On Tuesday, the 25th, anti-government protesters stormed the Suvarnabhumi (I dare you to pronounce that correctly because I can’t) Airport, demanding that the Prime Minister, Somchai Wongsawat, step down due to corruption. The whole situation is a little hard to comprehend as a foreigner, but here it is as I understand it:
The anti-government group that dons yellow, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), are made up of largely Southern Thailand-ers residing close to Bangkok, whereas the pro-government protesters don red, and are comprised of mainly Northern Thailand-ers. The PAD formed in 2005, when they protested against then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was accused of undermining the monarchy and gross corruption. “Thaksin,” as he is known, is from the Chiang Mai area, and won the election by targeting voters in the Northern regions of Thailand, who are said to be less educated than the upper to middle class living in the Southern regions. He was accused of buying votes from less educated citizens who didn’t know any better and was ousted and exiled in a “bloodless military coup,” which, to me, sounds a bit like an oxymoron, but it works.
Fast forward to 2008, where elected Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat is Thaksin Shinawatra’s brother-in-law, and the PAD movement claims Somchai is just a limp puppet with the corrupt strings held by exiled Thaksin. In late August the protests began, with the PAD storming and claiming a government building in Bangkok as their own. Then, last Tuesday, the protests reached a new level as PAD members occupied the International Airport to prevent Somchai from returning to Bangkok after attending a summit in Peru. Somchai was forced to fly into Chiang Mai, upon which they closed that airport for a few days also.
The PAD occupied Suvarnabhumi and the nearby domestic airport for a solid week, grounding all flights, stranding over 350,000 outbound passengers in Bangkok, and making it impossible for anyone to fly in. Eight people died in the unrest, and 737 were injured. Luckily, the army and police kept their distance, which kept the violence to a minimum.
Finally, after an eternity of a week, the PAD got what they wanted, and Somchai has been banned from politics for five years.
Now, here in Chiang Mai, living the day-to-day, one rarely feels the shock waves of the unrest ripple North from Bangkok. If I didn’t turn on the television or read the news, I would most likely be oblivious to what was going on. That makes me wonder how many people in this country actually don’t know what is going on. It also makes me wonder what things I don’t know about that are going on in the world, and I wonder who is wondering the same thing. I wonder a lot.
I think the most interesting part about this whole situation is observing everyone’s reactions to it. I watched a news clip of an angry American man screaming through the international airport “I WANNA GO TO PHUKET! I WANNA GO TO PHUKET! CAN YOU GET ME THERE?! NO! GET ME TO PHUKET!” As I observed, my blood boiled, and I must admit I swore at the computer screen mercilessly. Looking back, I can understand how frustrating it must have been for that man in his situation, yet I sincerely wish that I never handle anything the way that he did. I must admit I was appalled to be an American while watching that, and frustrated that yet again the American stereotype was being portrayed in the news–angry, greedy, loud, selfish. I have not resorted to the travelers-trick of claiming to be Canadian, but watching that video was tempting me into buying a Canadian flag patch for my backpack.
A second news clip depicted a European couple complaining, stating that the Thai people should be more thoughtful of the foreigners. Understandable, but if you banded together hundreds of thousands of people to overthrow your corrupt government, would you say, “oh, hold on guys, I’m not sure we should do this. Think about all of those tourists who will have to spend another week in sunny Thailand.”
Talking to Thai citizens about the protests is difficult, since politics is not discussed openly here. Most people, when asked about it, will reply “bad, bad, very bad,” or “not good,” and leave it be. There are exceptions though. At the local post office a friend of mine inquired about the airport being opened after the third day of it being closed. The woman working at the desk replied that she wasn’t sure when it would open, and then sincerely apologized for the delay, remarking that it was unfortunate but necessary for them to speak out. We completely understood. The owner of a coffee shop asked me this afternoon what I thought about it. I found it hard to speak openly, and instead formed my sentences delicately. I explained that I understand completely, and although it’s awful that tourists are stranded and the economy suffers, I see it as somewhat necessary if the people sincerely want change. What I really wanted to say was that I found it admirable, having never been part of a movement like that myself.