Dispatch November 2008

One Day in Bangkok

An on-the-ground report from a city of closed airports, disbanded political parties, and rolicking protests
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Photos by Jarrett Wrisley

The past week has been a strange time here in Thailand’s capital. The streets have been quiet, and the people as friendly as ever, but most have been glued to broadcasts about the protests that have hampered the functioning of the country’s government and shut down its airports. I had been following the situation closely from my home in Shanghai, but nothing could have prepared me, my fiancée, or our dog for what we encountered last Tuesday at Suvarnabhumi Airport. Upon landing at 9 pm, we walked down an empty corridor. Duty-free shops sat shuttered, and the airline didn’t say a word to us as we disembarked. Then a call came through the public address system: “All passengers are ordered to leave the airport immediately. Please leave the airport immediately.”

This might have been easy, if the airport employees hadn’t also jumped ship. Security guards, shop workers and customs officials nervously jogged past us as we made our way to the luggage belt. In the scrum, the airline lost our dog in a cargo warehouse. We found him about three hours later, and by that time the airport was emptied of all but protestors and stranded tourists. Luckily, the three of us were picked up by a kind Thai woman with a love for animals and a pickup truck. Throughout the whole ordeal, everyone just kept smiling. It was oddly comforting.

But behind the smiles lies a great deal of concern. Thailand has long been a politically turbulent place, and there have been 18 coups here since World War Two. The situation now is unsettling.  In 2006, the military deposed then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who fled the country, but was convicted in absentia of violating political ethics, and was sentenced to two years in jail. Though Thaksin has not set foot in Thailand for several months, he is still believed to wield great power in the People Power Party (PPP), which has a large electoral majority. In protest against Thaksin’s continuing influence, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) marched on and shut down both of the country’s airports last week, seeking to rid the government of Thaksin’s allies (his brother-in-law, Somsai Wongcharat, became Thailand’s Prime Minister earlier this year).

What makes the situation unprecedented, in this country where obeisance to one’s alleged superiors has long been an ironclad rule, is that Thaksin and his followers have pitted themselves against the perceived wishes of an adored monarchy, and a powerful upper class. Thaksin has overwhelming support in the rural North and Northeast, while the PAD has greater support in the South. Much of the polity appears to be split along economic lines.

Two other powerful factions—the Bangkok Police and the Army—have avoided entering the present conflict, though their reluctance to do so nonetheless has political implications. Then there’s the Queen, who has subtly showed support for the PAD by attending a funeral held for a protestor killed in an attack. Further complicating matters is the fact that the King’s 81st birthday—a national holiday during which he will be expected to make a public address —is this Friday.

Riot gear for sale, Yaowarat Road,
Chinatown, Bangkok

Just today the Constitutional Court of Thailand met in Bangkok and decided, after only a short period of deliberation, to dismantle the PPP.  Curious to see how this  new development would be greeted among Bangkok’s citizens, I picked my way through the thick crowds of Chinatown to reach the Constitutional Court. On the way, I passed several army surplus stores, their sidewalk mannequins modeling riot gear and bulletproof vests.

But when I arrived at the courthouse, the only crowd was a flock of pigeons. “They moved already,” explained a security guard. “The crowd has moved up to the park. But they lost anyways,” he said. Like most people in Bangkok, he looked exasperated by all this.

The crowds in question were supporters of the PPP, whose party had been dissolved, and its leaders barred from politics only an hour before. But when I arrived at their demonstration, in a large square that overlooks the gilded rooflines of the temple Wat Suthat, I didn’t encounter an angry mob. Instead, Thaksin loyalists nibbled on bowls of noodles and sausages, sipped icy drinks, and picnicked with their children on large squares of paper. There was beer and live music. Some danced to Thai folk music booming from speakers.  It felt more carnival than coup.

PPP demonstrators on Tuesday

“We are here because we love democracy, we love Thaksin, and we want to support our government,” explained a school teacher named Pitanet, who had traveled more than 70 miles to attend the demonstration. Then he leaned close, grabbed my hand, and whispered in my ear, “and we might not agree with the Queen. None of us might.”

Some in the U.S. media have labeled Barack Obama the first celebrity politician. But those commentators have never been to a Thaksin rally. His face beams from bumper stickers cut in the shape of a Valentine’s heart. There are posters of him riding an everyman’s bicycle, sitting on a public beach, and strolling through the train station, apparently about to board. People don’t just support their political leaders here - they seem to love them like family.

Thaksin memorabilia

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, the PAD protestors were still corralled outside  Bangkok’s two airports, which have now left 350,000 people stranded. It is now being reported that the first flights might take off on December 15th.  Last night, one PAD protestor was killed and dozens more were injured when a grenade was launched into their protest zone at Don Muang airport. It was the second grenade attack on the PAD this week.

As I strolled away from the PPP rally, I saw red shirts clustered around a television. The TV-watchers told me that the PAD had decided to abandon their airport protests. And so I called Masa, a woman I’d met a few nights before at the labyrinthine Chatujak Weekend Market, just after she’d left her post at the airport protests. “Three corrupt parties have vanished from this country,” she observed, “and we have won again in the courts. But Thaksin will somehow try to come back – I assure you – this is only the first of many fights. The Thai people always say mai pen rai, ‘no problem’, but I hate this word. This is a problem here, and we will fight to end it.”

Farther down the road I passed an enormous photo of the king, smiling benignly, and I decided to duck into temple Wat Suthat. The sun was starting to sink, reflecting off the building’s gilt rooflines. Roosters pecked in the grass outside. Bangkok, for a moment, seemed as though it had found peace. But then the music kicked up again in the square, and the People Power Party began to roar. It didn’t sound quite like defeat.

Jarrett Wrisley is an American writer based in Bangkok.
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Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of greasy cheese steaks. More

Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of (and occasionally returns for) greasy cheese steaks. Jarrett's first trip to Asia came as a college student, when he traveled to Beijing to study Mandarin Chinese. He returned to China after graduation, and began writing about Chinese food in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. After a six-month stint in Chengdu, he moved on to Shanghai, where he worked as a food critic and magazine editor for four years before striking out on his own. After six years in China, he recently moved to Bangkok, where yellow-clad protesters immediately shut down the airport where he had just landed. Luckily for him, he couldn't leave—and now intends to stay. Jarrett is presently working on a series of modern Chinese cookbooks with Hong Kong chef Jereme Leung and writing features that focus on food and culture in Asia. He'll be bouncing around the region as much as possible and writing about things he encounters along the way. His blog trains an eye on food but addresses other cultural phenomena, tidbits of travel, and the oddball politics of East Asia.
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