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As their country was in the throws of mass civil unrest due to Red demonstrations, normal Thais spoke out – and made Facebook a forum for their outcry.

In recent months, the incredibly popular social networking site became a place for Thais to exchange ideas and opinions regarding the crisis, update each other on the status of events, and offer solace to their fellow citizens. As the first renegades torched the city, I could chat in real-time with my friends back home, learning firsthand what was happening before even the first news reports were published.

This isn’t your grandpa’s civil unrest. Political crises in Thailand have reached the digital age.

As I understand it, the Facebook group “มั่นใจว่าคนไทยเกิน 1 ล้าน ต่อต้านการยุบสภา” (“Confident that over one million Thais are against a parliamentary dissolution) was instrumental in organizing the Pink counterprotest, which decried the debilitating demonstrations and called for peace in Thailand.

Within hours of the surrender of some Red leaders last week, ending the latest round of protests, similar groups emerged, including “เชื่อมั่นโคตรๆ ว่าคนไทยเกินกว่า 9 ล้านคนนอนไม่หลับเพราะห่วงสถานการบ้านเมือง” (“Absolutely certain that over nine million Thais can’t sleep because they worry about the state of the country”) and “มั่นใจคนไทยเกิน1หมื่นคนต้องการให้คนเผาบ้านเผาเมืองกลับไปเผาบ้านตัวเอง” (“Certain that over one million Thais want those who are burning the nation to go  burn their own homes”).

But perhaps the most candid objections were made on people’s status updates.

One of my friends, never one to lose her sense of humor, wrote, “Don’t burn the [Central World shopping] mall! I’m already sick to death of browsing the fresh market in Nakhon Pathom province; now where would you have  me stroll aimlessly?! You bastards!!!!!” (อย่าเผาห้างได้ม๊ายยยยยยยยยยยยยยยยยยยยยยยย แค่นี้กูก้อเดินตลาดนัดนครปฐมเบื่อจะตายห่า ขืนห้างถูกเผา แล้วพวกเมิงจะให้กูไปเดินเฉิดฉายที่ไหนวะ ไอเหี้ยยยยยยยยยยยยยยยย)

Another person, in a more somber mood, said, “I know that anger is stupid, that hatred is crazy. But I really can’t take this any longer.”(ก็รู้หรอกนะ ว่าโกรธคือโง่ โมโหคือบ้า แต่กูทนไม่ไหวจริง)

One of my favorites is, “Please tell those who cannot come to terms [with the surrender of the Red leaders] to burn themselves to death in protestation.” (ฝากบอก มวลชนที่ทำใจไม่ได้ เผาตัวตายประท้วงแกนนำเลย)

In the aftermath of these events, many Facebook groups are now calling their members to donate blood, clothes, money, time – anything to help rebuilt the country. So for those who think social networking sites are brainless wastes of time and energy – maybe it’s time to reconsider.

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Opinion article from the Bangkok Post – 20/05/2010

***

This is going to be a long note, but I want my overseas friends to understand what has been happening here in Thailand.

I would like to present a case against the international media’s reporting on the situation in Thailand, particularly Bangkok.

Most of you will likely will be seeing only scenes of soldiers shooting or injured people being carried away on international TV channels for 30 seconds, but never get to know the background.

What if these protesters were in New York, Singapore, Tokyo or London?

The truth is, the Thai government has been too accommodating by withholding the use of force since the rally started two months ago (with the exception of the April 10 event, when the soldiers were ordered to move in without live ammunition and subsequently got slaughtered by unknown gunmen shooting from among the red shirt protesters).

The majority of us support the government in dealing with the terrorists hidden amongst the protesters. It held talks with the rally leaders and offered peace solutions to them 10 days ago.

The prime minister publicly urged the protesters to disperse for fear of violence created by the terrorists. But the plan wasn’t accepted.

So, it came time to block food and water supplies from entering the centre of the protest.

If the demonstrators were peaceful, they wouldn’t rush out to throw rocks, firecrackers and even bombs at the soldiers’ barricades — thus causing the soldiers to defend themselves by firing rubber bullets and live rounds.

It has been very frustrating for the law abiding citizens of Bangkok — we even voiced our dissatisfaction at the government for its failure to uphold the laws.

The situation was like Bangkok was being held for ransom. A lot of businesses got affected because it’s happening right in the middle of the major commercial area.

Again, think what your government would do if there were a large group of protesters blocking all traffic at Orchard Road in Singapore; Times Square in New York City; Ginza in Tokyo; or Knightsbridge in London. For two months.

They set up barricades to search through personal belongings of everyone travelling through the area.

Also think what your government would do if those protesters invaded a nearby hospital, causing doctors and nurses to evacuate patients — some of whom were newborn babies in incubators and those in ICU—to other hospitals.

And most important of all, think what would your government do if the protesters were found to have a large stockpile of M79 grenades, M16 and AK47 assault rifles.

Do you think your government would be as tolerant as the Thai government has till now been?

Reungvit Nandhabiwat is the owner of a business in Bangkok.

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The Thai government is getting a lot of flack for its crackdown of the Red demonstrations this week. Although I admit their management of the situation leaves something to be desired, I don’t think it’s fair to blame only the government and military for the violence that has troubled Thailand lately. Foreign agencies were quick to call for them to check their use of force against the demonstrators. And yet, why didn’t the international community call for the UDD to check its militant behavior – and its lack of consideration for the livelihoods of other citizens?

To demonstrate, here’s a clip of Arisman Pongruangrong, one of the hardline Red leaders, just days before the crackdown. I’ve only translated the first 54 seconds of his speech, but it should be plentifully instructive:

“Brothers and sisters, let’s plan for next time. If we know that they [the soldiers] are coming to get us, we don’t need to prepare anything much. Each of you come with a glass bottle and fill it up with gasoline here. Measure out 75 cc .to one liter. If one million of us come to Bangkok and there are one million liters of gasoline, I guarantee that Bangkok will be a sea of flame! (Applause.) The fighting methods of the Red Shirts are that simple – may the soldiers be aware! Tell the soldiers, those dogs, the servants of the aristocracy: if they injure a Red Shirt, if they shed a single drop of blood, Bangkok will immediately become a sea of flame! (Applause.)”

This maniac threatened to burn Bangkok, home to nine million of his fellow citizens, with all its cultural and historical assets, into a sea of flame?? How far does freedom of speech extend? Could he give a similar speech in the United States under the same circumstances and not be charged with incitement to riot?

The worst part is that Arisman’s followers took his words to heart. The city, as well as certain provincial capitals, are in shambles – and the fault lies squarely with those renegades who followed Arisman’s incitements.

So let’s not point the finger of blame in one direction.

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Bangkok Burning

from the photographer of MUIC website

When my mother was my age, a nursing student in Bangkok, Thailand, the place to go after class was Siam Square, a shopping center popular with teens and young adults. Although she didn’t have much spending cash, she and her girlfriends used to browse through the aisles of trinkets and accessories that filled the complex, paying special attention to anything with Hello Kitty© on it.

Some things never change. Even now, my mom is still obsessed with Hello Kitty, from her towels to her phone cover. But today, Siam Square is one of at least twenty-seven public and government buildings set ablaze by Red Shirt demonstrators, now turned rioters, throughout the city.

In response to the government’s crackdown of their demonstrations, which have held central Bangkok hostage for the past month and a half, and the surrender of many of their leaders yesterday, a number of protesters have taken to violence – this, despite months of claiming nonviolent methods as the benchmark of their movement.

From their homes in and around Bangkok, my friends and loved ones tell me they see smoke billowing from the city streets as buildings burn and crumble.

Why was this necessary? In the aftermath of all this, when the smokes clears and the last building smolders to the ground, will the perpetrators of these acts not look upon the wreckage and realize it was their own country they destroyed?

In 1767, after a 15-month siege, the Thai capital of Ayutthaya fell to invading Burmese armies. In an age before human rights, the soldiers sacked the city, looting it, and set fire to its buildings. On their elephant squadrons they overtook the city’s defenses and brought the golden metropolis to its knees.

But that day was not as sad as this one. For today, the hands behind these acts of wanton destruction are Thai.

In our language, Bangkok is called “Krung Thep,” the city of angels. Today, those angels’ wings are stained black with hatred. In the wake of this chaos, I hope the Thai people  will realize anger and violence are not the real solution to the country’s ills. I hope that all factions will renew negotiations in the spirit of compromise. In the meantime, this needless frenzy must come to an end.

***

For reference, this was Central World shopping center, adjacent to Siam Square, when I was there in October 2008:

This is Central World now:

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Maybe not officially.

But I find his statement, “They [the Red Shirt demonstrators] did not demand anything for me or on my behalf,” hard to swallow.

It’s a well-known fact that, on an administrative level, the fugitive ex-premier called to speak with the former Red leaders frequently. Among the protesters themselves, judging from the Thaksin paraphernalia they sported, like the face masks that resemble his mug, as well as their signs and banners, Thaksin was, and has always been, very much on the protesters’ minds. Plus, the former leaders have openly declared they received funding from the multibillionaire. There has been some talk that the Red movement was starting to move away from Thaksin but, nevertheless, I don’t think his support can be doubted. Thaksin is trying to claim the most marginal involvement possible – and I, for one, don’t buy it.

Thaksin also says, “The government should be mindful that these protesters are Thai citizens. Please do not harm them.”

Harm them? Since the surrender of some of their leaders yesterday, Red demonstrators have set fire to 27 different public and government buildings around Bangkok, as well as provincial centers in other areas. Where is their respect for their fellow “Thai citizens”?

At this point, those doing the most harm are the protesters rioters themselves.

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I have a remarkable knack for bad timing. Less than 24 hours after I create a blog to follow the political situation in Thailand, the Red leaders surrender themselves to the police! Even the hardcore leaders – Jatuporn Prompan, Natthawut Saikua, Weng Tojirakarn – have turned themselves into the authorities.

The Bangkok Post quotes Prompan telling his followers, “I apologise to you all, but I don’t want any more losses. I am devastated too. We will surrender.”

It also reports, “He also announced the ending of the anti-government protest.”

This strikes me as amazing, because only a few days ago these men were adamant in their refusal to surrender. Why the sudden change of heart?

As I write this, a friend from Bangkok is relaying the aftermath of the event. Apparently, a host of Red Shirt demonstrators – displeased by their leaders’ decision – have gone berserk in the city streets. According to her, they’ve launched an M79 into Central World, a massive luxury shopping mall near the protest grounds, and are trying to set the building on fire.

This is in keeping with other news reports, including one from Yahoo News, which says  protesters have set fires in several areas of Bangkok. I’d like to point out that this article focuses on the government’s use of force against the protesters and the resultant violence. And yet, I don’t understand why the Reds can set fire to buildings and, for some reason, they’re not criticized for their use of force.

This actually belongs to a broader trend I’ve noticed in the Western media to sympathize with the Red Shirt protesters as the “underdog” maligned by an oppressive state. One comment on the Yahoo page even says, “I’m proud of the Thai people for trying to fight for their rights.”

Excuse me, the Red Shirts do not equal “the Thai people.” They are a group of people in Thailand who have their own take on politics and have chosen to demonstrate about them. Many of their concerns are, in fact, quite valid. But the fact of the matter is that, for the past month and a half, they have held the city of Bangkok hostage. In their defiance of the government, they’ve also disregarded the rights of their fellow citizens by paralyzing the city and using their physical presence to antagonize government and security forces. While it must be said the Yellow Shirts used similar tactics before – though without the violence that has characterized the Red demonstrations – there is no reason the Red Shirts had to follow their example. Plus, the “nonviolent” nature of their demonstrations fell on shaky ground weeks ago with their threat to invade Mahidol University campus and, later, by their shameful infiltration of Chulalongkorn Hospital – an act which, I observed, was mostly unnoticed by Western newsources.

I’m not saying I completely agree with the government’s handling of the situation – it leaves much to be desired – but I am calling for fairer news coverage, especially reports that make clear the Red Shirts are in not the voice of all Thai people. As I write this, I’m being bombarded by messages and Facebook updates from friends in Thailand who are at once relieved at the Red leaders’ surrender, as well as terrified for their own lives as Red protesters take revenge on the capital city. I would like to hear more from common people like them in media coverage, instead of reports that pit the Red Shirts against the government without a third or  fourth perspective.

I know that when I wake up tomorrow, there’ll be reports of mass wreckage throughout Bangkok and the surrounding areas. But beyond that, I have no idea what to expect. While I believe the surrender of these major Red leaders is a groundbreaking development, I don’t think things will end quite so easily. After the smoke clears and their initial outrage burns itself out, the remaining Reds might be leaderless – but for how long? As another of my friends points out, one of their number – Arisman – is missing. And, as always, there are certain people out there capable of funding reviving the Red movement. This may indeed prove merely a minor setback for them. But for now, despite what foreign media might say about the government’s management of the situation, I know that I and many other Thais will breathe a sigh of relief for what is hopefully a step towards normalcy.

I’ve had a lot of to work with since I started this blog yesterday. I sincerely hope that I will run out of material soon – that my knack for bad timing will coincide with the return of peace to Thailand.

Friends in Bangkok, please be careful. In fact, if possible, I think you all should leave Bangkok and head upcountry. I hear that, with the drastic drop in tourist arrivals, beach resorts are offering amazing deals. I think we could all use a vacation. 🙂

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A Challenge to Readers

I’m working on a piece of creative nonfiction – hopefully for magazine submission – about this year’s Thai New Year in Chicago and how it was effected by the crisis in Bangkok. The writing went well for a few paragraphs until I hit a roadblock: when it came to giving the reader a background to the subject, I was at a loss where to begin and even what to say. On some level, I guess I question my own understanding of how the crisis began, and want to know how others would explain the situation to, say, a friend who asks, “So what’s going on in Thailand?”

So I’m proposing a challenge. Can you describe, in 150 words or less, how the current political debacle in Thailand came to be? Is that even possible? A clear, concise, and reasonably neutral description of the events? If I like it, I might ask you for permission to adapt it for my piece. 🙂

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