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.