A Lawless Land
The disruption to life in Bangkok caused by the Red Shirt occupation and the intransigence of the government has made headlines around the world, further damaging Thailand’s increasingly battered image as a holiday destination. The downgrading has been going on for some time now, with the tourism authority at one stage conceding that it was largely a waste of time trying to lure rich westerners whose numbers were falling off due to the economic crisis there and the massive amount of poor publicity that the country has suffered as a result of scams and political unrest. Thailand’s nearest ‘western’ neighbour, Australia, especially has reported item after item relating to the problems its citizens have suffered in the country, and they are turning in increasing numbers to Bali.
The tourism people, who must feel they are banging their heads against a brick wall, then targeted the Asian market, especially China, Japan and now India. But those are the very countries most put off by the political violence, so even that market has probably now dried up too.
Stick quite clearly thought, from his brief comment on my most recent submission, that I am a Red Shirt sympathiser. Yes and no. What I believe, as surely anyone that supports the democratic process does, is that if someone is elected they should stay elected until thrown out by the people. Not a military coup or through deals made behind closed courtroom doors. Let us not forget that George ‘W. (for war) Bush didn’t actually win his first term. The voting screw-up in Florida led to so much indecision that the court finally decided who had won. And look at the result of that decision. The current government was also not elected but installed.
Thaksin won two elections, overwhelmingly, but was pushed out by those who felt the status quo was threatened. Of course Thaksin was flawed, deeply so, but so are most politicians in this country and elsewhere. That isn’t the point. He was the choice of the people, and they have been denied the leader they voted for. They have also noted how the Yellow Shirts were able to get away with their own brand of terrorism of closing Bangkok’s airports at the end of 2008, with one of their leaders then rewarded with one of the most powerful political posts in the land, that of Foreign Minister. Wouldn’t you be pissed off? I would.
But. We then get into an interesting situation. How far should the aggrieved members of the population go to right the perceived wrong? Having the odd demonstration or two achieved nothing, so the Reds slowly became more and more forceful. Am I the only one to remember them saying at the beginning of the protests that they would not block any roads? Certainly they needed to push their case, hard, but now it could well be argued that the situation has got out of hand. Any large demonstration anywhere in the world is certain to attract rogue elements who have their own and usually far more violent agenda.
The situation is Bangkok is no different. The mysterious Men in Black have been lurking in the shadows ready to exploit a dangerous and explosive situation for their own ends. No-one is certain who they are, but they are suspected to consist mostly of ex or disenchanted military men who have access to arms and know how to use them. The result is that we have had grenades showering down upon Bangkok’s main business district, injuring commuters at a Skytrain station and creating panic. Nearly 30 people have died so far and nearly 1,000 injured, some of them foreigners who thought they had come for a quiet holiday. Perhaps, though, they should not have treated a war zone as a tourist attraction.
So now we have a stand-off situation. The offer of the Red Shirts to compromise their demand for an immediate resignation of the government to that of requesting it in one month has been rejected by the Prime Minister, who has ordered the army to sort out the problem for him.
There has been a report that the government is prepared to accept 500 dead in order that they may remain in power, rather than hold a democratic election. Certainly, the PM is prepared to accept casualties in order that he may keep his job. Make of that what you will. The rogue state of Burma comes to mind here. The problem the army chief has to grapple with is how to clear tens of thousands of demonstrators, many of who are women and the elderly as well as kids, from a very large area of central Bangkok. So far he has refused to do so because he knows the casualties would be huge, so we have a stand-off that shows no sign of ending.
Meanwhile, there are increasing signs of anarchy in the Land of Smiles. Time and time again the Red Shirts have prevented convoys of police, even a troop train, from starting or continuing its journey. They closed down the Skytrain one morning by dumping tyres across the tracks and interfering with the security cameras. They have also forced the closure of most of Bangkok’s biggest shopping malls, several five-star hotels and countless businesses, putting a reported 65,000 people out of work.
They have closed off a huge section of the busiest road in Thailand, and set up their own area of the city that is controlled by them rather than the authorities. It is they who check bags and decide who is allowed to enter and who is not. They have effectively set up a fortified village of their own right in the centre of the city. How big? In London, imagine the entire length of Oxford Street, extending down Regent Street to Piccadilly Circus and up to Broadcasting House. In New York, it would be the whole of the Times Square area for several blocks in each direction. In Sydney or Melbourne, the entire central business district. We are talking a big chunk of space. They have their own hairdressing salons, massage, plenty of food, tents set up in the street and, as a wonderful photo from Stick showed, their washing hanging up over the entrance to the main Skytrain interchange station at Siam.
How has it been able to get to this stage? It is because the situation has been caused by and is indicative of a far more serious disease that has, ultimately, led to the anarchistic situation we have today. It is largely due to the utter disregard for the law and the inertia and incompetence of the police and security forces that has existed for a very long time. This has always been a lawless land. There are plenty of laws on the books but they are rarely enforced. It is engrained into the culture to show no respect for the law or authority, as all too often people can get away with doing whatever they like.
It begins, for example, at a young age when kids are allowed by parents and police to ride motorcycles. As a prime illustration of that and the utter contempt for the law, I went out during Songkran one afternoon and the road near my home had been completely commandeered by more than 100 motorcycles carrying one, two or three people, just roaring up and down the road. Not one, needless to say, was wearing the helmet required by law, and there was no-one to stop them. I have travelled to Bali and Vietnam where they also have laws that require a helmet to be worn, and there 99 percent comply. People ride the wrong way down the street here, or on the pavement/sidewalk. Government officials and others demand bribes in exchange for providing a service they are already paid to give. In Thailand people are allowed to do whatever they please, and that has led to them having no respect for authority and directly to the state of anarchy we have in the centre of Bangkok and around the country. To ignore and defy authority is deeply ingrained into the culture. And so we get mobs of people all over the land able to take the law into their own hands, stopping the police and army in their duty. Where else could that happen?
How the hell were the Red Shirts allowed to set up their stage, first at Phan Fa Bridge and then at the Rajaprasong intersection, with no-one lifting a finger to stop them? It wasn’t done in five minutes. How were they able to build up their bamboo fortress opposite Silom Road? Can you imagine any other country in the world that would just stand by and watch as protesters barricaded themselves into a huge area of the city centre? But here, no-one did anything and then it was too late.
Now the Reds are so deeply entrenched they are there to stay until they decide to leave – just as the Yellow Shirts themselves decided when to un-occupy the airports. And how were a bunch of protesters armed mostly with nothing more than sticks able to defeat the riot police and army and commandeer several of their tanks and other armoured vehicles? What a message that must have sent to any potential invader. If they want to invade Thailand they can probably have everything sewn up by teatime. And when they sent a reported several thousand police to capture a handful of Red Shirt leaders at a hotel they failed. Why? Because it was announced on tv that they were doing so. The mind boggles and the world laughs.
Now we have growing unrest from those who are sick to death of their daily routine being disrupted or their business damaged or destroyed, and they are fighting back. While the authorities continue to do nothing to resolve the situation they are making louder and louder protests and clashes have already taken place. The police and troops now spend their time keeping the two factions apart in case they tear each other to pieces. The violence seen at the Silom Siege was merely the beginning of what might be to come. There is no answer to the crisis. The people of Thailand are deeply split and no-one is in any mood to compromise. If and when the Reds get the election they want, and they win as they probably will as most of the Red supporters are poor and vastly outnumber the so-called middle class and elite, the cycle will begin all over again.
The future for the country is grim indeed.