Friday, May 21, 2010

Goodbye For Now

A Thai soldier on guard duty in an intersection on Silom Road Friday. Bangkok is trying to return to normal, but this is no “Mission Accomplished” moment. It’s more like a breather in what promises to be a long road to recovery.  

This is my last day in Bangkok. Very early tomorrow morning I catch a United Airlines flight home. This seems like a good time to reflect on the last two months. 

I came here in March to work on stories about the environment and climate change. I made my travel plans in December, months before the Red Shirt protests. When the Reds started their protest in early March, I assured everyone that the protests would be over before I got in or would end shortly after I got here. In the back of my mind there were some thoughts that it might drag on or end violently but I didn’t think it drag on as long or end as violently as it did.

In the first month I was here I did work on some of the environment stories that drew me here. I went to Isan to work on a story about the drought there. I made a couple of trips to coastal communities to make pictures related to rising sea levels. But in between those trips I kept photographing the Red Shirts. 

Slowly but surely the Reds came to dominate my time. They also started to dominate international headlines as journalists flocked here to report on Thailand’s latest political crisis. On the surface it’s a great story. 

The “Land of Smiles” consumed by political conflict. Thousands of little old ladies from the countryside occupying swathes of Bangkok demanding democracy. People in colorful red shirts carrying, conveniently, signs in English decrying violence and pleading for the power of the vote. A government that seemed incompetent or unable to deal with the crisis. 

On top of that Thailand is an amazingly easy country for western journalists to work in. Fly into the airport, take a taxi to the protest site and start photographing or interviewing and you can file a story within hours. There’s no place in the world like it.

But I don’t think we covered this story accurately. A Thai blogger, Somtow Sucharitkul, wrote about this on May 18 and said it brilliantly (his piece is mandatory reading). Here’s my take on the Red Shirts and the last two months. 

The Red Shirts said they wanted the return of democracy, and their hero Thaksin Shinawatra, to Thailand. They held up signs (conveniently in English) comparing the current government to the Burmese junta or Nazi Germany. But they are ignoring the fact that Thailand is, without a doubt, the most functioning democracy in the region.

The very fact that they were able to keep their protest going for more than two months is proof of Thailand’s democracy. In any other country in Asia (and most of the world for that matter), this protest would have been violently put down in hours. 

If this had been Burma, the death toll would have been in the tens of thousands and we would only know about it through the efforts of underground journalists. Vietnam is still a one party communist state where dissent is not allowed. The Khmer Rouge are gone in Cambodia but strongman Hun Sen has set himself up in a kleptocracy. 

Thailand’s democracy is imperfect but it works. The vote still counts for something here. 

Thaksin, the Red Shirts hero, is painted in almost Jeffersonian terms. It is true that he was popularly elected twice (a first in Thai history) and that he did more to alleviate rural poverty in Thailand than any other Prime Minister (also a first) and that the coup that deposed him in 2006 was unacceptable under any circumstances. But they ignore his very dark side. 

The Muslim insurgency in the south started during Thaksin’s administration. He used extreme violence to try put it down and it got worse. He declared a war on drugs andunleashed death squads on drug dealers. The death toll is still unknown. He tried to muzzle critical press first by buying media outlets then by shuttering them. He was one of the first Asian leaders to sign onto the Cheney/Bush “rendition” and torture program (which made him a favorite of our government at the time).  

Thaksin was no friend to democratic rule, he was more like an Asian Hugo Chavez in the making. Popularly elected but rushing headlong towards totalitarianism. 

Then there was the government side. They painted the Red Shirts with a broad brush as terrorists. They weren’t. They were mostly farmers and the rural poor. They didn’t want violence. They wanted their vote to count. 

After the Thaksin coup and return to civilian rule, the courts unseated one of their popularly elected Prime Ministers on an almost laughable technicality. 

In Thailand, the PM can only be paid by the government. Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, a Thaksin protégé, was paid to host a cooking show, "Tasting, Complaining." The courts ruled he was improperly paid for hosting the show and he had to resign. Samak’s real crime was being a follower of Thaksin and not a member of Thailand’s ruling elite. 

As the protests continued, a story line developed that this was a replay of the “People Power” revolution in the Philippines in 1986. That somehow incumbent Abhisit Vejjajiva was Marcos and Thaksin was cast as Corazon Aquino. Protesters’ signs were in English, all of the protest press conferences were translated into English. But nothing could be further from the truth. Abhisit is not a blood stained dictator nor Thaksin a grieving widow. 

The basic decency of the Thai people played into this. Everyone at the protest site was incredibly friendly to bumbling farangs (Thai for foreigners). They wanted to talk to us, they offered us drinks and shade. People made sure we had food to eat. They never complained about being photographed or interviewed, they always smiled. It was easy to fall in love with the little guy. 

The government issued deadline after deadline and never followed through. The police had a cordial (bordering on conspiratorial) relationship with protesters while the army was the enemy. Pretty soon even the most ardent supporter of the government was questioning its ability to resolve this peacefully. 

When the government did start to get serious in early May and Abhisit put out his “Roadmap for Reconciliation,” the Red protesters tentatively accepted it on the condition that Deputy Prime Minister Suthep turn himself into police to face justice for ordering the violent botched crackdown on April. There was genuine optimism that night that the protest might end peacefully

Suthep called their bluff and said he would go to the police. The next morning he went to the police to talk about April 10. 

I knew we were doomed to a violent resolution the minute the Reds responded. They essentially said “that’s not what we want. You need to turn yourself in, not talk about events. Plus we want you go to the police agency of our choosing not yours.” (Thailand has one national police force with several investigative agencies.)

To me, this was the saddest day of the two months because it was clear that the Red Shirts did not really want a peaceful resolution. Abhisit’s offer was the best they were going to get and they turned it down. One way or another they were going to force a violent confrontation. 

From that day on, events spiralled towards bloodshed. 

On Thursday, May 18, an unidentified sniper thought to be a government sniper, shot and mortally wounded Seh Daeng, the Red Shirts unofficial militia leader. Seh Daengwas larger than life in Thailand. He bragged about the number of men he killed. He bragged about his ties to the US CIA and he wrote a series of best selling adventure novels. He was hugely popular with the Red Shirt masses and his shooting sent a chill through the movement. 

(The government continues to deny any involvement in the shooting, which, to me is like OJ maintaining his innocence. I think Seh Daeng was a cancer in Thai society. The government has alleged that he was behind the M79 grenade attacks in Bangkok and elsewhere, he planned the violent aftermath of the crackdown, there were arrest warrants out on him for terrorism charges. He was an impediment to a peaceful resolution of the crisis. The government had the most to gain by Seh Daeng’s death.)

On Friday, May 14, street battles broke out between protesters (allied with Bangkok’s urban poor) against the army. Shooting and confrontations were common. People died. Chaos reigned for the day. 

On Saturday, May 15, the troops pulled back to bunkers and fortified positions and street gangs bombarded them with small home made rockets, ping pong bombs (small home made explosives) and rocks. The Red Shirts’ shadowy armed militia, the Black Shirts, allegedly sniped at government positions and fired grenades from M79 grenade launchers into government positions. The army deployed snipers and Bangkok entered a horrific phase of people, mostly innocent ones, being shot in the head or back from long distances by unseen assassins. 

On Wednesday, May 19, Thai troops went on the offensive retaking the protest site in a large military operation. More than 50 people were killed during the five days of unrest, most of them innocent. The Black Shirts responded by setting more than 20 fires in Bangkok’s commercial zones. The fires burned for nearly 24 hours. Many burned themselves out rather than be extinguished by the city’s firefighters. Some are still smoldering.  

Finally the protest was over. There were no winners. Bodies have piled up on both sides and Thai society has been wounded. 

I’m leaving not because I fear for my safety. That phase has passed. I am leaving because this is a city I don’t want to work in right now. Yesterday I drove and walked around some. I passed places where I had been shot at and places where I had seen others die. I have thousands of great memories from Bangkok. I am leaving because of a few horrific ones. I will be back, but I want to give it some time. 

The Thai people deserve better than this. 

Everywhere I went on this trip, even during the darkest time, I was greeted with smiles and people had genuine concern for my safety. My mototaxi driver offered me his amulet to keep me safe during street fighting. People in my neighborhood always looked after me when they knew where I was going in the morning and coming back from in the afternoon. Protesters launching rockets and throwing petrol bombs made sure I knew where snipers were so I wouldn’t be shot even as they exposed themselves to fire. Soldiers (not the snipers) put up with my photographing them as they were facing fire from the Black Shirts, some pushing me out of danger while exposing themselves to fire. Thai civilians always made sure I knew where it was safe to walk or stand are where it wasn’t. Walking around after the violence, people apologized to me for the things that were happening, they wanted me to know that this wasn’t the real Bangkok and make sure I was okay. 

I’m leaving because I know what I experienced isn’t the real Thailand. My hope is that it doesn’t become the real Thailand.