Last month, I traveled to Bangkok to visit my daughter and her adorable family, as I have done many times. This trip Thailand was once again in a political struggle, but this time, the stakes are higher and the violence is escalating. Not good news for the world’s most visited city in 2013; Bangkok barely edged out London, number 1 in 2012.
Let me just say that I don’t like politics. I try to bury my head in the sand and run from any divisiveness, whether it is here in our own city, in Washington, or abroad. In the past my main observations about Thai politics were limited to a fashion standpoint, of all things. One political party is called the “red shirts” and another is called the “yellow shirts.” To me, that pretty much meant a person should not wear red or yellow unless they wanted to make a political statement.
Before I arrived and during my visit, protesters rioted and demonstrated in the streets, calling for the resignation of the prime minister and threatening to shut down the city. Ten people have been killed. January’s violence is just the latest chapter in an ongoing struggle between middle- and upper-class Thais in Bangkok and impoverished people in rural areas.
While I was there the prime minister declared a state of emergency. As an international traveler, I now did have to pay attention to politics. In 2008, riots closed the Bangkok airport for two weeks.
It is all a bit perplexing and frightening. For starters, the violence seems so un-Thai like. Thailand is known as the “Land of Smiles” because of its friendly, cheerful people. You can smile at any Thai you pass on the street and you will always get a smile back. There just seems to be no antagonism in their nature.
Secondly, Thailand is a democracy. My frame of reference for democracy is, of course, the United States, and that mental framework does not include political coups or military takeovers. Boy, have I had my head in the sand!
One sunny morning I sat on my daughter and son-in-law’s balcony overlooking beautiful Bangkok. But I did not feel safe or peaceful. From a nearby intersection that had been blocked off from traffic came chants over a loudspeaker and stirring music. The “Shutdown Bangkok” protests were just around the corner from my grandchildren’s home! I felt the anxiety creep into me.
On Sunday, February 2, the country is scheduled to hold an election for the next prime minister. However, that election may very well be postponed or boycotted. By the time this article is printed, the next scenario for Thailand could include a military coup. The king of Thailand, in power since 1950, has been ill for years; he was in a Bangkok hospital for four years until his release last summer. His uncertain future adds to the national turmoil.
Needless to say, I am watching the news about Thailand’s precarious situation with heightened awareness and worry. I can no longer find ways to avoid thinking about politics. And I won’t take so much that we have here – including a peaceful homefront — for granted.