UPDATES THROUGH THE END OF MAY APPEAR BELOW
11 April 2010
The Red Plague
There are quite a few things I would love to forget from the last decade in Thailand. The past few weeks will be fairly close to the top of my list.
I have said more than once in this blog that peasant revolts lead by the wealthy and the powerful seldom go well for the peasants, and what I have seen over the past three weeks proves it painfully.
The "Red Shirts," those Thai people who are loyal to convicted fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, began protesting peacefully three weeks ago for "democracy." Leaders of the Reds promised a "million man march," but managed to come up with only about 100,000, almost entirely from the rural "rice belt." They want the current Prime Minister to dissolve Parliament and leave the country. Although he was legally chosen in an election marred by the kind of rice belt corruption and fraud we see in every election here, the Red Shirts somehow believe that democracy has been lost, which proves that you can tell a lie so many times that it begins to resemble truth.
It seemed like all 100,000 managed to travel down Petcheburi Road, the street where I live, on a Saturday afternoon three weeks ago. Taxis, buses and normal traffic were not able to navigate this sea of red and I was annoyed that I was unable to go to the supermarket that day. Instead, I went out onto the street with my camera to capture this spectacle. It was not the kind of experience I expected.
Unlike Bangkokians, most Red Shirts are dark, leathery people, hardened from years of toil and poverty. Piled on the backs of trucks, and on motorbikes, they poured down the street waving flags, honking horns, blowing whistles and making as much noise as they could. There was no hint of political agenda. Instead, it was a street party. They were thrilled to feel empowered for the moment, and perhaps draw some attention to the quality of their lives. Several times I was invited to climb into the back of a truck and make my share of noise. The Reds were clearly enjoying themselves and people on the sidewalk were swept up in the occasion.
Two thirds of them, we were told by the newspapers, had departed the next day, leaving their leaders to come up with a blood sacrifice of sorts. Donated blood, collected from those who remained (or so they said) was spilled ceremoniously on the steps of the Parliament building and the gate to the Prime Minister's residence.
The following Saturday was a replay of the first, but soon the protesters took up what they vowed would be permanent residence on the street in front of Central World Plaza, at the very heart of Bangkok's upmarket shopping district, and two blocks from where I live. The inconvenience of not being able to leave home or to have to take long, complicated routes around the demonstrators was not nearly as stressful as hearing the crowd day and night. Loud speakers blared with angry speeches at all hours to the accompaniment of whistles, horns and cheers.
The government vowed to remain non-violent and unarmed police divisions kept an almost-respectful distance until Reds took the offense and drove a group of soldiers into nearby Lumpini Park. Somehow, weapons were captured and newspapers carried front page photos of Reds leaders holding automatic rifles and teargas. Since then, the Reds managed to seize even more weapons and military and police vehicles.
Last Friday was the final day of work for most city-dwellers before the long Songkran holiday, when people go home to their villages to eat mom's home cooking, complain about the heat and throw water on each other. On my ride to work that morning it looked like the Reds had come up with their missing 900,000. They were everywhere, as far as the eye could see. Yesterday, Saturday, those who had held the street in front of Central World Plaza had inexplicably moved on. As dark fell, however, they reappeared.
The scene from my balcony last night was surreal. I could hear the riot just blocks away... screaming, thousands of whistles, and the amplified prodding of the Red leaders. I could smell tear gas, the smell of violence, still unmistakable after thirty years. I could see thousands of Reds in tucks and on motorbikes leaving in haste, red flags streaming in the gaudy twinkling, blinking and glare of Bangkok street lights.
At four this morning I was awakened by an explosion. During the night clashes between police, army and the demonstrators had taken more than twenty lives. Thai politics have arrived at a sobering juncture and we are pushed to the brink of civil war.
During the past three weeks deposed PM Thaksin Shinawatra has appeared regularly in big-screen satellite broadcasts to his followers. Today, he says he is sad about at the events that took place yesterday. And he says he is "lonely" in whichever of the exile pleasure palaces he is holed up--perhaps Hong Kong or Montenegro, but probably Dubai. (Cambodian PM Hun Sen seems to have turned his back on Thaksin and has withdrawn the welcome mat there.) That has angered many here, from the ardently anti-Thaksin to the silent majority.
Not much more than a month ago the nation's Supreme Court ruled that most of the funds frozen in Thaksin's accounts in Thailand were ill-gotten as the result of his abuse of power as Prime Minister. I heard more than once from the agrarian family of friends and employees that they believed Thaksin would distribute this money (more than two billion US dollars) to his supporters if he returned to power, a fanciful idea to the urban educated. Toppling the government would achieve that goal.
During this hot, rainless season farmers have virtually no income. Has Thaksin paid these ignorant farmers about $5 a day o be his private army and lay down their lives? While many draw that conclusion, it will take time to prove. Surely it has cost several million baht a day to feed protestors and to provide fuel for their vehicles, and that has to be coming from somewhere. It is universally accepted that Thaksin is footing the bill and that the leaders of the Reds are doing his bidding.
History is likely remember Thaksin as a highly egotistical man who, in the words of filmmaker John Waters "bruises and sues easily." He has certainly amassed "excessive wealth," something that appears to be a crime in Thailand. His own government was toppled in a coup. He points out that he has never resigned and in his own mind he is still the elected leader of the nation.
No stranger to civil disobedience, I laid my body on railroad tracks to block new recruits going to war in the late Sixties. I have been maced, beaten, tear-gassed and jailed. I lived two blocks from Castro Street in the seventies and miraculously escaped appearing in historic footage of all those candle-light marches and police altercations shown in the film Milk. I participated in burning of police cars in the White Night Riots, the night when Milk's murderer receive nothing more than a slap on the wrist for that he had done.
Thus, I understand the extreme measures that people are sometimes compelled to take to get the world's attention and to bring about change. However, this was not the case over the last two days in Bangkok. The eight hundred injuries and loss of more than twenty lives on both sides was completely pointless. History will probably show that this was not a fight for "democracy," but a fight to prop up the ego of a single spoiled, man and to recover the billions he will never be able to spend in twenty lifetimes.
While Red Shirts assume the role of innocent victims in the days to come, Thailand is the real victim. We have already suffered tourism losses in the billions of dollars. Her prestige abroad as been soiled. Thousands in my neighborhood, from the owners of department stores, to their wage-earners, to street vendors and even the many people who sell grilled chicken and somtom on nearby sidewalks have been unable to earn their livings. They are victims as well.
Saturday was a black day for our otherwise-peaceful Kingdom. Although most visitors here at the time saw no hint of the unrest except on TV, millions will be afraid to visit here because it is "unsafe." I hope you are not one of them. I am staying put. I hope you do not fall out of love with Thailand yourself. Hopefully, this episode is nearly over and we will need you here more than ever.
In the mean time, the Reds still hold the street at Central World Plaza and access to many nearby intersections are under their control after blocking them with ten-wheeled trucks.
Read a related story in our newsletter: www.clubsanook.com/newsletters/
1 May 2010
Just about every major country in the world, including my own, has issued travel advisories that instruct their citizens not to travel to Thailand. Tui Travel, one of Europe's largest tour operator actually "rescued" thousands of their customers who were already vacationing in Thailand. Can you imagine someone enjoying the beach in Phuket being almost forcibly removed from Thailand? Tui Travel's decision was hysterical and borders on irresponsible.
Although tourists are not a target, tourism in Thailand is indeed a victim. Hotels are empty. So are bars, restaurants, beaches and even brothels. All because of events taking place within a four square kilometer area in downtown Bangkok.
What is wrong with this picture? I am one of tens of thousands of people in Bangkok who put up with this situation every day. I live at one end of the Red Zone and work at the other. I routinely drive right through the middle of it just so that I can see with my own eyes what is going on. We were stopped this morning on the way into the Lumpini Park encampment by several guys who politely asked if they could search the car for weapons. Wais and apologies all around, and we were on our way. No blood was spilled. Tourists are not the target, yet tourism is the victim.
So what makes perfectly normal, educated people decide to avoid an entire country because of a travel advisory? Television, that's what. Kill the damn thing before it controls you completely.
4 May 2010
The Plague Continues
Quite a bit has happened in the nearly-four weeks since this blog was first published. The number of demonstrators has grown, and so has their "territory," which has been encircled with high walls of old tires, sharpened bamboo poles, sandbags, razor wire and red flags. Click on the small map on the right to see how the demonstration has grown. From Petcheburi in the North to Rama IV in the South it stretches two kilometers.
There have been other major developments:
The Red Shirts are no longer wearing red shirts. Their leaders decided after the April 10th riot that this made them easy targets. this also makes it more difficult for them to identify each other.
A growing number of "watermelons" have complicated things. Police and army personnel wear green but some of them are red on the inside. As a result, the police and army have lost quite a few vehicles and weapons. Several arrests have been made over the past few weeks of suspected red shirt leaders who were in possession of "weapons of war" including automatic rifles, grenades and grenade launchers.
Also not long ago, a detail of police officers were dispatched to a hotel (owned by Thaksin Shinawatra) where several Red Shirt leaders were believed to be staying. A deputy prime minister announced on live TV that a raid was about to take place at this hotel. Of course nobody who stays in hotels ever watches TV. Within minutes the bad guys were climbing out of the windows of the hotel while the police details stood and watched.
The Red Shirt encampment around the Rama VI statue on the edge of Lumpini Park has become a flash point. On 21 and 22 April there were open confrontations with a group calling itself "Love Silom." These were apparently people who live or work in the neighborhood who did not enjoy having Red Shirts as neighbors and began throwing things (including gasoline bombs) over the Red Shirts' wall. On the 22nd the Reds retaliated by launching grenades into the crowd, injuring many and killing one.
Last week a group of 100 (200 if you believe the newspapers) Lumpini Reds raided Chulalongkorn ("Chula") University Hospital across the road. They were looking for police snipers and found none. In the process they terrorized both patients and staff. The following day the hospital relocated more than 600 patients including the Supreme Patriarch (something like the Pope of Thai Buddhists) to other hospitals. There were several near deaths in this process.
This hospital is operated under the auspices of the International Red Cross and is protected by the Geneva Convention. Although known for their brutality, the Japanese did nothing to interfere with the hospital when Bangkok was occupied during WWII. Hospital administration and staff have made it clear that they do not and will not take sides.
The raid on Chula Hospital will probably be remembered as a pivotal event during this saga. Some Red Shirt leaders apologized and it became clear that there were now factions among the group, and that there was no clear leadership.
And who are these leaders? A psychopathic rogue Major General in the Thai army, a former country singer, a washed-up TV star, a number of self-appointed "intellectuals" and quite a few members of the Thai Communist Party in the sixties and the seventies. The latter should offer you some clues into the thinking of those who are indoctrinating this mob day and night.)
The street in front of the hospital had been closed off by the Reds, making it impossible for emergency vehicles to get in or out. The road was finally cleared yesterday, so I decided to take this scenic route on my way to work this morning. My driver asked me if I was afraid. I was wearing a pink (the color of the opposition to the Reds) shirt and felt like making some trouble. We were able to drive right into the camp. Our car was stopped and searched very politely. (I am not sure which side the guys who stopped us were on. ) We had a very close look at all the people and the hundreds of large tents with thin mattresses on the ground and laundry hanging everywhere. They will not have much time to pack up when the government finally comes to push them out.
We are on our third day of heavy thunderstorms and the people living in the compound looked ragged. The government has been text messaging all mobile phones within a small signal area to invite people to leave. (I got one myself, which I plan to keep as a souvenir until this phone dies.) Fractured leadership, an abandoned uniform, bad weather and subtle government pressure may have some of these people wondering what the hell they are doing there.
5 May 2010
Glimmers of Peace
As this debacle with the Reds goes into its seventh week the Prime Minister has made an offer that the Reds have accepted in principle. I should say from the outset that many of us here have been extremely frustrated by the lack of determination on the part of the government to bring about a swift end through the use of force. I now see and admire the patience they have taken to avoid bloodshed. So far 28 have died rather needlessly. More than 1000 have been injured. Nameless former prime ministers have never been bothered by blood on their hands. However, Ahbisit is different.
Ahbisit's five-point plan includes a committee that represents all sides to discuss reforms to the constitution. Thailand's constitution has been passed around and maligned more than a two dollar hooker over the past two decades. It has become a tool successive governments have used to help themselves and their friends at the expense of everyone else. A second point involves solutions to close the widening economic gap between Thais from the agrarian Northeast and the growing urban middle classes.
A third point reminds us all that we need to respect the monarchy. The government claims to have uncovered a plot in the last few weeks to by some powerful people (presumably on the side of the Red Shirts) to topple the institution. To be honestly, HM the King is the very glue that holds this country together. Any plan to force an end to the monarchy would result in far more terrible things than we have seen in Bangkok over the last few weeks.
Next, the government has called for media reform. In particular, they want a lack of bias on the part of the media. Both sides in this confrontation have their own radio and TV stations, and these have been used to incite anarchy. During the Thaksin administration the media were virtually silenced if they were critical of him or his government.
Last, elections would be held in November after dissolving the current government about six weeks prior. The Red Shirts have demanded an immediate dissolution of the government that was due to remain until November, so this is a compromise. Not being a constitutional scholar I am not quite sure who runs the country when it is without a government. Could the Red Shirts use this gap between dissolution and elections to bring back Thaksin Shinawatra? That may be on their minds, or it may not be. What I can predict, however, is that those who supported the Red Shirts will probably not do as well in a November election as they may be dreaming. I conduct a scientific poll twice a day when I take taxis to and from work. Taxi drivers have always been among Thaksin's biggest supporters. Nowadays, when asked about Thaksin and the Red Shirts I hear words I am not familiar with. If I spoke Thai better, I would swear they are using profanity.
Yesterday, the Red Shirt leaders introduced the issue of a blanket pardon for all those who committed crimes. There have already been arrests for acts of terrorism. I do not see Ahbisit giving too much ground on this issue. But who knows? This is Thailand.
Today marks the sixtieth anniversary of the coronation of His Majesty the King. That is a very long time for anyone to keep a job. For once, the Red Shirts did not make the headlines today.
6 May 2010
Fat Lady Begins to Sing
Thai Prime Minister Ahbisit today announced that the government will be dissolved in September, although he has not given a specific date. From the beginning the Red Shirts demanded that the government be dissolved immediately. Yet, they seem happy. Both they and the government will walk away from this shameful chapter in Thai history feeling like the winner.
There seems to be resounding support for Ahbisit's five-part "road map to reconciliation." In smoky back rooms, however, there is still some arm-wrestling about amnesty for the Red Shirts and their leaders. They are also looking to vindicate leaders of convicted fugitive former Prime Mister Thaksin's now-defunct political party, who are not allowed to hold public office for five years.
The only significant condemnation of Ahbisit's plan came from the PAD, the very people who dawned yellow shirts and shut down Thailand's airports in late 2008. They have called for Ahbisit to resign because they do not like his plan. (Thai Airways sued PAD over the airport debacle and won a settlement of 575 million baht, around US$18 million, but have yet to collect.)
The only significant silence on Ahbisit's plan is coming from Thaksin Shinawatra, which is very uncharacteristic of him. Nobody is quite sure where he is, which is beginning to add some credibility to the rumors going around for the past two weeks that he is dead, or close to it. His ex wife (they divorced in 2009 on advice of their lawyers) unexpectedly left the country two weeks ago. Certain female members of his family were recently seen buying black apparel. He's still twittering, though, but any ghost can probably do that.
The only thing we can be absolutely sure of is that he is not in jail in Thailand.
9 May 2010
Bumpy Road to Peace
This edition of my blog has been going on for nearly a month. People here were optimistic about the future three days ago. But that was three days ago.
Two policemen standing watch near the Red Shirts' Lumpini camp were killed last night. The Reds are not taking any credit the killings. All the government will says is that the killings were at the hands of "forces that do not want the (Ahbisit government's) roadmap (to national reconciliation) to proceed." This could be a fanatical group of terrorists within the Red Shirt numbers, or even the Yellow Shirts (of invaded airports fame), who have condemned the Road Map.
Meanwhile, the Red Shirts are camped in the same place they have been for nearly one month. In fact, they brought in a contingent of 5,000 fresh, new protestor, which means I got no sleep last night. (Loud speeches and music go all night, which makes me believe they are using sleep depravation as part of their brainwashing.) They say they need "one or two days to think about" moving on. The Prime Minister wants an answer tomorrow, which is the first time he has come close to throwing down a gauntlet. Polls say his popularity has increased in the last month. Naturally I wonder why. However, I remind myself that this is Thailand and many things make no sense. That is part of the thrill of living here.
15 May 2010
News From the Front Lines
Not even a week has passed since the last installment of this endless blog and so much has happened that it one hardly knows where to begin, but here is what I can understand: Bla, bla, bla, bla, bla, bla, bla, bla, bla.
While the Red Shirts and practically everyone else involved in Thai politics have publicly agreed to the prime minister's "road map" it quickly became clear that the Reds were going to drag their feet. Some of their leaders released their own "Red Map" and the Reds began to pile extra conditions on. The PM finally issued an "or else" deadline for 10 May for the reds to leave the protest site.
Bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla. We have heard it all before. A deadline followed by an excuse followed by a deadline followed by excuses, followed by a veiled threat, followed by indignant accusations, followed by noisy rallies, followed by politicians performing in street theatre. It's like watching the same (bad) TV show over and over. The government has been crippled with fear that they might actually cause physical harm to terrorists who have held Bangkok hostage for months, while the Reds love the attention and behave like naughty children.
The 10th came and went and "or else" turned out to mean "we will sue you." Hilarious. Finally, however, the PM lost his patience, and things were set in motion to bring and end to the demonstrations by force, minus his idiot side-kick deputy PM and the even more idiotic watermelon who was running the army. Two days ago security forces began to surround the protest site and en masse. Protestors can leave (and get a free train ticket home), but nobody can get in. Food and water are cut off.
(I made the unfortunate decision to try to go to the office yesterday. There were no cars in site. I paid a neighbor to take me on his motorbike. Getting home was another matter. I paid a tuktuk driver handsomely. We were stopped at every intersection within eight blocks of where I live, required to produce ID and searched for weapons. I have not been manhandled by so many handsome soldiers for a long time, so I cannot say I minded it much.)
There have been deaths. However, that was predictable. Some civilians who failed to heed the warnings of the authorities to stay away from the area were wounded or killed. One high-profile Red Shirt leader calling himself "Seh Deng," or Red Leader (who also happened to be a major general in the Thai army until last week) was shot in the head by a sniper on Thursday night while giving an interview to foreign journalists. Neither the army or police have taken credit for this, so I am not yet sure where to send the gift basket.
There are thousands of armed soldiers on the street (three very cute guys have been guarding our office) so I feel safe, although I feel sorry that they have to wear full battle gear and helmets in this sweltering heat.
Fortunately I have electricity and water at home. The folks across the street are not so lucky. Mobile phone service just about everywhere has been cut. Has this been stressful? Absolutely. Gunfire and explosions all night. It reminds me of being back in San Francisco. If I can find my Kevlar bra I might sneak off to the supermarket.
Yesterday's toll: 16 dead, 157 injured. All because of one power-hungry man's greed.
Sunday, 16 May 2010
God Speaks at Last
Feeling somewhat immortal, but absent the Kevlar bra, I set out for Villa Supermarket yesterday afternoon. I am one stubborn SOB and nobody keeps me from my weekend marketing. The streets were absolutely empty. I walked through the warren of alleys lined with buttoned-down shops in Pratunam Market, emerged near Baiyoke 1 Tower and headed towards the Indra Regent Hotel on Rajprarop Road. There was not a single taxi or even a tukuk to be seen. From there I could see and hear the mass of people on the edge of the demonstration area one long block away. At the other end of the block were soldiers and several rolls of razor-wire stretched across the street.
Eventually I found one motorbike taxi who was crazier than I was. We set off through the narrow back-streets and soon enough we were on Petcheburi Road, headed towards the middle-class pleasures of Sukhumvit. The trip was surreal. There was not another vehicle in sight. Razor wire criss-crossed streets at every intersection. We passed through narrow road blocks manned by armed soldiers in the mind-melting 39 degree heat.
After shopping, I found another moto taxi to take me home by the same route. I saluted soldiers and blew kisses. We were not wearing red, so we were waved through without a second thought. I was pretty happy with myself, now supplied with a big box of red wine and a few Cuban cigars to survive the uncertain days ahead.
Big things are happening at the protest site. There were three large explosions early this afternoon, and sporadic gunfire. Two helicopters circled the area. I have heard that there are now armored vehicles in the area. After Friday's bloodbath the government is finally getting serious. At ten last night there were eight more explosions, probably grenades launched from behind the Red lines. I learned this morning that Rajprarop Road, where I crossed in front of the Indra Regent Hotel, had become a live fire zone as the Reds mounted an assault on the soldiers. The speeches and cheers from behind the barricades went uninterrupted through the night, like every night. This endless brainwashing always helps to conjure up ghosts from my past.
I was 17 when Jim Jones brought his flock from Indiana to the small town where I grew up in Northern California. I went to high school with quite a few of them. Twice they attended my church en mass. Jones was my high school civics teacher for half a term. Except perhaps for him, they were good people, mostly uneducated urban poor African American and Hispanic minorities. A few became friends. One was my flying instructor. Eventually Jones became a charismatic spiritual leader and many buses full of people would come from the San Francisco Bay Area every Sunday. Years later, I owned the travel agency that shipped them all off to Jonestown--something I will always have on my conscience. We handled all of the cults back then, including Est and Life Spring as well as British Petroleum, who became villainous only recently.
When I hear the all-night propaganda speeches spewing from the rally site every night, I never fail to think of those hundreds of members of the Peoples Temple who became Jim Jones' army of zombies. This has happened over and over in history. Stalin. Mao. Hitler. Jerry Falwell. Nixon. George Wallace. The lesson here is that if you tell a lie over and over and over it becomes the truth. And once you own the minds of your followers, you also own their lives and souls.
I am sad for the old people and the children in the demonstration site. I read one estimate in yesterday's Bangkok Post that as many as 70% of the crowd is made up of children and the elderly. I hope some of them come to their senses and leave before it is too late. I have also heard that the Reds have as many as 300 terrorists dressed in black among their numbers. They did much of the shooting on Friday. One French journalist was shot three times as the cameras rolled. The Red Shirts pleaded yesterday for the journalists to return with the promise that they would be properly protected. From what I hear there were no takers.
After forty days and forty nights God has sent a sign of Her displeasure. This morning it began to rain. It really rained and it looks like the storm will go on non-stop. Hopefully this will remind some in the rally site that they have farms that need tending. At the very least, the weather will slow the pointless blood-letting.
Thaksin's family, four Red Shirt leaders and a particularly scummy former Prime Minister who has been implicated in the alleged plot to overthrow the monarchy have fled the country. More will leave as the protest becomes increasingly hopeless.
The death toll as of today: 54
Monday, 17 May 2010
Pizza and Desperation
It's almost 7:00 p.m. and the sky is growing darker by the second. It's spooky because practically everything around me is completely dark. There are lights in three windows of the Amari Watergate Hotel. Baiyoke Sky and the Indra Regent are completely dark.
The government yesterday announced that today and tomorrow would be public holidays. Schools, banks, public offices and virtually every business within 3 to 5 kilometers of the rally site are completely shut down. The subway and SkyTrain are not in service.
This has been largely a day of waiting, although there have been some small events. The wacko Major General who ran security for the Red Shirts, alias "Seh Deng," died of his head wounds this morning. Fugitive convicted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, through his PR firm, issued a statement calling on the U.N. to mediate, which is a crass bit of comedy since he could end the entire protest if wanted to with a single phone call. He is trying to make himself out like a heroic leader of some kind. The government has frozen the bank accounts of 109 individuals and companies suspected of acting as financial conduits between Thaksin and his army of Reds in an effort to further strangle the protestors. Food and water are running very low at the protest site. Protestors have decided to keep their children and old women, even though the government has gone out of its way to warn them to move on.
The government issued an ultimatum this morning that the protestors would have to disband by 3:00 p.m. "or else." A small plane dropped leaflets over the crowd, suggesting that they leave or face a two year jail sentence. Fair warning, if you ask me. The Reds shot at the plane, of course. The deadline came and went and the protestors were reportedly singing and dancing. Secret talks are going on between the government and the Reds. Red leaders have been meeting but there have been no reports of the outcome. Isolated conflicts have broken out in other parts of the city, forcing security forces to enlarge the buffer zone around the demonstration site. They actually caught two Reds with a truck load of weapons at a road block. The driver said, essentially, "Gee, I don't know how those things got into my truck." There was gunfire in my small street in the afternoon. There are many narrow streets in this old part of Bangkok and the Reds have been trying to find ways to maneuver around the main, guarded Streets.
I have a home-made pizza in the oven but I am down to my last cigar. These are desperate times.
Tuesday, 18 May 2010
A Siamese Stand-Off
Dark is coming again. We might as well have skipped today completely. Without explanation, the government yesterday reversed itself and rescinded the 3:00 p.m. "or else" ultimatum. What could they be thinking? The Speaker of the House of Representatives has offered to mediate discussions between the Government and the Red Shirts. Both sides seem to have agreed. The government wants the demonstration to end before they back off. The Reds want the government troops to back off before they disband. With nobody blinking, this could go on endlessly.
SkyTrain and the subway will be closed again tomorrow. Schools will not reopen until next week. Like many here, I am getting bored with this entire episode and our tedious incarceration in our homes.. For me it is tedious because I live and work so close to the war zone. Yet, I chat online with friends not far away and the city seems to be humming along as it normally does. One friend was chatting from a Starbuck's less than three km from here and was thinking of going to see a movie later.
Hopefully there will be developments tomorrow. An editorial in today's Bangkok Post is one of the most brilliant things I have read about this conflict in the past two months. Thais do not often "tell it like it is." Many would rather lie than give anyone bad news. Live long enough in this magical Kingdom that often seems to completely lack common sense and you almost get used to it. However, Voranai Vanijaka has written something so frank, so honest, and so brilliant that I think it is worth reading twice: http://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/37395/put-an-end-to-this-rebellion. If you appreciate Khun Voranai's candor, please tell him so.
Wednesday, 19 May 2010
It Ends Today!
The Red Shirts turn on their music at 06:00 every day, jolting many out of bed, including me. There is no "snooze alarm" when it comes to the great din coming from the Big Stage down below. Unless there is special entertainment or an inspirational speech I can hear a constant hum that sounds like a hive of bees. By 07:00 helicopters were overhead. As I opened the bedroom drapes I saw thick, dark clouds over Silom Road and Chula Hospital. "More rain," I thought. On second glance these were thick black columns of smoke coming from the burning tires that once blocked the "Lumpini Camp" from the junction of Rama IV, Saladaeng, and Silom Roads.
By 09:30 government troops had retaken Lumpini Park. At the other end of the protest site, two hundred meters form where I live, I can see neighborhood people cowering behind walls on Petcheburi Road. There is a lot of noise coming from behind the fortifications below a bridge that crosses Rajprarop Road. This is the day the Prime Minister, at long last, has taken the gloves off and proven that he is not gutless after all. All offers of negotiation have been withdrawn and the only option left for the Red Shirts is surrender.
Around 14:3o the army announced that their operation was nearly finished. It took until 14:00 for the armored vehicles to reach the stage that had been erected at Rachraprasong intersection. The explosions and gunfire heard during the final thirty minutes were like an epic Hollywood battle. Those leaders who were not cowards and fled yesterday were arrested on the spot. One was being handcuffed as he was telling people to go home. Protestors who decided to leave voluntarily are being processed at National Stadium before being put onto busses destined for "upcountry."
The government has intentionally handled this operation with the highest regard for human life. They made many stops before reaching the stage to allow protestors to get out. No protestors seem to have broken through the barricades on my street. There are soldiers on the other side waiting to arrest them. I tried to cross the flyover to take some photos of the now-empty protest site but was hustled away by soldiers. Thirty minutes later the tires and bamboo were burning. Quite a few "black shirts," the hardened militants once under the command of the dead general "Seh Deng," have not left and there are still explosions heard in the area.
What a waste this has been. It can be measured in human lives lost, public and private property destroyed, the empty pockets of several thousand people who work in the area that was occupied, billions lost due to fearful foreign visitors staying home or going elsewhere, and of millions of dollars a day in lost revenues to shopping malls and hotels. And what have the Red Shirts accomplished? I cannot think of one single thing. They could have accepted Ahbisit's Road Map and gone home heroes, but they became greedy. As one friend put it, they "snatched defeat from the jaws of victory."
On his Twitter page today, Thaksin said that he is tired of everyone blaming him and that he had played no role in this dark chapter in modern Thai history.
Meanwhile, I still have a lovely gift basket to give to away.
Thursday, 20 May 2010
There is no morning-after pill for what I have seen today. Yesterday was stressful and chaotic, but not as disturbing as the scenes I witnessed when I walked the short distance from where I live to the demonstration site and hired a motorbike driver to take me on a two-hour tour.
As the demonstrations came to an end fires were set at scores of buildings in the area. Some believe that this final act was carried out by protestors who felt betrayed when their leaders surrendered. Some authorities feel the arson attacks were planned in advance. Big C Department Store, Central World Plaza (which has collapsed since I took photos there), Siam Paragon and Siam Center department store were looted and burned. Fires were also set in a neighborhood Cinema and Police General Hospital. TV channel 3 is off the air due to a fire set there.
Many of the protestors who left voluntarily and were processed at National Stadium were arrested for possession of stolen property--mostly luxury-brand watches, jewelry, sunglasses and clothing.
Some of the Red Shirt leaders have surrendered. Others are still at large. Courts issued warrants for their arrests. It seems likely that a warrant will also be issued for Thaksin Shinawatra. Like Thaksin, most leaders claim they had "no control" over the demonstrators. I find this claim pretty preposterous in view of the propaganda that came from the main stage 24/7 over the last weeks. All leaders, arrested or not, face the death penalty.
Police have detained 63 (so far) for violent crimes, arson, and looting. Some of these were arrested by border patrol police some distance from the city. Beyond the demonstration site, daily life seems to be normal, although the aftermath of the demonstrations is topic #1 of giddy local conversations. There has been widespread vandalism. There has been a public outcry that those convicted of looting and arson sould be subjected to the death penalty. Personally, I would like to see a revival of public executions, particularly for leaders.
Speaking of whom, Thaksin is on a shopping spree in France. Why am I not surprised?
Tuesday, 25 May
On Sunday several thousand Bangkok residents came together to clean the street where the protests had taken place. People of every age, class and worked together to encourage the beginnings of national healing. This was an ordeal we all survived together and it was a way to bring about closure. I cried.
Today, Thailand's Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant in the name of Thaksin Shinawatra for terrorism. This allows the Attorney General to petition foreign nations for his extradition wherever he may be hiding. Thaksin is only one of many involved in the events of the last two months who have been named in arrest warrants. Next to Jerry Falwell still being dead, this the happiest ending I can think of to this blog that has gone on for six weeks.
Many thanks to all of you who have written and given your comments and criticisms. you did so because you really care about Thailand and her people. Bravi! You can see many of the comments by clicking the "Argue" link at the bottom of this page.
How many times have I told you to kill your TV? If you cannot do that, at least ignore CNN's coverage of Bangkok events by Dan Rivers and Sarah Sidner. These two news actors (not anchors) have gone to great lengths to sensationalize the events and present them completely out of perspective in order to keep terrified viewers on a leash. I have seen CNN do these things countless times. In past weeks I have watched CNN news, then looked out my 10th floor window to see the carnage. There really wasn't any unless you found yourself in the fray of the conflict zone, which is was where nobody should have been in the first place.
I am especially troubled by Ms Sidner's lack of professionalism. She did not arrive in Bangkok until the Red Shirts were camping at Victory Monument. Clearly, she did not study the dynamics of the conflict here at all. From the very beginning she became a campaigner for the down-trodden farmers and characterized this conflict as a fight for democracy, which it exactly the opposite from what it really was. She has not bothered to look at both sides in order to see the situation objectively. Ms Sidner should not be a journalist. She is merely an opportunistic propagandist who has tried to squeeze as much hype out a story as she can. Shame on her, and shame on CNN for sending someone of her questionable stature to cover this story.
One question on my mind is why certain former politicians involved in this horrible, bloody, pointless episode have never caught the attention of the World Court in the Hague. During the reign of one former PM, more than 2,500 people where murdered for suspected involvement in the drug trade without trials or any other opportunity to defend themselves. Most were dragged from their homes at night by masked men and killed while their families and neighbors watched. The same government's handling of Moslems in southern Thailand ended in many unnecessary deaths due to brutality and callous disregard for basic human rights. The same government's ultra right-wing Interior Minister (who some claim is gay...go figure) was responsible for severe crack-downs on nightlife businesses, Burmese refugees and ethnic minority Thais, particularly the Mon people, who have been systematically deprived of the basic rights afforded other Thai citizens. This fellow is living in comfortable retirement in New Zealand. How could an enlightened, civilized government like that allow a criminal like this to live there under its protection? That's the kind of thing I would expect from France.