Bangkok: "The Red Shirts"

Part I - "On the March"

Bangkok, Thailand
Wednesday 17 March

Dear Friends,

To beat the mid-day crush of office workers on the streets, I left my apartment at about 11:00 and walked towards my local barber.

I needed to cross Sukhumvit Road, the main thoroughfare in my neighborhood. But along with all the traffic, I was stuck. The office girls were still working, but the Red Shirts were on parade.

From west to east along Sukhumvit, underneath the overhead platforms and tracks of the Sky Train, thousands, tens of thousands of citizen-protestors dressed in red were riding every type of vehicle: motor bikes, cars, taxis, trucks large and small, and buses. From the backs of the trucks, men and women were waving and smiling and chanting into megaphones; music playing, banners flying.

The Thai onlookers - businessmen, shop girls, Thai massage girls, street vendors - smiled, some waved back. Most folks in Bangkok don't support the Red Shirts but a few wore red shirts or hats.

Westerners on the street mostly just gaped or paid little attention. Some were taking photos.

I rode the escalator to the train platform at Nana Station and went down the other side and arrived safely at the barber. I decided to first have a manicure and then the haircut.

When I was done, I went back to Sukhumvit, in the pouring rain (I did remember to carry an umbrella - it's the start of rainy season here) and the marchers were still on the march.

On the street I spotted a Western woman holding a small girl. The child was quite interested in the parade. I thought, "What a great opportunity for the mother to provide a basic lesson in civics!"

In my neighborhood there are several large hotels that cater almost exclusively to guests from the Middle East. Citizens of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and Dubai are here as tourists or for medical treatments or check-ups. Men are dressed like you and me; women in black from head to toe. As we watched the demonstration together, I also wondered what they were thinking and feeling.

I was thinking, "Good for Thailand!"

Thailand has four neighbors. Political demonstrations, even peaceful ones in those countries?

Of course, there is always the potential for disorder and violence. But so far, for the last few days, there have been few problems.

Regardless of the politics and the inconvenience, here in Thailand, citizens keep smiling and go about their business.

"Good for Thailand!"


Part II - "Disciplined"

Saturday Afternoon
20 March 2010

Dear Friends,

From the balcony of my apartment, when I heard the helicopter overhead, I knew that the Red Shirt Parade was close by.

I grabbed my camera and headed for Petchaburi Road, the main route for today's demonstration.

Once again, everyone was in a festive mood, despite the serious nature of their political demands. Music was playing, flags flying, and the sun was hot, oh so hot.

The local residents - adults and children - were encouraging the marchers.

I saw no police or soldiers. The large group was self-disciplined. Their basic demand is that the current government resign. The chanting is Thai style: boisterous, yet with a smile.

I was about the only foreigner in this particular area. I did get one or two stern "looks" from a couple of guys, but almost everyone was cheerful and delighted to pose for a photo.

I know that more than a few of you think I'm a bit nuts for being out here.

You're probably right.





Part III - "The Interview"




May 12, 2010

Hello everyone,

Tibor Krausz is a friend of mine here in Bangkok. He is a reporter for the Jerusalem Post. He called me a few days ago and we had an "interview."

Here's his story:

Thank you all for your notes of concern. I am thinking I will wait another day here. Then maybe I'll head for my favorite beach.





Part IV - "They Were Crying"



May 22, 2010

Dear Friends,

"They were crying. They were crying."

So reported my friend David Bucknell as he witnessed Thai people gazing at the burnt-out ruins of a local shopping mall. "They were crying."

Crying is very unusual behavior. Thai people normally do not display any emotion in public. Laughing or crying, affection or anger are rarely seen. Despite the volume of traffic and the traffic jams around town, no one ever voices or displays any sign of frustration. You almost never hear a taxi or a truck horn. Crying in public is unheard of.

Yet I daresay that the nation is crying tonight. Maybe not on the outside but surely on the inside. The recent events are unprecedented: the disruption of traffic, the encampment of thousands in key sections of the city, the burning tires, the closing of most public transportation, the shootings, the deaths, the fiery destruction of shops, banks and government property. And now the unemployment of several thousand workers.

Two days ago I watched as huge columns of black smoke obscured several skyscrapers. That evening, using my binoculars, I could see the flames in the lower section of the enormous Central World shopping mall.

This morning, after the battles had been fought, the main streets in my neighborhood are still filled with soldiers with rifles, police in flak jackets, barricades, sand bags and razor wire. Off in the distance, Central World is smoldering. There's a 9:00pm curfew tonight.

This morning I took a walk down Sukhumvit Road to get a haircut.  And on the walk back home, Sukhumvit was jammed with traffic - a most welcome and comforting sight.

Is it over? Are we slowly getting back to normal?

What is normal?  My friend Larry Benowitz summed it up quite accurately: "For those of us who live a half a world away, this current flare-up seems very much at odds with our image of Thailand as a safe, peaceful place with a low-profile military and a happy population that adores the King." 

Yes Larry, I agree. I have traveled around Thailand since 2002 and I moved to Bangkok in 2006. I have never looked over my shoulder. I have never felt uncomfortable in any way, anywhere, day or night. So I am hoping that once again Thailand will be that peaceful, happy, civil, safe and welcoming place that I now call home. But as my Thai friend Da likes to say, "I don't know the future." Will the smoldering continue? Or will that universal Thai smile douse the flames? 

Folks may be hurting on the inside, but today, at the food shops, at the barber and on the streets I got a healthy dose of the smiles that I have learned to love.

Peter T, I want to thank you for imploring me to leave Thailand.  I know that you lived through the Turkish - Greek strife - an event that left you with bitter memories.

Thank you, also, Agnes K.  I know that you ran like hell from your home in Hungary in 1956.

Thank you also Jack C for reminding me of the infamous slogan "Yankee Go Home!"

Thanks Jake G for inviting me back to Miami.

Joe F, you are a riot. Thanks for your humor: "If I lived in New York, I would go to Katz's and send you a salami. Let's see how that goes; 'Send a salami to your friend in Thailand?' Hmmmm...needs some work."

My good friend Allen had a military perspective: "Plan an escape route, an alternate route and a third route. Then make sure you have cash: a. To buy yourself out of a problem and b. To get you on the next helo if needed. Those guys don't accept AMEX.  Have your phone and a back-up battery and if possible communicate with people you can trust as to where you are and where you are heading in case someone has to go out to look for you."

Thanks Gary O for your neighborly advice: "Hang in there, Jan. You're safer at home. Stock up on rice and pasta and sauces and frozen meals.  The hospital cafeteria in your neighborhood should be open for meals indefinitely."

And Erik S, thank you for your encouragement: "Maybe CNN will hire you to do some reporting. You will get to wear a PRESS jacket....Adventure follows you even when you want to stay home."

Now, an apology. I'm sorry for some of the comments in my previous letters. I know that at times, I seemed indifferent or light-hearted about the serious situation here. I suppose I wanted to maintain my own positive attitude and to allay any fears you might have had.

Finally, thank you, everyone, for your encouragement and concern. Most of us do "live a half a world away." Yet when I open a letter or when I click on the box next to your email address, I feel right next to you.




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