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Random observations on the situation in Thailand

Just in case you're worried, at present violence in the form of grenades and (very occasionally) sniper attacks is confined to areas near the protester encampments, which are at a few major intersections; the well-respected travel blogger Richard Barrow has a handy map. So one avoids those intersections where possible, although the humongous shopping mall where I'm having dental work done is near one. (However, one can enter this mall along a skywalk from the train, which is safe; people throw grenades down, not up.) Anyhow, this isn't London during the blitz or even the IRA bombings. So let me throw out a few points; I want to get on to more 12 Points work, so I won't add linky goodness:

For protest connoisseurs:

1. The encampments are much like campgrounds, with tents, generators, toilets, big screens, stages, including lights and sound systems, and they have city-block-long structures like translucent quonset huts for people to shelter under. The encampments also have camp followers in the form of food stalls and vendors, especially of protester-themed gear ("walking streets" in Thai parlance). They also have "guards," who are scrawny, sunglasses-wearing, hypermasculine, and clearly bad news to be around. The entire effort is clearly well-funded.

2. Protester iconography includes the red, white, and blue of the Thai flag, the number nine (lucky in Thai), and the whistle: They are whistleblowers, and they blow their whistles in unison to signal support to the speaker on stage, to harass, and (to be fair) to draw attention to what they consider (sometimes rightly) to be injustice. The whistles are a real conversation stopper.

3. I think the tone of voice used by (many of) the speakers on protester stages is cross-cultural, and it's very, very bad. (To be fair, the tone used by their opponents can be just as bad.)

4. The strategic hate management is very familiar, but it's at a level of intensity that Americans can't conceive of, even Americans who lived through the Clinton impeachment (or Clinton supporters who lived through campaign 2008). I see the hate as Rwanda-level dehumanization, but perhaps it's just the workings out of a vulgarized version of how karma plays out.

5. Most media coverage -- to simplify -- frames the conflict as (minority) rich Bangkok and (majority) poor North, but that's not quite it; rather, the Northerners are striving to be rich, and indeed many of them have come to Bangkok to become so; we have -- to simplify again -- a national conflict between competing bourgeoisies.

And since I'm slipping into "Can't tell the players without a scorecard, so here's a scorecard" mode:

6. In one of those great (over-)simplifications strategic hate management tries to bring about, the competing bourgeoisies are labeled yellow and red. The yellows, although they have a firm grasp on the city of Bangkok (roughly 60/40 voting), are a minority of the country as a whole (though not in the South), where the reds are a majority. The yellows have a front group, the PRDC, and a party, the Democrats. The reds have a front group, the UDD, and a party, Pheu Thai. The Democrats haven't won an election in decades, though they have been installed by coups, and boycotted the last election (really, the current election, not yet completed). Pheu Thai and the UDD are less unified than the Democrats and the PRDC, because as they North came to class/regional/cultural consciousness they developed a strong civil society. The conflict between the reds and the yellows has been going on since at least 2001, though I won't bore you with details. (In fact, if the reds organized a general strike of food stall vendors, transport workers, food stall vendors, maids, and construction site workers, the city of Bangkok would grind to a halt immediately; a city doesn't live by office workers alone, after all. I'm not sure whether the reds have not done this, or cannot; where does the strike fund come from, after all?)

7. I tend to be more sympathetic to the reds, since what the yellows want is a council of unelected "good people" to "reform" the country before the election of the next Prime Minister. I think we've seen that sort of thing tried, and it doesn't end well. In addition, the yellows not only boycotted the election, they actively sabotaged it, not only by blocking polling places, but by throwing institutional obstacles in its way. Finally, the yellow front man, Suthep, is very, very bad news. I don't lke the yellow tactics, I don't like their rhetoric, and I don't like their goals.

8. However, it's important to recognize that the yellows have real fears that should be respected. I think that "democracy" really does include a proper system of checks and balances to safeguard minorities, even (relatively) well-heeled minorities like the yellows; it doesn't take a lot to have somebody shot here, after all.

9. On non-violence, the yellows claim to be non-violent, but they're clearly lying, because they have a mysterious band of snipers and grenade throwers who "defend" them. The reds make no such claim, but in practice have been relatively restrained, by the standards of 2010's "live fire," at least. Further, one expects the state (run by the reds, currently) to have a monopoly on violence, but in Thailand today that's not so; the PRDC (yellow) "guards" function like a parallel state, directing traffic, for example, and inspecting bags. (I grant that occupations did the latter, for obvious reasons. They did not, however, inspect bags at the entries to public spaces like museums or public transport, as the PRDC guards do, when such spaces impinge on their encampments.)

The current escalation of troubles started this way:

10. A grenade was thrown from within a crowd of protesters at police lines. A heroic policeman kicked it away, but the police then fired into the crowd (whether with live or rubber bullets I am not sure). Some policemen died and some protesters died.

11. The next day, a high court (the criminal court, captured by yellows) ruled that the government had no power to remove protesters from their encampments at intersections, because the protesters were "non-violent" (!). Wowsers.

12. In the evening of the following day, a grenade was thrown at a protester stage in a province far away from Bangkok near Cambodia; and the following day, a grenade was thrown at a protester stage in Bangkok itself. In each case, children died. (It's stark lunacy to bring children to the protests, but protesters do it all the time, and of course kids work the stalls in the "walking streets." Obviously, the grenades should never have been thrown, but running an insurrection -- which is, after all, what the yellows are doing -- with kids around strikes me, at least, as highly irresponsible.) Nobody knows who threw the grenades; the yellows blame the reds, the reds blame the yellows. Me, I ask cui bono, given that violence is what it takes to give the army the reason or excuse for a coup, which is what the yellows want, so they can set up their council of "good people," but there's no proof either way.

13. In economic warfare, the yellows staged a run on the state bank, have managed to prevent rice pledge payments to farmers (to be fair, the scheme could well be corrupt), and one of their number, a monk, extorted a "donation" from a red hotel chain when it refused protesters entry before check-in time.

14. The case (helpfully color-coded in red and yellow) for, in the best outcome, a more Federalized outcome; in the worst, a civil war.

15. I have friends who are yellow, and friends who are red. It's pretty painful. That's one reason, besides the sheer complexity, that I am writing less about Thailand than possibly I should.

NOTE Thailand is a monarchy, and the lèse-majesté laws are enforced, even against foreigners. Therefore, readers, discussion of the Thai monarchy or royal family is off-topic. Guests in Thailand must obey its laws. Their house, their rules.

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quixote's picture
Submitted by quixote on

Thanks for this, lambert. Very lucid context to what's going on, besides the zomg-protests!-shooting! coverage in the news. Especially interesting to get an inkling of the motivations of the groups involved.

Submitted by lambert on

It's way more complicated than I can say, and that's before I get to the cultural differences. The hate in the politics is in great contrast to thousands of small acts of courtesy and kindness in daily life..... Although I realize I'm high in the Thai hierarchy being tall, white, older, and still passing for a professional, so I get a lot of benefit from, well, another rent.

V. Arnold's picture
Submitted by V. Arnold on

Well, at least you realize your limitations as a westerner and your elevated status as white and educated. Most westerners here are clueless at best.
I taught here for 5 years (high school), speak enough Thai to get by, and understand the culture is vastly different than that of the U.S. and the west in general. I have a saying; culture is the cloth in which we wrap our humanity.
I'm still learning. Cheers

Submitted by lambert on

... by getting out of people's way; I don't like it, I don't work as hard as most people here, so whose head should duck??

I also was puzzled that people tend to salute me, and not just doormen. This is why, and MsExPat explained why: I'm tall, have cropped grey hair, am white, obviously American, and I carry a black computer bag. In other words, to (some) Thais, I fit the profile of a military or intelligence operative (!!). And I'm sure my posture and my walk just reek of the WASP privilege I once had so much of!

V. Arnold's picture
Submitted by V. Arnold on

The "head ducks" are not just for you. They are a show of respect when crossing in front of somebody, anybody. Look around, observe. But then you're in BKK; a whole other animal.
Salute? Are you referring to the "wai"? Hands in a prayer position? That's a cultural norm and not just for "farang" (white westerners and it's not racist, period!). The convention is that one wai's an elder, a superior.
At my age I don't meet many people older than me, so I get wai'd first. But, when I go to immigration for my annual visa extension I wai the offices first. I wai policemen/women, teachers, elders, first. Everybody else owes me a first wai.
A smile goes a very long way here.
Anecdote; my wife and I were traveling in a very remote area; rarely if ever visited by a westerner and we stopped to by fruit at a road-side stand. An old woman sitting across the way was looking at me intensely and I thought not kindly. I looked directly at her and smiled and nodded; she broke into a huge grin and nodded back. Made my day.
Assume nothing here. And accept; if you can't do that, then you'll never be truly happy here.
Most westerners I've met tend to cluster and self isolate, pity, opportunity lost, IMO.

Submitted by lambert on

Yes, I understand about the etiquette; I have no problem with it in interaction, if you will; that's how they want it, I'll just try to live up to it. It's more when people want to get out of my way on the sidewalk when they're carrying something heavy. That just seems like too much to me. I'm not trying to make Thailand into an egalitarian society by personal example! (Not that the US is. It's also nice not to be tossed away like garbage, being old.)

No, I don't mean a wai, I mean an actual salute. Now, that feels odd.

I'm trying to find a link I recall reading where General Prem gave a press conference (on the likelihood of a coup, IIRC) where his answers consisted exclusively of smiles -- 15 different kinds, again IIRC. But still and all, there's a lot to be said for the Thai smile.

jo6pac's picture
Submitted by jo6pac on

just a thought how about a report with pictures on the wonderful food you are eating, you know to make us all jealous:)

Stay Safe.

V. Arnold's picture
Submitted by V. Arnold on

I have been a resident here for more than a decade and can't honestly say I understand the politics to my satisfaction or confidence.
It is, however, pretty clear the rice pledging scheme is corrupt and broken.
My feeling is that is why it never gets a thorough investigation or transparency.
But when the government pays farmer 40% above market prices for 5% broken rice (per ton) it's pretty apparent something is amiss.
This is a link to an excellent article on the economics of growing rice in LOS.