Friday, May 21, 2010

Is the Clean-Up about to Begin . . . or Have We Seen Only the Prelude of Things to Come?

It appears the 2-month+ protests by the "Red Shirts" are over, at least for now.

Wednesday and yesterday saw a shocking amount of wanton destruction. Buildings, buses, and other places and things, were set alight by rampaging Red Shirts -- or were they? Some speculations suggest another hand, a dark one, might have been behind at least some of that.

If I understood the TV news announcer correctly last night, the Center One Shopping Center in the Victory Monument area was so heavily damaged by fire that the owners have said it's not worth trying to repair it, even if that's possible, so they'll raze it. That report didn't indicate the plans, if any, beyond that.

Central World, a shopping icon in the heart of the business district -- and adjacent to the main rally Red Shirt site -- was largely gutted by the fire set alight in it Wednesday night. Due to sniper fire and other safety concerns, firemen had to stand off until yesterday morning, by which time much of the damage had been done. (Standing off by the fire department was pretty much the rule, and I don't blame them.)

Both the Skytrain and subway remain closed today, as do some bus routes (that last is -- I think). So do a great many businesses.

That includes some you might not expect. Last night I went about 7:30 P.M. to the 7-Eleven in my sub-soi where I live -- only to find it closed. When I thought about it, given that there was a 9:00 P.M.-5:00 A.M. curfew about to start (as it will tonight and tomorrow night, by the way), I guess it wasn't a surprise, though it did draw me up short, and still does.

Why? Well, my sub-soi is a little crooked, and though that 7-Eleven can be approached from several directions, they all feed into the sub-soi itself, and the store is located in a place it's not easily visible until you're upon it, not even from Sukhumvit Soi 22. Coming from my home, I can't see it until I round the bend just a few meters before the entrance. No one comes into this little private world unless they live or have business here, or happen to wander in by accident, so it remains somewhat . . . what? . .  well, let me rephrase it: it gives one reason to pause and reflect to ask just how disjointed matters are.

My soi is also lined with street vendors in the evening. There were some last night, though some regulars weren't around. Those that were open were doing a brisk business, running low on food, and clearly not planning to cook up anything else, not with the start of the curfew not so far off.

We didn't have a curfew even during the 2006 coup that deposed then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, now a fugitive dodging a two-year prison sentence; the last curfew here pre-dates my time in Thailand, a curfew imposed almost exactly 18 years ago in May, 1992, also known as "Black May" owing to the violence and deaths at that time.

The noted Thai-American author and keen observer of the local scene S. P. Somtow has just written about the protests, though his overall focus is on the debate about the reporting by the foreign media throughout this crisis, particularly that by CNN's Dan Rivers. Somtow's piece is one of the best introductions for Westerners seeking to approach and understand Thailand I've ever read, and it's not long -- a blog entry. You can read that essay here:

(Somtow's homepage is well worth bookmarking, by the way.)
Back down to the nitty-gritty.

The troubles haven't been confined to Bangkok. Since Wednesday, at least four provincial halls in the Northeast (Isaan), from where many of the protesters come, were torched. Red Shirt demonstrations have occurred in the North as well, in Chiang Mai, Thailand's "Second City," for instance.

A great many ordinary, everyday folks have had their lives seriously disrupted. I read an article a few days ago in which someone involved in tourism was quoted as saying he knew several people who had been involved in the industry in the form of owning private businesses, such as tourist agencies, who simply didn't have the money to continue so had folded. Closed. Gone belly up. They took a heavy blow in the wake of the invasion of the ASEAN summit and airport occupations last year, and according to this guy, these just-ended protests proved fatal.

Of course, that means their employees are unemployed, too.

I read about a boutique hotel somewhere near the main rally site; the owner said that normally they would have 85-90% occupancy this time of year -- but that at the time of the story, they didn't have even one guest, so he had locked the gate to the grounds and hunkered down for the count.

Tourism arrivals are way down, though by how much is unclear. The most dramatic I've read is that prior to the start of the protests, Suvarnbhumi Airport (Bangkok International) was receiving around 30,000 people daily, but that by then that number had dropped by a shocking 2/3rd's or so, to about 10,000 daily.

Think about that: a drop of 20,000. That number undoubtedly includes people returning home, both Thais and foreigners who have settled here, but it also includes a great many tourists and business people. Visitors. Visitors who spend money, generating employment.


Even if every single tourist who canceled a trip here was a backpacker limited -- just to pull a number out of thin air -- to spending US$20 per day, that's not an insignificant sum, especially after about 10 weeks. And you know not every tourist is a backpacker on a shoestring budget.

As for the business folks, well, they're hardly going to be staying in a 400-baht-per-night "love hotel," are they? They're not going to be buying 25-baht servings of friend rice from street vendors, Rolex knock-offs along Sukhumvit Road or in the Patpong Night Bazaar, riding unairconditioned buses, especially long-distance buses, and the like.

Further, some of them may have been coming here to discuss investments. Serious investments. What if they advise their companies to invest elsewhere? And some news reports suggest that this is happening, or that the business people are advising at least holding off investing. And another delay day is another no-payday for locals.

Then there's the personal inconvenience. While I haven't been sitting around home grieving that getting out might not be such a hot idea -- I have been sitting home, for exactly that reason. The only two times I've left my sub-soi in the past week were last Friday, when my glasses broke and I had to get a new pair chop-chop (since I'm practically blind without glasses), then again two days ago when I had to go the the nearby Tesco-Lotus to run a can't-wait errand. I encountered absolutely no problem either time, though in the latter case, a fair bit of luck was involved. That is, I got to the Tesco-Lotus about noon, and spent about 30 minutes there before leaving. I left about 12:30 P.M.

Arsonists struck about 2:00 P.M. I hasten to add that as far as I know, no one was even hurt, let alone killed, but I am plenty happy I wasn't around when whoever started the fire arrived. (By the way, I also don't have any idea if the resulting fire was major, minor, or in-between, though the fact that I don't know gives reason to hope any resulting damage was minor, since had it been major it undoubtedly would be played up in the news.)

So, for me, the inconvenience has been, and continues to be, minor. After all, I don't work, so I don't have to worry about getting to work. And I rarely get off Soi 22 even in perfectly normal times.

But what about the people who do have to get to their jobs? Of course, since some no longer even HAVE a job, that's not a problem now, is it???

Along those lines, of not having a job, that is, what about, to give two examples, employees at TV Channel 3 and the Khong Toey Metropolitan Electric Authority Office? Both those were badly damaged by fire -- the picture I saw of the latter shows it as what seems to me to be gutted. Both undoubtedly will come back into service -- eventually. Will the current employees be paid while the buildings are rebuilt? Will those two operations shift elsewhere so they can get back into business as soon as possible -- and keep their employees working? I don't know.

And that scenario is being played out in many, many places, around Bangkok, and elsewhere.

On the macro level again, Thaksin has denied being a leader of the Red Shirts at all, and people who did lead them on the ground have surrendered (some of them) to the police and admitted, in at least one leader's case, legal responsibility even while denying being able to "assume" any financial responsibility.

The Red Shirt leadership and the movement itself are clearly fractured. The rampage started when some of the leaders took to the stage at Ratchaprasong to call upon their followers to stop the protests and go home.

That clearly displeased fom of their followers, who promptly rioted.

A few days ago, I read an initial estimate that the Kingdom has taken a hit for at least 500 billion baht. Folks, that's a huge amount of money. It's in the range of US$ 1.6 billion -- in just 10 weeks. Well, no -- it was closer to NINE weeks when I read that story. And, to tell the truth, I'm not sure if that figure was for the whole Kingdom -- now that I think about it -- or just for Greater Bangkok.

So -- are the problems over?

I doubt it. As the Bangkok Post says in an editorial, it may take years, or even a generation, to heal the wounds that have been opened. Reuters has a opinion, according to a story at TAN (the Thai-ASEAN News Network).

Some of my Thai acquaintances have commented, though none have talked about these past several weeks in a political context. They've been irked, even angered, by the inconvenience, first, and to a much greater degree, secondly, by the violence, but even in criticizing the violence, they remained silent on their opinion about who was right, who was wrong, etc. They just wanted everything to stop.

It's going to be awhile before we're back to business-as-usual. It will take time to repair or replace damaged and destroyed facilities, for one thing. It also will take time for those thrown out of work to find new employment, and for the government to help them survive in the meanwhile. The security forces need some time to make as sure as they can that troublemakers are at least staying low, if not necessarily cowed over the longer term.

On the practical level, it appears we're not going to face shortages of food, fuel, etc., as the various groups involved in those areas are reportedly moving swiftly to make sure there are enough supplies on hand and that the supply chain isn't interrupted. (Maybe I can get a loaf of bread today at the 7-Eleven, if it's open!!!)

I wish there were something I could do to help, but given the raw emotions, I wouldn't be surprised if any offer I might make might meet with a snarl at perceived foreign interference. That wouldn't anger me or hurt my feelings -- peoples' emotions are understandably very, very raw. A couple of days ago I was chatting on the phone with a Thai friend and mentioned my cable TV was out, and she snapped at me, accusing me of worrying about small stuff. Then she immediately apologized before I could even react and explained that she was watching the TV news while we were chatting and there was a story about trouble in the provincial capital near which her family lives, and she was concerned about them, especially since she had been unable to get through on the phone.

I hope the bitterness begins to go away. . . .