Thursday, January 27, 2011

Let Them Eat Bread

I've been puzzling over this photograph for a week and have yet to learn what the loaves of French bread signify.  There is a sign in French but I can't make it out, and others are in Chinese or Japanese.  The occasion was a gathering a week ago organized by the left-leaning United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (popularly known as the "red shirts") at Ratchaprasong, the heart of the shopping area in Bangkok where a two-month sit-in eight months ago ended with the deaths of over 90 people and perhaps a thousand injured.  Despite a lengthy government investigation, no one has been held accountable and many red shirt leaders remain jailed without charge or trial.  Official gestures toward reconciliation went nowhere and the political divide between Bangkok's ruling elite and the rest of the country that seeks a stake in running things (i.e., democracy) is deeper than ever.

The red shirts are terrific symbologists.  Before the violence last year, demonstrators donated blood and then splashed it on the gates of Government House and on the door of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's residence.  Vendors sold flip-flops with the faces of opponents printed on them so that walkers could exercise their disgust with the opposition.  The insult was taken so seriously that one vendor was jailed for selling them.  Homemade art at red demonstrations casts aspersions on the true gender of politicians and generals.  It was all very funny until the bombs and shooting began.

I've been trying to get up to speed on the current situation.   Since the ending of a nine-month-long emergency decree last month which curtailed much political activity, the warring factions have taken again to the streets calling for Abhisit's head and new elections.  The red shirts, who fielded perhaps a half million people the first weekend in January and 40,000 a week ago, are promising mass demonstrations weekly until the government resigns.  Agreeing with them on this, if nothing else, is the People's Alliance for Democracy (popularly known as yellow shirts), a radical rightist group that has contributed to the fall of three governments since 2006 and notoriously closed the international airport in 2008 with a sit-in.  They've just begun a sit-in outside Government House with 5,000 people that has closed the street and vow to remain until Abhisit quits.  In the past the chief bone of contention was Thaksin Shinawatra, the deposed and exiled prime minister whose followers form perhaps the core (but not all) of the red shirts.  Now, however, the issue is national sovereignty.  The yellow shirts and their allies, the Thai Patriots Network and the Santi Asoke sect of Buddhist purists are angry that the government won't make Cambodia return to Thailand a tiny sliver of border land that contains the contested Preah Vihear temple, a World Heritage site.  Earlier this month a group of Thais, including a member of Abhisit's party, were arrested by Cambodia for trespassing, but later released.   This only stoked the fires of patriotic outrage.  The military is rattling sabers along the border and has even ordered some expensive submarines, perhaps to make an attack by sea on its neighbor a possibility.   The who scenario is enough to make my head swim.

During the days of April and May 2010, Twitter and Facebook became invaluable tools for following the news in Thailand.  International reporters and foolhardy tourists took to the streets with their smart phones and sent photos and tweets to the followers like me eager for late breaking news but sensible enough to stay out of the danger areas of Bangkok.  It's easy to understand how important Twitter was to the short-lived protests in Iran last year and to the successful overthrow of the government most recently in Tunisia, still ongoing.  Right now there are angry and violent street protests taking place in Lebanon and Egypt and I would not be surprised to see them spread to other autocratic regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere.  Thailand and perhaps even repressive Burma will not escape their fallout.  The fear, of course, is that calls by the people for democracy and freedom from oppressive dictatorships might end in religious fundamentalist regimes.  But, as we've seen in Iran, a people with global awareness through social networking will not accept a curtailment of their liberty in any form.  I feel very hopeful for the future although I fear the birth pangs may be unpleasant.

Another welcome event is the explosion of leaks that are bringing to light many secrets the powerful of the world would not like the people to know.  There are far too many revelations to absorb and I am thankful to the newspaper reporters and bloggers who are selectively exposing and explaining what Julian Assange has wrought with his Wikileaks maneuvers.  I am still waiting to learn more about the leaked diplomatic cables from Thailand that unveil unguarded opinions causing tremors in high places.  But the most scandalous revelations at the moment are contained in the Palestine Papers which put the lie to U.S. neutrality and Israel's negotiations in good faith and show the Abbas government willing to give away almost everything to get practically nothing.  Robert Fisk has a very good analysis.  I would not be surprised to see major street demonstrations soon calling for the overthrow of the present Palestinian government. 

I'm a dedicated Facebook user and an occasional Twitter poster.  Only the technophobic can fail to see their usefulness.  I accept that print media and maybe even bookstores (sigh!) will eventually be replaced by the multiplicity of digital tools and platforms available and to come.  It's a whole new world out there, folks!  And speaking of new technologies, these are the nails Nan had had painted on before our evening dinner at Bayoke Tower last Sunday.  Each fingernail was painted separately by an artist at a booth in the Major shopping center up the street.  It took an hour, and they're quite remarkable.


Sam Deedes said...

If I'm not mistaken, the French loaves were inspired by a picture of a Tunisian demonstrator who happened to be holding one whilst arguing with police.

Anonymous said...

This French loaf protest from Tunisia is probably bound up with anger against food shortages or the death of a French photographer, or both.