Thursday, November 6, 2008

Revolution by Souvenir


Mere hours after I wrote a web-log post about my luggage because Erin and I weren’t having any adventures, we had an adventure. We did something that the government of Thailand hasn’t been able to do for six months — we visited Thailand’s parliament building.

Thailand is currently going through some political turbulence. I don’t have the time or the knowledge to explain it properly, but I can summarize it by saying that the former Prime Minister, Thaksin, has been sentenced to two years in prison and is hiding in Hong Kong while his protégé is still in charge of the country; most rural folk love Thaksin and most city folk think he’s a crook.

A new party called People’s Alliance for Democracy has formed, and in protest they have occupied a huge part of the government district of Bangkok, including the parliament building. They’ve made barricades out of sandbags, razor wire and old tires, and they’ve set up a big tent city. All over Bangkok, people are wearing yellow polo shirts in support of the protesters. The protesters have had a few scuffles with the police — several people have died, and many others lost limbs in a weird episode where the police used Chinese-made tear gas that apparently (and probably accidentally) contained some kind of explosive.

Meanwhile, a few kilometers away, Erin and myself and ten thousand other tourists were hanging out around Khao San Road, eating pad thai, getting our hair put into braids, getting regrettable tattoos and venereal diseases, and drinking strong Thai beer out of large bottles and wondering why we couldn’t walk straight after just two of them. Well, we weren’t all doing all of those things, but every one of those things was being done.

Following her journalistic instincts, Erin decided that she and I should go and have a look at the barricades. She thought that we could go down there and take some pictures from a distance, using her new telephoto lens. I told her I meant to keep my promise to her mom and stop her from doing anything stupid. She was warned.

The first sign we found of trouble was a police blockade to the north of parliament. They had a barrier set up, and a large number of police were milling about, looking unconcerned. We decided not to ask to go through the barrier, but see if we could find our way around it, which we easily did by cutting through an education ministry compound. This put us inside the police area, where nobody gave us a second look. It seemed like pretty much anyone was allowed inside the police area, in spite of the barrier. A lot of vendors had set up shop, selling the police food and cold drinks, and stuff like police boots and belts, and t-shirts with police logos on them. Thais are the world’s ultimate shopkeepers and they’ll go wherever they need to go to turn a profit.

We looked around, took some photos of cops, but were politely but firmly told to go the other way when we walked toward the protesters’ barricades. We had to catch our train to Malaysia in a few hours, so we considered just going back to the hotel, but we decided to walk around to another side of the occupied area and see if we could get a better look at the barricades from another angle.

We found ourselves approaching what seemed to be the main barricade at the bridge on Ratchadamnoen Nok. There was only one policeman nearby, a smiley fellow who told us we could go over to the barricades if we wanted to. We took a bunch of photos of the barricades and of each other posing in front of them, and then I suggested that we go home. Erin asked if we could go a bit closer and try to see over the barricade. The situation seemed quite peaceful, so we crept a bit closer, and a bit closer, and a bit closer still, when a very nice-looking Thai man who was manning the protesters’ checkpoint came over to us and waved us in.

So we went in, through the checkpoint and into the area they have been occupying for the last six months. And we saw how the middle class conducts a revolution.

The occupied area is as neat and orderly as anything in Thailand, and the protesters are incredibly well supplied. Only a movement supported by big business and several branches of the government bureaucracy could have put together an occupation like this. The camp was laid out very neatly, with actual tents, not hastily thrown-together tarps. They had huge stocks of bottled water, communal kitchens, porta-potties that were cleaned according to a regular schedule, and even trailers that contained showers. This was clearly a massively organized effort, with dozens of truckloads of materials and supplies brought in and a huge amount of organization.

At least one of the trucks that came to set up the camp must have been carrying nothing but souvenirs. There were dozens of stands selling t-shirts and these little hand-shaped plastic clappers that are apparently a symbol of the PAD.

We talked to several people on the way through the tent city, all of whom were friendly as only Thais are, and a couple of whom spoke English well enough to tell us what they were doing there. We got directions to the parliament building, where we found an elaborate stage set up on the front lawn, with rows of plastic chairs and hundreds of wooden pallets with mats spread over them. On stage, in front of two TV cameras, various speakers gave rousing speeches, which were punctuated by a rousing rattle from the plastic hand-shaped clappers the audience used.

Naturally, Erin and I didn’t understand a word of what was being said, but we dutifully and journalistically took pictures of the proceedings, smiled at and said hello to several dozen people, and then left in time to pack our bags and get on the train.

In the tuk-tuk back to the hotel, I told Erin that I couldn’t believe that people had been killed in that place. It didn’t have a feeling of militancy or hostility at all. It was more like a county fair that happened to have a telethon going on in the middle of it. Most of the people looked like they would be more at home in a bingo hall than a revolution.

I guess this is how the middle class takes over a country: by conducting telethons and selling souvenirs.

To Kathy (Erin’s mom): It was perfectly safe. Honest.

TODAY: Amazin’ curry in Penang!
TOMORROW: Correct the schedule in yesterday’s blog post!
SATURDAY: Fly to Borneo!

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