Biking through the Protest Aftermath

This morning I pulled out my bicycle and, figuring that five days had been enough time to wait, pedaled my way to the various spots that had been affected during the Red Shirts’ protest and the subsequent riots and arson. 

At 8:00 on a Sunday the streets were very quiet although there were others out.  For closed off sections of road, there were a surprising number of sightseers there to absorb the unimaginable.  This raised a question that has crossed my mind many times in the past two months: where were the police?

All in all, there is quite a mess.  The damage is a little less extensive than my wild imagination had feared after seeing selected pictures shown again and again last Wednesday while the city was burning.  But it is still a mess.  Everywhere that the protesters had burned barricades made of tyres, there is a thick layer of burned rubber, a slick that has permeated the asphalt.  Plants and landscaping are destroyed, the same fate suffered by every police box in the area.

Please let me share some photos and video with you.  The commentary may sound a little pro-government, when in fact I don’t align particularly with any side in this conflict.  But after seeing my city heavily damaged, largely by outsiders who claimed to be peaceful, I’m a bit jaded.

My first stop was the Chidlom intersection.  You can see the Chidlom Skytrain station and are looking down Ploenchit Road towards Siam Square.  There was a very large barricade here that was torched.  There are large scorch marks on the underside of the Skytrain station and you can see that the traffic lights melted.  The ground by the looted police box is slick with the residue of burned rubber.

The same intersection from the other side, with Soi Lang Suan running off to the back right of the picture.  This was the largest contingent of troops I saw.  Many soldiers seemed to be assigned to clean-up duty but this bunch was armed and definitely doing security.  The curfew is still day-to-day but the hours are being shortened.  What started at 8 pm – 6 am is now something like 11 pm – 5 am and will hopefully be lifted in the next few days.

The Ratchaprasong intersection.  Ploenchit-Rama I runs left to right through the picture.  Straight ahead is Rajadamri Road heading towards Lumpini Park and Silom.  On the back right of the picture is the police headquarters.  Would you like to ask the obvious question?  How in the world was a protest of tens of thousands of people that lasted 40+ days allowed to happen right in front of the nation’s police headquarters?  Were there no officers around to put a stop to it when it first started?

The answers lies in the complex politics of Thailand’s military and security services: it has been reported that there are many factions within the police, several of which are loyal to the former Prime Minister.

The Skytrain started running today and will be back to a full schedule starting Monday.  The only station not open is Rajadamri due to damage to the station.

Gaysorn Plaza, on the Ratchaprasong corner, appeared to not have sustained much damage.  Louis Vuitton, in particular, seems to have come through unscathed.  Given the number of LV knock-offs sold in Thailand, I can only imagine that the shop was saved only by its immense popularity, even among Red Shirts.

The collapsed section of Central World Plaza, which was still smoldering.  This is in the Atrium section, a part of the mall that was new construction since I moved here.  The right half of the mall is expected to be reopened within six months but this portion and to the left will have to be completely razed and rebuilt.

Doesn’t that look like more damage than would be caused by a couple of Molotov Cocktails?  Sure enough, the authorities report finding at least one compressed gas cylinder amid the debris.  At the nearby Four Seasons hotel, it is reported that several cylinders were found, wired to make a bomb.

Along the Rama I side of Central World, you can see the extensive damage to the Zen department store.  No word as to whether the high-rise portion was affected, but I cannot imagine how the structure could not have sustained damage.

Down the street in Siam Square the damage was also extensive.  Of the six or seven soi (alleys) in Siam Square, it appears that two suffered extensive damage.  This building is on the corner of Rama I and Henri Dunant Roads.

I had originally heard that both the Siam and Scala theatres, the last two independent single-screen cinemas in Bangkok, had burned.  Thankfully the Scala, architecturally the more interesting of the two, survived unscathed.

However, the building housing the Siam, as well as dozens of small, owner operated shops, was destroyed.  This area is immediately below the Siam Skytrain station, directly across from Siam Paragon mall.

Extensive damage to many shops.

There are still some coils of razor wire here and there.  This is at the Payathai – Rama I intersection across from MBK Mall.  These appear to be awaiting clean-up and are not part of any current security operation.

The Metropolitan Electric Authority office in Khlong Toei along Rama IV Road (between the expressway and Asoke-Ratchadapisek Road) was completely destroyed.  There are still sections of this generally poor neighborhood that are without electricity.

The good news is that there was an important sign of the city coming together this morning, a volunteer clean up effort which drew at least 1,000 people to Lumpini Park and the Silom-Saladaeng neighborhood.  The name of the event: Together We Can.

Okay, I’m ready to put this topic aside for now and move on to other things.

The Day After the Fires

Thursday evening, the second night under curfew has started.  The government has announced that these will last through the weekend.  There were very few reported incidents today apart from a brief confrontation between about 100 protesters and a few police officers up near Victory Monument, and an arson attack on another bank branch.  Relatively speaking, things are calm both here in Bangkok and in the provinces.

To be certain, no long-term fix has been found to the political situation.  But for now, at least, things are calmer.

Lines around lunchtime at the local Villa Market were twenty deep as residents of the Thong Lor neighborhood and beyond rushed to stock up on supplies.  With all the malls closed and many of the supermarkets, the Villa Markets in the mid-Sukhumvit area have been some of the few proper supermarkets that are open.  We are stocked up enough to get us through the weekend.

This afternoon, Ajarn Yai, the retired school director pictured below for whom I volunteered as an English teacher a few years ago, called and expressed her concern.  Her worry?  How bad these events will make Thailand and the Thais look in the eyes of the world.  She wants everyone to know that this isn’t Thailand and this is not how Thai people are.  So there you have it, from her lips to your screen.

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One of the most useful sources of information in the past 48 hours has been Michael Yon, the freelance American writer, photograph, and former Green Beret.  With loads of war zone experience he has been reporting from Bangkok and has provided a near-continuous stream of information and updates through his Facebook page.  Hundreds of locals have started following and commenting on his feed as he has provided a unique insight both in terms of quantity and also in terms of providing his military knowledge.

Best of all, he has been very generous in giving permission to people to use his photos.  All he asks for is attribution and a link to his page.  Here are some pictures:

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Northeast corner of Rama IV and Ratchadamri looking down Rama IV towards Sathorn.  Lumpini Park in the foreground with Silom subway entrance visible.  The large barricade has been removed and there is a small army of city workers who have been cleaning the park.  Still a lot of debris and damage to the pavement.

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Damage to shops (possible a bank?) at Siam Square.  On the far right of the picture is Siam BTS Skytrain station.  From what I’ve heard, both the Siam and Scala cinemas were destroyed.  Many small shops were also destroyed, ruining the livelihoods of the independent owners of those businesses.

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Michael and a Thai reporter he was traveling with spoke with one of those owners, who went into her shop trying to salvage inventory.  As you can see, things are pretty well destroyed here.  Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA) reports that because of the damage, the buildings that house the cinemas and shops (Siam Square Sois 5 and 6) will likely need to be demolished.

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Damage at Central World.  This is the front side, the Zen department store that faces Rama I road.  From what Michael reports, it looks like the damage was limited mostly to the department store and this end of the mall.  The remainder of the mall looks like it might be okay.

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Same building but around the corner looking back towards Rama I Road and Siam Square.  The central structure of the department store collapsed after the fire.  BMA also says that because of the extent of damage, this structure will need to be demolished.  Now, the reports are that the BMA is saying that Central World will have to be demolished, which I would interpret as the entire mall.  However, this doesn’t seem to jive with the firsthand reports from Michael so we’ll have to wait and see what the truth is over the days and weeks to come.

The seven-story Big C superstore and mall across the street from Central World also was destroyed by fire and will need to be torn down.  The first floor or two of that is filled with small, independently-owned shops.  Anger vented at “elites” managed to do more damage to “common people” than anything else.

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Finally, not from Michael’s website but floating around from various Thai bloggers, this picture that compares a clip from Resident Evil 4 to the real skyline of Bangkok yesterday.  The film shows downtown Los Angeles, the other City of Angels, on fire.  Eerie, isn’t it?

 

Don’t Blame Dan Rivers

In the past week I’ve written about my concern at how foreign media is covering the events in Thailand.  At first my concerns were focused mainly on the way they made the entire city look like a war zone which, at the time, it wasn’t.  My growing concern has been how the foreign media is making the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (“Red Shirts”) look like the struggling underdogs fighting against a repressive government. 

I’ve also read some people’s comments saying things like, “Oh, how awful – the government troops firing on those poor unarmed protesters!”  Let me tell you from the perspective here in Thailand that that isn’t an accurate representation of this conflict.

Of all the networks, it seems like Al Jazeera English has actually done the best job of covering the story in a balanced manner.  While Americans are often quite skittish about Al Jazeera, they are an excellent source of journalism that will give you quite a different perspective on the world than you’ll find from US media.

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So this is what pro-democracy demonstrators look like?

Yesterday, The Nation blogger and Bangkok Symphony Orchestra conductor Somtow Sucharitkul wrote an entry yesterday about how we can’t really blame the foreign media for getting it wrong.  As a communication major, I found it to be a pretty insightful analysis of the situation.  I put the link on Facebook and was going to share it with you here. 

Unfortunately, it seems like the link has been severed and instead of his column there is just the picture of a verdant leaf.  Censorship from within Thailand?

5-20-2010 9-09-20 AM

This is a shame because I think you would benefit from reading this analysis.  Thankfully, another blogger posted the full text of the column, which I will go ahead and share with you here.  It is a  bit long, for which I apologize.  The bullet points are the key points – the ones that the foreign media has largely not included in their coverage.  I would encourage you to read them, to provide some perspective to what you have read and/or seen on your local media coverage.

Originally posted at this link on Somtow’s World:

Don’t Blame Dan Rivers

Now, let us consider the redshirt conflict.  Let’s not consider what has actually been happening in Thailand, but how it looks to someone whose worldview has been coloured with this particular view of history.

Let’s consider the fact that there is pretty much nothing being explained in English, and that there are perhaps a dozen foreigners who really understand Thai thoroughly. I don’t mean Thai for shopping, bargirls, casual conversation and the like. Thai is a highly ambiguous language and is particularly well suited for seeming to say opposite things simultaneously. To get what is really being said takes total immersion.

When you watch a red shirt rally, notice how many English signs and placards there are, and note that they they are designed to show that these are events conforming to the archetype. The placards say “Democracy”, “No Violence,” “Stop killing innocent women and children” and so on. Speakers are passionately orating, crowds are moved. But there are no subtitles. What does it look like?

The answer is obvious. It looks like oppressed masses demanding freedom from an evil dictator.

Don’t blame Dan Rivers [CNN reporter who has come under some criticism for his coverage], et al, who are only doing what they are paid to do: find the compelling story within the mass of incomprehensible data, match that story to what the audience already knows and believes, and make sure the advertising money keeps flowing in.

A vigorous counter-propaganda campaign in clear and simple English words of one syllable has always been lacking and is the reason the government is losing the PR war while actually following the most logical steps toward a real and lasting resolution.

If the foreign press were in fact able to speak Thai well enough to follow all the reportage here coming from all sides, they would also be including some of the following information in their reports. I want to insist yet again that I am not siding with anyone. The following is just information that people really need before they write their news reports.

  • Thaksin was democratically elected, but became increasingly undemocratic, and the country gradually devolved from a nation where oligarchs skimmed off the top to a kleptocracy of one. During his watch, thousands of people were summarily executed in the South of Thailand and in a bizarre “war on drugs” in which body count was considered a marker of success.

  • The coup that ousted Thaksin was of course completely illegal, but none of the people who carried it out are in the present government.

  • The yellow shirts’ greatest error in moulding its international image was to elevate Thaksin’s corruption as its major bone of contention. Thai governments have always been corrupt. The extent of corruption and the fact that much of it went into only one pocket was shocking to Thais, but the west views all “second-rate countries” as being corrupt. Had they used the human rights violations and muzzling of the press as their key talking points, the “heroic revolution” archetype would have been moulded with opposite protagonists, and CNN and BBC would be telling an opposite story today.

  • The constitution which was approved by a referendum after the coup and which brought back democracy was flawed, but it provided more checks and balances, and made election fraud a truly accountable offense for the first time.

  • The parliamentary process by which the Democrat coalition came to power was the same process by which the Lib Dems and Tories have attained power in Britain. The parliament that voted in this government consists entirely of democratically elected members.

  • Noone ever disputed the red shirts’ right to peaceful assembly, and the government went out of its way to accede to their demands.

  • This country already has democracy. Not a perfect one, but the idea of “demanding democracry” is sheer fantasy

  • The yellow shirts did not succeed in getting any of their demands from the government. The last two governments changed because key figures were shown to have committed election fraud. They simply did not take their own constitution seriously enough to follow it.

  • The red TV station has a perfect right to exist, but if foreign journalists actually understood Thai, they would realize that much of its content went far beyond any constitutionally acceptable limits of “protected speech” in a western democracy. Every civilized society limits speech when it actually harms others, whether by inciting hate or by slander. The government may have been wrong to brusquely pull the plug, but was certainly right to cry foul. It should have sought an injunction first. Example: Arisman threatened to destroy mosques, government buildings, and “all institutions you hold sacred” … a clip widely seen on youtube, without subtitles. Without subtitles, it looks like “liberty, equality, fraternity”.

  • The army hasn’t been shooting women and children … or indeed anyone at all, except in self-defense. Otherwise this would all be over, wouldn’t it? It’s simple for a big army to mow down 5,000 defenseless people.

  • Snce the government called the red shirts’ bluff and allowed the deputy P.M. to report to the authorities to hear their accusations, the red leaders have been making ever-more fanciful demands. The idea of UN intervention is patently absurd. When Thaksin killed all those Muslims and alleged drug lords, human rights groups asked the UN to intervene. When the army took over the entire country, some asked the UN to intervene. The UN doesn’t intervene in the internal affairs of sovereign countries except when requested to by the country itself or when the government has completely broken down.

  • Thailand hasn’t had an unbreachable gulf between rich and poor for at least 20 years. These conflicts are about the rise of the middle class, not the war between the aristocrats and the proletariat.

  • Abhisit, with his thoroughly western and somewhat liberal background, shares the values of the west and is in fact more likely to bring about the social revolution needed by Thailand’s agrarian poor than any previous leader. He is, in fact, pretty red, while Thaksin, in his autocratic style of leadership, is in a way pretty yellow. Simplistic portrayals do not help anyone to understand anything.

  • The only people who do not seem to care about the reds’ actual grievances are their own leaders, who are basically making everyone risk their lives to see if they can get bail.

  • The King has said all that he is constitutionally able to say when he spoke to the supreme court justices and urged them to do their duty. The western press never seem to realize that the Thai monarchy is constitutionally on the European model … not, say, the Saudi model. The king REIGNS … he doesn’t “rule”. This is a democracy. The king is supposed to symbolize all the people, not a special interest group.

The above are just a few of the elements that needed to be sorted through in order to provide a balanced view of what is happening in this country.

There is one final element that must be mentioned. Most are not even aware of it. But there is, in the western mindset, a deeply ingrained sense of the moral superiority of western culture which carries with it the idea that a third world country must by its very nature be ruled by despots, oppress peasants, and kill and torture people. Most westerners become very insulted when this is pointed out to them because our deepest prejudices are always those of which we are least aware. I believe that there is a streak of this crypto-racism in some of the reportage we are seeing in the west. It is because of this that Baghdad, Yangon, and Bangkok are being treated as the same thing. We all look alike.

Yes, this opinion is always greeted with outrage. I do my best to face my own preconceptions and don’t succeed that often, but I acknowledge they exist nonetheless.

Some of the foreign press are painting the endgame as the Alamo, but it is not. It is a lot closer to Jonestown or Waco.

Like those latter two cases, a highly charismatic leader figure (in our case operating from a distance, shopping in Paris while his minions sweat in the 94°weather) has taken an inspirational idea: in one case Christianity, in the other democracy, and reinvented it so that mainstream Christians, or real democrats, can no longer recognize it. The followers are trapped. There is a siege mentality and information coming from outside is screened so that those trapped believe they will be killed if they try to leave. Women and children are being told that they are in danger if they fall into the hands of the government, and to distrust the medics and NGOs waiting to help them. There are outraged pronouncements that they’re not in fact using the children as human shields, but that the parents brought them willingly to “entertain and thrill” them. There is mounting paranoia coupled with delusions of grandeur, so that the little red kingdom feels it has the right to summon the United Nations, just like any other sovereign state. The reporters in Rajprasong who are attached to the red community are as susceptible to this variant of the Stockholm syndrome as anyone else.

The international press must separate out the very real problems that the rural areas of Thailand face, which will take decades to fix, from the fact that a mob is rampaging through Bangkok, burning, looting, and firing grenades, threatening in the name of democracy to destroy what democracy yet remains in this country.

But this bad reporting is not their fault. It is our fault for not providing the facts in bite-sized pieces, in the right language, at the right time.

Originalkly posted by Somtow Sucharitkul (S.P. Somtow) at 3:41 PM

 

Red Shirt Leaders Surrender, Mobs Set Fire to City

Additional updates

Wednesday 8:30 pm – The curfew has started.  Hopefully overnight the army is able to bring order to the city.  The internet has proved to be a very valuable tool for spreading information.  If you turn on the Thai TV or radio right now, it is just patriotic pictures and music – just like when we have a coup!  It seems the government doesn’t want people seeing how bad things are, or thinking about joining the mob.

I’m going to share more pictures with you.  None of these are mine.  There is also a Thai language website you can go to HERE that has a lot of pictures.  Fair warning: the pictures on that website include some very greusome ones.

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Plaza in front of Zen department store at Central World, the second largest mall in Asia.  You can see this same area in a video I posted showing Bangkok Thunderstorms a few months ago.

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Same building, opposite side.

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View from (probably) the Intercontinental Hotel looking at the Zen department store at Central World.  You can see the flames all along the ground floor and out of the roof.  Most likely, the department store and most of the mall has been / will be totally destroyed.

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Looking towards Siam Square.  You see the Novotel Hotel on the left.  The smoke is rising from the area around the Siam Theatre, which has been destroyed.

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Red Shirts also torched city halls in at least two provincial capitals in the northeast.  This is Ubon Ratchatani.

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Finally, a view from the Thonburi side of the river, looking back towards the Grand Palace.  The smoke you see is coming primarily from the Siam Square / Ratchaprasong area.

To share some perspective, as I’m talking with Tawn and with friends, and judging from Facebook comments, etc. the mood here in Bangkok reminds me very much with the mood in the US the morning of September 11, 2001.  Now, please, nobody jump all over me about the number of deaths there versus here, etc.  The point I’m making is that right now, these Bangkok residents are looking on in utter disbelief as their home, their city is going up in flames.  The scale is so large that it is almost inconceivable.

Previous to today, I was handling the situation pretty well.  Today, I’m drained.  I can’t believe that even the angriest of protesters would do this.  While I had initially believed that the Red Shirts had some legitimate grievances that should be taken into consideration, these actions make it hard for me to feel any sympathy for them.  They are anarchists, not “defenders of democracy.”

 

5-19-2010 5-21-49 PM

Wednesday 6:20 – Thai-ASEAN News Network reports:

A number of fires and chaotic incidents broke out in Bangkok after the red-shirt core leaders have called off the red-shirt protest earlier today. The firefighting department has been able to put the fire under control at some areas but others remain unreachable and unsafe for firemen to entire. These areas include;

1. Siam Square and Paragon: firefighters are unable to enter the area, red-shirt protesters are armed and are shooting at will.  Siam and Scala cinemas destroyed.
2. Centara Grand Hotel: fire has been put out
3. Stock Exchange of Thailand office: firemen unable to enter the area
4. Mahachon Plaza (entrance of Wireless Rd at Ploenchit Rd): firemen also unable to approach the area
5. Krung Thai and Bangkok Bank (Asoke Branch near Rama IV)
6. Narcotics Control Board
7. Bangkok Bank (Din Daeng): fire under control
8. Maleenont Building: firemen unable to enter the area
9. Bangkok Bank and Lotus Rama 4: firemen unable to get in
10. EGAT Klongtoey: fire under control
11. Central World Mall: Destroyed.
12. Bangkok Bank (Victory Monument)

Wednesday 5:25 – Reports from reliable sources indicate that both the Siam and Scala theatres, and presumably many of the adjacent shops, are burned down.  Central World Plaza, pictured above, is engulfed in smoke and it looks like damage may be extensive and, possibly, total.  The building with the waterslide-like lighting on it is where I had dinner a few months ago with visiting friends.

Wednesday 4:35 – Man with covered face set fire to ground floor of Channel 3 TV station, located on Rama IV directly south of our area of town.  People trapped inside.  Set fire also to Bangkok Bank branch in the lobby.

Protesters set fire to shops in the Siam Square area.  Siam Theatre (one of the few independent cinemas in town and a favorite of mine) has collapsed.  Fire is still burning but protesters won’t let firefighting crews fight the fire.

Bangkok Post, Post Today, and The Nation have evacuated their buildings as Red Shirts reportedly believe that the media was on the government’s side.  They have been actively targetting journalists in the last 24 hours.

There are numerous helicopters and police planes circling overhead, keeping an eye on things.

Curfew tonight 8pm – 6am.

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Taken by another friend of a friend. 

Wednesday 3:30 – Additional fires have been set in various areas of the city.  Reportedly a large fire at the Stock Exchange, corner of Rama IV and Asoke, very close to where I used to live.  Can see the smoke – lots of it – from our current balcony.  Also some white smoke, which I take to mean that the firemen are getting water on it.

A reliable source reports that Red Shirt radio is encouraging listeners to set fire to any local bank branch near them.  “You are your own leader now” they are saying. 

Curfew reportedly in place for tonight so army can clean up.

This morning (Wednesday 5/19) the Thai army broke down the Red Shirts’ barricade at the Silom/Rama IV intersection and within two hours had taken back about a half-mile stretch of Ratchadamri Road, all of Lumpini Park, and most of Wireless/Whittahyu Road.

The army stopped about a half-mile short of the main rally site at the Ratchaprasong Intersection.  During this operation, all reports indicate that the army used great restraint however it seems the Red Shirts were targeting foreign and Thai journalists.  Several were shot and at least one, an Italian, is dead.

At 1:15 the Red Shirt leaders surrendered to the Royal Thai Police after speaking to their supporters and asking them to go home.  Unfortunately, there are several thousand angry Red Shirt protesters who are too amped up right now and they are directed their anger in a variety of ways.

5-19-2010 2-33-24 PM

(Taken by a friend of a friend on Facebook)

As of 2:41 there are numerous confirmed reports of fires burning at Central World Mall and possibly also at Gaysorn Plaza and Siam Paragon.  This, in addition to fires set to the tyre barricades elsewhere in the protest zone, have turned that part of Bangkok into something that looks post-apocolyptic.

I will provide updates to this entry throughout the day as more news and photos become available.

As bad as this looks, I think the fact that the Red Shirt leaders have surrendered means that we’re nearing the end of this mess.

Some Needed Perspective on the Bangkok Protests

Lots of friends, family, and other people have inquired as to my wellbeing.  “We saw the news,” they say, “and it looks like a civil war has broken out in Bangkok.”  While I appreciate the concern, I would like to add some perspective to what you are reading and seeing in the news in your respective countries.

The New York Times’ Thomas Fuller posted an article today that gives the impression of living in a war zone:

“Over the past two months, as a debilitating protest in Bangkok took hold and shadowy groups have operated with impunity, I have crouched behind furniture in hotels when grenades exploded on the street outside. I stood on a wide avenue as dozens of dead and wounded protesters were carried from the carnage of a failed military crackdown. I hid behind a telephone pole during an hourlong crackling barrage of gunfire. And on Thursday, a man I was interviewing was struck in the head by an assassin’s bullet and collapsed at my feet.”

What Mr. Fuller hasn’t made clear is that this isn’t the typical scene in Bangkok.  It is the scene he has faced by choosing professionally to put himself in dangerous places in order to capture the story.  While I greatly respect his dedication to his work, I think it presents a very misleading impression of the city.

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Above: (my picture) Smoke from the Bon Kai neighborhood on Rama IV Road where protesters set a large number of tires on fire, accidentally sparking a blaze that consumed a nearby convenience store.  The new Airport Express station is in the foreground and Asoke Road is on the left side of the picture.  Below is an image (near as I can figure) of the same fire, taken by the Bangkok Post.
5-16-2010 Post 01

First off (and I swear, I’ve written an entry like this before), Tawn and I are fine.  We are at home, located in a safe section of the city a few miles away from where the military action is.  Our neighborhood is pretty much business as usual, although not quite as busy as normal.  The government has announced a curfew at 6pm tonight for certain sections of the city, although it is not clear that our area will be included.

5-16-2010 Map

Second, while I want to acknowledge the seriousness of what is happening and my worry for the wellbeing of all those involved in (and living near) this conflict, I want to also stress that this is not out and out anarchy.  Here’s the long and short of the situation:

After forty days of occupying the Ratchaprasong shopping district and agreeing to, and then backing out of, a negotiated settlement with the government, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD / “Red Shirts”) have reached the end of the line.  Amid increasing impatience from the residents of Bangkok, the government has set up a perimeter around the one-square mile protest area, blocking entry of people and supplies.  Protesters and residents are allowed to exit but cannot enter.

In the first three days of the military’s blockade, UDD’s numbers have reduced to an estimated 6,000.  There have been a dozen or so skirmishes leaving about two dozen people dead.  Several barricades of tires have been set aflame and dozens more people are injured.

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Above, an iconic image of a motorcycle taxi driver facing off against a line of army troops.  The flyover in the background goes over Sathorn Road.  Image from The Nation.

At this time, the military has not moved to actively clear the protesters out of their area, content to cut supplies and weaken their morale.  From what we hear, the government this morning announced that protesters have until 3pm Monday to clear out of the area.  They are offering to provide transportation home for anyone who is willing to leave the area before then and will not charge them with criminal acts.

No word on what happens after 3pm Monday.  Presumably after that point the military will begin to actively break up the protest.

We’re staying out of the way and have stocked up on food, water, and other supplies in case we have to stay home for several days.  Nonetheless, I don’t think any of you need to worry.  We just had visitors in town who left this morning to continue their journey.  They were able to see the sights and we just worked around the protest area.  We had friends over this weekend for dinner.  They were able to come and go without incident.  On the whole, life is continuing.

I hold out hope that a peaceful settlement is reached and all sides agree to step back from the brink.  In the meantime, though, it is good to understand what is going on from a beyond the headlines perspective.

That’s my perspective on things.  I hope it helps you place the news you are reading in context.

 

Bangkok Gov, Tourism Authority Tout Ratchaprasong Pedestrian Mall

(BANGKOK) Every cloud has its silver lining and, so it would seem, every crippling protest has its tourism promotion scheme.  In the four weeks since thousands of anti-government protesters, known as “Red Shirts” although they have increasingly donned other colors so as to confound the fashion police, shut down the high-end Ratchaprasong shopping district, tourism arrivals to Amazing Thailand have plummeted more than 40%.  The result has been hundreds of millions of baht in lost business every day as hotels and shopping centers have been forced to close.  But a creative solution, it seems, may soon be at hand.

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A view along the new pedestrian mall, showing both the food and crafts tents and the screen for outdoors showings of classic Thai films.

Working feverishly to restore the confidence of global tourists and to prop up the thousands of affected jobs in the service and tourism sectors, Bangkok Governor Rodtitmakmak Naimahanakorn and Tourism Authority (TAT) Governor Naktawngtiaw Maimatungprathet held a joint press conference yesterday to announce the creation of the Ratchaprasong Pedestrian Mall and Issan Folk Festival.

“Bangkok has long been in need of inviting and friendly pedestrian spaces,” said Governor Rodtitmakmak.  “Looking at the thousands of people who have spontaneously turned the previously traffic-jammed Ratchaprasong intersection in front of Central World Plaza into an outdoor party, I asked myself, why not build on their good example?”

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Soon the Ratchaprasong Pedestrian Mall will be filled with tourists from around the globe.

Following recent efforts by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, both of whom have changed the faces of their respective metropoleis by turning previously busy streets into pedestrian-friendly plazas, the governor explained the Bangkok would finally join the ranks of world-class cities that are friendlier to their citizens than they are to their citizens’ cars.

“This concept has been around for ages in Europe,” said Governor Rodtitmakmak.  “Think of Bruges, Copenhagen, and Venice, all of which are very pedestrian friendly.  We’re extending that concept and giving it a uniquely Thai flavor.”

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Vendors along the Pedestrian Mall will offer handcrafted local merchandise in a wide range of colors.

As to the question of how opening a pedestrian mall along what was formerly Bangkok’s ritziest shopping district will help the tourism slump, TAT Governor Naktawngtiaw expressed confidence that adding a cultural twist would attract global attention.

“Times Square… the one in New York, I mean… has its neon signs,” said the TAT governor.  “We will have a permanent stage featuring Issan folk music and dance performances, outdoor screenings of classic Thai films, and booths serving sticky rice and grilled chicken.  What tourist could resist?”

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Above, vendors at the Ratchaprasong Pedestrian Mall will offer Issan specialties including fresh-squeezed lime juice with soda, a refreshing Northeastern Thailand treat.

When pressed for details of when the Ratchaprasong Pedestrian Mall concept would be implemented, both men were circumspect.  “Seeing as how the Red Shirt protests have gone on for so long and the area already has a circus-like atmosphere,” said Governor Rodtitmakmak, “we are hoping for a smooth transition from the protests to the pedestrian mall.  More music and dancing and fewer political speeches, you know?  Before long, Bangkok residents and tourists alike will return to the intersection to enjoy the lively nightlife and festive ambience.”

“How does that saying go?” asked TAT Governor Naktawngtiaw.  “Oh, yes, when life gives you lemons, make manao soda.”

 

Of course, this entry is strictly a farce, a bit of humor to help the residents of the City of Angels deal with the frustrations and inconveniences brought on by the continuing protests.  No direct quotes were taken and no offence intended!

 

Increased Security at Asoke

In the wake of a temporary disruption of the BTS Skytrain on Wednesday – the Red Shirt guards had entered the Chidlom station overnight and piled tires on the platforms, threatening to dump them on the tracks in order to prevent troop movement by train – the government has stepped up security at key intersections and transit stations.  The Skytrain disruption lasted until 10 am, ruining the commutes of tens of thousands of Bangkok residents and putting the streets into chaos.

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The police and army have set up checkpoints in a wider circle around the main protest area, stretching back as far along Sukhumvit Road as the Asoke intersection.  This is three stations before the Chidlom station that was threatened by the Red Shirts.  There appear to be maybe 100 officers and soldiers at the Asoke intersection, but no active stopping and searching of vehicles.

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A half-dozen soldiers were posted on the overhead walkways that span the intersection and connect the Skytrain to the subway.  This is the first time I’ve ever seen this level of security.

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Down on the street there were a pair of water trucks along with a mobile fire fighting unit / water cannon.  These checkpoints and stationing of troops are probably in response to another incident this week in which about 2,000 of the Red Shirts decided to conduct a “tour” and head to a wet market in the north side of the city to reach out to residents and explain their side of the situation.  The army, tipped off, set up a blockade and engaged the protesters, who eventually retreated.  Unfortunately, one soldier was killed, apparently by friendly fire.

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One of the more interesting sights was this portable audio truck (beneath the pedestrian bridge) from which soldiers are broadcasting “information” (pro-government publicity) and patriotic songs.  I’m sure the guests at the Westin (to the right of this picture) and the Grand Sheraton (to the left) are really pleased about that.

The Skytrain is running shortened hours until only 8:00 pm each night.  Whether or not this will be resolved soon is anyone’s guess.  I get the impression that the government is taking a “wait and wear them down” approach, figuring that the tighter they close the access to the protest area, the harder it will be for the protesters to sustain their momentum.  Will it work?  Who knows?