Where is Batman? – Bangkok under Siege
That’s what a policeman asked me and a friend, as we were photographing the medieval-looking barricades, constructed of sandbags, sharpened bamboo poles, barbed wire and car tires, which one has to pass to get into the Ratchaprasong area, Bangkok’s up-scale and shut down shopping district.
It’s like stepping into another country, another world. Downtown Bangkok, according to this member of the local law enforcement, has turned into Gotham City. Despite this worrisome state of affairs, the officer was hardly upset with the organized anarchy that is gripping parts of the capital, outing himself willingly as a staunch Red Shirt supporter.
Outside the barricades, Bangkok pulsates, albeit at a slower pace than the city is used to. Inside, it’s another world. The protesters’ mood is festive, aggressive, paranoid and as if in the middle of a picnic in turn. All of Thailand’s political contradictions play themselves out in Bangkok’s poshest square mile, which, after eight long weeks of protests, has taken on the ambience of an up-country fair, stinks of urine and is covered in refuse. A myriad of stalls sell food and Red Shirt merchandise, including flip-flops with the faces of PM Abhisit and his colleagues printed on – a serious insult in a country where the feet are deemed to be the dirtiest part of the body.
The poor farmers from the North East, the bulk of the demonstrators, are continually ferried into the Thai capital from their villages to serve as raison d’etre and human shields for the Red Shirt activists who demand elections and berate and threaten the government from the demonstration’s main stage. Most demonstrators are all smiles, camped out in their thousands in front of the Central World department store, lounging in canvas chairs in front of the Louis Vuitton shop, generally having a good time. On the periphery, it’s another story. Mean-eyed boys on motorcycles, wearing bullet proof jackets and carrying truncheons, presumably lifted from the police, cruise the streets around the protest site, looking for…I am not sure what for exactly, but they are men of violence, posturing loudly and in striking contrast to the banner that hangs over the main stage, which proclaims that the Red Shirts are ‘Peaceful protesters, not terrorists’.
Some Red Shirt leaders have taken to wearing T-Shirts sporting Mahatma Gandhi’s face, while the proclamations coming from the stage are often contradictory, doom-laden and almost biblical in their epic longing for political struggle and martyrdom. Not surprisingly, the Red Shirt activists’ speeches are free of any hint of compromise. Tonight, the self-proclaimed class war fighters and proxies for fugitive former PM Thaksin Shinawatra announced that the rally would not end until the PM is in jail – an unlikely scenario. The applause was deafening.
The government announced in turn that the offer of early elections in November is no longer on the table. The road map to peace is dead. No willingness to compromise there either. The fronts are hardening, while the farmers swig cheap booze and use their red plastic clappers with undying enthusiasm. It’s a zero sum game in Bangkok and it is hard to guess what sacrifices will have to be made to bring the powers that drive the polarization of the kingdom to their senses.
That’s if they have any. A few days ago, the Red Shirts announced that they would abandon their two month long demonstration if Deputy Prime Minister Suthep turned himself in to police to hear charges relating to the deadly riots last month. When the Deputy PM went to the police, the Red Shirts changed their minds and demanded he see different police. Incidentally, Deputy PM Suthep is in charge of the police and has therefore little to fear from the authorities.
Tonight the government announced that it was cutting off the electricity to the demonstration area, and then retracted its threat a few hours later, because local residents and foreigners complained. And so it goes each day. Like a sluggish tide. Back and forth. Something is announced and nothing happens. The heat is almost unbearable.
Thailand’s government seems to have few options. Using the military to clear the demonstrators out of Bangkok could cost thousands of lives. Leaving them there makes the country ungovernable.
‘Gotham’, the policeman laughed gently and pointed to the sky-scrapers surrounded by sharpened bamboo poles. Batman was nowhere to be seen.
Read my previous recent entry on Thai politics, Violent red tide washes across Bangkok