Thursday, January 09, 2014

Waiting for Armegeddon

Anticipating the shutdown of Bangkok next Monday by tens of thousands of anti-government protestors brings up memories of the great flood of 2011.  We knew it was time to leave Bangkok when the cockroaches came up out of the sidewalk pursued by rising waters.  By then the major thoroughfare outside our condo was nearly empty as were shelves in the nearby stores.  At first we journeyed south to stay with Nan's cousin and then north on a bus that skirted the flooded areas of the city to the province of Phayao where my wife's family lives in a small village.  In the beautiful (and dry) rural surroundings, we waited for two weeks until the waters subsided before returning home.

There the similarity ends.  While large protests have disrupted select areas of the capital for decades, this "final battle" has been planned to make Bangkok totally ungovernable and to bring down the administration led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of the exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin. Given recent experience and statements, no help can be expected from either the police or military and the governor of Bangkok, whose sympathies are with the protest, has remained silent.  No one knows how severe the shutdown will be or how much suffering will be caused.  Even though its purpose is to overturn the government and end the "Thaksin regime," the collateral damage for ordinary people in the city could be extensive.

My wife is not a worrier and tells me, quite often, to cool off, to be less serious and not to think too much, the usual advice Thais offer to agitated foreigners.  It's true that spending too much time on Twitter, Facebook and the internet searching for up-to-date information about the shutdown, the protestors and the government's response can be deleterious to health.  My couch is well worn where I sit to commune with my laptop.  Rather than exercise, I snack on Oreos and ice cream, afraid to abandon the internet for fear I'll miss something.

Friends outside Thailand who come across stories from here that seem alarming will inquire about my safety, or ask if I fear the possibility of violence.  Not really, I tell them.  For the most part all previous violence has been localized, even in 2010 when nearly 100 demonstrators were killed and a thousand injured.  I could look out my window and see the smoke from a mall that had been set ablaze, but it was from a safe distance.  In 2008, anti-government mobs closed airports, but fortunately I was not flying anywhere.  Since I don't drive, clogged highways are usually no problem unless I'm in a bus.  And the BTS Skytrain travels above the crowded streets while the MRT subway goes underground.  There's always the river taxis to get where I want to go.

To be honest, the political strife in Thailand is exhilarating.  When I was a boy I wanted to grow up and lead an exciting life.  And for the most part I've achieved that aim, with no bucket list needed.  Since becoming an expat, I've studied the history and politics of the region diligently to try and understand events that sometimes mystify outsiders. Now that I've been taken prisoner by social media, I participate passionately in online discussions and exchange information with like-minded "friends."

I moved here for good not until after the "bloodless" military coup that ousted Thaksin in 2006. I remember people voting in a referendum to approve the constitution written by coup leaders that was designed to block politicians like Thaksin who had become too popular for the ruling interests. But in 2008, voters elected Thaksin partisans to office.  The first PM was ousted by a court set up by coup leaders because he received pay for hosting a TV cooking show, and his replacement fell afoul of other legal problems.  Through back-room deals, Abhisit, leader of the opposition Democrat party, was selected to replace the Thaksin party in office.  The two-month protest in 2010 was intended to force him to hold new elections, but these only took place after the protest was violently ended.  In the next election, Thaksin's sister won overwhelmingly with votes primarily from the northern and northeastern provinces.  Now her reign appears to be ending.

My intention here is not to provide a history of current events or to argue the pros and cons of Thai politics; I do that on Facebook and Twitter.  What I'd like to do is give a sense of what it feels like to be under siege and not to know what the future holds.  Recently my brother and I have been debating the significance of Near Death Experiences (NDEs).  For him, the evidence shows that non-local consciousness, unconnected with a body, is a real possibility.  But my reading of neuroscience in the past year has convinced me that consciousness, mind and self require brains.  I wonder why some people feel the need for a metaphysical soul that transcends death of the body.  "Are you going to be shocked if and when you find out you're wrong," he said as his parting shot.  I'll be surprised if I survive 2014, was my reply.

Uncertainty is a curious state to be in.  I told my students Tuesday that I didn't know whether we would have a class next week but I hoped we would.  If they can get through the blockade Monday and go to our campus an hour away near Ayutthaya, then I would try to get there on the school's commuter bus the next day.  But at this point, who knows?  I worry about Nan who works at a hotel in Siam near where several intersections are scheduled to be blocked.  She can use the river and Skytrain to get to work, but not after dark when river traffic ceases.  If the chaos is too bad she can sleep at the hotel.  We live in Pinklao, a section of Thonburi across the river and from the maps I've seen we should be able to move around this area with no trouble.

Thais ask me, as the head of my department did Tuesday at school, "When will you go back to America?"  They are thinking the political chaos that has plagued their country for so long will send me packing: 18 coups since the country was declared a constitutional monarchy in 1932, the shooting of citizens demonstrating in the streets in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010, intrigue around the Palace and draconian laws that make much discussion impossible, and traffic that defeats all attempts at control.  But from the moment I first arrived here almost 10 years ago I have felt at home in Thailand.  When asked why, I come up with the usual suspects: weather, food, beaches, friendly and generous people, Buddhism and temples, etc.  The reasons really don't matter.  I'm not a complainer like those sorry expats on the internet boards who come for beer, surf and women and hate everything else about their adopted country.  For me, it's just...home.

Today, however, the mob of protestors, led by the demagogue Suthep, will march on a trial run through my neighborhood a block away from our condo.  I'm leaving after lunch to go into the city to see a friend and attend an event held by my Buddhist group.  I may encounter them on my way to the river to catch a water taxi.  If I do I'll smile approvingly like a dumb tourist and take lots of pictures of the marchers.  I've done this several times so that all I know doesn't just come out of my computer screen.

There are many scenarios from different commentators about what might happen in the next week.  None of them are benign.  Yingluck has called for a new election on Feb. 2 which she will surely win, so the opposition is boycotting the election (this is a repeat of events of 2006).  In Thailand the military's role is to protect the monarchy rather than the people, and they have so far refused to help make sure the election takes place.  Candidates in southern provinces controlled by the opposition have not even been allowed to register by protestors.  Several court decisions in the last week could very well impact Yingluck and her political party which might prevent an election.

But the most worrying scenario involves the government's supporters in the north and northeast who have seen their will in several elections thwarted by powerful Bangkok interests including the military, and they've vowed to strongly resist the changes demanded by Suthep's mob of protestors who seek to end the election they cannot win.  At worst, Thailand could descend into civil war, with the possibility of the country splitting in two.  When the bullets start flying, we would then get on the next bus to Phayao. But it might take longer than the flood waters to recede for Thailand to return to normal.  This haunts my daydreams and tempers any excitement I feel about the grand drama of Thai politics to which I am a witness.

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