A Travellerspoint blog

April 2010

“I want my Bangkok back”

Red shirts, riot gear & bamboo rockets

overcast 27 °C

April 28, 2010 - 8:11 pm


“I’m sorry for all this,” the lady at the motorcycle taxi rank says to me with a sad sort of grimace. The queue is triple the length it usually is. Bangkok’s traffic – hideous on the best of days – has gone into a brutal gridlock as people rush home, worried that a military crackdown on the “red shirts” is imminent. The sky train and subway lines have been in disarray for days. Key roads are blocked by military and the protestors continue to paralyze the economic and commercial epicentre of Bangkok.

This woman doesn’t know me. But she feels compelled to apologize to me, the foreigner caught up in an internal conflict, for all the chaos and disorder her city has sunk into.

My Thai coworkers have done the same thing. They’ve sheepishly apologized to any of the expat staff within earshot for the current mayhem gripping the city they love. “I’m sorry!” they groan, “Bangkok is not usually like this!” and “My country is out of control right now!” I think it’s a strange reaction. They have nothing to do with the political turmoil and the civil strife – why are they apologizing to the collected farang?

“This makes us look crazy,” one of my best Thai friends lamented to me when the red shirts started throwing protestors’ blood at key political points around the city a few weeks back. “It makes us look like we’re some third world backwater. I want my Bangkok back.” From what I have seen, Thais are quite concerned about their standing in the eyes of the world. They want the country to be seen as an Asian tiger, not an Asian cuckoo.

“I think this is not good for tourism and the economy,” continues the woman waiting for her ride home. “Foreigners will be afraid to come here.” And it’s true. I’ve had friends on SE Asian swings change their travel plans just so as to avoid Thailand in general and Bangkok specifically. I’ve seen figures in the media reporting Bangkok hotel occupancy rates hovering somewhere around a dismal 20%. Ouch.


Today was not a good day for Bangkok. Tear gas, rubber bullets, live rounds fired into the air by the military, one soldier possibly killed, transportation chaos, tension running rampant through the city, and bamboo rockets (I had to ask a co-worker what these were – we don’t have bamboo in Canada, much less bamboo rockets. They’re basically explosives propelled through a hollow bamboo branch).

But it’s so weird, life goes on. The evening the official state of emergency was declared by the government I was out to dinner with some friends. We heard the news, sort of shrugged our shoulders and carried on to the pub. And April 10, when the military moved in trying to clear the barricaded red shirts and 25 people were killed and hundreds injured, I was at a yoga retreat on the beach in Koh Samui. None of the tourists sun-tanning themselves even knew what was going on. Thailand’s worst civil violence in two decades and they were all floating in the sea and downward dogging, blissfully unaware.

It’s because for the most part, the protests and fighting have been localized – contained in certain areas of the city – a pain in the ass fer sure, but relatively easy to avoid. But things have changed and the death toll has been climbing. In the last few weeks 27 people have been killed and approximately 900 injured. Bangkok residents don’t recognize their home city anymore.


The situation is radically different from last year when I wrote this post. And the tension has noticeably ratcheted up in the last few weeks. Living four doors down from the Prime Minister, I had a front-row seat when the red shirt traveling circus rolled down Suk 31 to splatter blood all over my poor neighbour’s front door. There were plenty of soldiers in full riot gear, but the atmosphere was downright festive amongst the red shirts. Things went down in the usual chill Thai style, even prompting this classic picture below of a grinning red shirt girl with obliging soldiers that was snapped by Newley Purnell. But there is no more smiling, now there are sharpened bamboo canes, water cannons, and tire barricades doused in fuel.


But somehow, the “only in Thailand” aspect is still there. This morning, my organization’s overworked and ubiquitous security advisor stood in front of my desk shaking his head in obvious amazement. “Last night I saw a formation of soldiers in full riot gear in the parking lot of Robinson’s department store on the corner of Sukhumvit 19,” he said. “There were officers with microphones shouting orders and warnings from the back of this military vehicle. Then they stopped shouting, and starting singing karaoke! The assembled crowd and the rest of the soldiers loved it! I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t have seen it with my own eyes.”

I don’t tell this anecdote to downplay the gravity of the situation, people are dying. Most people want it to stop. But seriously, only in Thailand.

Posted by DenaAllen 06:08 Archived in Thailand Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Rescuing girls from child labour in Nepal

The opinions expressed in this post are mine alone and do not represent Plan

sunny 25 °C


When Asha was eight, her parents sent her to work as a domestic servant in the home of a wealthier landowner. Not forever, just for a year. But one year turned into ten and Asha didn’t come home until she was 18.

“That first night, I was really scared,” Asha says. “I didn’t speak the same language as the landowner’s family. I didn’t know anyone. I cried a lot.”

I met Asha a few weeks ago when I was in Nepal with Plan, looking at how we can prevent child labour and support working children.


Asha comes from the Terai region in the western lowlands of Nepal. Her family is Tharu, one of Nepal’s indigenous minorities. Tharu families have very few opportunities to earn a livable income. Most don’t have their own land and are forced to work as agricultural day-labourers. Providing the necessities of food, shelter and clothing becomes an all-consuming task for many Tharu parents. They don’t have money left over for education. They don’t have reserve funds if a family member gets sick or if a parent is unable to find work that day. Oftentimes girls are seen as little more than a drain on the family’s income, as just another exploitable resource.

“I worked from very early in the morning until very late at night,” Asha says. “I would get up around 4:30 am and wouldn’t get to sleep until 10 or 11 pm. I never had any days off.”


I have been to a few countries in my life now, and never have I seen more working children than I did in Nepal. In 2001 the International Labour Organization estimated that over 42% of Nepali children, approximately 2.6 million children between 5 to 16 years of age, are working. Those figures are 9 years old. Like much of Asia, Nepal has a growing youth population, so I can only imagine what the figures are now in 2010.


Kamalari is a system of bonded labour. Under it, girls are sent to work as indentured domestic servants in the houses of those more financially fortunate than them – usually higher-caste landowners, business people or civil servants. Girls are usually around 8 or 9 when they are sent to work, though some have been sent as young as 5 or 6. Can you imagine? A 5 year old being expected to clean the house and take care of other children??


Oftentimes the girls are taken far away from their communities to different parts of the country and areas where they don’t speak the same language. Alone and without family or community support, they are vulnerable to all sorts of harms, including physical violence and possible sexual abuse. Some have been trafficked into brothels in India via open borders where identity cards aren’t checked and no questions are asked.


Plan estimates that between 10 and 12 thousand girls are currently working as indentured domestic servants under the kamalari system. Plan Nepal, with the support of Plan Germany, are working to change this in 5 districts of western Nepal.
Since 2005, Plan and its local partner Society Welfare Action Nepal, have rescued and supported 1,739 kamalari girls.


“There are less than 100 girls left to be rescued in Dang district,” says Pratibha Chaudhary, Plan Nepal’s kamalari abolition project manager who is herself from the Tharu community. “Before, even district officials themselves had kamalari girls working in their houses. But now the district administration has declared Dang kamalari-free and we are all working to keep it that way. But still, there is much work to be done.”


Plan is working to dismantle the kamalari system on a number of fronts. “In order to be successful, our work has to be multi-faceted, we need to come at this from a variety of different angles,” says Donal Keane, country director of Plan Nepal. “In addition to rescuing and rehabilitating these girls, we help them get back into school or provide alternative education support, we give them training in a trade, and support them in starting their own businesses. We also support parents so they can earn a decent living for their families and don’t have to send their daughters to work. And of course we run public awareness campaigns at all levels – from the villages right up on to the national stage.”


Plan has started scaling up its fight against the kamalari system, expanding into the districts of Kailali and Kanchanpur this year and aiming to rescue an additional 4,500 girls from indentured servitude.


“We still need to re-educate the landowners and the higher-income families who are recruiting these girls,” says Prem Pant, manager of the Banke program unit. “They need to see how exploiting the poverty of these families is wrong. The laws are on the books, the challenge is in implementation, enforcement and fighting indifference.”


Asha is doing much better these days. When I met her she was laughing and busily preparing meals for myself and some other guests. With Plan’s support, she now runs a restaurant called the Lawa Juni Hotel, lawa juni means “new life” in Tharu. “My former bosses, the landowners who used to work me so hard, they now come to my restaurant,” says Asha, blushing with obvious pride. “Now they compliment me on my cooking and speak to me with respect.”


Posted by DenaAllen 04:08 Archived in Nepal Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

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