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Monday, May 24, 2010

"The Rounds" and Other Matters, Monday, May 24, 2010

"The Rounds"

and

Other Matters

Monday, May 24, 2010

(Note to Squaronians and anyone else not interested in a review of the Red Shirt protests: scroll down until you see a headline "The Rounds" in big letters and bright red to read about closer to home.)

Well, it has been an "exciting" two-plus months with the occupation and ultimately destruction of some parts of Bangkok.

Right from the start, I want to say I personally didn't suffer any serious inconvenience, and I certainly never found myself even remotely confronting any possibility of physical danger. Yes, danger came quite near, as near as the Khlong Toey Market area (officially, "Penang Market"), which is only about three blocks from where I live. However, my apartment is snuggled deep inside a warren of alleys, or sub-sois, and one would have to know exactly how to get here to find it. Heck, when I first started coming here several years ago to visit Sweetie Pie, who was then living in the compound before I ever even thought about moving here, the first several times I entered the area and then had to call her on my hand phone and have her talk me in!
But back to the ended-for-now Red Shirt protests. It's a bit difficult to convey a sense of what Bangkok was like, especially last week, more especially the window from Wednesday afternoon (when a number of the Red Shirt leaders called upon their followers to end the protests) and, say, midday Friday (by which time it was becoming fairly clear the security forces were swiftly gaining the upper hand).

The chief loss, of course, was the loss of life. Though the numbers vary, every estimate I'm reading now indicates at least 80 and as many as 87 people died as a result of violence during the protests. Over 1,400 people were injured.
The property damage is still being assessed News reports that around 40 buildings were set on fire by rioters -- and the situation did generate to an outright riot last Wednesday -- that doesn't tell the entire tale.

For instance, the Central One Shopping Center, in the Victory Monument area (and not to be confused with the much more tony and better-known Central World Plaza, adjacent to the main protest rally site at the Ratchaprasong Intersection) was completely gutted, and reportedly will have to be razed and rebuilt. That affects about 300 shop owners, all told, a number I heard just today on TV.

The top-of-the-line Zen Deparment Store on the south end of Central World Plaza and therefore cheek-and-jowl to the Ratchaprason protest site was completely gutted and is partially collapsed, or so I've been told and have seen on TV. The rest of the shopping complex, the second largest in Asia (and about twice the size of the Mall of America in Minnesota, U.S.A.), ranges from extensively damaged to destroyed.

A bit east of there, Siam Square is large but a fond memory, leaving the property owner, Chulalakorn University, scrambling as officials try to figure out their next step.

On smaller scales, the Metropolitan Electric Authority building on Rama 4 Road near the old airport motorway was entirely gutted by fire. So was the Bangkok Bank branch on that same road at its intersection with the south end of Sukhumvit Soi 26 (and pretty near my home, by the way).

And so it went, at spots located in far-flung parts of Greater Bangkok, including, I've heard, locations in places such as Samut Phrakan. If you travel from Bangkok proper to Samut Phrakan, you won't see any sign you've left Bangkok, but in fact you've entered not only another municipality, but an entirely different province.

The tourism sector, just beginning to show signs of recovery from last year's occupation of the capital's two airports and the virtual routing of the ASEAN meeting at the seaside of Hua Hin has been felled to its knees again; arrivals at Suvarnbhumi Airport, Bangkok's international airport, are reportedly down to around 10,000 per day in stark contrast to around 30,000 per day before the protests began. And there has been a knock-on or domino effect, in that even people scheduled only to pass through Bangkok on their way to remote destinations such as Phuket canceled their trips, afraid to go anywhere in the Kingdom.

The tourism sector provides employment for around 6% of the workforce, and accounts for about 15% of the country's annual gross income, so for it to be so badly struck is bad news. Big time.

Even hospitals weren't spared. Red Shirt security guards became suspicious that government security forces were hiding out in Chulalakorn University Hospital, near what became the protests' second-most important site, and notably the center of violence, as far as I can tell. Anyway, the Red Shirts searched the hospital, prompting administrators there to cancel some outpatient services and to evacuate some of their patients to other hospitals around the city.

In my view, the shooting of the wildly popular but controversial and militant Major-General Khattiya Sawasdispol, better known as "Seh Daeng," ["Red Commander"], on May 13th was a significant point in unfolding events, accentuated by his death a few days later; he was shot in the head by assailant(s) unknown while being interviewed by a group of foreign journalists.

Is reconciliation in the cards? Is it even possible? While Thailand has had other instances of violence in the 78 years since the shift from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one, older Thais and foreign Old Thai Hands tell me there's something . . . different about this latest confrontation between segments of society.

I don't know if reconciliation is possible, much less whether it's in the offing or not. I do know that I strongly feel this is far from over, even while I hope to high heaven I'm wrong as rain in that forecast.

Societal divisions were deep and sharp before the protests began; that they were there was no secret.

Now, however, they've been rubbed raw. Thais have hurt and killed other Thais -- again, not a first, but it's still shocking.

The larger region is concerned, as indicated by statements from several ASEAN countries' national officials. I've heard a comparison to the 1997 economic collapse made a number of times -- a collapse that started in Thailand and spread throughout the region, seriously damaging a number of ASEAN economies (and others). ASEAN is mindful of that earlier example, and concerned. However, comments have been muted, as ASEAN finds itself somewhat hamstrung by its chief operating principle of non-interference in each others' affairs.

In any event and no matter what happens on up the road, for now, a sense of something approaching normalcy is returning to the city. Most visibly -- or invisibly, I suppose I should say -- there are no columns of black smoke curling high into the sky, such as those we saw last week.

I've not even spoken of upcountry areas. The heartland of the Red Shirts is in the northeast of the Kingdom, a region known as "Isaan" (or "Isan" or "Isarn"). There has been considerable damage in various provincial cities, such as to provincial government halls and schools. That's also the stronghold of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, himself a fugitive after having been convicted and sentenced to two years in prison; he appeared regularly via satellite hook-ups and phone at numerous Red Shirt rallies, as he's widely adored by members of that group. The news today is reporting that the DSI (Department of Special Investigations) has requested an arrest warrant for Thaksin on treason charges; if the court grants such a warrant, I imagine there will be a hue and cry from his supporters.

In recent weeks, Thailand hasn't been "The Land of Smiles," but a country on its own Trail of Tears.

"The Rounds"

As for the part of this entry devoted to "The Rounds," it's pretty short. It's been largely quiet around the Square, both the few times I've been there and according to others who are there every day. I've been there maybe six or seven times in as many weeks, most recently (but briefly) this morning, at which time I saw one foreign bar manager, one foreign bar owner, and only one other customer -- Burma Richard, whom I saw at the Silver Dollar.

English Paul's Father was here for a nice holiday and seemed to enjoy himself immensely, able, as he was, to utterly ignore the domestic goings-on. He now is back safely in Merry Olde England, undoubtedly plotting for when he can next grace these Asian shores! I really like him; he fit right in.

I've also seen "Naughty" Nigel, "Helicopter" Dave, and "Dandy Douggy" of late, and they all were fine, just fine, thankee very much. Let's see, who else -- oh! How could I forget? I've seen Cajun Riley more than once, and was lucky enough to be around when his keep and minder, the lovely Khun Lek, came to gently guide him back home. He's a great guy (as are the other guys), and she's a wonderful lady.

I also got to see Chris Moore maybe two-three weeks ago and had a pleasant visit with him. He's working on Calvino # 12 now, which will be out late this year or early next year. By the way, he has blogged some on his own website about The Troubles and has some interesting comments. Those interested in Chris' take can read his thoughts here:

http://www.cgmoore.com/blog/index.asp

By the way, I have a separate blog called "Random Thoughts" (an apt a descriptive name as any) in which I ruminate about issues far and wide. It's at this [unimaginative!] URL:

http://www.kurttfrancis.blogspot.com

I saw Taffy this morning for the first time in awhile, and he was doing fine. I also dropped around, again briefly, last night and saw Porn, his sister in law who was cashier at the rooming house. That was about 9:00 o'clock, and she said I was the very first customer of the day, which gives you some idea of how quiet it can be around here.

I did hear just this morning that Pattaya is chock-a-block full, which is no surprise, given that there hasn't been any trouble there (that I've heard, anyway), and, equally important, there isn't a curfew in the city. That must be good news for various players in the tourism industry there.

Let's see, is there anybody else I've seen since writing last? . . . Yes, I saw Dale and Bundy, Australia's contemporary answer to Amos and Andy, one evening in recent weeks, and both were just fine. Gabbing Gary has JUST taken off for his annual lengthy stay in wilds of New Jersey, and his running mate, Jay the Jabberwocky, is due back sometime in the first half of June. If he doesn't get bumped from his flight, that is. Or unless some volcano erupts out of the Great Plains in someplace like Iowa, ground North America air traffic!

As for me, I'm fine, though there have been moments, and I don't mean the Kodak kind.

Friday-before-last I was standing beside my desk cleaning my glasses. The lens I was polishing popped out, and I grabbed at it, successfully -- but slipped and fell on my tush, adding insult to injury by whacking my left arm a hard blow on my desk during my less-than-graceful descent. So, that banged me up for a couple days. Then, never content with a halfway job, I woke up about a week ago with a cyst or boil. Actually, with two -- one under EACH arm. They promptly got infected, which is a most unpleasant experience, not finally beginning to drain until just yesterday. The spots are still quite tender, but on the mend.

This stuff runs in the family. Back in the 1960's, when I was a teenager, I went with my Dad, two of his cousins, the younger-than-me son of one of those cousins, plus a friend of theirs to go on a week-long camping trip in northeastern Minnesota, from where we actually portaged across into Canada to our ultimate destination, a big lake whose name escapes me.

Anyway, we had everything set up through an outfitter in Ely Minnesota. We arrived towards sundown, the plan calling for us to spend the night at the lodge before heading out -- with a guide -- early next morning.

The lodge sat on a small lake. Of course, that's no surprise in a state that bills itself as "The Land of 10,000 Lakes," which is actually a lie; the real number is, as I recall, about 14,000. The aforementioned son, who was maybe 11 or so at the time and The World's Greatest Klutz -- he made me look as graceful as an acrobat or matador -- was eager to rush right to water's edge and out onto the dock, being the city boy he was. (I, however, was much more restrained having grown up, as I did, on a small ranch with a number of ponds. Sniff-sniff.)

Anyway, Uncle Ed ("Uncle" is a family thing, even though he's Dad's first cousin; has to do with showing respect to age) sternly admonished Gene, thunderously announcing that if Gene got so much as a single drop of water on himself he was in deep, um, something unpleasant.

Terrified (and quite properly so), poor Gene carefully approached the dock, sidling up to it slowly, in a low crouch, so as to keep his center of balance low, and, therefore, keep his balance. He hoped -- and succeeded, joyfully stretching himself out bell-down on the dock to inch out a few feet then over to the edge to dangle his hand in the water.

I swear, the scene that unfolded must be unique in the entire history of humanity, and I mean going all the way back to caveman days.

The rest of us were watching Gene, bemused at his terrified efforts to touch the water, on the one hand, even while not falling in, on the other -- mindful boy he was, with his Dad glowering at him from just a few yards away.

Gene got to his chosen spot, then inched -- no, micro-inched -- first a hand, then a forearm, followed by an upper arm arm and shoulder . . . then then his face. Part of his face, that is. That poor kid was so scared he didn't dare poke over more than a cheek, eye -- one eye, mind you, and no, I'm not kidding -- and part of his forehead.

He was in hog heaven . . .

. . . until he fell into the water with a mighty splash.

We all just stood there in utter shock, each of us privately wondering, "How in the HELL did he manage to fall into the water from being prone on the dock with just a bit of himself sticking out???"

So, klutziness runs in the family. I tell that tale not to pretend I'm not klutzy; I am. But I do tell it to show that at least ONE other person in the world is even klutzier than me!!!

So there!!!

Enough for one go --

Mekhong Kurt

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