Sunday, May 26, 2013

Expat under the Jackboot

Achtung Farang! For you ze party is over. Three years ago on May 19, 2010, things went pear shaped for the 8.2 million or so residents of Bangkok. The sit-in and occupation of the city by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), the 100,000 strong red shirted supporters of ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra (removed in a military coup of September 2006) was forcibly evicted by security forces after a two month protest. Snap shots pinged and ricocheted. Grenades banged. And plumes of smoke from arson attacks rose up from the city centre blackening the sky. Dangerous days in a country defined by a rift. You were either a Yellow or Red. But, this time 3 years ago, if you happened to be Red, you could have ended up dead, dead, dead.

Before the crackdown central Bangkok had been turned into a militarized zone. A recce unit from the Royal Thai Army, armed with the latest Israeli Tavor bullpups, had been using the local public transport stations as urban observation posts for weeks.

Beaucoup psyops on Sukhumvit Road, n'all. Two-ton trucks with a band from the Intelligence Corps, covering JJ Cale’s “Cocaine” and a female NCO DJ spinning out Shania Twain, had been deployed to pacify Red Shirts into not setting fire to the big name hotels and department stores of the area.

But when it kicked off in my hood the psyops trucks and the recce unit from the Royal Thai Army were nowhere to be seen. They were gone baby, gone.  The natives were restless. The shots closer. The airburst of bombs was near not far. No cops. No Army. Just a lot of angry locals and bemused looking expats. I ran up to Sukhumvit. There was a white fool fleeing on a Segway.

“That’s a novel way to leave a riot,” I joked. But the white fool did not laugh. He must have been with the US State Department. He was fleeing towards the US Embassy on Wireless Road. And only a Quiet American would use a Segway to navigate a riot. 

"Bunch of arse," said one fussy looking onlooker, with a pronounced English accent. "Mounted riot police is what this country needs. With lances." 

The city was going up in flames but the local café on Soi 12 was still open for business.  I sat down for several large bottles of Leo beer. On the soi, farangs walked up and down scratching their heads like chimps at Dusit Zoo. They eyeballed me. Nonchalantly drinking in the café. They asked why I wasn’t scared. I told them that it was a long time coming (and I was bit tipsy).

“What was,” said the property man from New Zealand with the trophy blonde wife, “what was coming?”

He had no idea what it was all about. He was here for work and knew nothing about the internal domestic strife.

“The PM's crackdown on these anti-government protests by the UDD,” I said. “Its been two months in the brewing. He might be the best leader this country ever had. If only they had voted him in. They want Thaksin back in Thailand to be PM. He's their man, he gives them 30 Baht healthcare and interest free loans to dirt farmers. And they don't like the PM. He's a grandee. A figure from the Bangkok elite...”

“I haven’t a clue,” the man said, “am just here for work. I don’t have a clue about these protestors, where are they all from anyway?”

“They are from Issan, the North eastern Province,” I said. “And they are not too keen on PM Abhisit and his administration. As you can tell.”

“What am I supposed to do?” He asked.

“Monitor local media, stock up…if you haven’t already.”

There was another girl. Stumbling up the rickety soi like a zombie. She was in a floral dress. Pretty. English. With knotted curls that bounced lightly above the shoulders. She was on the verge of tears.

“Why are they doing this, why are they burning the city!”

I told her that Rome was not going up. It was just the Red Shirts on the retreat, trying to scorch Bangkok with a few old tires.  

"It looks worse than it is," I said, "and they are retreating. Just stay indoors, monitor local media for developments..."

This dim young thing had never monitored the media for a local development in her life. She was a trust fund babe. Only in the city to party and weekend at the beach.

“Why can’t they be happy,” she said, starting to cry, collapsing on her best friend, a glacial, high maintenance blonde in Jackie O spex. “Why can’t they just be happy like us?”

The foreigners were living in a bubble and the Red Shirts had burst it. But only temporarily.

A cab pulled up for the screaming girl and her blonde friend.

“We are going to Pattaya,” she said, “there’s no curfew down there.”

Not yet, I thought. Minutes after she left the Government extended its 9pm to 5am curfew to 24 provinces. And there was a warning to go with it: looters and arsonists would be shot (they had already torched 30 buildings in Bangkok, including the country’s stock exchange). I did a check of social media on my wife’s iPhone.  All of our fair-weather friends were either too scared to leave the house (“there are snipers out there on rooftops shooting farangs!”) or fleeing to play golf in Pattaya with DJ Florian and the other playboys, interrupted. The only one with any sense on social media was Tulsathit from the English language newspaper The Nation. With his Twitter updates on crowd movements and the response of security forces, we were never in the dark.

"Check out Tulsathit Taptim on Twitter," I drunkenly slurred, "Tulsathit's the man in the know. And a fan of Liverpool Football he's got half a brain even if he supports the wrong team from Liverpool."

And so to curfew.  9pm lockdown till sunrise. No big deal. The one thing you can’t do without in a survival situation is water. My neighbor, on the other hand, could not do without tonic water. I was tasked to get some. There were thick bilious plumes of smoke on Sukhumvit Road. No wonder the 7/11 was closed. Then I bumped into Serge, the owner of Crepes and Co. He was shutting up for the riots.

“Have you got any tonic water?”

“Only bottles. How many do you want?” 

“A case.”

“A case?”

“Yeah, am getting it for an English lady, she likes to drink gin during moments of civil insurrection.”

I was led into the restaurant. The mood of the staff was maudlin.

“Chin up,” I said, “it’s not like you are going to get hanged in the morning.”

I bought the case of tonic and zigzagged over the road back to HQ. The gins were soon mixed. Drama over.

I checked the fridge. Lots of beers, hic-hic hooray!  

And Lemsip!

The wife was chopping up veg for curfew dinner and the DVD of The Guardians had just arrived in the post from Blighty.

"Following a period of mass unemployment, hyperinflation and social disorder, democracy has been swept away amid a raft of security measures..." Apt viewing in Bangkok under curfew and martial law. Before I settled down, I checked the wine fridge. We were almost out of plonk. 

All the shops were closed (due to the riots) and Serge from Crepes and Co and had already pulled down the shutters and bolted up the premises.  

That night I took in the air on the balcony of Bangkapi Mansions.  The smoke was still rising from several quarters in the city and there was the occasional crack and ping of gunshots. Over Wireless Road, high up in the sky, a Predator UAV drone was hovering above the US Embassy.  There were barricades and protestors at the intersection of the diplomatic quarter. Added squeeze from the Red Shirts and the Yanks (or the Royal Thai Airforce) were surveying the debris. After the crackdown and political violence the death toll was 89. It was less than feared. But never let death, or riots, get in the way of having a jolly good time in Bangkok.