Thailand Politics Explained – Somewhat

P1020435An article that appeared in the New Straits Times provides a pretty accurate and impartial summary of the current political situation in Thailand and what has led to it.  It is consistent with several points I made the other that were raised at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club’s panel discussion.

Thailand’s poor have decided that docility is a thing of the past. They are angry and frustrated by the status quo and are clamouring for change.

In other prosperous democracies, the middle class provides the glue that holds society together. In Thailand, by contrast, the bourgeoisie, centred in Bangkok, is barely emerging as a social and political force.

Instead, for a half-century, an unspoken social contract among four broad groups has held Thailand together…

Full story here

One Killed in Silom Grenade Blasts

Note: As of 4:40 pm Friday Bangkok time, I’m revising this entry from the original three killed to only one, based on updated reports being released by local news media.

The political situation in Bangkok continues to heat up.  In the past few days, counter protests (pro-government groups who are against the Red Shirts, but are not necessarily part of the Yellow Shirt movement) have formed in the Silom business district.  These protests are ostensibly formed of office workers, business owners, and others who oppose the Red Shirts’ desire to spread their protest into this business district.

Before heading to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club to listen to a panel discussion about the future of politics in Thailand, I headed to Silom to take some pictures and see what the protests looked like.  I have learned my lesson, though, to heed the warnings from the US State Department.  An hour after I left the area, five four M97 grenades were launched (ostensibly from the Red Shirts demonstration area) into the “No Color Shirts” crowd, killing three one.  This happened in exactly the area I had been filming and taking pictures.

This map shows you the affected area.  The Red Shirts have set up an encampment in the plaza in front of Lumpini Park.  They have also established an impressive barricade made of tires, concrete blocks, and sharpened bamboo sticks, effectively cutting off Ratchadamri Road at Rama IV.

Note: As of 4:40 pm today local time, both police and Red Shirts have agreed to back off from their respective positions 100 meters (300 feet) today to help lower tensions at that particular location.

Crowd along the south side of Silom Road.  The elevated walkway connects the Saladaeng BTS Skytrain station to the Silom subway station.  The soldiers have closed the walkway, hung black tarp to obscure their movements, and are stations above the crowd.

Police officers in riot gear try to keep crowds on the sidewalk so traffic can continue to move.  There were about 1,000 “No Color Shirts” and probably 500 police and army troops in the area.  The police vans are in the picture are at the middle of the intersection.  The Red Shirts’ barricade is behind the vans.

From the median in Rama IV road looking back towards Silom Road.  The Dusit Thani Hotel is on the left – the first “high rise” in Bangkok, decades ago.

Soldiers take pictures of the crowd.  There was a row of razor wire immediately to my left between me and the soldier.

Back at Chidlom Road, the Red Shirts have erected barricades and are carefully checking any vehicles coming into their protest area.  I returned to the Chidlom area where the Foreign Correspondents’ Club is located about 7:30 and met with Ken for a quick bite at the only place open – McDonalds – before heading to the club. 

The audience for the panel was standing room only.  There were four panelists: the head doctor of the BMA Hospital, which received the majority of cases after the April 10th confrontation between the soldiers and Red Shirts; the ambassador from Sweden; and two academics, one who spoke of the history of political protests in Thailand and the second of whom is part of an organization working to mediate the situation and arrive at a workable, peaceful solution. 

Here are some highlights of what they had to say, as I’ve digested and paraphrased them:

  • The doctor shared a summary of casualties from the protests and showed forensic pictures of the “hard object” wounds.  Quite gruesome.  There is a lot of debate between the “committee” that has been formed to review the forensic evidence from the April 10th events, with printed rumors that the head forensic specialist disagrees with the committee’s conclusion.  The doctor himself was very careful to avoid drawing any conclusions, even when pressed during the questioning by journalists.  In fact, he wouldn’t state how many deaths were caused by bullets, perfering only to classify them as “death by hard object”.  I sense that there are bigger powers struggling to prevent the release of this information.  The speculation of one journalist was that based on the photos of the wounds to the Japanese photojournalist who died, he may have been hit by a rooftop sniper.  No comment by the doctor.

  • The ambassador spoke unofficially representing the opinion of the global diplomatic community, expressing his concern that whereas the Thais have managed time and time again to pull themselves back from the brink of political disaster, that this time things may have gone too far and become too escalated to result in a peaceful outcome.  Nonetheless, he expressed his hope that for the Thai people’s benefit, a peaceful, negotiated settlement occurs.

  • The historian compared this current political situation with previous protests that ended in violence in 1973, 1976, and 1992.  The biggest thing that distinguishes this movement, which he feels started with the coup in September 2006, is that the rank-and-file members of the Red Shirts represent a first-ever truly widespread popular political uprising.  His opinion is that in the past, people who showed up at protests, etc. were either just a few ideological individuals or large masses of mostly paid pawns.  This time, he feels there is some legitimate self-concern and sense of empowerment by the members of the Red Shirt protests.  His big question is, even if the Red Shirts win the conflict, will they be able to effectively govern this new, politically aware class of citizens?

  • The negotiator has been working over the past six weeks to secure a peaceful settlement between all sides in the conflict.  He differed with the historian, identifying former Prime Minister Thaksin’s sale of his company, Shin Corp, to Tamasek, the Singaporean sovereign wealthy fund, as the real starting point of this current conflict.  (You may recall that this sale, on which Thaksin and others made a huge sum of tax-free money) led to protests calling for his resignation, ultimately leading up to the coup.  The negotiator explained that the major parties have agreed in principle to a five point settlement: Dissolution of the House in five months; Free and fair elections; Acceptance of the election results; Respect for the rule of law – court verdicts, peace and order, etc. will be respected; an independent commission to look into the events of April 10.  The problem, he explained, is that neither side is willing to be the first to accept the terms, for fear of “losing face” and looking like the loser.

So where does that lead us?  It is Friday afternoon.  There is widespread speculation that the government will make a move to clear out the protesters before the weekend is over.  60,000 additional troops have been brought in from the south.  The BTS Skytrain is closing operations at 6pm tonight – bear in mind today is a payday so normally people are out and about spending their monthly salary.  All signs point to a bad weekend here in Bangkok.

Let’s hope the negotiations work.

Revisiting the Red Shirts

Will return to the review of Hong Kong restaurants tomorrow.  In the meantime, I went to check up on the Red Shirt protesters Sunday afternoon.  Here are some video and photographs.  The link to my first visit to the protest area on April 9 is here.

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T-shirt being sold by one vendor, commemorating the move from Saphan Phanpha to Ratchaprasong.  Last week a few days after the army clashed with protesters at the Panfa Bridge (“Saphan Phanpha”) in the old city, resulting in two dozen deaths and more than 800 injuries, the Red Shirts left that encampment, moving instead to the Ratchaprasong intersection at the heart of Bangkok’s high-end shopping district.

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There are probably 4-5,000 protesters at the intersection, although they are spread out in the midst of the day seeking shade.  This view is looking south along Ratchadamri road.  The Grand Hyatt Erawan is the first all building on the left behind the Skytrain tracks.  Gaysorn Plaza shopping center is the building immediately on the left of the picture.

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Turning around and looking north towards Phetchaburi Road, you can see Central World Plaza and Isetan department store on the left, and Big C on the right.

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In the old city, protesters defaced much of the encampment they evacuated, including the Democracy Monument.  It seems that their respect for property (or lack thereof) continues at Central World Plaza.

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The famous Erawan Shrine, a popular destination for tourists from elsewhere in Asia, is closed.  A few Red Shirt protesters used a small side entrance to light incense and candles, paying their respects to the Hindu god depicted in the shrine.

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One thing I noticed was a large number of monks who have joined the protesters.  Unlike the situation in Burma, where the government is clearly repressing the people and I can understand why the Buddhist clergy is at the forefront of the protests, the Red Shirt position doesn’t seem to lend itself to religion.  Of course, neither does the position of the Yellow Shirts, who are threatening to counter protest this week.

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There were a few other farangs wandering around.  Most were taking pictures while this couple just seemed to not have received the news about the area being shut down.  Note to visitors to Thailand: when I talk about Thailand being a conservative country, I’m talking about the inappropriateness of this lady’s manner of dress: cover your shoulders and a bit more of your legs, please.

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This farang seems to really be getting into the act, joining his wife (girlfriend?) in the crowd.  I guess it is nice to support your spouse’s politics, but I’d remind him that the Immigration Department might not look too kindly on foreigners engaging in political protest.

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This was about the only thing for sale in the protest area that wasn’t red.

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It was a family affair with children dressed up and indoctrinated into the fun.  Perhaps they are planning on being away from home for several weeks more so brought the whole family.

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The heat was immense, especially in the direct sun, and I was impressed at the organization of the crowd.  There were security patrols, meals being dispensed, and first aid facilities.  With so much infrastructure, you have to wonder who is bankrolling the protests.

 

Two Attempts by Army to Clear Streets Fail – 15 Dead

Unfortunately, what the Army had hoped would be a relatively easy and bloodless campaign to clear the Red Shirt protesters from the Ratchadamnoen Avenue area in the old city has been suspended after two overnight attempts left fifteen people dead and more than 670 injured.  The dead are reported to include four soldiers and eleven civilians including a 43-year old Japanese photojournalist.

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Above: protesters flee in the face of teargas dispersed by the Army along Ratchadamnoen Avenue.

The protesters at the Ratchaprasong intersection, the heart of the business and commercial district, are still in place.  This is the strategically more difficult position for the military to access and protesters have blocked the roads with trucks and other barricades.

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Police and protesters face off on Tuesday along Rajadamri Road underneath the BTS Skytrain station looking north towards Ratchaprasong intersection.

This is the worst political violence in twenty years in Thailand and begs the question of how a resolution will be reached.  Tawn and I leave this afternoon for the week and are worried about how this impasse will be broken.  No doubt it will be, but at what cost?

Update: After a previous entry about the protests, Jason had asked whether or not this is basically a class war, as that is the way it is portrayed in some foreign media.  It really isn’t.  In fact, Voranai Vanijaka, a Thai columnist in today’s Bangkok Post, summed it up very astutely:  “In the present strugles, the new elites are making pawns of the poor and the old elites are making pawns of the middle class.”  It really is more about a struggle between two groups of elites for control of a society that is very much a patronage society.  The Red Shirts represent the new elite.

 

 

 

Troops Move on Protesters

After a false but rampant rumor Friday afternoon that the government troops were about to make a move on the protesters at Ratchaprasong intersection, the troops finally moved at 2:00 Saturday afternoon.  They are simultaneously taking back the protesters’ base camp along Ratchadamnoen Road in the old city as well as the streets mentioned in my previous entry around Central World Plaza and Siam Paragon.

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After the government specified the eight levels of engagement they would use in Friday’s newspapers, ranging from “show of force” to “tear gas” to “rubber bullets,” everyone was certain the clearing out would happen on Friday afternoon.

The protesters, though, acted first and caused the government to lose face.  First, they successfully overpowered soldiers protecting the Thaicomm cable TV station, the one that had been broadcasting the UDD’s “People TV” until the government forced them to stop.  In the process, the protesters obtained a significant cache of weapons and ammunition.  There were suggestions afterwards in the media that the army was having a problem with “watermelons” – soldiers who were Red Shirts at heart but dressed in camoflage.

In the second affront to the government, protesters converged on the police headquarters to prevent the police from deploying riot gear and officers.  At the front of the Red Shirts’ crowd was a row of monks, many of whom are from the north and support the UDD’s efforts.  (I’ll save my commentary about the appropriateness of their involvement for another time.)  The Red Shirts figured the police would not attack the monks so it seems they were planning on using them as holy shields to gain entrance to the police compound.

In response, the police put a line of policewomen at the front of their ranks.  This may seem puzzling at first but one of the key tenets of Buddhism is that monks may not touch or be touched by women.  (A very serious matter within the conditions of being a monk.)  So the police figured that putting women at the front of their ranks would prevent the monks and the crowd of Red Shirts behind them from advancing.  It seemed to work.

It is now after 4 in the afternoon.  The Skytrain is closed (to enable rapid troop movement if the streets are blocked) as are all businesses in the central business district.  Hotels in the area probably locked down.  For a second consecutive day my evening plans have been thwarted.

One interesting “coincidence” to consider: in this morning’s Bangkok Post there was an article in which the Prime Minister was conceeding that the government had lost face yesterday but promising they would step up to the challenge.  Smack in the middle of the article was a paragraph that seemed strangely out of place:

“In terms of the military operations, it will be [deputy army chief] Gen Prayuth taking charge,” said the source, adding that highly-respected figures have sent a signal to the prime minister and Gen Prayuth to end the demonstration before the Songkran festival, which starts on Tuesday.  Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda is reportedly hopeful that he will be able to accept well-wishers during the Songkran holiday.”

This last sentence is shocking.  The Privy Council is the group that directly advises the throne.  I’m amazed that the Post would suggest that this group might have any direct involvement in the political activites as they are supposed to be above politics.  After the September 2006 coup there were similar suggestions bandied about and many threats against those who made them.

 

Bangkok Broils Under Red Shirt Protest

Those of you who follow the news from Thailand know that for almost the past week, the center of the shopping district – the Ratchaprasong intersection – has been taken over by “red shirt” protesters.  An estimated 100,000 were sitting in the street and plaza outside Central World shopping center this weekend and while the numbers have diminished significantly, the area is still paralyzed. 

And as the Kingdom bakes under warmer than normal temperatures during what is already the usual peak of our hot season, tensions are rising on the political front.  I went down to the area yesterday to take a look around and snap some photos. 

I’ve updated my initial entry with some more pictures, explanation, and responses to your questions and comments.

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Looking west towards the Ratchaprasong intersection from the walkway that leads to Gaysorn Plaza, which is to the right of this picture.

Who are the Red Shirts?

The “Red Shirts” are a coalition of interested parties under the banner of the National United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD).  They are mainly supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister who was ousted in a September 2006 coup and subsequently convicted in absentia to two years in prison and the seizure of about $1.3 billion in assets on charges of corruption.  The UDD also represents some other interests, including those who aren’t supportive of Thaksin but who are against the coup and what they see as subsequent interference with the democratic process by a military/judicial elite.

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A map of the area around Ratchaprasong intersection that is affected by the protests.

Affected Area

While there are scattered protests in other areas of the city, especially in the “Old City” where the government ministries are, the area that is attracting the most attention at the moment is the Ratchaprasong intersection.  This is where Rama I Road (what turns into Sukhumvit as it heads southeast) and Rajadamri Road meet at the heart of the shopping district.

Is it paralyzing the city?

Vivek asks about the effect it is having on everyday life in Bangkok.  Central World Plaza, Gaysorn Plaza, and Erawan shopping centers are all located right at the intersection.   It is also the site of the popular Erawan Shrine, often mistakenly called the Four-Face Buddha by tourists.  Siam Square with the Paragon, Siam Center, and Siam Discovery shopping centers is only a block away.  These six major shopping centers have a combined floor space of more than four times the Mall of America’s and have been closed for almost a week now causing an estimated 200-300 million baht ($6-9 million) in losses per day.

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View from the bridge connecting BTS Chidlom station to Central Chidlom department store, looking west towards Ratchaprasong.

UDD guards have set up barricades and are limiting traffic on the affected streets to only local traffic.  For example, the Intercontinental, Holiday Inn Ploenjit, and Renaissance hotels are all in the affected area.  Taxis and private vehicles going to and from these hotels are allowed to enter.  Notice that in the picture above there are no police offers – they seem to be keeping their distance and letting protesters handle things.

Other businesses in the area are shut down or are operating on a very limited basis.  Hotel bookings in the area are down significantly and bookings and tourist arrivals are off about 30% from normal for this time of year, particularly bookings from elsewhere in Asia.  The Stock Exchange of Thailand dropped about 3.5% Thursday on news of the latest emergency decree and anticipation of a worsening political environment.

As for those of us who live here, it is kind of like having the middle of your living room be a no-go zone.  You can still live in your house and get around, but you have to avoid one of the main areas that you would regularly travel to for work or entertainment.  It is inconvenient but not impossible.  Thankfully, this is the slow season for tourism and it is also summer break for students, so there is already less traffic than normal.

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Looking south at the Ratchaprasong intersection.  The Erawan shrine beyond the stage and to the left.  Central World Plaza is back over your shoulder to the right in this picture.

At the main intersection, a stage is set up beneath the BTS Skytrain tracks.  There is a bit of irony in the placement of the stage beneath the metropolitan government’s “Bangkok – City of Life” advertising.

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Turning around 180 degrees and looking north along Rajadamri Road, Central World Plaza is on the left.  There is a second pedestrian walkway in the distance.  Over the weekend the entire street stretching beyond that second walkway was filled with protesters.  At noon on a Thursday the crowds had dwindled and most were seeking refuge in whatever thin stretches of shade they could find.

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Protesters camp out in the median strip foliage under the Skytrain tracks.  Based on the number of plastic bags and other bits of rubbish strewn about, the UDD isn’t doing a very good job caring for its environment.

Are they compensated?

Rob asked whether protesters are there of their own volition or whether they have been paid to be there.  There is no doubt that in a country where the vast majority of people earn less than $150 a month that there has been some compensation in addition to assistance transporting them to the capital.  These protests have gone on for more than four weeks in different parts of the city.  There are reports that protesters have received up to 2000 baht – about $60 – to come to the city.  Most of the supporters are from the Issan region, northeast Thailand, a very poor and relatively dry area in comparison to the rest of the country.

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The banner reads “Welcome to Thailand – We just want democracy”

Is it safe for you to be there?

Jason asked after the safety of me going to the protest area and several other people raised their concerns about my safety in general.  Thanks to everyone for your concern.  In deciding to visit, I evaluated the situation carefully, first viewing it from the passing Skytrain to see what the crowd looked like, and then approaching it on foot from a half-kilometer away. 

As I walked from the Rajadamri BTS station back towards the Ratchaprasong intersection, my senses were on heightened alert and being one of the only foreigners on the street, I was very cognizant of what was going on around me.  Had there been any signs of aggression or any direct conflict between protesters and security forces, I would not have entered the area.  As it was, the police have stayed well to the fringes of the protest and other than scuffles at other locations – the protesters stormed the Parliament building briefly yesterday, for example – there has been a notable lack of confrontation between the protesters and security forces.

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These plastic clappers have become symbolic of the UDD, who use them to cheer speakers and signify their protest.  The ones in the shape of a foot have special meaning because the foot is considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the body.  By raising your foot against whomever (authorities, military, the PM, etc.) you are insulting them.

Why is the government taking a hands-off approach?

Gary commented about the low-conflict approach that the government has taken so far against the protesters.  Among some Thais and almost all foreigners, the question has been why the police and military aren’t moving in and arresting and/or dispersing protesters who are in clear violation of the law. 

The answer is complex and there are some areas of speculation I won’t get into here.  The larger, safer answer is that the military does not want to provoke a situation that could escalate into violence, much like what happened in April 2009, when police moved aggressively against protesters who responded with Molotov cocktails, bombs, and other violence.  For all their image of being peaceful people, Thais’ tempers can be as easily triggered as anyone else’s and the history of such confrontations in Thailand politics (1973, 1976, 1992) have led to the conventional wisdom that such conflicts are not resolved until blood is shed, an outcome nobody wants.

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There’s always money to be made as vendors sell color-appropriate supplies in front of the Louis Vuitton store at Gaysorn Plaza.  At some point, you have to wonder which of the vendors (the foot masseuses, the ice cream vendors?) are there for capitalistic purposes rather than because of their political beliefs.

What’s going to happen next?

Meg commented that she had heard that martial law has been enacted.  While it isn’t exactly martial law, the “Internal Security Act” has been invoked, giving the government and the military more powers to intervene in affairs of safety and security.  Specifically, gatherings of more than five people for political purposes is not allowed.  Additionally, the cable TV and radio stations supporting the UDD have been shut down because they are “spreading misinformation” and “destabilizing the peace”.  The Internal Security Act applies to Bangkok and parts of surrounding provinces.

The protests show no signs of abating and while some people expect the crowds to diminish during the three-day Songkran (Thai new year) holiday next week, you can be certain that the situation will continue to simmer.  We were lucky last year to be out of the country when things boiled over and with a trip to Macao and Hong Kong scheduled for next week, perhaps we will be lucky again.

Without turning this into a news blog or a political blog, I will share any significant developments with you.  In the meantime, I have more food porn to post!

For more information: You may find this article in the Economist helpful in explaining some of the context and background of the current political situation, about which I will not write in this blog because of Thailand’s strict lese majeste laws.

 

Bruce’s Visit

As mentioned before, we’ve had a houseguest for the past week.  Bruce came for a visit from the United States and I’ve been busy playing tour guide for much of that time.  We have seen a lot of things and I’ve been so much on the go that I haven’t had time to properly update the blog – especially since the political unrest here in Thailand has increased recently and deserves some attention.

Let me begin with the political situation, since some of you have already expressed your worries and concerns.

Protest 9 To start off, rest assured that things are still perfectly safe here.  Unless you decide to go wander through the middle of the protest area (which Bruce and I did on Sunday, before all of this boiled over), life in the city is proceeding as normal.

Sunday was a local election here and one of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD – the protesters) leaders was arrested as he came out of hiding in order to vote.  Realizing this would happen, he gave his supporters a letter to read after his arrest. 

Subsequent to his arrest, the protests swelled in size.  They expanded to include the area around the parliament building, effectively trapping members of parliament inside.

When the police moved to clear the protesters, using tear gas and – some reports say – small explosives, there were dozens of injuries and two deaths.  The autopsy report on one of the deaths indicate that the decedent died as a result of injuries from an explosive she had on her person, although I don’t know how that was established.

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Among the injuries were at least two people with severed limbs, providing some of the most shocking early morning news footage I’ve ever seen on television.  It is not clear how the injuries happened – do tear gas cannisters provide enough explosive force to tear off the bottom part of a leg?

Some level of calm has been restored, but the PAD has insisted they are the victims here and will remain in place until they have overthrown the government.  In short, the cycle will continue.

P1100319 Turning our attention back to Bruce’s visit, as I mentioned, we have been very busy.  Some guests just grab the map, ask me to point them towards the transit system, and are off.  Other times, I get the opportunity to revisit many parts of the city with my guests.

Bruce’s friend Fai, a Thai who lived in San Francisco many years and is back in town, was able to join us for dinner shortly after Bruce’s arrival. 

We met for dinner at Greyhound Cafe and had a nice visit.  While we haven’t met Fai before, he was very nice and reminds us of a friend in Hong Kong.

Left: Fai, Bruce and Tawn pose on the rain-slicked concrete in front of Paragon shopping center.

Unfortunately, Fai was heading out of town so there would be no more opportunity to visit with him.  So I put on the tour guide hat – actually, Bruce ended up with the hat to protect him from the sun – and we set off.  One of the first stops was the obligatory trip to the Grand Palace, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha – a trio of sights that are really a must-see.

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Down by the river, as we waited for the boat, we saw the funny sight of a lady washing her dog in the canal.  I’m not sure which was cleaner afterwards: the dog or the canal!

Bruce brought his new High Definition digital video camera with him, able to record dozens and dozens of hours of sights and sounds.  No doubt he will have a lot of editing to do when he returns!

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With it being off season and a thunderstorm hanging over most of the city, we found the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha emptier – and cooler – than I have ever seen it.  While Bruce did the audio tour, I sat on a marble-floored sala – a pavilion – and edited training materials for my job.  With a deadline looming and still a lot of work to do, I had to squeeze every minute of work out of my time spent as a tour guide.

Passing through the Palace area, I snapped two nice photos of one of the main halls.

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Truly beautiful architecture, combining Versailles windows and arches with a classical Thai roof line.

Heading over to Wat Pho – the Temple of the Reclining Buddha – we encountered several touts, helpfully informing us that the temple was closed and would we like to instead go see the giant standing Buddha.  Of course, this was just a ruse to get us to go visit “gem” factories. 

Visitors beware: Khrungthep is full of these shady characters.  I noticed it much more this time than on previous visits to the sights and was, frankly, a bit perturbed by it.  Tourism is such an important source of revenue for the kingdom that with the downturn in bookings caused by the political violence, they can scarcely afford to lose more tourists because of scams.

We were rewarded for our perseverance: at Wat Pho we saw some craftspeople restoring detailed painting along the windows and door frames.  I cannot imagine the hours they must have spent, hunched over or laying on their side to add the small swirls and flourishes.

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While at the temple, we stumbled upon a monk conference.  Literally, it was a gathering of monks including visiting ones from China and Hong Kong.  According to one monk with whom I spoke, there were 10,000 participants.  They were sitting on mats surrounding the main wihan – chapel – of the temple, until the rains came and drove them under the eaves.  The chanting continued, though, as more and more monks arrived by bus and taxi, streaming inside and finding their appointed places.

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There is some video below.


That sums up our first day of hiking about town.  There is more to share and I will try to post it as soon as possible.  Meanwhile, hope everyone is doing well.  I’m quite behind on checking and responding to others’ entries so my apologies if I have missed any important events.

 

The Skinny and Wide Rice Noodles

Okay, I’m about to write a “normal” entry but first, let me give you just a bit of an update on the Thai political situation:

The information I gave yesterday about the Election Commission recommending the dissolution of the ruling People’s Power Party (PPP, which Prime Minister Samak heads), turns out to be correct.  Originally, I didn’t see it reported elsewhere but have now found several Thai sources that confirm it.

I’ve heard from supporters on both sides of the conflict as well as from people who are sitting in the middle, unimpressed by the extreme actions of both sides, and I’m thankful to all of them for sharing their insights and opinions.

The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD, the anti-government protesters) have made the first intimations of a possible compromise to end the confrontation, but their number one requirement is that Prime Minister Samak resign and dissolve his cabinet.  Not surprisingly, Samak refuses to do so.

Things are moving very slowly towards some possible resolution, emphasis on the “slowly” part.  The Election Commission’s recommendation, should it be approved by the Constitutional Court, would largely moot the conflict as the PPP would be dissolved and new elections would have to be called anyway.

If I was to try to give you some sense of the general feeling in the country about the way towards resolution, the Bangkok Post’s front page commentary in Wednesday’s edition might encapsulate it.  The full commentary is here but the bullet points are as follows:

  • Prime Minister Samak declaring a state of emergency was a wrong-headed ploy to retain power.
  • Kudos to the army chief for keeping the army out of the political wrangling.
  • Yes, the PPP did win the right to govern (Samak’s main argument), but the Election Commission’s recommendation notwithstanding, the Samak government has made many unconstitutional mis-steps in the past seven months since taking office.  For this, they should step down, allowing the coalition government to form a new cabinet.
  • Yes, the PAD has the right to protest (the PAD’s main argument) but their actions such as closing down three southern airports have gone too far.  Additionally, they must respect democratic principles.  The call from some of their leaders for a non-elected government is not acceptable.

So that’s where things stand: at an impasse.  We’ll see how the next few days develop but I’d place my money on an eventual resignation by the Prime Minister and the calling of snap elections.

 

How is this affecting you and Tawn?

This is a common question I’ve received and thank you for expressing your concern.  Yesterday I received a call from a friend who is to travel here next week for a conference.  Worried about what he’s seen on TV, he was going to cancel his trip for fear of his safety.

Let’s make this clear: there is no danger in visiting Thailand nor in living here.  There is no reasonable prospect of violence or danger in the near future that would effect visitors or residents.  Fears of a Rawanda-like genocide or a Balkan civil war are completely misplaced.

What you see on television is the narrow width of a camera lens, pointed at the most dramatic and newsworthy thing it can find.  If you could pull back to a very wide angle, you would see that life in the city and the nation are continuing as normal.

 

An old friend reopens

Long before I moved here, Tawn took me to “the red noodle shop” (real name, Yen Ta Fo) which was located next to a driving range further down Sukhumvit.  The shop eventually closed as development took over that area, but the owners continued to ply their trade at outlets in malls around the more suburban parts of the city. 

Recently, though, good news: Yen Ta Fo opened a branch in Ploenchit Centre, located a two-minute walk from Tawn’s office.  Taking over a defunct Haagen Dazs and a poor imitation of a NY-style deli, Yen Ta Fo is attracting the crowds for lunch.

Their specialty, the red noodles (below), is a mixture of wide rice noodles, mixed seafood, and a slightly vinegary sauce.  I don’t personally care for it as it is too vinegary for me, but Tawn loves it and lots of other people were ordering it, so I consider it a shortcoming of my tastebuds.

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I had a great dish of pork spareribs (below) that had been stewed until the meat just jumped off the bones.  The sweet-spicy sauce is so satisfying and made for a perfect rainy afternoon meal.

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On the side we ordered the Yen Ta Fo version of chicken satay (below).  They prepare their chicken with a spicy curry paste rub that adds a lot of flavor and a fair amount of heat, instead of the usual continuous basting of coconut milk.  Their sticky rice (in the basket) was a little undercooked, a bit more “tough” than “sticky”. 

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Beyond the Yen Ta Fo restaurants, the family has a series of more upscale establishments with the name Mallika.  Website here.  No doubt we will be back to Yen Ta Fo regularly.

 

P1090742 On the other side of Tawn’s office is a block of traditional shop houses.  These four-story buildings housed a shop or small restaurant in the ground floor and then residences above. 

There was one restaurant to which we regularly went, and Issan (northeastern Thai) style place that served wonderful grilled chicken. 

Sadly, the shops have been closed down and the entire block is being demolished.  Not sure what will replace it but the property, on the corner of Ploenchit (Sukhumvit) and Whittayu (Wireless Road) is next to the Plaza Athenee Hotel, kitty-corner to the British Embassy, and is one of the more valuable locations in the city.

I predict another office tower / mall / condo complex.  Anyone know for sure?

On the left is a picture taken from the Skytrain Ploenchit Station platform.  It isn’t quite wide enough to show everything but the sidewalk is the dark strip in the lower left.  The stairs leading down from the Skytrain station are the white-lined area in the edge of the lower left.

People used to congregate on the outdoor patios where the umbrella still stands, eating at folding tables during the lunch rush.  Now it is being taken down, story by story, building by building.  You can see how much has already been done in the picture below.  The Plaza Athenee is just behind (to the left) of the low-rise pink building.

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Let’s hear it for ongoing development.  It is a shame that old buildings and family-owned small businesses end up closed to make way for progress.  The only positive to this is that the location, adjacent to a mass transit station, is a good place for denser development.  Unfortunately, the development will benefit primarily those with money, not the lower income families who used to earn a living there.

 

One final construction shot, this one from the huge site next to the Asoke Skytrain station.  The excavation has started and I was tickled to see that one of the cranes bears a warning in Japanese.  I imagine it isn’t much help for the construction workers, who primarily come from upcountry Thailand.

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Do you know what it says?

 

Update on the Update

Nothing much happened overnight; there is a still a lot of tension in the city.  Schools throughout the metropolitan area are closed for three days, even thought only about 40 schools in the centre of the city are affected.  (“Equity” is the reason given.)

It is overcast and even as I type, the first big drops of rain are falling.  The army commander insists “the door to a coup is locked”.  Parliament must find a peaceful resolution.

A quasi-retraction: the “update” I gave yesterday was based on an AP report I received through Yahoo News.  You may recall it announced the Election Commission’s unanimous ruling that the People Power Party should be dissolved.  As the largest party in the governing coalition, that would have forced the government to be shut down and new elections called. 

However, I have been unable to verify that news through any other source.  There is no mention on Thai websites, in either Thai or English.  Looking back a half-month I find a similar report on the website for The Nation, an English-language paper.  That may have been a preliminary announcement or else the AP is late in its reporting.  I’ll let you know how that plays out.

I have some non-protest related items to post but have a lot of work to do today.  In fact, I was up at 3:00 am for calls with the US.  If time allows, I’ll post later today or tomorrow.

 

State of Emergency Declared in Bangkok

Update Below

The confrontation between anti- and pro-government protesters reached a boiling point early Tuesday morning, when the police-enforced separation of the two groups by a distance of several hundred meters was breached.  In the resulting melee at least one person was killed.

At 7:00 Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Samak announced a state of emergency in Bangkok, invoking a controversial article in the new constitution that was seen as being insisted upon by the military transitional government during the last coup.

Under this state of emergency, the commander of the Army has been given authority to enforce the state of emergency, which prohibits gatherings of more than five people for political purposes.  The paragraph requiring everyone to remain at home has been exempted so that business can continue as usual.

There is a story in more detail on The Nation’s website here.  There is also a shocking video that appears to shows anti-government protesters (in the yellow shirts) beating pro-government protesters who are lying on the ground, unable or unwilling to defend themselves. 

For balance, though, there is no way to identify absolutely who is who, but I think when it comes to the point of people on either side beating people who don’t even have the strength to raise their arms in defense, that’s way too far.  Let’s use the political process and peaceful protest to change the system, not violence.

 

Update

At about noon Tuesday, local time, it was reported that the Election Commission, as part of an ongoing investigation, has ruled that the People’s Power Party committed electoral fraud in the December 2007 election and should be dissolved.  The PPP is the party of Prime Minister Samak and is considered, for all intensive purposes, to be simply a rebirth of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party, which was dissolved after the 2006 coup.

The Election Commission voted unanimously for the dissolution and the case will be forwarded to the public prosecutor’s office, who will determine if it should be forwarded to the Constitutional Court for a final ruling.

This certainly adds some fuel to the fire, but over the past several months, the judiciary has appeared to be relatively independent and fair.  My hope is that this will help bring about a resolution to the immediate conflict and encourage everyone to play by the rules of the game.  In other words, the constitution.