The welcome sign to my area of town near Din Daeng intersection, with charred buildings in the background.
Like the flick of a switch, Bangkok has returned to normal. On the surface, things are running smoothly once again, and there is a wary calm throughout the city. The BTS SkyTrain has resumed service, shockingly in all stations save for one. The MRT is running and the huge malls will reopen around Ratchaprasong on Tuesday, with only the gaping hole where CentralWorld was to remind us of last week’s crackdown and the arson that followed. It is surreal, and to my Western mind it is unsettling.
Yesterday, I took part in a city-wide effort to clean up the Rachaprasong and Chidlom areas, joining thousands of mostly Thai people in scrubbing down the BTS poles, sweeping the streets and cleaning up debris from the former rally site. Over the last few months, I’ve been in the Chidlom/Silom areas to take pictures, to interview the red leaders, to photograph the devastation following the grenade attacks on the 19th of April and now to clean up after the army moved in and took back the area. It’s strange to think of how swiftly the clashes progressed, from raucous joy, to anger, to devastation.
Cleaning up Ratchaprarop road. Photo by Lynn Bantley
This is what greeted me when I stepped off the BTS yesterday: a cleanup in full force at Ratchaprasong, just near Amarin Plaza mall.
I came armed with dozens of trash bags, face masks and rubber gloves, and set to work. The streets under Chidlom BTS station were filled with water and soap as people furiously scoured the charred asphalt, and a guy with a megaphone was shouting out where new volunteers should go to pitch in. After picking up trash and debris under the BTS station, I wandered down toward the remains of CentralWorld. Disaster tourism was in full swing, as hundreds of people took pictures of the still-smoldering wreckage and the cleaning efforts in front of it. I moved on to the poles under the BTS tracks directly across from the main Rachaprasong intersection and climbed up to start scrubbing, clinging to the side of the cement pole to keep my footing. After a few minutes, I heard a murmurs of a crowd behind me and turned around to find dozens and dozens of Thai people taking my picture and thanking me for pitching in. Next to my semi-clean pole (I was too short to reach the top portion!), a Thai man busily gathered bricks from the rubble to spell out Love Thai on the sidewalk. He asked to take a picture with me, and instructed me to make the peace sign. “Now, it is time for peace,” he said with a lopsided smile.
Scrubbing down the BTS poles across from CentralWorld.
Farther down toward Sala Daeng BTS Station, soldiers and police were gathered where the red shirts had initially built their bamboo and tyre barricades, just weeks before. They thanked me for helping to clean up Bangkok and then each asked to take their picture with the “Thai-sized farang”, laughingly handing me the pink roses in their lapel with a flourish. Police vans lined the street next to the intersection, waiting to take the police back to their respective stations.
Soldiers by Sala Daeng BTS.
So is that it? Like a boulder in a stream, the water merely re-routed around the problem? On the surface perhaps, but beneath the rush toward normal, resentment still percolates. None of the underlying issues that contributed to the messiness of these past months have been addressed, and the sharp divide within Thai society has not been eased. If anything, the chaos of these protests has fomented an already angry swath of society, and in the eyes of the red shirts, the smoky carcass of CentralWorld is no match for the corpses on the street.
The wreckage of CentralWorld, as of yesterday.
While Thailand is very good at picking up and moving on, the aftermath of these protests is likely far from over. The official opposition party submitted an impeachment motion against the Prime Minister Abhisit and three other ministers today, and Red Shirts in the north of Thailand have vowed to keep rallying for their cause. Rumours run rampant of further Bangkok protests in June or sooner elsewhere in the country. Finally, as if the tangled maze of the present wasn’t enough, the new elections initially announced for November 14th have been tabled for the moment, there is a key military reshuffle scheduled for the fall and – the elephant in the room – the looming question of Royal succession.
What’s left of Center One mall, near Victory Monument BTS Station
I do not have the in-depth political knowledge or time in Thailand to accurately speculate about next steps, so I will leave it to the pros. Some further reading, post-chaos:
- Why are Thais Watching the Foreign Media? An article by the popular and anonymous Bangkok Pundit.
- A well-written, sad OpEd in the Guarkian by Ismail Wolff, Thailand’s Troubles Aren’t Over.
- Who Opened Fire on a Supposed Safe Haven? An article by Canada’s Mark MacKinnon about his experiences inside Wat Pathum during the crackdown.
- From BBC’s “Own Correspondent” series, Are Thailand’s Riots Just a Taste of Things to Come?.
- Also on BBC, Bangkok Gets Back to Business After Deadly Protests and another piece on the future of Bangkok post protests.
- Lengthily open thread on New Mandela about the future of Thailand.
- The Day the Army Moved In, from De Spiegel online. Features photo of Italian photographer Fabio Polenghi, who was killed in the clashes. Also on the site, A Deeply Divided Society: What’s Next for Thailand?.
- Finally, read through some of Claudio’s fascinating blog on the recent events here. He followed the red shirts back up north as they exited Bangkok, and has some first person accounts of the sentiments along the way.
Update: Powerful Op-Ed in the IHT, Off the Middle Path.
Update: May 25, a Thai court approved an arrest warrant for Thaksin on terrorism charges related to the recent protests.
This was the sunset over Thailand yesterday evening: as divided as its people.
I will be taking a hiatus from Bangkok in early June and heading to Bali for some volcanoes, beaches and – extremely important – some babi guling (delicious, slow-roasted suckling pig). More to come about Burma, mangosteens and Angkor Wat in the next weeks.