-- Anti-government demonstrators have occupied Government House in central Bangkok for a week, prompting several foreign governments to issue travel advisories. China warned its citizens against travelling to Thailand
, as have Singapore and South Korea
-- There is no need for alarm and no need to change travel plans. Bangkok is as safe as it is every other day. Outside of the immediate Government House area, there is no indication in Bangkok that the demonstrations are occuring. It is business as usual for tourism and commerce.
-- Technically, Bangkok is under a State of Emergency, which places the capital city under military control. The decree forbids assemblies of more than five people (which the thousands of protestors are ignoring) and forbids the media from publishing inflamatory material (to which the press is objecting). No curfew has been imposed, there are no troops in the streets, and the police presence has not increased. Thai businesses are lobbying to have the State of Emergency rescinded, because it sounds bad and scares people away. But, on a practical level, it is a non-issue.
-- I visited Government House today, and the demonstrations had the air of an outdoor music festival.
To reach the streets controlled by the protestors, I had to walk between two batteries of riot police who were stationed just outside the protest perimeter. The policemen were sitting on the ground, in the shade, avoiding the mid-day sun; they carried shields, but their holsters were empty. Nearby, soldiers in the Thai Army were practicing crowd suppression maneuvers. None of them said anything to me as I walked by.
I reached a protestor checkpoint. A long-haired kid who looked like he should have been in his dorm practicing "Freebird" asked why I wanted to enter. I said I wanted to blog about the demonstration. He frisked me for weapons and let me pass.
The protestors control the streets directly around Government House, and these paths were lined with vendors selling food, t-shirts, drinks, knick-knacks and what not. Tents and makeshift awnings were everywhere, since Bangkok is both sunny and rainy. As I walked closer to Government House itself, the purpose of the tents became more political and less commercial. In addition, medical tents were erected near the Government House gates, and I later noticed a line of ambulances parked just outside the perimeter.
The protesters had erected a stage on the Government House lawn from which they speechified. The happenings on stage were broadcast to various loadspeakers erected around the site. Two or three news vans were parked inside the grounds, although most were parked just outside.
The grounds of Government House had been converted into a warren of tents and makeshift structures composed principally of metal tubing and plastic sheeting. Thousands of people were there, mostly sitting quietly, waiting out the hottest part of the day. Toilet and shower facilities had been erected. Most of the doors to Government House itself were locked, and, as for the unlocked doors, I could not talk my way past the guards, by which I mean bearded Thai guys in Che t-shirts and bandanas.
The crowd was almost entirely Thai. I saw a handful of Westerners, most of whom were reporters. Thai photojournalists were everywhere.
The atmosphere was not tense; it was not violent or forbidding. Many Thais were amused at my presence, but the language barrier was enormous.
Frankly, the only thing that bothered me was the fact that Government House was ringed by a high fence with only a few open gates. If the authorities decided to rush the crowd, people would be trapped and crushed.
-- You can keep track of the day-to-day by reading The Bangkok Post
or The Nation
-- The 90-second version of what the hell is going on:
It's all about a man named Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thaksin was among the richest men in Thailand, having secured one of the kingdom's two principal wireless licenses. He was elected prime minister on a populist platform which appealed to rural voters and the urban poor, who comprised about two-thirds of the electorate.
The other one-third of the electorate were affluent and middle class Thais who lived primarily in Bangkok and could not stand Thaksin or his policies. After it became apparent that Thaksin would keep winning elections, the Bangkok elite had the military oust him in a 2006 coup.
Thaksin fled to London, but he kept his hand in Thai politics. A new constitution was drafted, the military stepped aside, new elections were held, and, to the disgust of the Bangkok elite, Thaksin's people won again and are currently in power.
So the demonstrators who are occupying Government House are a motley alliance of Everyone Who Hates Thaksin. Some are royalists, many support opposition party members, a few want a return to military rule, more are opportunists, and a critical mass of protestors I saw today are people who are living their personal 1960s.
-- This Wall Street Journal editorial
adds more detail, if you're interested.
PHOTO: Reuters has been taking excellent photographs in Thailand, and this photo of the protestors in the early days of the occupation of Government House is one of the best.
Labels: Bangkok, Thailand