Life, Death and Game Shows in Bangkok
My friend’s wife Puk just gave birth to her second child, a son. His name is Duncan. Duncan was born in Vajira Hospital, the same clinic major general ‘Sae Daeng’ Khattiya, one of the most divisive figures in Thailand’s political crisis, now lies in, after being shot in the head by a sniper two days ago in downtown Bangkok. Sae Daeng has since been in a coma. The city has since been up in flames. Duncan, by all accounts, is doing fine. “Born in a cross fire hurricane,” his father remarked proudly.
Apparently, the aggressive and extrovert Sae Daeng was being interviewed by a New York Times reporter, when the bullet struck him. The shooter was somewhere in a high rise building around the Sala Daeng intersection. The English language The Nation newspaper reports that the assassin had used a Winchester rifle with a silencer. The Nation also suggests the shot could have been fired from a room at the luxury Dusit Thani Hotel on the Sala Daeng intersection.
As so often in the twists and turns of the political life in Thailand, reality is stranger than fiction. Sae Daeng’s killing is the stuff of James Bond movies, or of 1960s pulp thrillers. When did you last hear of such an incredible, audacious, politically ambiguous and effectively executed hit on a public figure? It took the Israelis at least eighteen guys to allegedly take out one Hamas operative. And that wasn’t politically ambiguous. Was the ice-cold assassin just running a hot bubble bath in his suite’s jacuzzi, before assembling his rifle, taking position, doing the job and then phoning for female company?
Bangkok has become a surreal Interzone, mundane and insane in turns, depending on which street corner you stand on. The local CarreFour supermarket in my neighborhood is open and shoppers wonder about, consuming as usual. But in the small sois (side streets) in the east of the city, it’s very quiet. All the low-income people in the area support the Red Shirts. All the middle-class people, business owners and civil servants, are openly yellow. The shop next door to my house, run by two charming women in their 50s, is staunchly Red. Until the government blocked the Red television channel from broadcasting a couple of weeks ago, they were glued to the screen around the clock. Now they sit in the back of the shop, crowded around a transistor radio. The motorcycle drivers still raise their thumbs when they see me and smile ‘See Daeng’, Thai for red, but they are no longer as boisterous as they were two weeks ago. The spark is missing. Bangkok’s irreverent, fun-loving atmosphere is severely suppressed. And like me, the locals won’t go down to Rajaprasong, Bangkok’s shopping downtown district and the site of the Red Shirt demonstrations, any longer. It has become too dangerous. It is no longer a protest, it is open conflict.
On Thai television, you don’t need to watch the news to see that something’s wrong. Try the average mid-afternoon entertainment fare and the country’s deeply entrenched absurdities become apparent. Farmers crippled by debt compete against one another on a game show – they face a series of farming related challenges, such as pushing wheel-barrows across fields as fast as they can, repairing a steel buffalo, or watering a rice field before the buzzer goes. If they win, their debt is paid off. So these poor men, most of them invariably from the North-East, and some of them in their 50s, will risk a heart attack trying to pay off a lifelong debt, while the nation watches. One older farmer and his wife – who owe 50.000 Baht (about 1.500US$), perhaps to someone who will cut their hands off if they don`t pay up – get eliminated and win just 10.000 Baht, nowhere near enough to face a dignified future after an undignified TV appearance. Wouldn’t be surprised if they took a stroll down to the Rajaprasong demo site to see their brothers and sisters.
For now though, most Red Shirt supporters are bound up within the murky political power structure of Thaksin Shinawatra. If, as some observers comment, they are breaking loose from the fugitive billionaire’s patronage, then Thailand could be on the way to revolution and TV shows involving farmers acting like donkeys may become a thing of the past. But that is an uncertain future scenario. For now, the government will do its best to uphold the status quo – and that includes shows about farmers acting like donkeys. Incredibly, Thailand won a seat on the UN Human Rights Council today. It’s a little like US President Obama getting the Nobel Peace Prize for fighting two wars. At least Duncan will have something to laugh about from a young age.
All images by Tom Vater
Additional reporting by Cameron Cooper
Read my previous recent entry on Thai politics, Bangkok Dangerous
Read my previous recent entry on Thai politics, Where is Batman? – Bangkok under Siege
Read my previous recent entry on Thai politics, Violent red tide washes across Bangkok