The Fire Next Time in Thailand
(Thai firefighters douse the Central World shopping mall building that was set on fire by anti-government “red shirt” protesters in Bangkok May 19, 2010. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis)
We were walking down Sukhumvit road in downtown Bangkok just after the 9 p.m. curfew – down the MIDDLE of a road that on any other Friday night would have been filled with honking vehicles, hawkers, tourists and touts. We were escorting a colleague home from the temporary newsroom in that Reuters had set up at the Westin Hotel after we were chased out of our office near the red shirt encampment in central Bangkok. Not a creature was stirring. But what was that sound we kept hearing? Squeak, squeak, squeak.Then we saw them. Rats. Thousands of them. Scurrying along in packs on the sidewalks, the streets, the closed-down Skytrain overhead, at the entrances to shuttered shops, around piles of garbage that had mounted in the Thai capital since the May 19th riots. It was like a movie about an urban apocalyptic event where humans are wiped out and the vermin are triumphant.
We walked past darkened Soi Cowboy, whose raucous go-go bars should have been crammed with visitors. “You know, it’s serious when Soi Cowboy is closed,” my colleague said. “Soi Cowboy never closes.”
What happened in Bangkok last week was, indeed, unprecedented. The worst eruption of political violence, rioting, arson and general mayhem in modern Thai history. An initially peaceful, if not festive, protest movement ended up in an orgy of violence that killed 85 people and wounded more than 1,400, according to official figures. Almost 40 buildings were set ablaze, including the stock exchange and Central World, Southeast Asia’s largest shopping mall. The targets of the arson attack – symbols of wealth and privilege – were probably no accident.
Thailand is undergoing, what in some respects, appears to be a 19th century style revolution: peasant and proletariat (the red shirts) versus the aristocrats — family business dynasties, military brass, members of the educated middle class and a royalist establishment (the yellow shirts).
It’s been brewing for decades, and has come to a head at a time when revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the sole unifying father figure in Thailand, has been hospitalized. He has stepped in to defuse previous crises in his 63 years on the throne. But not this time.
Bangkok reopened for business on Monday. The Skytrain thundering overhead. The Tuk-tuk taxis weaving manically through traffic-clogged streets, hawkers shouting above the din, and the rats retreating to their underground nests. The government announced that economic growth for the rest of the year would be around 4.5-5.5 percent – it would have been a point or so higher but for the prolonged protest and riots, but still pretty good in the current climate.
(An anti-government “red shirt” supporter surrenders to army soldiers in Bangkok May 19, 2010. REUTERS/Adrees Latif)
Why the “City of Angels” descended into a hellish war-zone will be debated for a long, long time. The government will say the protesters had to be disbanded because an armed faction in their midst was ready to provoke insurrection. The protesters say the government should have negotiated more with them instead of sending in the army
But Thailand’s next eruption seems inevitable. It may take time for the red shirts to regroup under new leaders. Maybe next time they won’t come to Bangkok in such a festive mood. The Red Shirts patriarch and patron,ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a 2006 coup, warned of this on the day of the rioting. “There is a theory saying a military crackdown can spread resentment and these resentful people will become guerrillas,” Thaksin told Reuters as troops fought protesters in Bangkok, sparking violence in outer provinces.
If that happens investors and tourists will flee Thailand faster than rats off a sinking ship.