An expat’s-eye view of the political crisis

I guess it’s time to write about the political situation in Bangkok. I can’t offer expert commentary, but I can report on what it’s like to be living here as an expat during a confusing and fundamentally domestic crisis in which foreigners are merely incidentally caught up. I will also tell you a joke I made up myself.

Disclaimers are so dull.

I’ll start with the biggest, fattest disclaimer about what I’m about to write. I’m reporting on the responses of angry and frustrated foreigners caught up in a situation they’re not meaningfully engaged with. I’m not talking about everyone because unsurprisingly I haven’t spoken to every foreigner in Bangkok right now, I haven’t taken polls and I only know a handful of people. But I am reporting what we’re reading in the news and what my friends have said when they realised their holiday plans are messed up, what I’ve overheard in the train, and what other people have overheard (this is kinda the talk of the town right now). I’d like to make is clear that I’ve only been here for six weeks, so I don’t even pretend to understand Thailand and I don’t claim to offer any authority on these matters. I’ll also only report on what foreigners are saying because these are the stories I’m hearing, and the point of view I can best represent. It’s the sensitivity of the matter that means I need a disclaimer, and also why the disclaimer probably isn’t going to help.

First the joke. (background: it’s ‘winter’ in Bangkok at the moment and the weather is beautiful. It’s cool and a fresh breeze runs through the city from morning to night).

One friend says to another: “Wow, the weather is beautiful today!”

Other friend: “It is! Too bad we can’t say the same for the political climate

!!! I know right!!! I should be a comedian. Meg (friend number 1 in the joke) didn’t believe I made it up on the spot! I will be reusing that joke until I wear holes in it.

My office is in the middle of the area that’s been blockaded for the last three, four (??) months. Each day a new road is blocked, which you discover as the taxi reaches a big wall of tyres and barbed wire. Sometimes the road is blocked 200 metres down with no warning at the entrance, so there will be a parade of cars doing u-turns at the tyre-wall. Needless to say, the traffic isn’t flowing so well. Until last week the protests were just bad traffic to me. Occasionally small bombs had been thrown in the vicinity of the office, but usually in the middle of the night so I would find out about it 12 hours later and felt as far removed from the violence as if it were in a different country. I have not once, even when walking through the protest areas (sometimes a taxi would get as close as he could and tell you walk the rest of the way through the road block), felt concerned for my safety.

Last week the situation changed considerably when the protesters moved to the airport. One night, around 6pm, we were all told to go home and stay indoors for the night, as there were rumours that the military were going in. Someone made the clever observation that a coup d’etat is not likely to be ‘rumoured’ beforehand, as the element of surprise is fairly crucial, but we weren’t going to argue. My colleagues and I went home and waited for the situation to reach a climax after months of deadlock.

The next morning there was no news of a resolution and perhaps then it dawned on me that the airports might stay closed for more than a couple of days. Until then the prospect of blocking the airport for more than 24 hours was inconceivable.

You won’t be surprised to hear that a lot of people are pretty pissy about the airports being blocked. Tourists can’t get home, business travellers here for a night are stuck for a week or more, people starting new jobs in Thailand can’t get in, no one can get out (except by bus, and that’s another world of confusion). I heard about one guy who was in transit for two hours at the airport (on the way to Shanghai I think) and in that two hours the airport was closed down…so he’s still there in the airport a few days later.

I think there are a few reasons why foreigners are having such a hard time accepting the airport closure (people outside of Bangkok/Thailand are probably thinking “chill out, you’ve got a free week in Bangkok”).

1. No one knows what’s going on. Will they get another flight? Do they have to book another one or will the current flight be honoured? “I’m due to fly out on Wednesday, should I change my plans now or wait and see”, will my insurance cover all of this? How do we know if the airport has reopened? Will anyone tell us? Will this last a day, a week, until Christmas? Some people have said that even if the airports open today they are wait-listed for flights in mid-December because everything until then is fully booked.

2. The protests seem unimportant to foreigners. No one likes to admit it, but the domestic concerns of Thailand seem fairly insignificant to people from outside of Thailand. Especially when all this is happening on the backdrop of terrible violence in Mumbai. I admit that I have thought that the protesters seem to be overdoing it, on some kind of power trip, or as I once claimed to MJ on the phone, a vigilante group. But this is the key, after months and months of disruption to traffic and to parliament, domination of the media, violence, the PAD seem to be losing support, but they’re still standing. If a protest group blocked Flinders Street train station for a day so that commuters had to walk up to Melbourne Central, there would public lynchings. This is where this drama gets interesting, there are layers and layers to this that I can’t begin to figure out. But then again, I’m not trying. I’d rather read up on Mumbai, or Nigeria or the DRC. You know…important news.

3. Foreigners seem unimportant to the protesters. This one REALLY pisses foreigners off. I suspect tourists believe that Thailand owe them something for coming to Thailand (probably some foundation in that argument), which is why it’s such an affront that the lives of so many people can be callously disrupted. I’ve gotta say, the protesters seem pretty unconcerned about American tourists making it home in time for Thanksgiving, or the complete melt-down of the tourism industry. People have screamed “I am never coming back to Thailand!” because they think that’s the way to punish Thailand, and also because it’s currently the only bargaining chip they have…which leads me to point no. 4.

4. We have NO control. It’s not usual for many of us Westerners to be completely out of control. We don’t play a role in this fight (which is a nice change) but we are definitely pawns and we are completely powerless. As the airport closures continue I’ve noticed that angry foreigner rage is less visible. I think we’ve resigned ourselves to it. Knowing that the usual “Take action and solve this problem!!” mentality is futile now. The airports will remain closed for as long as the situation takes to resolve itself and none of the reasoning for keeping the airports open has currency. Because we’re not in danger (just…Inconvenienced!) no governments seem to be rushing in with tanks to get their citizens out (yes there are Qantas charter flights getting Australians out, but it seems that the strongest diplomatic language being used right now is “extreme displeasure”. The Australian government is extremely displeased! Look out!)

I’ll leave the office now, have a bit of trouble finding a taxi (they don’t come up here much when the road blocks are bad), I’ll go home and then to the supermarket and the gym and watch the West Wing before bed (I’m in a good bit of season 3). In other words I’ll do everything I normally do with no meaningful awarness of what is happening a few kms out of town at the airport. I’ll add a little note that this strange calm could change any day and there is no sense in making light of this situation, but for the time being anything other than business as usual seems unnecessary .


2 thoughts on “An expat’s-eye view of the political crisis

  1. Ben

    Great post.

    I got a real sense of what is happening there – more than a news report could ever give.

    And much more than communicated by a friend who is stranded there, but as you say there’s not a lot of information on the ground.. and I think a lot of people have use the “chill out, you’ve got a free week in Bangkok” line to him also.

    More importantly I think you have nailed it with regard to the foreigner/protester relationship. Something which has often embarrassed me is how people (tourists and ex-pats alike) from developed (western) countries love to be treated like royalty in developing countries.

    Perhaps it’s because we can afford those luxuries in developing countries that we wouldn’t be able to at home (maids, 5 star hotels, etc.), but whatever the reason, the end result is a feeling of superiority over the locals.

    Events like those in Bangkok – and especially in Mumbai – should be a wake-up call to those foreigners complacent in their superiority. Special treatment is a luxury that is not guaranteed, and sometimes things do happen that are out of your control. If you can’t handle that then perhaps it would be best not to leave home in the first place..


    ps. I love the comment on diplomatic language – reminds me of an episode of The Hollowmen.. And after hearing the news that they are building an “Immigration bridge” in Canberra I’m starting to think they have an inside source.. 😉

  2. yvonne

    i’m going to be horrible and not comment on the political goingson and say this instead….you have a gym! how lovely!

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