Thailand on the Brink

As the chaos on Bangkok's streets deepens, the Thai king is appealing for calm. Lawrence Osborne on the tragedy and surreal beauty of the political battle between the opposing Yellows and Reds.

This week, Thailand’s king spoke out for the first time since political trouble began in the country, and people took notice.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is 82 has been in the hospital since September, appealed for stability but did not address the political crisis directly.

“Do your job with honesty,” he told a group of newly appointed judges. “In this country there may be some people who forget their duty. You should be an example by working honestly and properly. Your job is very important.”

These remarks, cryptic as they might seem to an outsider, were widely seen as an appeal for calm, in a country that some believe stands on the brink of civil war.

The thousands of red-hued “martyrs” manning the homemade barricades of Bangkok’s Ratchaprasong intersection are as beautiful as revolutionaries often look from a distance.

I was in Thailand a month ago, traveling in the south to write about the Islamic insurgency that has raged there for years, claiming 4,000 lives. Bangkok—unlike the southernmost provinces of Pattani or Narathiwat—seemed normal. Perhaps it was just the contrast with the bombs going off every day at ATMs in the main border town on the Thai-Malay frontier. And in Thailand, appearances are deceptive.

Now the Americans are officially worried. The State Department, with its customary iron nerve, has issued a travel warning for Bangkok. (When, one wonders, will they issue travel advisories for Detroit, Miami, or Baltimore—places where one is much more likely to be murdered in cold blood than in relatively crime-free Bangkok?)

The conflict has baffled most outside commentators. Thailand is a unique society in the modern world: a Theravada Buddhist monarchy with a parliamentary system. The clarinet-playing king, believed to be a living incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, presides via lèse majesté laws over a hedonistic and technology-obsessed Asian Tiger economy, centered in one of the most sophisticated urban cultures on earth. No one has ever been able to understand how it all holds together.

Back in New York last week, I attended a gallery opening for the Thai artist Jakkai Siributr, who is one of Thailand’s most famous artists, as well as a distant relation of the Thai royal family, a devout Buddhist and a subtle critic of the country’s feudal politics for many years. To me, he’s also a dear Bangkok friend. I remember having dinner at his house when protesters were occupying the city’s airport at the end of 2008 and the country had essentially been closed down to air traffic.

Everyone at that elegant table—a sampling of Bangkok’s elite of filmmakers, writers, and art dealers—seemed certain that the Land of Smiles was descending into a strange, Lewis Carroll alternative reality, in which two irreconcilable factions known as the Yellows and the Reds fought across the city in a theatrical pantomime of staged sit-ins, squatter protests, and Situationist stunts.

“Perhaps,” Jakkai said with sadness at his glamorous New York opening, “it doesn’t hold together after all. Unless we muddle through as Thais always do.”

Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister ousted in bloodless 2006 coup who now lurks on the sidelines fomenting strife inside the country, is often referred to as “the Thai Berlusconi.” But will Thailand muddle through this time, and will Thaksin, like Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, make another comeback to enthrall and torment his millions?

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In this complicated struggle, the stakes have been upped as weapons have made a menacing appearance. Twenty-six dead, grenades lobbed into the Red protesters, crowd scenes out of Battleship Potemkin. The concerns of 18 months ago already seem quaint.

The Yellows and the Reds are hard to summarize, but let’s try: The Yellows represent, so to speak, the present government of Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, the army, the monarchy, the urban elites, the liberal professionals and (mostly) progressives. The Reds are what educated Thais call “buffalos”: the rural poor, especially in the north, a few elements in the army and in business circles, the lower middle class. They call themselves the UDD, or United in the Defense against Dictatorship, and the populist Thaksin is their man. Thaksin, they argue, was removed illegally by the army with the tacit consent of the aging King Bhumibol. Alas for moderates, they are right.

Thaksin is widely seen by the Bangkok middle classes as a demagogue who showered benefits on the poor to gain their allegiance. The Reds argue that Bangkok can no longer lord it over the rest of the country without more equitable distributions. It’s a classic class war, in other words, with shades of Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt updated via iPhone snapshots.

These are just approximations, however. The complexities on the ground are borderline mystical. When I was stuck in the airport in 2008 as the Yellows invaded the control tower and brought that dazzling facility to a standstill, there was a kind of Werner Herzog moment when hundreds of white-robed men came floating through its 21st-century halls shouting “Martyrdom! Martyrdom!”

It was visually quite beautiful, just as the thousands of red-hued “martyrs” manning the homemade barricades of Bangkok’s Ratchaprasong intersection this week are as beautiful as revolutionaries often look from a distance: a sea of blood red as violently poetic as the liters of bottled human blood they symbolically poured over government offices a few weeks ago.

Beautiful, that is, because it’s so ugly and pointless, and because the fragility of so beautiful a country has been exposed with such tremendously cynical élan.

Lawrence Osborne is the author, most recently, of Bangkok Days.