26 January 2014 - Part 2
Two things are going on in Bangkok right now, and I need to explain some of it. However, keep in mind that I have a rather cynical view of politics in general, and tend to be suspicious of most governments. (In high school, my Civics teacher told me I didn't understand crime or politics. I asked him what was the difference. I must add in my defense that it was 1972.)
What I'm saying is that my understanding of Thai politics is coloured by my own beliefs. And our comprehension of the bigger picture of Thai government and the political situation is limited by us being outsiders, who have only been in country for less than a month, and who don't have any emotions invested in the situation.
So - Thailand has a king (Rama IX) and the queen, his wife. This is a hereditary title, and he has been king since 1946. However, the king is essentially a figurehead, and doesn't exactly run the government. (He is the one who decided to put up his picture all over, on billboards and monuments and bridges. He definitely is supported by the people of Thailand, and they seem proud to have a king who has been in this role for so many years.)
Now, at the same time the government is actually run by a parliamentary democracy that was established in 1932. However, there have been various military coup d'etats, the most recent in 2006. So while there are elected officials, well, there are military rulers who kind of put themselves into office.
Most recently, the anti-government protests have focused on a few issues: first, the former prime minister was found guilty of financial crimes against the country (as in embezzlement) and was jailed; then his sister became prime minister, and was seen as basically a puppet for the jailed former PM; and now, elections are scheduled but there aren't enough people running for the various offices so this would freeze government actions because, according to the Constitution, there needs to be a certain number of members in the parliament before laws can be made, a budget passed, those kind of governmental actions.
Got all that?
So - there are the anti-government people (who wear yellow to identify themselves) - they are trying to shut down Bangkok by holding demonstrations in the area of the government buildings and at major intersections. There are the pro-government people (in red) who demonstrate against the protestors. The whole thing is basically peaceful, but there are occasional fights or shootings - not so much on the part of the police or the military, who are trying hard to stay out of it and keep the peace, despite the fact that there is now a state of emergency declared, and laws against public gatherings of more than five people. No, most of the violence seems to be protestor versus protestor. Red versus yellow. A minor government official was shot and wounded at his home. Some protestors were shot. Some people have been injured, others killed.
On top of all of this, the anti-gov't protestors decided to call for the PM to step down and hold new elections. She did that, and an interim government was established. (Of course, the anti-gov't people don't like the interim people.) Then the interim gov't decided maybe there shouldn't be the elections next month (Feb.) because the situation is so unstable. The anti-gov't people said they can't decide that, they have to follow the constitution. The gov't sent the issue to the courts, who decided the interim people have the right to decide whether or not to hold the elections.
And that is the current state of affairs. Simplified, but the essentials.
We see ripped political posters along our street. We read about the situation in the newspapers. And we saw one little group of people blowing horns and whistles, and waving Thailand's flags, as they marched and cheered their way along a side road. (No idea which side they were on, they were wearing red/white/blue flags.)
And we'll see what happens. A "practice election" is slated for 2 February. Not sure if that will happen or not. Not sure if things will be okay when we return to Thailand on 8 Feb, after going to my father's funeral in the US. Not sure whether the interim government will go with the elections, or hold off.
You know that supposed Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times"?? That's what we've encountered in Thailand.
Fortunately, the papers have carried maps of planned protests, so we were able to book a hotel outside the protest zone. Yay for planned protests! (Despite the warnings from various other countries suggesting their citizens stay out of Bangkok. We really haven't seen or heard anything major.)
And the king and queen? They've set up a fund to pay for medical bills of those injured in the protests, or to help the families of those killed in the demos. Which is nice, but, well, also limited. Because it does seem as if maybe they could step in and do something. Although I guess the constitution has limited the royals' power, so maybe they really can't do anything.
So - while all that is going on, the people who are staying uninvolved (the ones who respond to political questions with "I love the King") are getting geared up for the Chinese New Year on 31 January. Stores are decorated, hotels are decorated, stores are selling items for the holiday, people are practicing for roles in parades and other celebrations.
The ladies at our hotel told us we need to stay for this (it happens while we're in the US, so we'll miss all the fun) - they said there's dancing in the streets, and fireworks, and parades, and small firecrackers - it sounds wonderful! The women said to wear red, because that's the colour of the New Year celebration. (I joked that someone might think we were pro-government if we wore red - she laughed and said carry the red shirt and don't put it on until we're in the middle of the celebrations!)
With the new year celebrations, there is much gift giving. This includes giving gifts to the ancestors. We see all kinds of small and large gifts designed to place on the shrines for the ancestors. I'm almost tempted to buy something for my parents' graves - my mother loved Asian art, and my father loved to travel and enjoyed all of our travel reports (as well as phone calls from each new country). So it seems appropriate to take some little ancestral gift item and place it on the two gravestones. I haven't found the perfect little thing yet, but I'm looking. (In our tradition, we place a small stone on the gravestone when we visit the cemetery - so maybe I should find pretty Thai stones. Another option.)
This is the Year of the Horse, the Chinese sign under which I was born - so this is supposed to be an auspicious year for me.
And that's the excitement that is Bangkok in January 2014!