Thursday, April 15, 2010
And to all a good fright....
Today is the Thai New Year, April 13th. The streets are supposed to run wild with hilarity and we're all supposed to drown our pasts in torrents of life-giving water. The mood in Bangkok is somewhat quiet, even glum. Not surprising considering that, for now at least, the forces of anarchy reign victorious. I walked out a few times, didn't get wet once.
And now it's the 14th. You could call it the morning after but it really isn't ... Songkran is the day that stretches, especially if there's a weekend anywhere close. It won't be over until maybe Monday.
The reds, are of course, crowing over their victories, and are the only people in Bangkok actually enjoying Songkran, but — though they may not think so — they are losing ground in some very important areas. The government, of course, is hanging by a thread, having had a committee vote to send a 5-year-old financial mishandling case to another committee, which could cause the ruling party to be dissolved ... no time soon, but it puts everyone on edge.
While they've successfully paralysed the city of Bangkok, the reds have finally pissed off the people who have to live here. The yellow shirts made an official statement: a petition to the government to proclaim martial law, arrest the terrorists, and not to dissolve parliament under any circumstances. A group of (multicolored shirted) peaceniks is organizing another set of marches to demand that red shirts return home. Red shirts beat up a taxi driver, disrupted a prayer meeting in which a group of white-shirted meditationists were praying for peace, and generally have been roughing up the populace of Bangkok, who aren't used to this kind of thing since normally in this town you can walk into the roughest neighborhood with impunity.
And, while CNN's cookie-cutter people's revolution had much airplay at first, it is now taken for granted that "someone in black" did all the shooting and grenade-throwing — from the red side of the line. Yesterday, in the midst of Nattawut's rhetoric about the evil Abhisit, he also tried to explain that these merecenaries were actually government forces, disgruntled with the army, who of their own free will happened to be launching grenades to take out the commanding officers of the Thai army.
What this means is that both sides now actually agree that the army didn't do it, despite the rhetoric. Abhisit has cleverly said that the reds are innocent and that the "rogue militia" were acting on the orders of a mysterious "third party" ... but it's clear that the citizens of Bangkok make no distinction between the reds and the "third party."
Having won, they believe, the red shirts believe that they can now demand anything they want, and therefore have gone way over the top: immediate parliamentary dissolution this second, Abhisit to go into exile, Abhisit to be arrested and tried for murder, a one-million-baht price on Abhisit's head, and so on. Their demands are now so absurd that no one takes them seriously, and little by little, the "redshirt jokes" are starting to come out of the woodwork.
If their demand really was simply to dissolve parliament, that demand was in fact already satisfied long before the events of last Saturday; the government's offer to do so in nine months after fixing the constitutional errors that would cause a recurrence of the colored shirt problem was a very good offer. They even pared it down to six. In any civilized society that is an amazing concession for a vocal minority to get from a constitutionally legitimate government that is actually doing relatively well in office.
The fact that the government essentially acceded to their bullying, and yet they continue to bully, is convincing the average Bangkok person that dissolution is not their real aim — destabilization is. And while the average Bangkok person doesn't particularly care what party is in power, he is getting increasingly angry with the disruption of his normal life. Not just the businessmen who can't get to work, but the street vendors, kids who hang out in Siam Square,
This is in fact becoming sort of kafkaesque. This evening, a cabinet minister was punched in the head by a red shirt while celebrating Songkran in the provinces. Meanwhile, a day or so after the street fighting, tourists are flooding back into Khao San road and the hotels there are up to 90% after having dropped to 30%, meaning that perhaps Songkran in that street won't be a dead loss after all. However, the heart of the city's commercial life, where the five interconnected Malls and a lot of five-star hotels are, is a sea of red; they're not doing anything, but they claim they will tomorrow.
There are really quite a few possible roads towards getting back to normal: (a) the government declares martial law and the army mops everything up (b) the army gets tired of waiting and stages a coup, setting civil rights back 20 years (c) everyone does nothing for a while and it sort of peters out (d) the people of Bangkok take their city back (why not? There's 13 million people in Bangkok and only about 50,000 red shirts) (d) the reds come back to earth and actually agree to a negotiated settlement instead of continually upping the ante (e) parliament succeeds in ramming through a vote of no confidence and pre-empts the reds' demand for dissolution (f) parliament fails in ramming through this vote (g) a real smoking gun is produced from all this footage so that we actually know for a fact who shot whom ...
What I want to say to my friends in other countries is this: there's very little fear here but a lot of grumbling. Tourism in Bangkok is down, but going strong in all the beach towns and the north. I'm perfectly safe as are my household, friends, and pets. Trisdee called me, he's conducting up a storm in Holland, but he'll be home in a few days and he can't wait to join the excitement ... because, after all, this is exciting. It's real history. It's an important moment of political awakening for many Thai people who have been lulled into accepting corruption and inequities. Despite the fact that one or two of Bangkok's hundreds of Starbucks aren't accessible, I wouldn't be anywhere else right now.