Sunday, April 12, 2009

Dangerous Streets

I was prepared to stay off the streets for the next four days to avoid a soaking from locals celebrating Songkran, the Thai New Year's festival that has evolved from a symbolic water blessing for monks and the elderly into an all out street water fight. I didn't expect I would also be in danger from a revolution.

As I write this on Easter evening at 6 pm, the TV stations are showing news footage of a confrontation between red-shirted anti-government protesters and helmeted police and military troops. The demonstration by over 100,000 Thais near Government House in Bangkok that I thought peaceful and even festive when I visited on Wednesday has spiraled out of control. The next day, large groups occupied the traffic circles around Victory and Democracy monuments and created instant chaos. And the day after that, several thousand protesters traveled to the beach city of Pattaya where Thailand was hosting a South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, sending foreign leaders fleeing and humiliating Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva. Here, a new group joined the colorful mix. Attacking the reds were men who wore blues shirts bearing the slogan "Protect the Institution," code for the monarchy, and who were rumored to be in the pay of a well-known political godfather who is angry at Thaksin. They were armed armed with sticks, clubs and iron rods, but were no match for the more numerous reds.

Despite a heavy security presence, the mob in red was easily able to enter the conference hotel, breaking down glass doors while the troops stood idly by. This was reminiscent of the failure of police and military to prevent the shutting down on Suvarnabhumi Airport by a yellow-clad mob last December. No matter what party is in power, the forces responsible for the rule of law in Thailand have refused to help. What is the definition of a failed state?

It got worse today . The red shirts invaded the Interior Ministry looking for Abhisit and trashed several cars. Abhisit escaped with minor injuries to his arm, but again, the mob was able to move at will despite the police and soldiers standing by. Later Abhisit, calling the red shirts "public enemies," issued an emergency decree which forbids gatherings of more than five people. This may be difficult to enforce when thousands are lining the streets to exchange offerings of Songkran water. Tanks and armored personnel carriers were seen on the streets this morning, but several of them were immediately captured by the red shirts. Supposedly 1,000 troops are on their way to Government House where perhaps 10,000 red shirts continue to occupy the ground around the seat of political power.

In the online version of one of Bangkok's English language paper, The Nation, Tulsathit Taptim wrote that "The political showdown has reached the point where everyone can only pray and nobody dares to predict the outcome." Thailand "is staring at one of the most monumentous political showdowns in modern history. And interestingly, both warring parties are up against the ropes." The prime minister must shed his Mr. Nice Guy image and hope that the generals will support his attempt to put the genie back in the bottle. Although the red shirts, led by the exiled Thaksin Shinawatra who speaks to them by video each night, promised to end the demonstration by Songkran, it's clear that they can't go home empty handed. Only the end of the Abhisit government and new elections will satisfy them. Abhisit, however, is not going quietly. If I understand the TV images correctly, red shirts are rallying in support throughout the country. A crackdown in Bangkok will draw a quick reaction.

I stare dumbly at the TV screen, watching the images of dissent and listening to words I cannot understand. I check Bangkok Pundit and The Nation frequently for their latest updates. My neighborhood, Pinklao, is quiet, many of the residents having gone to their home provinces for this most popular of Thai holidays. Most of the stores will be closed for the next three days, include those in my building (hopefully the 7-11 will remain open for emergency supplies). I love this country and I do not want to see it split apart by conflicts between Thaksin-lovers and Thaksin-haters, between the urban middle-class and the upcountry poor, between those who thirst for true representative democracy and their opponents who would prefer that the military and monarchy stay in charge. The most likely solution of last resort is for the military to take over once again, although this time the red shirts have indicated they would fight to prevent that.

Mot left this morning to visit her family in Roi Et for Songkran. I had expected the water fights to begin yesterday, and when we went out in the afternoon to the movies I carried only the bare essentials: apartment key, security pass for the building door, and my money in a plastic bag. Last year in Chiang Mai my camera was destroyed and my wallet soaked after a day in the streets. But I was premature, at least in Pinklao. Even this morning there were no squirt guns in evidence. I've come down with a chest cold, so the chance to spend a few days on the couch with books and TV is not unwelcome. Probably by Wednesday I'll have cabin fever and will be ready to test the waters in the street.

I had wanted to write a reflection on Easter today, but I don't know how to connect the news photos of an Australian in the Phillipines who voluntarily underwent crucifixion (use sterilized nails, a doctor advised) with the real struggle for political power here in Thailand. Easter is not among the foreign holidays that Thais honor; they know nothing of the Easter bunny or the western custom of hiding colored eggs in the garden for children to discover. After a year and a half away from the Church and its rituals, the story of God's death and resurrection no longer inspires me. Why must Jesus die for his teachings about justice to be meaningful? If the message is that life involves suffering, the Buddha taught that five hundred years before. The Easter event was responsible for a wave of martyrdom before Christianity became a state religion. Missionaries throughout Asia willingly died rather than renounce their identity as Christians. Why is that something good, to die for belief? Better to LIVE for one.

My Easter wish, if I'm permitted one, is that no one dies here in Thailand for their beliefs, and that the current standoff be settled through a renewed political process in which differences can be resolved through dialogue rather than street demonstrations and tanks.


Anonymous said...

Amen to that Will. Thanks, as always, for your excellent writing.


Barb said...

Take care Bill. Just as I opened your Blog the TV news showed Bankok and the uprising. It's 2:30am and I will stay up a bit longer and see if there is more info. Again, take care.


hobby said...

Thanks for the comment over at my blog.

Never come across your blog before and will explore more later, but I like what I have seen so far.

Maybe you already know more than me, but the Australian getting crucified was John Saffron(?) a tv/radio presenter well known for 'stunts' - I saw a snippet on tv news where they said he did it for his mother suffering cancer and also for an upcoming tv/film - have not had a chance to follow it with the Thailand stuff occupying my mind for the last 4 days.