So they flew the Super-Constellation all the way from Rimini / And feasted them on fish and chips from a newspaper facsimile

What a very odd few months it has been.

What a sur­re­al few weeks.

Both gross under­state­ment I think, but bet­ter that than gross over­state­ment. I think odd and sur­re­al describe the extend­ed peri­od bet­ter than any adjec­tives that imply blood­shed, dis­as­ter, civ­il may­hem or urban warfare.

There have been those much report­ed moments of awful­ness too but most­ly those were lim­it­ed to four bloody bursts with extend­ed peri­ods of stale­mate, which when they came were tru­ly hor­rif­ic, even sit­ting on the out­side look­ing in as a (close) observ­er who could, this last week, see the smoke ris­ing a few kilo­me­tres away, whilst, how­ev­er, pret­ty much every­thing in our almost com­plete­ly Thai sub­urb, seemed day to day to be as it always was, which of course gave it anoth­er lev­el of surealness.

And indeed that was the way for 90% of this city, where life was large­ly unaf­fect­ed until the very last few days when a cur­few and the cur­tail­ing of train ser­vices final­ly intrud­ed into the rest of the town.

How­ev­er if you read the volu­mi­nous posts from much of the inter­na­tion­al media you could be for­giv­en for think­ing that Bangkok, and indeed Thai­land, had turned into some huge war-zone, with The Times in one report call­ing Bangkok a 21st Cen­tu­ry Sara­je­vo for god’s sake, which was not only inane but plain irre­spon­si­ble. CNN said Bangkok was almost unrecog­nis­able after four days of clash­es. Real­ly? I guess the ten mil­lion or so here missed that bit as they most­ly went about their dai­ly lives, although for oth­ers, inside the more trou­bled zones, life changed a lot, and, even more so for the thou­sands who were trapped with­out pow­er and water for 48 hours or more as chaos ranged out­side their doors.

For a bet­ter com­men­tary on this, I point you towards this pret­ty con­vinc­ing and well argued blog post from Som­tow’s World:

There is one final ele­ment that must be men­tioned. Most are not even aware of it. But there is, in the west­ern mind­set, a deeply ingrained sense of the moral supe­ri­or­i­ty of west­ern cul­ture which car­ries with it the idea that a third world coun­try must by its very nature be ruled by despots, oppress peas­ants, and kill and tor­ture peo­ple. Most west­ern­ers become very insult­ed when this is point­ed out to them because our deep­est prej­u­dices are always those of which we are least aware. I believe that there is a streak of this cryp­to-racism in some of the reportage we are see­ing in the west. It is because of this that Bagh­dad, Yan­gon, and Bangkok are being treat­ed as the same thing.

I found the repeat­ed claims of a descent into civ­il war made by off­shore media and, much worse, the more idi­ot­ic non-pro­fes­sion­al com­men­ta­tors had the same taint, espe­cial­ly when you, with even a lit­tle bit of research would like­ly come to the same con­clu­sion that this poll (con­duct­ed by a rep­utable Uni­ver­si­ty, not any gov­ern­men­tal organ­i­sa­tion) arrived at: 74.5% of Thais sup­port the cur­rent gov­ern­men­t’s road map. This may well devel­op into an ugli­er sit­u­a­tion and stand­off, but it is not there yet.

I was amused by this, from a Thai Eng­lish lan­guage news par­o­dy site:

Final­ly reach­ing the near­est fire, a smol­der­ing noo­dle shop on Rama IV, they pig­gy-backed on the hard work of local­ly based cor­re­spon­dents who had been cov­er­ing the sto­ry for months and years, been shot at and risked their lives.

Fun­ny but oh so true, more than a few jour­nal­ists arrived at the air­port, donned a flak jack­et and were instant experts.

As this sto­ry approached the end of this par­tic­u­lar stage (you would be nuts to think that this any­thing close to over) there seems to be some sort of con­sen­sus that only one net­work or major news-out­let that came out of this with rep­u­ta­tion more or less intact, Al-Jazeer­ra, who not only seemed to actu­al­ly cap­ture the sto­ry cor­rect­ly as it hap­pened but did­n’t fall into the clich­es about despot­ic third world gov­ern­ments and self­less unarmed free­dom fight­ers for democ­ra­cy. CNN, BBC, The Guardian, The Times, Reuters, AP and oth­ers all got a huge fail in their attempts to add per­spec­tive. The NYT seems to have been unable to work out exact­ly what was going on so gave up. Foxnews were unable to work out if Thai peo­ple came from Tai­wan and could­n’t find that on the map either so decid­ed to con­cen­trate on the big­ger sto­ry: an Arab-Amer­i­can Miss USA. CBS went even fur­ther with that and decid­ed to work out if this had an impact on nation­al secu­ri­ty, good grief.…..

For­tu­nate­ly you could, and indeed were wise to, large­ly ignore the tra­di­tion­al media as this (Bangkok, not Miss USA) was a inci­dent, or more cor­rect­ly, series of increas­ing­ly vio­lent inci­dents that were utter­ly dom­i­nat­ed by the new­er media. The report­ing from Bangkok in the past weeks was com­plete­ly owned by Twit­ter, sup­port­ed strong­ly by Face­book and YouTube, per­haps more so than even Iran a year ear­li­er, giv­en the deep pen­e­tra­tion of smart phones in this soci­ety. The tra­di­tion­al news ser­vices and wires were large­ly irrel­e­vant to the cease­less and imme­di­ate flow of news, infor­ma­tion, data and pro­pa­gan­da. Indeed, if you relied on those ser­vices you were way behind the day’s flow. Brigid, three days back, com­ment­ed to me that the sto­ry being run by the New Zealand Her­ald was such old news, and I had to point out that it was Reuters sourced and cor­rect about twelve hours ear­li­er, but the tor­rent of instant twit­ters, with images and video, made it seem like such ancient history.

The visu­als on var­i­ous blogs and twit­ter ser­vices like Tweet­Pho­to and Yfrog were both incred­i­ble and instant­ly broad­cast glob­al­ly, and, yes, made most­ly from phones, although the odd more tra­di­tion­al site pro­vid­ed some incred­i­ble imagery, with deserv­ing some spe­cial mention.

I’ve had an end­less stream of emails from from all over the world ask­ing if we were ok. I think it’s fair to say that not for a moment did we feel threat­ened and there was nev­er an incli­na­tion to leave, with pret­ty much the whole expat com­mu­ni­ty, out­side the imme­di­ate cen­tral zone where this most­ly took place, sit­ting tight and shar­ing that sen­ti­ment. The streets around our part of upper Sukhumvit were nev­er less than bustling with peo­ple of all races through­out this.

And the ques­tions as to whether we regret­ted leav­ing Bali sev­en months ago have the same answer: no, not at all, not for a sec­ond, quite the oppo­site. For all the awful­ness of the past two months, this is still a won­der­ful coun­try and city; and unlike Bali where we were very much tar­gets, you sim­ply don’t have to live with the oft stat­ed ‘it’s not a mat­ter of if but when’ that you hear every­where there, from Indone­sians and for­eign­ers alike.

Now, I guess we wait.


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Will Robe
May 23, 2010 at 3:14 am

I wish you’d post lit­tle bit more about this. 

I worked as a journo in Indone­sia for sev­er­al years, and always found your com­men­tary on Indone­sian life refresh­ing and insightful. 

Too often the inter­na­tion­al press takes the hys­ter­i­cal posi­tion, ramps shit up in order to get their sto­ries pulled from the wire; it’s a shame you don’t have a col­umn some­where… but that’s the press. 

I’d great­ly appre­ci­ate a more reg­u­lar post from you regard­ing the red & yel­low in Bangkok. 


May 23, 2010 at 6:39 am

Cheers Will. I’ve been rather busy with a cou­ple of projects and have not post­ed recent­ly as much as I per­haps want­ed to, but I appre­ci­ate the feedback.

I’m actu­al­ly work­ing on an extend­ed com­mis­sioned piece on Indone­sia right now. As I’m sure you know It’s an odd and con­fused coun­try, in that as much as you want it to suc­ceed it seems to be its own very worst ene­my. The ugly polit­i­cal stuff in Jakar­ta right now seems to have turned a cor­ner back towards the crony­ism and per­son­al fief­doms of the late 20th Cen­tu­ry, at the expen­sive of the mass­es. It’s sad to watch it hap­pen­ing all over again. All you can do is hope, but I fear it’s a much big­ger pow­derkeg than Thailand.

Thai­land seems to under­stand more the bal­anc­ing act it needs to per­form, even if it took the shock of the last few months to real­ly dri­ve that home.

Will Robe
May 24, 2010 at 2:45 am

Yes. If you have any heart it becomes impos­si­ble to live there, even­tu­al­ly. Or at least I found that. 

It is a trag­i­cal­ly unhealthy place. I felt that liv­ing there was like being privy to con­stant bul­ly­ing, or tor­ture-specif­i­cal­ly some kind of water tor­ture or death-by-a-thou­sand-cuts. Impos­si­ble to stom­ach, impos­si­ble to under­stand, and impos­si­ble to stop. Maybe it is being too kind to the long-ter­m­ers, but that’s a pret­ty admirable sort of rea­son for alco­holism as rea­sons for alco­holism go. 

How can the Indone­sian upper­class­es have such cal­lous dis­re­gard for their own coun­try? They will leave their grand­chil­dren with noth­ing to steal. At least the rich in most oth­er coun­tries, bar some African coun­tries, make sure to leave enough for their chil­dren to plunder. 

We used to joke a lot about the rea­son for their dis­re­gard. Per­haps Allah had informed the top-tier that the coun­try was going to be destroyed in 50 years, in order that devotes wealthy enough to fund mosques could decamp to Ger­many or Dubai and build him mosques there, in two of the wealth­i­est’s favorite play­grounds. Sad­ly, prob­a­bly, not far from the truth: In half a cen­tu­ry the coun­try will be bet­ter off oblit­er­at­ed, the weathy will have left with the coun­try’s wealth and a mer­ci­ful God will con­tin­ue to not exist (as the top-tier con­tin­ue to pray for their good fortune).

I was robbed twice on the way out of the coun­try: first by a police­man and then by a cus­toms offi­cial. They seem to have a unique tal­ent at spot­ting bules who are late for inter­na­tion­al flights. 

Still, I have the strongest crav­ing for a plate of fried cow’s lung this afternoon.

Thai­land does seem a much bet­ter bet in the long-run.

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