This will probably be one of the most serious blog posts I ever write--and those who know me well know just how difficult that can be for me5. This past month has been a profound experience, to say the least, and the last week in particular has been one of the most eventful I've ever had in my professional life. I will not try and capture the entire political scene or give the background that led Thailand to this point in history, because that would take too long. I do, however, want to get into writing my personal experience during what might well be, as my boss has said, the most significant political change in Thailand since 1932. I've found two articles that summarize it pretty well, one from The New York Times, the other from Britain's The Guardian, if you are interested in the background.
For background I will say that the anti-government protesters (formally called the United Front for Democracy Against Democracy, but known colloquially as the "red-shirts") formally started this demonstration on March 14. They raised the stakes in the game when they occupied an intersection right in the heart of Bangkok's shopping district. Over the course of the following weeks they built up barricades and set up camp spreading out in all four directions from the intersection. I had spent a lot of time walking through the protest site, examining the barricades, talking with both the guards and the protesters, and trying to understand their motivation for being there, their feeling, and the general mood. Until the evening of May 13 not once was I afraid of being there or concerned about my safety and/or well-being.
On May 13, a Thursday, the government moved troops into place around the protest site, making clear their intent to seal off the demonstration. That night I walked around the perimeter of the protest, talking with the guards at four of the major barricades and getting a sense from them about how they felt. The mood was grim, and they were anticipating seeing the security forces approaching, but that did not happen that night. I walked that same route the following morning, and saw that the government had indeed accomplished their goal--vehicle traffic was cut off, with only the random motorcycle being allowed through the roadblocks. Even though it was tense, at this point I still did not feel frightened or threatened.
Some of the protesters did not appreciate the government's action, and during the day there was sporadic gunfire, some of it less than half a mile from the Embassy. That evening I had to again walk to get a taxi home, and none of the drivers just around the corner from the Embassy were willing to take me home. I tried walking north, skirting the protest site, but couldn't cut across to where I wanted to go because of fighting between protesters and security forces--I could hear the gunfire at the police checkpoint and decided to turn around and find another place to catch a taxi. Eventually I did make it home, but I will admit, I was getting nervous for awhile that I wouldn't be able to get home that night. Worse, my fear was that if I had to hole up in a hotel that I might not be able to get home at all on Saturday.
Sunday afternoon, per instructions from my boss, I packed a bag with four days of clothes and, along with several other folks from the Embassy who live in our neighborhood, checked into a hotel just down the street from the Embassy. For the next four days we went from the Embassy to the hotel and back, nothing else. Now the hotel was amazing (before we leave I'll have to take Mali down there for a night on the town), and the executive lounge and breakfast buffet were fantastic, but just the experience of being in downtown Bangkok in those conditions was a bit surreal. In the Embassy we could hear gunfire and explosions, and we followed reports of new barricades and skirmishes, trying to stay on top of the developing situation. All this stuff was going on just to the south of us and around from there up to the northwest, less than a mile, but the way we were shuttered up, at times it seemed as if it might as well have been taking place on another continent.
The morning of Wednesday, May 19, we knew something big was happening because there were a lot of soldiers massed in the parking lot of the hotel. We were told to stay in place and not try and get to the Embassy until one of our security folks could come by with a car and take us. The action started just down the street from the Embassy as the security forces took down one of the red-shirt barricades and started to clear out an area near Lumpini Park. The action picked up during the day, and even though I was safe inside the Embassy, I felt a huge knot in my stomach all day.
At around 2 o'clock that afternoon, right around the time the main red-shirt leaders surrendered to the police at the main rally stage, I heard two really big "booms" and shortly thereafter a huge cloud of black smoke started to rise. From my office window I could see it, and in about five minutes there was smoke rising all along that street--the protesters had lit the tires at their barricades on fire. Those fires seemed to die out pretty quickly, but less than 20 minutes later even more smoke was billowing up from the main barricade at Chitlom, and this time it did not die out quickly. Not long after this we heard the first reports that the protesters had set fire to Central World, the massive shopping mall down where the protesters were camped. The smoke from that fire, and the others in that district, were visible the rest of the afternoon and into the next morning. The reports of burning and looting were frightening and very sobering.
By the afternoon of Thursday, May 20 things were getting better, and the general mood downtown and in the Embassy was lighter. By Friday it seemed like life was returning to normal--there was more traffic on the road in front of the Embassy, but the barbed wire and armed soldiers blocking the way south of the Embassy were grim reminders that things were still not back to 100 percent normal. The latest images and reports as of now are that most of the protest site has been cleaned up and the roads are all open except for the one by Central World. I haven't had a chance to go down there myself and see it. I think it will be a little weird, because I'll remember what it looked like the last time I was there, and I've forgotten what it looked like without the tents, porta-potties, and graffiti. And for the last few nights the long-awaited monsoon rains have finally come to Bangkok--I wonder sometimes if that might have changed things, kept it from getting so bad. We'll never know.
I was so happy to return home to Mali and the kids on Friday evening. Our phone conversations while I was gone were interesting, because life for Mali and the kids went on as normal in our neighborhood. In fact, if your only exposure to the last two weeks or so was our area, you could be excused for not knowing that there was major political unrest in Bangkok. Things are not settled, this is at least a cooling down period. Nobody knows, of course (that's what I consider job security for yours truly), but I'm hoping that both sides will be able to work things out without the need to threaten any more lives or cause disruptions to people's livelihoods. Stay tuned, it should be interesting.