Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Protests

The protests are over. Tomorrow at 10am, the anti-government People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) have agreed to vacate both airports in Bangkok. Cargo flights are scheduled to resume, and passenger flights within the next few days.

Read up on it here.

It’s a complex situation with a political history that goes back for years – arguably a decade or more.

It’s been tense the last week or so, and although someone could easily change their mind, I feel like after tomorrow things will settle down for the most part.

Mostly I’m left with the observation that the way a country asserts and responds to civil disobedience is such a window into their culture. In many ways I found the protesters’ behavior, and the government, military, police, ordinary citizens and opposition groups’ responses to it to be very Thai.

What struck me as very Thai was the generally non-confrontational nature of the whole protest. In nearly five months of illegally occupying government buildings and essential transportation infrastructure, only two people were killed. This is of course two people too many, but considering the number of people involved, and the fact that the police and military were repeated called upon to do something to disperse the crowds (but didn’t), this is quite impressive. This is not to say that things have been peaceful. Just not as violent as they would be in most other countries.

But this is what also strikes me as very Thai: Throughout the protests, the armed forces were reluctant to do anything. The government would issue a weak order for the military to do something, and in response the military would issue a statement saying they weren’t planning to use force anytime soon.

It was similar with the cops. The (now former) prime minister told the police to shoo protesters out of the airport, and the police announced that the protesters should leave the airport, but nothing happened.

My favorite headline, from The Nation, reads, "Police to launch psychological warfare to weaken public support for PAD."

Psychological warfare? Some friends and I had a good laugh about that.

“You mean everyone’s going to be very passive aggressive from now on?”

“Yeah, everyone’s saying, ‘I’m not talking to you anymore, so there.’”

“Or they’re like, ‘Hehehe. I’m going to tell them yes when I mean no.’”

It turns out police were just going door-to-door telling ordinary citizens not to get involved with the protests. Still, this is what they refer to as taking action?

In some situations, Thai people are known to react calmly, or not very much at all. When you’re backpacking around the country on vacation, this is called The Locals Are So Friendly And Laid Back. When they’re your work colleagues, this is called Cross-Cultural Frustration.

Thai people strive to achieve or maintain jai yen, or a cool heart, based on the Buddhist principle of acknowledging the impermanence of all things in life and therefore remaining detached from things that ultimately don’t matter, like replying to emails or meeting deadlines. It’s a very enlightened view of the universe, but not very practical for working with unenlightened Westerners who want to get things done every once in awhile.

All judgments aside. Well, some judgements aside. Despite some very tense moments, especially during the last week, and a few explosives-related casualties, the overall mood of the protest seemed very jai yen. No one was really itching to physically harm anyone else. The police weren’t too interested in getting injured in the name of defending the rule of law.

There was also the reaction of the general populace during this whole conflict. In the beginning, PAD had a lot of popular support, especially among the educated elite and urban middle class. Bangkok, basically. A pro-government (anti-PAD) group organized itself and became vocal in the past week, with a lot of support from rural areas of the country.

As PAD’s airport occupation wreaked havoc on broad sectors of the economy without appearing to achieve anything, they started losing support. Thais who formerly supported PAD for their anti-Taksin and anti-corruption stance began to get irritated. They had viewpoints that weren’t represented by either PAD or the pro-government protesters. But where was their voice? I didn’t hear of anyone trying to organize a third movement. Maybe something was brewing and I didn’t hear about it. Oe maybe everyone was jai yen. Get pissed off, but then detach. All life is impermanent.

In contrast, how would this have played out in the US? A group of armed citizens take over an international airport and demand that the president step down? I’d say the city’s mayor would speed dial his riot police, and in 45 minutes they would’ve cleared the scene of every last protester and their farts. What does this say about American culture? That we’re results oriented? That we like to throw our (rather obese) weight around every chance we get, especially when it involves firearms? Or that we value the rule of law – and not getting sued – above most everything else?

Oh. Maybe you should scratch all that. Here’s a much more insightful, well-argued explanation, which got this issue of the Economist banned in Thailand:

A Right Royal Mess

And the response that appeared in the Bangkok Post:

An Open Letter In Reply...

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