Terror in Thailand
My first experience of Bangkok was in 1995. I felt as if I had stepped onto the set of Blade Runner; a scattered and disjointed fusion of skyscrapers and tangled neon-soaked streets bustling with life. It left me electrified and entranced. Six years later I made this city my home.
Friends were envious. I was excited. No one was warning me against it. "Bangkok is much safer than London, I have never felt in danger on the streets here at night," has been my recurrent refrain whenever asked about living in this sprawling capital. However, while I may have been mugged in my hometown of London before, I had never seen anyone shot by a sniper.
At least 70 people have been killed and well over 1,000 injured in recent political violence in the city I now call home. Areas of central Bangkok were turned into a war zone as troops battled with protesters for more than five days to regain control of the streets before finally – and extremely brutally – crushing the Red Shirt "resistance." The crackdown prompted scenes of anger and destruction not seen in Thailand for many decades - anger against the establishment taken out in brutal fashion by rampaging mobs (a minority of which were armed with assault rifles and other lethal weapons) on buildings and infrastructure in the capital and elsewhere.
I spent five days this week under a self-imposed night-time curfew, the streets around my home too dangerous to venture out into. Finally, on Wednesday morning, I decided to leave the city, as troops began their inevitable crackdown. What followed seemed to shock Thailand and the world.
My apartment is around the corner from the Bon Kai intersection on Rama IV Road, one of the main clash sites. I walked over there to assess the situation for myself last weekend. Black smoke billowed up from the piles of burning tires. Protesters defiantly threw bottles and bricks and miniature Molotov cocktails and fired slingshots and homemade fireworks toward the military lines, which had been seized by security forces last Friday night.
The sound of gunfire rang loud every few minutes. A man shouted, a white flag with a red cross at the end of a stick was waved. An ambulance arrived and another fallen protester was taken to a hospital.
As I crouched behind a metal food cart on the side of the road, gunfire from M16s and shotguns firing buckshot rang out. My heart was beating but I figured I was safe. I was not in the line of fire. But later, I realised I wasn't that safe, for snipers were shooting from rooftops and abandoned half-built apartment and office towers. A friend of mine, a reporter for the news channel France 24, was shot three times on Friday afternoon.
Four days later, the crackdown "successful," the government has taken over the television stations – airing nationalist propaganda, state approved programming and regular updates from the military on their mission to regain control of the country. A night-time curfew has been imposed across almost a third of the country as angry mobs continue to release years of frustration, setting fire to buildings across the capital and in some northern provinces, smashing phone boxes and ransacking shops.
But to suggest that this chaos, destruction and loss of life have come as a surprise would be disingenuous. I have had serious misgivings about the state of affairs in Thailand for several years now, but have, like many others, pushed them to one side less they interfere with my enjoyment of the weather, lifestyle and, of course, the food, that has kept me so content in this country for nearly a decade.
I recall stating in 2006 that coup was a huge mistake, both in conversation and in writing. Sitting in the newsroom of the Bangkok Post, for months after the coup, I entered into debates with senior journalists and news editors at Thailand's foremost English-language daily. The coup, the new constitution, the dissolution of Thai Rak Thai, the forced collapse of two successive pro-Thaksin governments; all of this, I tried hard to impress on my colleagues at the time, would only serve to further undermine the political system and stir up bitter and angry resentment. Most did not agree.
The country, it seems, is now paying for that rash and naïve decision of September 2006 (and following acts to reinforce that putsch), which failed, as it intrinsically must, to bring stability to this increasingly fractured country.
I was in a late-night bar with three friends earlier this month. A little drunk and excitable, two of the friends, a journalist and a photographer, sought hard to impress on the other friend, who works for a large US-based multinational, that Bangkok was a city teetering on the brink of chaos.
"Why are you laughing? This country is going to hell. Mark my words, there will be deaths on these streets that you cannot imagine," the journalist said to the sceptical office worker. Perhaps the office worker's laughter was born from nervousness. I'm not sure, but despite living in Thailand for eight years, she did not seem to recognise the fire on the horizon.
Four days later at least four people had been shot dead on a small street one minute's walk from that bar and she had evacuated her apartment to go and live in another part of the city.
But it wasn't just the latest tensions – two months of protests, 25 deaths and 800 injuries on April 10 and the increased military presence on the streets – that portended darker days. A feeling of something not being quite right here has rested inside of me for several years.
Ignited by a military coup and against the backdrop of rising anxiety over the deteriorating health of the king and the continued meddling of a divisive, ousted prime minister from self-imposed exile overseas, protest movements have been growing, with opposing groups increasingly pushing their agendas on the streets rather than in Parliament. Years of tensions have uncovered stark social and political fissures and the old political consensus that kept this country stable is unravelling.
As I sat at home watching the television on Tuesday morning a military commander, in a pooled presentation on all free to air stations, showed images from Youtube and Twitter of "terrorists" among the Red Shirts. While there are armed elements in the protesters, almost all those shot dead so far have been unarmed civilians and journalists. As the urban battles continue to rage, the government and the military push their propaganda on television each day – these are "terrorists," we must defend ourselves and the king and country.
This makes me uneasy.
The rhetoric is nothing new. The delivery is nothing new. You can't help but identify these generals with a bygone era. But many in Thailand, it seems, do not want a new future; they are emotionally devoted to their past and fearful of what may come if the "Red Shirts" win. This is a battle for which many are willing to turn a blind-eye to injustice in order to achieve victory for their side.
In May 1992, when dozens of protesters were shot dead by soldiers, the military also claimed it was acting only in self-defence. The difference today is that there is no grilling from the local media. Many Thais continue to support the crackdown, despite the rising death toll. The international media, such as CNN, have been accused of pro-red shirt bias.
Abhisit Vejjajiva's government says it has acted in the only way it could – to restore order. It says it is committed to a political solution that brings all sides off of the streets and back into a legitimate political process. I can't help but doubt the conviction however. This government has had 18 months to try and bring about political reform. Unfortunately, it seems to have taken scores of deaths and hundreds of injuries, as well as frightening destruction, to take that role seriously.
Despite the talk of reconciliation and a "road map" to peace, I fear Thailand is still far from being capable of honestly facing up to its problems. The kingdom's mass consciousness and identity remain smothered by a cloud of deception. Truth, rationality and purposeful discussion are lost behind that thick smoke screen. Minds consumed by emotion perform cognitive somersaults and are unable to formulate clear, rational thoughts, stubbornly refusing to face up to the stark realities that face a nation that is losing its grip on its carefully constructed common identity.
At a television awards ceremony broadcast live on television on the evening of May 16, as the fighting continued on the streets outside, an actor received his statuette for best male lead and, as film and television stars have done in the past, he took the opportunity to make his political feelings known.
"If you hate father, if you don't love father anymore, then you should get out of here!" he said defiantly, in reference to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who Thais often refer to as "father," and the alleged anti-monarchy sentiments of some Red Shirts. "Because this is father's home! Because this is father's land! I love the King and I believe that everyone here loves the King… I entrust myself to the King." The well-dressed audience of the glitterati and light-skinned actors and actresses gave a standing ovation, punched the air in defiance; some wept.
Such scenes of obsequious devotion and intense emotion are common when it comes to the monarchy here. That unquestioning adulation is the result of the construction of a cult of personality that has gone unchallenged for many decades.
Last Monday morning I went out onto the streets again to see for myself what was going on. I still have not seen any "terrorists." Most of those on the corner near my house are local residents – some angry, some sympathetic to the Red Shirts," some just local hoodlums enjoying the anarchy. No matter how wide the military sets its perimeter they will likely be met with similar resistance. Millions in this city identify with the Red Shirts. Millions do not. And therein lies the danger. This is a country divided and ill equipped to face up to some painful realities.
Due to certain societal and legal pressures, there is no room for discussion of the monarchy and its role – and that culture of self-imposed censorship has become increasingly ingrained over the nearly 64 years since King Bhumibol Adulyadej ascended to the throne, permeating all areas of social and political interaction and defining, in many cases, what it means to be "Thai."
At a small protest stage about 800 metres from the burning tires the sounds of gunshots and explosions can be heard. A young lady behind the stage (which is more of a large table than a stage) tells me they are not part of the Red Shirt movement, but they are calling for democracy and peace. She also confides in me what a few other protesters also have – that they no longer trust in the constitutional monarchy system. But she says they cannot publicise that fact right now. "The time is not yet right," she says in hushed but fearless tones.
Thailand has always managed to maintain an image as a peaceful country united under a mutual respect for nation, religion and king. But the postcard image so carefully crafted doesn't tell the whole story.
What three times, in 1973, 1976 and 1992, started as political protests ended in savage massacres in which Thais set upon Thais. That struggle with democracy continues today. As many have seen before. Thai stoicism and geniality can very quickly give way to base human destructiveness and anger. I fear that behind those smiles lie anxious and confused minds and seething frustration.
Everyone has an opinion on what the real issue behind this enduring crisis is; class struggle against an uncaring elite, a scorned megalomaniac former prime minister fighting to recover his ill-gotten gains and power, a battle to fend off a republican revolution. But what no one seems to have is a clear answer to how this all will end.
I don't have any answers either. As I sit here in my apartment watching the sun set on a sixth day of sporadic gunfire and explosions, I wonder when the city I call home will emerge from this latest round of chaos. But I do know one thing: there is a long road ahead and there will likely be many more days like this before Thailand can emerge with a new social and political consensus. The old post-World War II consensus that held Thailand together and saw decades of economic advance is falling apart. Thailand must build a new future under a new image, but I fear it is not yet ready to face that painful truth.
The writer is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist and writer. His name has been omitted because of the threat of lese majeste.