When I first came to Bangkok it was August, 2003 and Thailand was a mystery to me. “The land of smiles”: beaches, exotic temples, pretty women. But something ill was afoot. It wasn’t just that I found the Khaosan Road “backpacker ghetto” boring nor that the energy at the Koh Phangan pre-full moon beach party was dumb. There was a palpable paranoia on the street, the beach and in the clubs. It turned out a frenzied drug war was in process, personally led by the president, Shinawatra Thaksin, and people were dying. It is now well documented that upward of 2000 people died in the first three months of 2003, mainly in extra-judicial police executions. I didn’t like Thaksin.
Thailand may have been an “Asian Tiger” economically, but socially, progress has been slow. A historical system of patronage culminating in the revered king mediated most transactions. In modern terms this translates fluidly into endemic corruption. Policy or lack thereof additionally funnels the proceeds of economic expansion up and into the center, which is Bangkok. The bulk of the population, farmers, had seen little benefit from the boom times until the arrival of Thaksin and his populist policies. An entrenched, technocratic, urban elite, in bed with the politically unintegrated armed forces, held sway. The popular supporters of this establishment faction became known as the “yellow shirts”. Although King Bhumibol is said to be above politics, rarely venturing into the fray except to quell extreme violence, they took the kings colour to try to steal his thunder and differentiate themselves the rabble of rebellious “red shirts” who came to follow Thaksin. It appears that the queen may be much less than neutral in these events, working with her yellow shirt allies. The King has been in hospital since September 2009.
Since absolute monarchy first became constitutional monarchy 70 years ago Thailand has had 17 constitutions and 18 coups. Democracy is not well developed. The King still has a great deal of symbolic power. On hearing the national anthem, Thais uniformly stand upright and face the speakers. Sometimes it is played twice. Not a twitch from the populace. This reverence allows political space for people to hide behind the kings inviolability, for various ends. The respectful nature of the culture belies the extent of corruption. Opinion of the police, for example, is generally very low in Thailand. They may look cool riding around on motorbikes but they are considered ineffectual and constantly run drug payoff scams on tourists and petty mafia-style protection rackets on the locals. The military has never been excluded from the political process and holds a great deal of power, remaining the final arbitrator. Human rights are frequently abused, egregiously in the case of Muslim rebellions in the south, and particularily on Thaksins watch. The land of smiles has some serious problems.
Thaksin, as they say here, is same same but different. He is certainly autocratic, technocratic and corrupt. But he comes from Chiang Mai, farm country, up north. His family was one of the most influential in the city. He had a very successful, 17 year police career. After several business ventures met with mixed success he finally secured a telecom monopoly that saw him to become one of the richest men in Thailand, worth billions, most of which was confiscated by the Thai government in 2009. He had a mixed start politically too, in Thailands volatile milieu, but found success outside the Bangkok establishment using populist social programs to consolidate his electoral base and won three presidential elections, two landslides and a third called hastily in 2006 and boycotted by the opposition. His image of governance was that of the executive of a corporation. Not quite the standard model in Thailand. He stepped on a lot of toes, hard.
Massive anti-Thaksin protests by the yellow shirts and their allies (Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD)), hugely disruptive to business, occurred in 2006, and in September a military junta overthrew Thaksin’s government in a bloodless coup while he was abroad, installing one of the kings privy councilors as Prime Minister. Thaksin’s party was dissolved and his family assets frozen. Then he was found guilty of corruption and went into exile. Thaksin is no angel but it all certainly seemed like quite a set up. Martial law was declared,a new highly regressive constitution rattified, and political freedom completely abrogated, for a year. New elections came. The Peoples Power Party (PPP), de facto reincarnation of Thaksins old party, won again! Soon the first new PM was found guilty by the constitutional court of conflict of interest for being a host on a TV cooking show. His successor couldn’t get into his office for all the yellow shirt protestors besieging parliament. Then the yellows closed down the airport for over a week. The same court found PPP guilty of electoral fraud and dissolved them too! The leaders were banned from politics. The protests ended. A few defections and the current bastard coalition was born. At this point the red shirts may have started to feel a tad disenfranchised. Yellow shirt protests had proven very effective. This eventually set reds a-protesting too. In April 2009, they closed down the ASEAN summit. People died and it passed again. During all the yellow shirt (PAD) protests the army would not intervene. Clashes with police caused many injuries but just one death; that of a young woman. The queen attended the funeral.
I arrived in Bangkok this second time, on Friday, April 2nd 2010, under a rather baleful looking sun setting in the haze. Finding a nice guesthouse by the river, adjacent to the imposing golden geometry of Rama VIII Bridge, not far from Khaosan Road, I started to enjoy the social life and explore. There were several large red shirt protest camps in the city. One extended from the visually striking Democracy Monument down virtually to the end of Khaosan Road. Most tourists did not venture past the barriers at the end of Khaosan. Maybe they weren’t aware of the huge encampment just around the corner. The main camp downtown was an increasingly fortified city within the city, loosely straddling three square kilometers from the business district, top shopping malls (some closed), around universities and hospitals all the way to Patpong red light district. It was a partially mobile affair. Inside of red controlled areas were like autonomous zones with protestors directing the snarled up traffic, cooking, vending Reds in the Land T-shirts, sleeping and attending to the speeches that were usually being delivered on-stage and broadcast on big screens. Plenty financial backing. Everyone was allowed inside except the police. One evening I hung out. All manner of people were crowded in front of Louis Vuitton going mad for the speeches, fervently waving red heart-shaped clackers in proud support of their leaders. The clackers, stretching off into the distance reached crescendo after crescendo. The speech was slightly strident but everyone was positive, smiling. I felt pretty welcome. It was not an angry place. People offered me food a few times even though I was a tourist. But I did not spend a lot of time there. Then things became too tense.
I did happen to be near downtown Bangkok on Black Saturday, April 10th. Something was up. There were angry, mobile protests. A lot of police. I was trying to go shopping and check some galleries. Not the best time for it. Eventually at a bar I saw what was up on TV. Soldiers had surrounded the Democracy Monument camp. They were going in. Late that night I found a tuktuk to take me within a couple of kilometers of my place. Directions were confused, people were hanging around, a few walking, yelling, geticulating. I got oriented and headed off bypassing the monument area. There had been sporadic running battles on Samsen Road, near my house. Ambulances howled by from elsewhere, but I didn’t see any trouble on the way.
After the smoke had cleared and the sun come up we got the score: 25 dead including 4 soldiers and one Japanese cameraman. I headed out with my camera. Outside was quiet. I walked up Khaosan Road, eerily deserted. Most people had bailed overnight . Up past the barrier at the end reds, locals and a few tourists were milling around the back streets looking at piles of junk. These turned out to be makeshift memorials next to pools of dried blood. Many people had died right there. Folks were peering through bullet holes in shop fronts and street signs. Ridiculously, the army had claimed not to use live ammunition. I walked the 50m across to Thanon Ratchadamoen Klang that leads 300m to the monument. Everything was there, the tents, kitchens. There were certainly plenty of reds and more returning. By the art-covered Democracy Monument something odd was happening. The plaza was almost empty, workmen anonamously hosing down the monument steps. All the protestors were over by one of the streets leading from the plaza. They seemed to be standing on platforms, but those turned out to be tanks! At least half a dozen and as many Humvee style personnel carriers, de-tracked, stripped, inverted, smashed to smithereens or covered in graffiti. They had taken them all by hand, losing 20 lives but winning the battle. Wow….
Much was made of any armed response by the protestors but really barring a small number of guns they were supposedly armed with grenade launchers for their inneffective home-made explosives, clubs, rocks and molatov cocktails. Enough to get the army pretty pissed off. But they had been through all this before. It was like some half-articulated ritual. Hands were shaken between melees and deaths. A lot of the soldiers are watermelons. Green outside, red inside. They come from the same villages. Very oddly, according to media reports, several senior officers were shot that night and one died. The wounded officers claimed they were shot by highly trained, black-hooded gunmen. Members of the armed forces they said. The army is deeply divided too. All kinds of shinanigans are going on. Of course these things are not reported in the Thai broadcasst media which is essentally state (and military) owned and controlled. 80% of Thais get their news from TV.
A semi-festive atmosphere continued at the monument for several days as media wars intensified. Many posses left for the main camp or to roam the city. I met a lot of fine people ranging from non-English-speaking farmers to monks and Bangkok liberals. Their level of commitment was clear. Those I talked to wanted new elections. They considered the current government illegitimate. Thaksins return was not pivotal. Democracy was. Only one of those I talked to proposed revolution and said the king was a arse, though there were certainly a fair number of apparent communists around. Moving funeral services were held for the dead, on the monument. Buddhist monks attended in large numbers. On Monday Thai New Year commenced and the city was engulfed in more fighting for three days, with water this time, and a lot of sensually smeared flour. Suddenly, after a few days the whole camp up and disappeared, gone to strengthen the central camp on Sukhumvit. It is common to claim the whole protest was fake, or a manipulation, because funds were provided to the protestors, but this is simply unavoidable. Many are farmers. Who will take care of their farms and families? It is a very dubious contention.
The fortifications of tires and bamboo stakes around red shirt central could never stand up to military hardware. Nor could their fighters ever win, trapped in an enclosed area and being picked off by army snipers on the roofs of surrounding hotels. When the end came, it was virtually a relief. It could have been even worse. On April 22nd explosions including grenades occurred around one of the downtown skytrain stations where people had gathered to protest against or watch the protests. One person died and many were injured including foreigners. The government blamed the red shirts who denied responsibility.I didnt go there again. I went to Cambodia for two weeks and on my return negotiations collapsed. The government offered an early November election. The reds agreed but certain factions demanded the arrest of the vice-president for the deaths on April 10th. The election offer was withdrawn. On May 14th the ever popular red shirt military adviser, suspended Major-General Sawasdipol was dramatically shot in the head by a sniper while being interviewed by the New York Times! He died later. Running battles raged sporadically for several days. The army set up a “live fire zone” around the camp and shot horizontally into the smoke as tire fires blazed. Officially around 40 more protesters died. These numbers are always contentious because with each death comes an effort by both sides to snatch the body. In 2009 many people simply went missing and were not officially counted. It is notable that an inordinate number of journalists were also killed or wounded during the whole affair. 15 more people died on the 19th as the army finally sent armoured vehicles through the barricades to take the camp. Key red shirt leaders surrendered to prevent further bloodshed. Hundreds of women and children( and journalists) were stilled holed up inside a temple. They reported barrages of shooting from the army. Six bodies were found there. It is not yet clear what happened. The hard core “terrorist” elements were dispersed but not enough to prevent them torching some 37 downtown buildings including the second biggest mall in Asia (destroyed) and the stock exchange. Many of the remaining protesters were bussed home by the government. At the time of writing, May 23rd, we are still have 8PM curfew for two more days. Bangkok becomes the most peaceful metropolis in the world every evening. About 100 protesters remain in secret detention under emergency measures.
The day before the clampdown, my wireless internet stopped working, (then fixed itself after two days), I got a bad rash all across my torso and a conman from Leichtenstein ripped off my friend for 200 Euros after staying with us for four days. Perhaps so much tension and tragedy was radiating across the city that everything was getting jammed! Maybe Thailands future just got jammed. The oft repeated refrain is a “rapid return to normalcy”. The tourist dollar is wrecked this year. Most urban Thais just want a nice life, the usual bourgeois trappings. Who can blame them if all this gets swept under the rug. It wasn’t their fight. But for those who recognize the essential need for social justice in a modern, dynamic society like Thailand’s, and those now embittered by the governments actions, the struggle will no doubt continue, maybe in forms we have not seen yet. The jury is still out but reasons for optimism are few.