Elephant’s Leg

Downtown Bangkok goes up in flames, May 19. (Photo by http://www.benowenbrowne.com)

As Bangkok burned, I made good my escape. Evacuated from my workplace as Red Shirts descended on the road to my office, with their brothers bombing and torching dozens of important and iconic buildings around the city, I met my girlfriend Waew and together we headed for Hua Hin, a seaside retreat a couple of hours’ drive south.

My personal experience of the drama of last Wednesday is best told through a piece I wrote for the Daily Post back home in Wales. Beyond that, the story is less exciting, but after the fright of May 19, that’s just how I wanted it.

Ultimately, Wednesday was the climax of the two-month-long protests and Bangkok started the recovery process almost as soon as the curfew was lifted the following morning.

But as fires blazed, black clouds choked entire neighbourhoods, shops boarded up their windows, and the military announced looters and arsonists would be shot on sight, the atmosphere was not one of a resolution close at hand, but rather one of a city on the verge of war.

I didn’t want to be around to see which way the balance would tip. In fact, I wanted to be well clear of Bangkok for the immediate future.

Hua Hin, despite its proximity to the capital, was another world. While reports were coming in of government buildings going up in flames in other cities – mostly in the Red Shirt stronghold of the Isaan region – and after-dark lockdowns being imposed on two dozen provinces, Hua Hin was a picture of calm.

Too calm, however. What is usually a busy resort was almost empty on the weekdays, with only a slight increase in visitor numbers at the weekend. And those were mostly Thais, presumably doing as I did and getting clear of Bangkok. The number of foreign tourists was markedly down. Usually – and typically for a Thai beach town – the foreigners outnumber the locals. In Hua Hin, it’s so much so that it is nicknamed “Little Scandinavia”. But last week and weekend, they were conspicuous by their absence.

Even 12km north of Ratchaprasong, the smoke could be seen clearly from my roof.

Restaurants that had half a dozen customers could consider themselves lucky. Girls working in the salons and spas sat outside and yawned, the interiors of their businesses empty. Bar staff played dominoes or slept, in lieu of anyone to serve. The hotels in town had barely a bedroom light switched on.

Waew and I went out on the weekend nights. We purposely chose the bars with the fewest customers. But it was not for the lack of an atmosphere that I couldn’t enjoy myself. I just couldn’t shake off the feeling of sadness; that perhaps Thailand had changed for the worse – and for good.

The kingdom has shrugged off difficult times before, most notably 1992’s “Black May” anti-government protests which, until last week, were Thailand’s darkest hour. The 2006 ouster of Thaksin Shinawatra generated negative international publicity but thankfully was bloodless. The Yellow Shirt protests in 2008, which closed Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang airports for a week, affected tens of thousands of tourists, many of whom justifiably swore to never return. Four months later, the Red Shirts made their first serious push, with deadly clashes souring the usually fun-soaked Thai New Year celebrations. And now this – the biggest and bloodiest event in contemporary Thai history.

Each time, Thai tourism has somehow bounced back. The kingdom’s qualities are undeniable – natural beauty, tropical climate, ease of travel, good food, and Third World prices for a near-First World infrastructure – but how many times can the country self-harm before the damage becomes irrecoverable?

Who would blame any foreigner caught up in these domestic conflicts if they washed their hands of this place? The innocent holidaymakers stranded for days on end in an airport in 2008. The terrified tourists who had to evacuate their hotels last week, or could hear the gunfire as they tried to sleep. Anyone planning to come here who watched the news anywhere in the world and saw the biggest smoke cloud to cover a metropolis since 9/11, saw soldiers gunning down their countrymen, saw the protesters fight back with rockets.

Perhaps it’s crass to talk of the tourists’ hardships when so many Thais have died. But let’s not forget that tourism is one of Thailand’s vital organs. Without it, the country itself would wither.

I love this country. Yes, I’m “just a foreigner”, as so many Thais are so keen to point out when I voice a political opinion they disagree with, but this is my home. Of course, I wouldn’t pretend to feel the hurt as acutely as a native, but I know what a marvellous country this is, and as long as I’ve been here, I’ve sung its praises and encouraged everyone I know to come here. It does hurt to see what’s happening here. Let’s say that to a Thai, it’s like seeing family get hurt, so to me, it’s like harm being done to a good friend.

Hua Hin: far from the combat zone

As I said, as long as I’ve been here, I’ve encouraged people to visit. Even when the Yellow Shirts were making life difficult. Even as the Red Shirts occupied Ratchaprasong. It’s not dangerous, I said. Just stay away from the protest sites and you’ll be fine, I said. But with what happened last week, I can no longer urge anyone to come here with a clear conscience. The danger has been very real in the past week and a half.

OK, the current protest is over. The Red Shirts leaders are in custody. The men who fought for them have either gone home, or are dead. But who could say with any confidence that that the matter has been resolved?

For the Red Shirts, ultimately, it was a crushing defeat. It may be that they won’t have the appetite to regroup. Then again, if indeed they do represent the “repressed majority” which they were packaged as, then the divisions can only widen in the wake of this result. The “elites” triumphed, and appalling as it is to say, many of them cheered as the army was given permission to use deadly force against their own kind.

Before the bloodshed, the Reds were not shy to pitch their movement as a “class war”, rallying support from the poor rural areas. Their opponents in turn were not shy to pick up the gauntlet, publicly mocking the protesters for their lack of education. It was no coincidence that Ratchaprasong, a neighbourhood heavy with high-end malls and 5-star hotels, was chosen as the demonstration headquarters.

No, this situation has not been resolved. Perhaps the Reds will prove to have been beaten into submission, but all that means is that one side won by use of force, not that any compromise was reached. Even if a bandage can be applied to the damage done over the past couple of months, the wound may prove impossible to heal. Whether it ulcerates, or merely festers, remains to be seen.

And how to heal the damage done to the tourism industry? Thailand has always been remarkably fertile in this regard, but Hua Hin was barren last week. Can Thai tourism still bear fruit when the likes of Malaysia, Vietnam, Bali, the Philippines and more in this region alone offer a similar – but safer – experience for a similar price?

The forecast can’t fail to be gloomy, and just as I left Bangkok under a black cloud five days ago, I returned under one, too. But this was not the man-made result of eviscerated malls and besieged banks. It was merely Mother Nature, lashing the city with a tropical – and topical – monsoon. Whether she was just washing the streets of spilled blood, or warning of bigger storms to come, only time will tell.

3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Be careful mate – good idea to blow town for a while. Keep posting so we know you’re ok. Joe

Comment by Joe

How sad….

Comment by Rhiannon

[…] far away from tranquil countryside, rich historical sites, pretty coasts or fun smaller cities. Even when the Bangkok crisis peaked on May 19, with dozens of buildings set ablaze and an 8pm curfew locking down the capital, it only took a […]


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