My plane arrived at 11:00 pm in an uncertain city. My taxi driver, a woman (unheard of years ago) and I give each other a little language lesson for “detour” (ahm). As in, “There is a detour because of the protests.” It actually wasn’t so bad as the highway system that rings the city got us to my hotel pretty quickly. I was glad I did not stay at my usual haunt on Sukhumvit Road as it was blocked and I would have had to walk with luggage for at least the eqivalent of 20 blocks at midnight! It has been one and a half years since I was last here in Thailand. What changes to the political landscape to go with the already massive changes to the landscape itself! Election Day has finally arrived and it is everyone’s guess as to the outcome. Chances are that it will be judged inconclusive as the law stipulates that 95% of the seats have to be filled. The protesters have managed to block polling places in Bangkok and the South, so it is unlikely to be decided anytime soon. Last weekend, the protesters prevented many in Bangkok and the South who wanted to take advantage of early voting. The country that once prized its “jai yen” (cool heart) and “mai ben rai” (never mind) attitude, has been torn apart, but the roots of the issues go back much further. Protesters have taken over and virtually paralyzed inner city Bangkok in a “Shut Down Bangkok/ Restart Thailand” movement. I have been spending a lot of time going to the various protest sites and trying to listen to and understand what is going on. Fact is, these protest sites are becoming street festivals as only the Thais can manage! Food stalls, and impromptu “shops” set up selling everything the in-style protester should have: whistles, t-shirts, hats and a plethora of buttons, wristbands and necklaces. Someone is making a lot of money here! The citizens in the poorer farming areas in the north and northeast have long believed, not without some justification, that the government and the power elite have ignored them. Indeed there are many who believe that the people in those areas are “ignorant farmers.” They contend that the government has been “buying” the support of the poor by giving them inflated payments for their rice (like farm subsidies) as well as (TADA!!) free health care! Well, that has changed, and the Northern/ Northeasterners will not allow themselves to be taken advantage of again. For their part, the middle and upper middle classes think all their tax money is going to support these poor people, and they are being taxed to beyond the limit by a corrupt government. Does this sound even vaguely familiar? Although the situation is different in many respects to the political climate in the US, there are MANY similarities to be drawn with voter suppression, Tea Party/ Republican strangling the government function to the point of inaction, refusal to work with what some in America consider an “illegitimate” administration even though it was elected by the people! I was told by one person here that as an “expat” I couldn’t understand the subtle nature of Thai politics. Although when asked to enlighten, he had no real response. He and the protesters believe that in order to “preserve” democracy an unelected council should be set up to function as a government to enact anti-corruption reforms first. Anti-corruption reforms are laudable and even long overdue, but this is just another form of the old military coup d’etat. Now, who would lead this council and who it would be comprised of is not clear. When I see national polls showing 80% of the people want to vote NOW, I guess they don’t understand the “subtle” nature of Thai politics, either. And they are Thais! Well, I feel that as MLK said on another topic, “Democracy delayed is democracy denied.” Both sides have legitimate complaints, but I’d be very skeptical of a group bent on saving democracy through violence and voter intimidation. The revered leader of this merry group, Suthep, is no stranger to corruption land scandals, either. And there he is walking down a main road in Bangkok receiving large amounts of donated, uncountable and unaccountable cash. I was told by my “sparing partner” that this is just a symbol and represents more than the money. Well, money is power and this guy is sure amassing a beaucoup amount of both. I hope the elections go off without violence, but I doubt it. In any event, there will be a lot of uncertainty remaining by tomorrow when all the votes are done and counting begins. I guess you can see that I have been largely involved in the political situation here the last few weeks. I love politics, no doubt, but I have been doing other things as well. Mostly catching up with former students and friends I’ve made here over the years. A bunch of my students got together last Saturday. We met at a restaurant and had a great time catching up. Then a group of us went to continue the “party” at one of their houses. Ladda is a decorator and her husband is an artist. This house is amazing— large open rooms specifically designed to cater to a different mood and comfort. They have succeeded in mixing nature with urban living space. I didn’t take pictures, but I will if I get back there. A terrific garden area in the house with an open slat roof that allows rain water to drip down on the plants below. Wonderful. As always it is fun group and I love just sitting there listening to them go back and forth with their remembrances of people and totally comfortable with one another after having grown up together and supporting one another over the course of 50+ years. We plan to get together again before I leave for the US. Also got together with a group of former Peace Corps and expats. Was nice catching up with them as well. I didn’t even realize until I was talking to Judy, a woman from my old Peace Corps group, that it was early February in 1974 that our group landed in Bangkok—- 40 years ago!!!
Now in Pattaya, the city I love to hate, as I thought it would be best to be out of Bangkok on Election Day. I’m visiting with a few friends here and just enjoying my favorite little restaurant and other places on the Gulf and doing, well, not much of anything requiring the use of a massive amount of brain power. The Chinese New Year has begun– or the spring festival. Got a treat of watching a show at the local shopping mall with the dragon dancers, which brings good luck for the next year. Will go back to Bangkok tomorrow to prepare for my trip to Malaysia on Thursday.