I put my dad on the train to the airport and promised him that I would resist the urge to get a close-up look at the Bangkok protests. Sorry Dad.
I took a much needed mini-break from TEFL this week and it was my last day in Thailand. After reading that the government had called off the dogs and the tear gas, and police were not only letting the protesters enter government buildings, but giving them red roses, I decided it was safe enough to wander down. And safe it was. It seems the government and the protesters have called a truce in order to properly celebrate the King’s birthday on December 5th.
But first, what are these protests about?
This is a very long and complicated story. For the sake of simplification I’m only going to mention the biggest problems:
1. Former Prime Minister Taksin: In 2006 a military coup ousted the Prime Minister, a Thai business tycoon, from office. This guy was and still is loved by the poor and the country-folk, who make up a large amount of the voting block and are often at odds with the Bangkok middle class and the rich. Though now living in exile, it’s believed that he’s still controlling the government from behind the scenes. (And not doing a great job at hiding it, considering his sister is the current Prime Minister.)
2. Amnesty Bill: A bill was introduced that would have cleared Taksin from corruption charges that are keeping him in exile. If this had passed, Taksin would probably be on the first train home to take up politics again. It didn’t pass, but even the bill’s failure did not calm the concerns of the anti-government protesters, and their leader, who want to see Taksin as far away from politics as possible.
3. Suthep: Suthep is the leader of the opposition. He has stated openly that his goal is to overthrow the current prime minister and replace her with a “People’s Government”, though he hasn’t specified what that government might look like.
What I found when I got there
I didn’t find the anger and destruction of days past. There wasn’t a trace of fear to be found even though there were 3 deaths over the weekend.
What I did find was a jubilant atmosphere, and people from many walks of life gathered together in celebration.
There were older people present, and others passing out free food to hungry protesters. All this political engagement works up an appetite!
There were also teenagers, in love and having a blast. Were they there for the complimentary snacks? The party atmosphere? Because their parents dragged them along? Or are Thai youth just very politically engaged?
The protests were also definitely not short on eccentrics, like this guy…
And they weren’t short of massage services either. On every corner there were men and woman offering relaxation to the tired protesters.
But not only adults were there. There were whole families napping together on picnic blankets, little kids with armbands, headbands, and whistles. They made me miss my littlest students in Saigon.
In addition to all the kind people who willingly allowed me to photograph them, there were these guys, who grabbed us in passing and more or less force-fed us bananas and sent us on our way with free bottles of water. The nicest political activists I’ve ever met!
At the end of the day, I reflected on what I’d seen. Having lived in Vietnam for going on three years, it’s been a while since I last saw democracy in action. Here, freedom of expression is not tolerated, and dissenters are regularly jailed. Public protests are simply not allowed. So it was interesting for me to witness this political process taking place in Thailand, which is so close to Vietnam geographically.
It will be interesting to see how things develop in Thailand in the coming weeks. Their beloved King’s birthday is December 5th, and the truce has been called primarily, it seems, to keep from marring the royal festivities.
Although Thais have a right to protest government, they do NOT have a right to dishonor King Rama IX, Thailand’s longest serving monarch. Criticism of the King is a punishable offense under the Thai constitution. Instead, the King is a unifying figure that neither the current government, nor the protesters want to be seen offending.
So, Do you think the truce will last after the King’s special day?