Before 9-11, it used to be called the World Trade Center. That name was changed along with a major facelift several years ago. Now the building is in ruins, as is a large Big C store across the street and Center One, a major shopping complex near Victory Monument. Some protesters were seen stocking up on HiSo supplies before the flames spread. While Bangkok residents and tourists bemoan the demise of this landmark, others comment on twitter and Facebook that the many deaths and injuries were more important than a palace to consumption, and that those who value buildings over people are misguided at best.

I was a supporter of the red shirt cause as I understood it, true democracy in Thailand and an end to double standards. I've read enough about Thaksin Shinawatra to believe that he was an unsavory politician who made his fortune feeding from the public trough. But he wisely empowered people in the north and northeast of Thailand to believe they could have a stake in running the country. A military coup in 2006 and several dubious court decisions disenfranchised them, taking away the results of several elections. The current administration of Prime Minister Abhisit is a minority regime of royalists and militarists with the backing of the fascist yellow shirts who closed down the airport during their street demonstrations in 2008 (and were never punished for the damage they caused to Thailand). But when the Bangkok demonstration began in March I had a bad feeling about it. While the stated goal was simply new elections (which the reds were certain they would win), it didn't seem to me that confrontation with the military could ever succeed. Thailand's enemies are mainly internal and the military, a regime unto itself, is very well armed. I suspected that the real goal was to create martyrs in an attempt to sway the middle class in Bangkok to their side.

While there are now plenty of martyrs, the reds, perceived by many in Bangkok as ignorant rural savages (racism is linked to skin hue in Thailand), made numerous tactical errors that have angered their potential supporters as well as allies whose jobs were lost when the rally site among the shopping malls was selected. No one likes their lives disrupted for no clear reason, and although early on the reds engaged in several symbolic actions that brought a degree of visible support throughout the city, the long shutdown of business and facilities only increased the perception that the country was invading the city and the privileges of the better classes were threatened. This destroyed any hope of a compromise between the pro-democracy movement and the middle class who were active in the political demonstration of 1992. The government's spin doctors increasingly succeeded in isolating the reds as "terrorists" and enemies of the monarchy. By the day of the crackdown May 19, few were willing to stay the hand of revenge.

It's hard to know what will happen next. Certainly the roads will be cleared and cleaned of any evidence that the reds were there. The malls still standing will be opened, and those destroyed will be torn down and rebuilt, for Bangkok thrives on tourists who need their shopping fix. Pockets of rioters will probably continue to harass the authorities in Bangkok, but sabotage no longer has any achievable aim other than mindless destruction. At their peak, perhaps 200,000 participated in the red movement in Bangkok with many more supporters back home or working in the city and unable to take part. It's hard to know whether the government will engage now in reconciliation or revenge. Abhisit's spokesmen take over the TV airwaves frequently to announce milestones in their witch hunt against terrorists, the finding of hidden arms and financial restricts for suspects. The red leaders are in jail and some will be charged and tried for terrorism which carries a death penalty. It's certain, however, that the rage against the regime will simmer in the provinces and in the sois of Bangkok. Unless someone seriously engages in diplomacy and compromise, the Battle of Bangkok will begin to look like the beginning of a civil war in Thailand.

And yet...I continue to love my life and the people here. They deserve better. While I'm angry at the mobs rioting in the streets, I feel I understand their discontent and rage and sympathize with what I saw as the long term goals of true democracy and an end to double standards. Some have pointed out that the red movement never had a political program, and some splinter groups were homophobic thugs like the reds in Chiang Mai who forced the cancellation of a gay pride parade. Maybe the two-month campaign in Bangkok was just too simplistic. But it spoke to the rising expectations of a disenfranchised group of Thais, perhaps even the majority. So its call must be heeded by the powers that be here or the future will be very uncertain (and this is where we began).


The Sleeping Dragon said...

Hi there!

Came cross your blog from a lnk listed on twitter. Just wanted to stop bu and let you know that I thought it was a very well-written piece. Despite being pro-red,you wrote it with a very balanced perspective -- Something which is hard to come by these days.

Stay safe and may the healing proess begins.

Anonymous said...

An excellent analysis. Very informative too. Thanks for this