Staying At Home As Bangkok Burns


Update: Since I wrote this article, tensions have escalated. The army cleared the protest zone and hardline protesters have moved around the city, setting fire to landmark buildings like the Central World shopping mall and the Thai Stock Exchange. I don’t think any of my friends or colleagues would have any support for such mindless actions. I go to bed tonight feeling that something significant has changed in Thailand and wondering how long it will take the country to recover.

Working as a teacher in Bangkok for over four years, I’ve become accustomed to the ebbs and flows of Thai politics. Coups and protests have become a peculiar part of everyday life. In a very non-threatening manner, these incidents always seemed to be occurring somewhere else and subsequently had very little effect on my life.

Throughout all these events, life went on as normal. Old ladies still made pad thai on food stalls in the street, teenagers carried on playing online games in internet cafes until the early hours and the guards outside my apartment continued to sleep contentedly through their night shifts.

This time it’s been a bit different. The protests have moved from "somewhere else" to the heart of Bangkok’s commercial centre. To the luxury malls around Siam Square, the business districts of Sathorn and the bustling nightlife of Silom. When I see images of violence in these areas that I know well, it suddenly seems very real.

I’ve watched video clips of commuters running terrified from a grenade attack at Sala Daeng station, where I regularly catch the sky train. I’ve seen photographs of columns of soldiers marching down Sathorn Road, past the building where I take Thai language lessons. I’ve read reports of gunfights in Suan Plu, where I get my hair cut and pick up vegetables from the market. It’s a bit too close for comfort.

After a trip home to visit my family, I arrived back in Bangkok last week just in time to see the prolonged anti-Government red shirt protests descend into chaos. As I sat in the taxi, heading back from the airport, we passed trucks packed with soldiers and policemen and my improving Thai language skills regularly picked out the words "soldier", "violence" and "guns", as drivers reported the situation to each other over their radios.

My house and workplace are located on a small street off the Sathorn Road, about a 15-minute walk from the limit of the redshirt protest zone. Far enough away to feel reasonably safe — but close enough to be boxed in by the army blockades. I haven’t left my street in five days. Most of the main roads out of my area are intermittently occupied by army patrols, redshirts burning tyres and the chaotic exchanges when they meet. The Sky Train and underground services remain closed indefinitely. At the moment it seems like the safest option is to stay put.

With all schools closed for at least a week, most of my colleagues have escaped the city altogether, passing their time on the beach until the trouble blows over. It is worth pointing out that, despite the disturbing images broadcast worldwide on the news, the conflict is very localised. Across most of the country and indeed most of Bangkok, the atmosphere is calm.

Life is carrying on as normal for many. Thais who work in the outskirts of the capital are expected to show up at their jobs. Even work improving the drainage and resurfacing the road in my street continues. Foreign friends holidaying in nearby Ko Samet tell me the vibe there is still relaxed and peaceful.

Most of my expat work colleagues are tired of the situation even if they are enjoying the time off work. They can’t understand why the Government has allowed the protest to continue for so long. They are glad that its finally being resolved — even if some of the military’s tactics seem heavy-handed. Some of them question why the protesters were allowed to set up camp in the first place: "it wouldn’t have been allowed to happen in my country", is a response I’ve often heard.

I’ve always been interested in politics and while I’m neither brave nor foolish enough to go to the protest area myself, I’ve been keenly following events online. The Thai print media, especially the two English language newspapers, are widely regarded to be at best restricted and at worst quite biased in favour of the Government, so I’ve been trying to gain a more balanced perspective. Many foreign correspondents are using Twitter to report in real time what they are seeing on the ground in the protest zone. Endless clips have been uploaded to YouTube, showing terrible acts being committed by both the redshirts and the soldiers. Blogs like New Mandala entertain lively debate on the causes of and possible solutions to the conflict.

Thai society traditionally values conformity and, working as a teacher, I’ve seen first-hand how the education system prioritises rote learning of bulk content over development of independent thinking skills. As a result most Thais strike me as quite accepting of what they are told and reluctant to question authority. This may be why the debate here is so highly polarised and dominated by blatant propaganda on both sides.

Among my Thai friends, reactions are mixed. Many middle class Thais I know are now joining a rapidly growing campaign on Facebook to discredit what they believe to be biased coverage from international networks like BBC and CNN. Biased, presumably, because it challenges the Government’s accepted line. On the other hand, I’ve spoken to taxi drivers who vehemently deny that the redshirts are armed with anything but slingshots. They repeat wild claims about Government conspiracies heard on redshirt community radio shows. The lady who makes iced tea in a shop down the road from my school is more pragmatic. With the school closed and most local businesses shut her sales are down, but she supports the Government dispersing the protest as it may at least lead to an improvement in following weeks.

The split within my group of friends mirrors the split in the country. In the upmarket bars of Thong Lor and Royal City Avenue I’ve made friends with wealthy Thais who were educated abroad. They’re sitting firmly on the yellow side of the fence — often quite stridently. Others I got to know at underground metal concerts. Many of these are people who have come from the rural provinces to work in Bangkok for as little as 100 baht (AU$3.60) a day. Almost without exception they support the redshirts.

The conflict has been framed as an uprising of the rural poor against Bangkok’s urban elite. Bangkok’s population includes a huge number of casual workers from the rural areas. Talk to a street cleaner, motorbike driver or food stall owner and you will usually find that they were born in north east Thailand. These workers might share many of the concerns of the redshirts, but in many ways, they are the ones who have been worst affected by the crisis as casual work has dried up.

Currently, I’m more depressed than afraid. The conflict is taking place in a localised area which I can avoid and is in no way targeting foreigners. But Thailand is a country that I have grown to love and to see it falling apart like this makes me deeply sad. It is hard to imagine how the current standoff can be peacefully resolved. Even if the protesters do withdraw, or the army forcibly removes them, it seems likely that there will be lasting consequences in Thai society.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.