Thailand Civil War Danger Increases
Bangkok's crisis is threatening to blow into what every analyst now projects to be inevitable civil war. It is now plain to see that the anarchy is wreaking widespread havoc and widening out even to threaten public health.
Train services can be abruptly aborted. 450,000 commuters were stranded Tuesday after Red Shirts sabotaged the city's Skytrain services. Violent clashes can erupt easily. A policeman was killed, apparently by friendly fire* Wednesday and dozens of protestors were injured in the latest clash between security forces and the Red Shirts along a strategic highway in a Northern suburb.
The bloody standoff between the government and the Red Shirts has scared off tourists and hit Thailand's fragile economic recovery. More than 40 countries have issued travel advisories warning foreigners to steer clear of Bangkok. A number of diplomats have moved out of the upscale residential areas, citing noise and disruptions to normal living.
Visitors, even residents, entering the occupied area are often screened by vigilante guards. Bangkok governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra said the government is unlikely to meet its Bt300 billion (US$9.28 billion) revenue target from tourism this year. Last year, the government felt short of their tourism target of Bt400 billion by 25 percent.
Now a different kind of war is also unfolding in Bangkok's Ratchaprasong epicenter that the Red Shirts have called home. The deadly H1N1 flu virus that caused the 2009 avian influenza pandemic has been discovered in the encampment, and could also be present in nearby tent cities that have sprung up since mid-March when the Red Shirts took over parts of the capital.
Sukhumbhand revealed that six Red Shirt security guards have the contagious flu virus. It came to light when the six sought free medical treatment at a state hospital.
"We monitor the health situation and we believe that we should be frank in providing information. We had six Red Shirt security guards down with H1N1. We told the Red Shirt leaders. They were not too pleased. We're not saying that these people's blood is dirty. We're simply saying: ‘Hey be careful. If anyone who comes into contact with the blood wishes to have his or her health checked, we'll do it for free,'" said Sukhumbhand in an interview.
"The government cannot even quarantine them politically, so how to quarantine them socially?" Sukhumbhand added on whether he can contain what could be a major health catastrophe.
A communications officer with the World Health Organization who declined to be named without clearance said: "H1N1 is still a global pandemic. Nothing has changed. It will run its course. Thailand's Ministry of Public Health has treated the case as a normal disease outbreak. We're aware of the situation. We're always there willing and able to help. But it is not anywhere near the levels where Thailand needs additional help."
The disclosure comes not long after medical practitioners pointed out that HIV and hepatitis-tainted blood was poured by the protestors in the early stages of the protests at government installations including Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva's residence, in a stunt aimed at shocking the government into dissolving parliament.
As the Red Shirt protests enter their seventh week, sanitation and health are proving to be a strain that no one is as yet willing to fully acknowledge. One of Bangkok's hippest streets is now its most squalid. Mothers and children eat and sleep openly next to hawkers' exposed gas cylinders and heaps of rubbish are everywhere. The stench from mobile toilets mixes with all kinds of unpleasant fumes, and the fun folk music is poor comfort.
Sukhumbhand said the authorities can only dispatch up to 15 mobile toilets to the area that houses up to thousands of long stayers, many from the provinces. Some of them rotate. The Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA) stocks only 26 mobile toilets (and others that can be assembled on site). These have to be shared with soldiers who are sometimes sent to areas without public facilities. The local press has reported that a few malls in the Ratchaprasong site have allowed the protestors to use their rest rooms inside the malls. Many shopping complexes have not opened, especially after the demonstrations in another area turned violent on April 10.
The spread of mosquitoes is another menace and workers are fumigating the area. Sukhumbhand said that at the peak of the protests on the 15th of March, the BMA collected 108 tons of garbage and the figure today is up to a 100 tons a day from the Ratchaprasong protest site. Trash collection was stopped Tuesday after some Red Shirts stole garbage trucks to block off roads and interfered with sanitation workers.
The city employs 28,000 cleaners and not all cleaners can be rotated to reinforce those managing the human meltdown at the Ratchaprasong hotspot due to additional and unbudgeted-for transportation costs, according to the governor.
These cleaners were seen in their white lab coats and gloves scrubbing stubborn blood stains off the floors when blood was spilled as a protest antic and after the April 10 clash. 25 people were killed and 900 others were injured in that riot.
Asked how he plans to rehabilitate the city's image, the governor said: "By making sure there is no vacuum of governance, by ensuring most of the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority's activities and works go on normally. Our ability to ensure garbage is collected. Most of the time, the (train services) run on time. When it rains, the water is drained quickly. The fact that we demonstrated to keep going in the face of adversity would help that in future, at least people know that Bangkok can return to normalcy."
*because of an editing error, we dropped the fact that the policeman hit been hit by friendly fire. We apologize. Eds.