Sunday, November 23, 2008

Chaos or Competition?

When I looked out of my window early this morning, I was surprised to see the expressway unusually empty. It is a major thoroughfare into Bangkok over Pinklao Bridge and it is normally full of traffic, even on Sunday. My first thought was: trouble. The political conflict here is escalating. Bombs were thrown last week and people killed. The anti-government group has called for yet another "final showdown" today with thousands coming here by bus and train. They plan to besiege Parliament tomorrow to force the government to resign. But the pro-government faction is also meeting today at a Buddhist temple west of the city. Their last gathering drew tens of thousands who resent the other group.

But I was wrong. After watching the empty road for a few minutes, I saw a runner, then another. It was a race and the road was closed to allow the runners to pass. I got on the internet and quickly discovered that today is the annual Bangkok Marthon with a route that traverses the city and passes by my apartment building. But because of traffic concerns, the elite runners began the race at the Grand Palace at 3:30 am. The winners had surely passed by the time I got up, and I only caught a glimpse of the loneliness of the long-distance stragglers. By 9, traffic was flowing again on the expressway and I could hear the familiar murmur of rubber on the road through my window.

Once I was a runner. Back in the 1970s, I bought one of the early pairs of Nike running shoes, bright orange with a red swoosh, and followed my friend Gerry to fun runs along the San Francisco Bay waterfront. I competed in the Bay to Breakers race in the city and in Santa Cruz ran in the Wharf to Wharf, both over six miles. Twice I ran 11 miles and hoped eventually to participate in a 26-mile marathon. Always a sickly nerd, I began to think of myself as athletic. Jerry suggested we do the Honolulu Marathon where he lived at the time and so I began training for the December event. But I was working and it was fall so I could only run in mornings and evenings when it was dark. After a few weeks of dodging cars in nighttime traffic, I decided to quit. And not long after that, took up smoking again, an athlete no more.

Occasionally you see runners in Bangkok, but they are usually members of the Hash House Harriers, an international organization that sponsors fun runs all over the world. Last month I saw a large collection of HHH members, mostly farang, finishing up a race on Sukhumvit Soi 8 where they settled down in their shorts and sweaty tee shirts to drink beer. They don't look much like athletes. Members often describe their group as "a drinking club with a running problem," meaning that it's more social than competitive or athletic. Hashing began with a group of British officers in Malaysia in 1938 who took up running to recover from their hangovers. Each chapter of the Hash House Harriers now is called a "kennel" and there are more than 1,700 all over the world. In Vientiane I saw fliers for an HHH run. The Bangkok group has a web site here.

If anyone is running today near the government house, the official seat of Thailand’s prime minister, it's probably from a bomb or grenade. Anti-government demonstrators from the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) group have occupied the area since August. The pro-government United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) held a rally Nov. 1 which drew 60,000 to a stadium in Bangkok to hear a message from Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled former prime minister who has polarized politics in this country. The PAD is threatening to blockade an important session of Parliament tomorrow. An identical blockade Oct. 7 resulted in running street battles between police and protesters in which two people were killed, and hundreds, including many police, were injured by lethal tear gas canisters purchased from China. Last Thursday, and again yesterday morning, grenades were hurled into the PAD compound killing two and injuring dozens.

Some have suggested that competition in sports can be a substitute for war. Nationalism is rampant but relatively harmless during the Olympics, although hooliganism at soccer games in Europe occasionally ends in riots. I think PAD members, who wear yellow shirts, should engage in a race with UDD members, in their red shirts, with the spoils of government going to the victors. Unfortunately, there is not much to win. After three months of PAD occupation, the government offices are so trashed that one newspaper article suggested they be replaced after the siege ends. Currently the government is being managed, or mismanaged depending on your point of view, from the old Don Muang airport north of the city.

I've written often this year about Thai politics, a mysterious maze to the uninitiated, but I cannot see a satisfactory end to the long-running conflict. A story in a CNN blog yesterday is headlined "Thailand's Descent Into Chaos." According to Reuters correspondent Ed Cropley, "Whatever happens, Thailand is likely to remain divided between the rural and urban poor who support Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted as leader in a 2006 coup, and the Bangkok middle and upper classes, loosely represented by the PAD, who despise him." PAD spokespersons have made it clear that they are seeking anarchy to encourage the military to stage yet another coup (an average of one every four years since 1932) leading to political rule by elites who have been thwarted in democratic elections that overwhelming favor Thaksin and his stand-ins.

The legal scene is every more complicated, as as a blizzard of court decisions make life harder for Thaksin and his supporters. Sean Crispin has written extensively about this "judicial coup" in Asia Times Online. A long-awaited decision to ban the ruling People's Power Party (PPP) for vote buying (a common practice by all parties) may set in motion "a concatenation of court-endorsed events that overhauls the country's politics and bids to bring its dangerously escalating political conflict to a conclusive end." If the courts rule against the PPP, the current leaders would be barred from politics for five years, but party members would immediately join the recently formed Puea Thai party; the same thing happened when the PPP replaced Thaksin's Thai Rak Tak party after it was disbanded. This game of political musical chairs is mystifying to an outsider. Crispin suggests that the PAD has an alternative plan, its own version of a judicial coup leading to an interim "Supreme Council" which could take charge, similar to China's state council or cabinet.
The PAD-favored scenario would allow the conservative forces that have aligned behind its movement - including segments of the military, bureaucracy, opposition Democrat Party and, at least symbolically, the monarchy - to overhaul the country's politics in the name of the rule of law and without resorting to what would likely be an unpopular military putsch.
This move "would intentionally diminish the popular voice," Crispin says. Two senior judges have had their residences targeted by small explosives in recent weeks by forces upset by the court decisions. And the PAD solution might also "forge a final, non-violent solution to the country's debilitating political crisis while in the process guaranteeing the future centrality of the monarchy in Thai society after the highly revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej eventually passes from the scene." The possibility that Thailand's "now simmering street violence between Thaksin's supporters and his PAD detractors explodes into full-blown civil strife without some sort of perceived neutral intervention from above," is worrying, Crispin writes.

Despite the potential conflict across the river, life goes on as usual in Pinklao after the passing of the marathon runners this morning. Occasionally I ride in taxis whose drivers have the radio tuned to the endless PAD rally, and one of them wanted affirmation from me that the anti-government mob was justified (who am I to disagree with a driver racing through Bangkok at unsafe speeds?). My life certainly continues as before, but no day remains the same. My smiling monks pretend to understand my English and I diligently correct their mistakes on the essays they send me by email. Last week my song exercise was "Take Me To Your Heart," by Michael Learns to Rock, a selection suggested to me by Phra Chheav, a monk in his 20s from Cambodia. I'd never heard of MLTR before, but with the help of Google I was able to describe them as successful Danish group who write hit songs in English. They will in fact be performing in Bangkok this week but at prices range from 1000-4000 baht which is a bit high for my students.

There is a new woman in my life. We met a year and a half ago on a Thai dating web site when I was still in California. Our intense conversations, for various reasons, did not lead to a meeting when I arrived in Bangkok last August. We kept in touch, however, and when Pim left, I met her one afternoon for a long conversation on a bench in Bencha Siri Park on Sukhumvit next to the Emporium. I found her to be intelligent, feisty, funny and irritatingly stubborn, but utterly chaming. The following week we went to see the new Woody Allen film at the Bangkok Film Festival, followed by a visit to the "Traces of Siamese Smile" exhibit at the new Bangkok Art & Culture Centre. Then...nothing. She lives at home with her parents on the other side of the city from me and is a dedicated teacher with little time to spare. Finally, we managed to meet again yesterday and sparks of friendship flew, with the promise of perhaps much more. Since she reads this blog and refuses to let me take her photo (a prudent precaution), I will respect her privacy and leave her nameless for now.

Pim has made a few moves toward friendship, seeking my help with an eBay business and offering to clean my room, and last week we chatted online for the first time in weeks. When I heard she was seeing a 55-year-old Canadian who works in Thailand and Vietnam, I simmered for a bit and then became "Mr. Upset man" once again. Her stated reason for ending our relationship had been that she could not have an old man for a boyfriend; she would lose face with her friends and relatives. But here she was seeking another whom, she acknowledged, was not as generous as I. I lost my cool (which maybe I never had) and sent her a few angry emails accusing her of lying to me about leaving (you were probably bored, I said, and never really loved me) and accused her of replacing me with another old man rather than seeking a young man to marry who would give her children, which she said she wanted. So once again there is silence between us which will probably become permanent. I just have no talent for ending relationships well.

Looking for a new love has been exhausting. I spend way too much time online scanning the most productive social networking sites here, Hi5 (Thailand's favorite network) and Tagged, and the dating site ThaiLoveLinks. There seem to be hundreds (perhaps even more?) of Thai women who are ready and willing to love an old farang. Many, if not most, are poor girls from upcountry farming families, or store and office workers in Bangkok who send money to their relatives back in Isan. Quite a few have children being raised by their grandparents. Meeting them online and in person is an education in Thai society and culture. Most make appallingly low wages, typically between 9,000 and 11,000 baht (a fifth of my Social Security income), and send a quarter of that back home. They live in tiny rooms with a small collection of possessions, sometimes with a roommate, and share a toilet and shower with others. There are no jobs back in the villages of northeastern Thailand, and little chance of advancement in BKK, so the prospect of a beneficial romance with an elderly farang can be enticing.

So I read Thai blogs and web sites and watch Thai TV to monitor the political conflict not far from me over the river. The King will be 81 on December 5th and Thailand will throw a party in his honor with celebrations and fireworks that will be respected by both political factions. But if violence hasn't occurred before then, it might soon after if a compromise cannot be found on which all will agree. At the moment this does not seem likely. Maybe I should take up running again.

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