Richard Junnier at Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, Thailand
In the winter of 2008 I went to Thailand to witness a revolution.
I came to observe and research the latest sporadic iteration of a conflict that (almost) every traveler, internationalist, or avid newspaper fiend casually knows as–the red shirts versus the yellow shirts. Sadly, as of this writing, the political unrest has devolved into a military coup, urban curfews, and an appointed legislature.
This is discordant with the almost universal-Western perception of Thais as peaceful, differential, and obsequious. This perception is itself fascinating, because they and their ancestors, have been at near-perpetual war with themselves and their neighbors since the time of the seventh century Mon, and while their national religion may be Buddhism, their national sport is kickboxing.
They even briefly declared war on the United States, though their ambassador declined to forward the message to Washington, D.C.–how very non-confrontational of them.
Factually, coups are not unusual for the Thais–they had 17 of them between 1932 and 1991.
Perhaps it gives the military something to do when it’s not involved with border disputes to their North and West, rescuing its citizens from deranged soap-opera fans in Cambodia,* occasional but presumptuous logging in Laotian territory, and enforcing martial law throughout half the country.
*Dialogue in a Thai soap-opera argued that Thailand owned title to Angkor Wat, which was reported in Cambodia as if it were a serious sentiment. The locals replied by burning down the Thai embassy and Thai-owned businesses throughout Phnom Penh. The Thai military briefly intervened to get its citizens airlifted home. Eventually, the Cambodian government agreed to pay for all of Thailand’s expenses.
So it can get dull. Whatever the reason, the military are avid fans of defending the voting minority.
The Thai military has celebrated every successful free and fair election since World War II by promptly overthrowing its Democracy.
It then appoints a committee of monarchists, Army officers, and Bangkok elites to draft a new constitution (this time they’ll vote right!), hosts an election, is again thrown out of power, and then immediately hosts another coup. There is a magical symmetry with American politics in that the whole process takes about four years.
The routine of these tug-of-war proceedings are internationally ignored, creating a global perception of calm throughout the chaos.
This is potentially because, until recently, the Thais had their unique ways of having a revolution. They were often conducted politely and quietly, largely without blood or violence, and carefully choreographed not to pique the interests of foreigners. The whole process is quite Buddhist.
Therefore, such dull news reports simply cannot compete in international import with a Kardashian’s new dress or a tea-partier’s attempts to distinguish “legitimate” rape.
But this one was different.
The world ignored it as seas of red shirts and yellow shirts flooded the squares and parks of Bangkok. The world ignored it when members of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (“PAD”) (“yellow shirts”) seized and occupied the Government House. It went largely unnoticed that PAD had also taken the National Broadcasting Services of Thailand. When the railroads went on strike, people took the bus.
Then they stormed the runways of Suvarnabhumi Airport and blocked the roads leading out of Bangkok–effectively stranding 300,000 foreigners in Thailand.
PAD had wanted international attention, and like a thunderbolt, it got it.
What it didn’t have was a plausible explanation for shutting down an international airport.
The previous batch of coups, elections, and more coups, culminated with a revised 1997 (and now already twice-defunct) Thai Constitution.
The first elections under that Constitution occurred in 2001 when the Thai Rak Thai party (“TRT”) (“red shirts”) was elected into power with Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications billionaire, as Premier. He governed as a populist, introduced rice subsidies helpful to the rural North, and became extremely popular with almost anybody outside of the Bangkok elite. (He was also not popular with Amnesty International due to his alleged encouragement of extrajudicial killings of drug traffickers.)
In 2005, Mr. Thaksin became the first prime minister in the history of Thailand to complete a full term in office. (Yes, you read that right!)
Not wanting to encourage such blatant stability, the military replaced Mr. Thaksin while he was attending a U.N. summit (as if attending a U.N. summit was not punishment enough) and his TRT political party was dissolved. Commemorating the tenth anniversary of the 1997 Constitution, the military introduced a new 2007 Constitution. The former leaders of TRT formed the People’s Power Party (“PPP”) (still the “red shirts”) and were immediately elected back into power under the 2007 Constitution.
In December of 2007, the PPP’s Samak Sundaravej, a celebrity chef (I’m not kidding), was elected Prime Minister. Mr. Samak, viewed as an extension of voluntarily-exiled Thaksin Shinawatra, was then removed from power nine months later. The PAD had asked the Constitutional Court for his removal due to his brief status as a culinary talk-show host during his first few months as Prime Minister–and got it! (It’s illegal in Thailand to have any outside employment while being Prime Minister.)
The PPP, still in power, replaced him with Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat. So Mr. Samak, viewed as a political proxy for ex-PM Thaksin, was replaced by Mr. Somchai–who was ex-PM Thaksin’s brother-in-law. Since Mr. Somchai didn’t have a cooking show, the Constitutional Court instead cited “election fraud” as a reason to boot both Mr. Somchai and his PPP-led coalition out of power–which seems somewhat disingenuous, as the PPP opposition, which brought the lawsuit, boycotted the elections entirely. Also, the PPP were only allotted two hours to mount a defense to a panel of judges, one of whom had a wife who was an active PAD officer. The Samak and Somchai removals are popularly called “judicial coups.”
These are the lessons learned by foreign judiciaries from Bush v. Gore.
So when foreign governments and journalists assertively inquired as to the reasons for stranding 300,000 of their various nationals, the PAD folks began with “well, you see, there once was this popular cooking show. . .”
Their audience stopped paying attention before they got to (probably exaggerated) allegations of corruption and Mr. Thaksin reducing the capital gains tax just prior to selling a chunk of his family-owned company to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings–thereby avoiding millions of dollars in Thai taxes.
The world largely dismissed it as a temper tantrum.
Khao San Road
By the time I arrived, the airport had been reopened, which was helpful, because I flew there.
They had gone through three prime ministers in three months, and my best option for knowing who was in charge was to constantly hit “refresh” on the U.S. State Department’s “About Thailand” page.
I arrived in the middle of the night to a near empty airport–tourist season having been canceled for the conceivable future. I took a taxi to Khao San Road just as the bars were legally required to shutdown. One perk of being in a lawless land, however, is the fairly naked flouting of attempts at authority. Novelty-sized bottles of Singha, Beer Chang, and Leo Beer, were on offer from impromptu carts surrounded by bright-colored plastic children-sized chairs. If a police officer were en-route, their imminent presence would be signaled, and within seconds the road would be deserted of all evidence of debauchery. Once the officer was gone, sin-commerce would again reappear with an abruptness reminiscent of street magic.
This is one way a poor people cope with poor conditions that are unlikely to improve. During the conflagration of coups and protests, counter-coups and counter-protests, daily life continues amongst the exhausted populace.
I bought a beer while watching the world burn before going to bed in a $6 hotel room. It was hot and the fan rotated with an almost willful sluggishness, creating an awake-all-night scene from “Apocalypse Now.”
I was partially using the trip as an excuse to visit with a college friend who was then a part of a diplomatic security team operating out of Bangkok. It wasn’t the sort of job where the employees are allowed to bring their cell phones into the office, so I would have to wait until the evening before contacting him.
The protests continued even though PAD had surrendered back the airport in response to the Constitutional Court effectively giving into their demands.
This is the obligatory warning and, despite my example, it should be taken seriously.
Always avoid protests or other large political gatherings when visiting another country.
First, it is none of the visitor’s business and his curiosity will be perceived as foreign arrogance and an attempt at intervention. People are hurting and, unless it’s done by a news organization, taking pictures of suffering is usually interpreted as the height of insensitivity and disrespect. While they will likely just assume a visitor’s presence indicates a tourist so mentally incompetent that it would be immoral to punch him, in the unlikely circumstance that they confuse him for a Western-intelligence operative–they will beat him up and confiscate his camera for their permanent personal use. Finally, if it gets crazy, the visitor might get arrested/kidnapped/shot by the police, army, or rebels.
Never do it.
And so I went to the protests.
Whether the ruling force is a Junta or a corrupt politician, Thailand adheres to an axiom: a legitimate government does not kill its critics.
When the yellow shirts rushed the Government House, the ministers, staff, and guards let them have it and simply held government elsewhere. Rather than excite violence at the airports, particularly ones filled with innocent foreigners who might get caught in the crossfire, the authorities ordered security to retreat. If citizens wanted to camp in the parks and squares–so be it.
I went to the tent cities at Lumpini Park, where protesters had been corralled from the streets to ease traffic congestion and for everyone’s mutual safety. Joggers were annoyed that they could no longer use the area for their runs. Exercise equipment was commandeered by shirtless teenage showoffs. During the day, some of the protesters were bussed away to sundry ministry buildings or businesses owned or associated with ex-PM Thaksin. They spent the day blockading access and causing general nuisance before being bussed back to their temporary tent homes.
Before entering, I asked pedestrians on adjacent sidewalks about what was happening in the park. Perhaps out of national embarrassment that their country’s political parties couldn’t cooperate, (I can relate) or simply wanting to project the best possible impression to tourists, they never volunteered that it was a protest.
“It’s a kickboxing tournament, but you do not want to go–the tournament does not start until after dark.”
“It’s an outdoor concert, but you do not want to go–it’s only in Thai and there is a much better concert at Overtone Music Cave.”
The closest to a truthful answer I got was from a deeply saddened man who looked to be about as ancient and tired as Siam itself: “It’s just some politicians talking, but you do not want to go–every politician tells lies here so it would bore you.”
I quickly walked through the park, not engaging with eye-contact. I had expected more of a festival-like atmosphere. After all, until the next election where Thaksin allies would be inevitably restored to power–they had won the day! But their grave faces were serious and angry. Aside from the odd agitated or curious look, they ignored my brisk passage amongst their mist. Those who were not wearing yellow (so picked because it is the color of the King), were decorated in the colors of the Thai flag–ribbons of red, white, and blue, cascading down their shirts and jackets.
Like some political groups in the United States, and pretty much everywhere else, they hijacked their nation’s identity as if it were only their own–implying anybody with the audacity to disagree with them were disloyal to King or God and country.
Arguing legitimacy through patriotism or religion is a heuristically universal tactic, neither new nor unknown to any political culture.
I contacted my friend who was bemused by my activities and gave me a light scolding–“I appreciate that you know what you are doing, but please be careful, it’s been very few but people have died.”
I got the address to his compound-like apartment complex, hopped into a taxi, gave very specific directions, and was immediately deposited at an infamous strip club.
To the driver’s annoyance I declined payment. My escape consisted of a strident walk through the strip club to its back-alleyway exit. Then, having previously memorized maps of the area, I hiked up and down pedestrian bridges, dodged cars crossing unsignaled highways, slid down an overpass, crossed a river and a shanty town, and ultimately ended my journey confidently walking passed the complex’s guard without comment. He gave me a polite solute.
“I’m sorry I’m late–the taxi took me to a strip club.”
“Yeah, that happens here,” my friend casually sighed. “A lot.”
It had been about ten years since we had last met, and we caught up over very cheap food and beer from a succession of street stalls. Commerce continued uninterrupted and we rose for the Thai royal anthem set to images of their King at the beginning of a movie.
We both understood that the King could, with a royal wave, send all parties home.
Having reigned in excess of 68 years, King Bhumibol Adulyadej (or Rama IX which is way-easier to pronounce), is the longest serving head of state in the world. With an estimated net-worth of $30 billion dollars, he is also probably the wealthiest.
He is surely the most loved.
I have been to many countries where law mandates that a picture of the King adorn every home. Such a law is unnecessary in Thailand.
During the uncertainty and disorganization of twenty coups he has maintained calm and order. He jokes and teases during public speeches and public panics. He presided over Thailand’s modernization while constantly visiting his most rural and poorest subjects. He used his incredible wealth to build roads, hospitals, and schools. He protected the defenseless and empowered the oppressed.
He did so as a consummate Buddhist, with modesty, non-judgment, and respect for all life. He is perceived as being morally flawless, and you may go to jail if you publicly discredit this perception. This is due to a lèse-majesté law intended to protect the King’s dignity and reputation to the detriment of the freedom of his detractors.
As King he is perceived to have adhered to a duty to remain above politics and common culture–so in those vacuums when his is the only voice which must be heard–people seek his wisdom. The public may not always adhere to his guidance, but they always respectfully listen.
He is revered as a God, but is also considered to be a member of every family. He’s that favorite uncle who serves as a supernal moral role model, but nevertheless taught you dark and dirty jokes when you were a kid.
He is the grand stabilizer of Thailand.
Today he is in frail health. While his crown is inheritable his moral authority and public respect is not. For some, the question of what shall happen when he goes is grim.
This is actually from a show on Koh Tao, as photographing in a Bangkok nightspot is enthusiastically discouraged.
For the next few days I continued research by day and sought trouble with my friend at night.
He took me to bars and clubs that would excite the moral judgment of an Amsterdam prostitute. I bore witness to tricks involving ping pong balls which can not be propitiously described–even on a blog. In rousing guessing games of gender nobody really wins.
Eventually he had to go couriering in some other countries, leaving me time to sneak up North to visit the misnamed bridge on the renamed River Kwai.
On Christmas Eve, I met my friend and some of his colleagues at Club Santika. It was designed as a three story gothic cathedral, and we were setup in a special 3rd floor-VIP deck overlooking a stage and a vast pit filled with a thousand Bangkok partiers. Table service of Johnnie Walker Black was twenty dollars a bottle.
Bridge on the River Kwai
Visiting the bathroom is an intimate experience as the attendant surprises the customer with a neck massage as the patron pees.
The massage is far more pleasant than many may intrinsically suspect. Thailand has never been colonized or particularly influenced by Abrahamic religions. Therefore, the Thai conscious has never held a negative opinion about non-heteronormative behaviors or transvestism. Next to the King, the most popular person in Thailand is Parinya Charoenphol–a trans-gender Maui Thai kickboxing champion. There is, therefore, nothing sexual meant about the massage. Borne out of pragmatism, they just want a tip.
Relaxing in affordable luxury, we chatted about the role of the Monarchy and the causes of fervent support of the rural poor for a deposed self-exiled billionaire.
The stage-show involved perilous pyrotechnics paired with blaring American and British music, perfectly recited in English by uncomprehending bands who could not actually speak the language.
There was only one public exit, though my new-friends knew about a private staff exit. Flyers decorated the walls. They were advertising their “Goodbye Santika” New Year’s Eve party. “Burn” would be performing.
Years later I still think about that prophetic flyer.
Thirty minutes past midnight on January 1, 2009 Club Santika abruptly caught fire and burned down. More than a thousand revelers were trapped inside. Sixty-seven people died and more than two hundred were injured. Among the dead were employees who ushered their guests to safety until they themselves died.
One such employee was the bathroom attendant. He carried out a tourist who had collapsed unconscious through smoke inhalation, resuscitated her in the parking lot, and then rushed back into the blaze, presumably looking for more of the club’s guests. He never came back out.
I was in the Gulf of Thailand on Koh Tao when I heard the news report. I quickly called my friend to make sure he was safe. Thankfully, though it was their usual hangout, none of the members of our group were there that night. Of course, for various practical reasons, he might have been lying to me.
The Bangkok unrest is dwarfed by the violence of a second and continuous revolution in its South.
It was the end of the few weeks that had been allotted for Thailand–most of which had been spent in its rebelling capital. But there was one more adventure lingering for me in the shadows.
Those who are hyper-aware will know about what locals euphemistically call “the unrest in southern Thailand.” Without international notice or intervention, the southern provinces of Songkhla, Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat have been in a perpetual violent revolt since the days of Siam.
The South Thailand Insurgency has killed thousands and those provinces are an absolute “no go” zone for travelers. This admonishment includes those who are experienced with conflict-zones. Such was a lesson I learned the hard way.
In the early hours of January 4, 2009, an explosion on the tracks, engineered by South-Thai separatists, derailed a train on the Bangkok-Hat Yai route. I was the only foreigner stupid enough to be on board. It was not a fun day and impromptu self-evacuation amid urban-quasi-militarized violence is a learn-as-you-go sport. Luckily injuries were minimal and (I think) nobody died.
For weeks afterward I tried to find information online about what happened but found nothing: just another anonymous event of war, during an internationally ignored war, not even worth recording.
I knew about the conflict, I knew not to go, I even knew that they were tampering with the railroads–I was simply arrogant and rolled the dice trying to save a few bucks on a plane ticket.
After the derailment, we were helped off the train by railway employees and a fleet of busses arrived. They drove us to the bus station in Hat Yai, but as I needed to continue my journey by rail, (and having very little money available), I had to hike across an unwelcoming city to find the train station.
I found a map and memorized it. (You never want to get caught reading a map in an unsafe area–it betrays a lack of local knowledge or belonging to anybody who might wish you harm.)
The city itself was similar to any anonymous city in a developing country, but it did have a functional semi-modern center.
When conflict and sporadic street violence is the norm, life, society, and commerce find a way to continue. Rebellious Hat Yai has embraced this philosophy–I even planned my escape to the Malaysian border at a McDonalds. The city was totally open for business.
I was not perceived as an enemy–they probably thought I was a wayward tourist who had used the wrong airport to begin a trip to Phuket. Still, there were no smiles. I confused quizzical stares as sinister. I felt no immediate danger, but there was no encouragement to linger.
After hours of hauling a heavy pack on not an entirely uninjured back I made it to the closed railway station. “Of course it’s closed,” I rebuked myself, “there was a derailment so they’re going to close the whole system. That’s why they took you to a bus station. That’s why the passengers competent in the language of this land stayed there.”
I hoofed it back to the bus station by late afternoon. They weren’t running buses to Malaysia. They asked: What was I really doing there?
I paid a random woman eight dollars and took an informal taxi to the border with three other foreigners who had explicitly come to explore the conflict and were also trying to flee. When I refused to pay a bribe on the Thai side of the border I found my possessions laying on the street as the Taxi tried to abandon me in the middle of a jungle-surrounded nowhere.
One of the other passengers resorted to violence in expressing his dissent to the driver. They promptly returned for me.
We were unceremoniously deposited in the outskirts of Penang, left to find our own way to further transport. We separated. I was down to my last $20 in U.S. currency and despite Malaysia being a Muslim country, all the exchanges were closed on a Sunday. Eventually a cafe owner took pity on me and Googled the bank-rate and exchanged my bill with what little he had in his register. It was enough for some food, toilet paper, and an overnight coach ticket to Singapore.
When I arrived at the border I hadn’t slept for forty-eight hours, was unkempt, slightly bleeding, and lacked my visa which had disappeared in the Hat Yai chaos.
I wasn’t looking my professional best.
This gave rise to an enthusiastic and engaging customs interview:
“Why don’t you have your visa?”
“I lost it during the explosion.”
The examiner offered me a look of concern, questioning my surprise answer and perhaps wondering about my mental hygiene. “What explosion?”
“The one caused by Muslim separatists in the south of Thailand.” After a pause, I added, rather helpfully I thought, “they blew up some railroad tracks derailing my train.”
“Why did Muslim separatists in the south of Thailand blow up the railroad tracks?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t feel they would accommodate my curiosity if I asked,” I shrugged, “to keep me from getting to the other side?”
“Why were you in Thailand anyway? Did you know that it can be violent there right now?”
I stared as I gently rubbed a slightly blood-caked contusion on my forehead–“Well, you see, there once was this popular cooking show. . .”
Eventually he gave up and ran my name through the system. Within seconds he apologized for my detainment, fast-tracked me through the rest of customs, and my madness was once again Singapore’s problem.
Thailand’s madness continued with another election and another coup.
The military appointed opposition party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva Prime Minister. It would be three years before an election would be allowed.
When Mr. Abhisit replaced Mr. Somchai, voters were told that it was because he was too closely related to ex-PM Thaksin, who was Somchai’s brother-in-law. In 2011, voters responded by electing Yingluck Shinawatra–Thaksin’s sister–Prime Minister.
(And people accuse the Bushes and Clintons of behaving dynastically.)
Again the yellow shirts rallied in the parks and squares. Again there were allegations of corruption–this time over a proposed comprehensive amnesty which would have, among pardoning both pro-and-con government protesters, allowed Thaksin to return to Thailand (he faces a two-year prison sentence for a corruption conviction commenced in absentia).
Then, on May 22, 2014, after a coffee break during yellow shirt-red shirt negotiations, General Prayuth Chan-ocha informed all parties that he was now in charge.
Elected leaders were arrested. Curfews were put in place. Independent media was blocked. Less explicably, the video game Tropico was banned.
In an effort to win popularity, Operation “Return Happiness to the Public” hosted free concerts and carnivals for the masses. Citizens were even able to watch the World Cup for free while getting a complimentary haircut.
The junta has announced the appointment of a committee of monarchists, Army officers, and Bangkok elites to draft a new constitution (this time they’ll vote right!). They will host an election, again be thrown out of power, and then immediately host another coup.
At least that has been the cycle experienced for the past seven decades.
Elected populists have systemically been deposed by self-appointed elites–through the guise of contrived criminality–disguising the cynically rationalized delusion that the rural poor are too uneducated to properly participate in self-rule.
But there has been a variable steadfast these past seventy years–the King, who, although perhaps reluctantly, must, at least tacitly, signoff on these military misadventures.
The King is very old, and his only son, the Prince–is good friends with Thaksin Shinawatra.
The Prince is unpopular right now, but the death of a loved King has a way of changing public sentiment about a grieving son–particularly one inheriting thirty billion dollars.
I imagine he’ll abruptly find friends he never knew he had.
It may even be enough to dissuade the often monarch-obedient military from its quadrennial political takeovers.
The death of Thailand’s great-stabilizer may ultimately usher in an era of actual stability.