Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Calm After the Storm?

Sifting through the rubble, Bangkok's residents wonder what's next.

Athit Perawongmetha/Getty Images
Athit Perawongmetha/Getty Images
Athit Perawongmetha/Getty Images

BANGKOK -- It's over. Or so they say...

After more than two months of illegally occupying the commercial heart of the city, the Thai military has retaken control of central Bangkok from the self-styled "Red Shirt" protesters.

I work and live in Bangkok, where I publish a monthly magazine and work with the six governments along the Mekong River to promote the region as a tourism destination. My office is tucked away in a traditional two-story wooden house on a leafy soi (street) just 100 meters from Lumpini Park. It's a prestigious address, normally a quiet and friendly area. My immediate neighbors are the embassies of the United States and the Netherlands, as well as the residences of their respective ambassadors. Within a short walk from our doorstep are embassies of Britain, Japan, Switzerland, Vietnam, among others.

BANGKOK — It’s over. Or so they say…

After more than two months of illegally occupying the commercial heart of the city, the Thai military has retaken control of central Bangkok from the self-styled "Red Shirt" protesters.

I work and live in Bangkok, where I publish a monthly magazine and work with the six governments along the Mekong River to promote the region as a tourism destination. My office is tucked away in a traditional two-story wooden house on a leafy soi (street) just 100 meters from Lumpini Park. It’s a prestigious address, normally a quiet and friendly area. My immediate neighbors are the embassies of the United States and the Netherlands, as well as the residences of their respective ambassadors. Within a short walk from our doorstep are embassies of Britain, Japan, Switzerland, Vietnam, among others.

My office is also in the heart of the no-go zone, the epicenter of the recent violence, so I’ve been working from home for the past 10 days, holed up since the protests began intensifying.

Until two weeks ago, my commute was something of an adventure: I navigated the Red Shirt barricades, fashioned from spiked bamboo and tires — a scene out of Mad Max or a Victor Hugo novel — getting final clearance from gangs of whistle-blowing teenagers wielding slingshots.

Somehow life went on in the neighborhood, and people got used to the traffic inconveniences caused by the protesters. Patience is a trait that comes naturally to Thais, and even we foreigners learned to live with the nuisance. But since the violence began a week ago, it has been a completely different story. With public transportation closed, bullets flying, and bombs going off, our quaint little residential neighborhood became far too dangerous to enter.

Such a scenario would be utterly unthinkable in any other country. Imagine if protesters were to decamp in New York’s Times Square, London’s Oxford Street, or Tokyo’s Ginza. For two months.

The talk on the streets is that the government made a grave strategic error in waiting far too long to respond with force, giving the protesters way too much leeway — ironically, in an effort not to see blood spilled. What transpired after the military finally moved was an all-out rampage by groups within the protest camp who seized the opportunity to exercise total anarchy: burning shopping malls, banks, and more than 30 other buildings in the center of the city.

I tried to return to my office today, and for the first time in five years was unable to find one of the city’s ubiquitous meter taxis that would dare to take me into the zone. I walked through an eerie, post-apocalyptic calm — soldiers patrolling, small groups of cleanup crews cautiously beginning to tidy up a mess reminiscent of the aftermath of an outdoor rock concert, fearing hidden bombs and booby traps. Outside my office was a minefield of trash and personal effects from the protesters’ camp. In the early days of the protests, it seemed more like a carnival: food stalls, Red Shirt paraphernalia for sale, a 24-hour party with song and dance. Today, the lingering stench of human waste and burning tires fills the air.

The government has announced that order has been restored, and tomorrow is supposed to be the last day of the nighttime curfews. Yet bombs are still being found and there is occasional shooting. For the military, it is an incomplete victory at best. Among the Reds’ successes was a canny manipulation of the international media, which is now being widely criticized in Bangkok for what’s seen by many to be one-sided coverage. What has hardly been reported outside Thailand is that many of the protesters were actually paid to join the crowds. For the predominantly rural villagers who comprised the Red Shirts, rabble-rousing was an attractive and lucrative alternative — they were paid far more per day than they would have made in the rice paddies.

Also buried amid the frenzied reporting was the voice of Bangkok’s residents — Thai and foreign alike — the people who have been affected by the protests. Many are now coming out of the woodwork to address the knee-jerk reaction of several major international media outlets that portrayed the government as violent aggressors and the Red Shirts as innocent victims. This sentiment was well expressed in a widely read open letter from a Thai woman to CNN that gained huge attention on the Internet.

Nobody seems quite sure what will happen after the reporters have left and moved on to the next story. The Red Shirts, too, have packed up and gone back to their villages, but their anger is undiminished. Perhaps more than ever before in modern history, Thailand is polarized, and there is no clear indication that things will get better anytime soon.

As I watch the TV this evening, homemade bombs and other munitions are still being found in the rubble, putting cleanup crews and soldiers in danger. There’s a feeling that it’s not really safe, or over, for that matter. The only sure thing is that the people of Bangkok just want life to get back to normal, whatever that is in these grim days.

Mason Florence is the publisher of Bangkok 101 and the executive director of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office. 

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