Michael's Dispatches

Even While the World Watched: Part I

Near Lumpini Park, Bangkok. (May 2010)

Michael Yon
20 June 2010
Chiang Mai, Thailand

Recent violence focused world attention on the Kingdom of Thailand.  As the attention flowed in, foreigners poured out, even though fighting was tightly localized and not focused on travelers.  Tourists literally had to search for trouble to find it.  Of course, some did.

Like other famous countries, Thailand seems to be annotated in peoples’ minds by a single footnote.  This is akin to trying to describe the contents of an Encyclopedia using a single, all-encompassing sentence.  If asked, many people might summarize Americans as rich, arrogant, imperialistic Christians, while we might describe ourselves as peaceful, freedom-loving and generous to a fault.  Likewise, Thailand wears its own name tag – especially so in the touristy areas – yet intricate realities of both countries naturally defy broad strokes.

Thailand is big, considerably larger than California by area, while its 64 million people approximate the combined populations of Florida, North Carolina and California.  This complex country, with its intriguing history, is saddled with commensurate politics, and would require an expert to attempt explanation.   Jabs at down-in-the-weeds “analysis” by most foreigners, and most Thai people, will yield quackery.  Unfortunately, knowledge has never been prerequisite for strong opinion.

Rama IV near Dusit Thani and Pan Pacific Hotels, Bangkok. (May 2010)

Like most countries, Thailand has its share of social woes.  Yet knowing that your baby is ill, what is actually wrong, and how to cure it are three separate matters, and when it comes to politics, consensus reality is rarely burdened by mere facts or stunning insight.  For example, during ten trips into Nepal, I talked with people who fully realized that their government was malformed, and yet they set about curing it by donning the cloak of Nepalese Maoism.  It remains to be seen if the cure will be worse than the original disease.

While in Afghanistan, I watched with growing alarm the news coming from Thailand, having first sensed a potential civil war growing in 2008.  Something changed.  Or at least I felt it for the first time.  There was a subtle but unmistakable bite in the air.  The first time I felt that bite was in what is now the former Yugoslavia.  It was sharp and obvious to all.  In Thailand it was subtle, more like a nibble by comparison, but clear.

Red Shirt barricades, Bangkok.  (May 2010)

The better aspects of Thailand had grown on me, and so even from Afghanistan I kept up on news and messages from the Kingdom.  From Afghanistan, I flew to Chiang Mai, whence these words are written, the very heart of the growing “Red Shirt” insurgency, and where the chill had first touched my sense in 2008.

Descriptions of the specific grievances and causations are bountiful and would be redundant and ill-informed if re-penned here.  Though I am aware of many thoughts and theories surrounding the Thai unrest, other observers are far more qualified to comment.  Interested readers will have no problem finding endless sources.  Some facts are obvious: in April, tens of thousands of Red Shirt protestors had poured out of mostly northern and northeastern Thailand into Bangkok, seizing key municipal terrain equivalent to Times Square in New York City.  Protestors’ demands shifted and would require many words to describe.  In short, they want a new government.  The aggrieved apparently are being supported by ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire accused of corruption of billionaire proportions.

Politically, the closer one looks the more complicated it becomes.  Words are confusing while actions speak clearly.  So for now, let’s step back and look at the punches that are being thrown, and not why they are being thrown.  The fist leads back to the arm and the arm leads to the motivation.

One of closest hotels to the action that was still open was the Dusit Thani, just next to the Red Shirt barricades.  There had been fighting and recent fatalities nearby, so I checked into the Dusit Thani on 12 May 2010.  From the balcony, the Red Shirt camp was visible down below across a four-lane highway called Rama IV.  About two-dozen had been killed in recent weeks.  I happened to show up just before the big fighting.

Barricades on Rama IV, just in front of Dusit Thani Hotel, after the Army attacked through.

In the morning, I had breakfast at the 5-star Dusit Thani and then walked across the street to the Red camp, entered with no dramas through an opening in the barricades, and began to walk among the Reds.  The Reds had built medieval-looking barricades from car and truck tires, including long bamboo spikes, concertina wire and other obstacles.  The barriers looked treacherous and difficult.  In reality, the barricades made for great, dramatic photos while being militarily inconsequential.

Maybe five thousand protestors were spread over several kilometers, and though many had been there for over a month sleeping rough, spirits seemed high.  No weapons were visible other than slingshots, though I now accept as fact (following upon later experiences) reports that violent instigators had been firing 40mm grenades and other weapons, as well as exploding large fireworks.

The encampment, occupied by maybe 5,000 people, was surrounded by Thai Army with a large interstice of no man’s land.  (It wasn’t entirely no man’s land; I and many other people traveled through frequently, although it was never a good place to linger for tea.) However, politics get tricky here.  Many or even most of the soldiers come from backgrounds that might make them favorable to the protestors, and so, striking the Reds with the Army hammer, might in theory cause the hammer to shatter.  The more militant among the protestors, the so-called Men in Black, were believed to have been (or are) elite Thai soldiers.

After the breach near Lumpini Park just across from Dusit Thani Hotel.

Flocks of journalists – local and international – had descended into the conflict zone, and the flocks naturally brought the toxic guano of consensus journalism, and also great physical danger for the journalists, which danger could be deceiving in Bangkok.  Comparing the difficulty of covering conflict in Thailand to Afghanistan or Iraq is to compare pebbles to boulders.  The entrance obstacles to Iraq and Afghanistan will eliminate probably 99% of the international press from any meaningful, long-haul coverage.  By contrast, many international correspondents live in Thailand.  CNN correspondent, Dan Rivers, reported that he and his family had to evacuate their residence because the fighting was so close.  Covering Bangkok is no more difficult than covering Washington D.C., and in fact Bangkok might be easier when considering visa issues.  And so, in my particular case, I was staying in the Dusit Thani Hotel, which was actually in the battle zone.  My balcony was a front row seat to some fighting, which meant you could die there, so I seldom went onto the balcony, but sometimes watched from within the darkened room.  In fact, I was talking on the phone when a grenade exploded three floors above me.  You could eat a fine lunch or dinner and literally one minute later walk outside and be in the fight.  It was bizarre.  During some fighting, I was out in the shooting, just 150 meters from my room; made some photos and walked back into the hotel, took the elevator to my room, uploaded images to Facebook, and within minutes walked back outside.

I had arrived in Bangkok literally just in time for the main events and despite what must have been hundreds of journalists already there, suddenly my work was all over Thailand, as had happened with my reports from Iraq and Afghanistan.  The sudden notoriety was unexpected -- I expected to be a face in the crowd -- but shortly thereafter I took an exclusive trip with the Prime Minister of Thailand, Abhisit Vejjajiva.  And so this, and the next dispatch or two, is meant to describe what I witnessed, in order to set the context of my private conversation on a jet with the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Thailand.

Most interesting was that even while the world watched they were again mislead by consensus journalism.


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