The sight of heavily armed young men and women has always unsettled me. In Brisbane, I often wonder just how qualified some of the baby-faced cops pounding the inner-city beat are to use their side-arms, capsicum spray and stun guns.
On the streets of Bangkok, there are hundreds of heavily armed police and soldiers with serious weapons, riot shields and, in the past week, despite the 40-degree heat, full body armour. And theirs is not the swaggering presence of an officer who knows, statistically, the day may never come when he’ll have to fire a shot in self-defence.
Since I arrived in Bangkok more than three weeks ago, soldiers have been singing karaoke and telling jokes from the back of a truck in Silom Road, the city’s main business thoroughfare, which also leads to the heavily fortified Red Shirt encampment. Despite the apparent frivolity, the faces of the teenage conscripts have registered the very real fear of armed combat with their fellow Thais.
At the time of writing, 37 people have died and hundreds have been injured since the collapse of peace talks between the National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship — the UDD or Red Shirts — and the Thai government, and the shooting that led to the death of Red Shirt adviser and suspended army general Khattiya Sawasdipol, known as Seh Daeng. Conspiracy theories abound about who pulled the trigger, with many believing it was a deliberate ploy by one side or the other (or one of the many groups with an interest in unrest) to bring matters to a bloody head.
I didn’t come to Thailand as a reporter. I came as a jaded, middle-aged journalist who had just quit his job as a subeditor and was looking for an education — specifically a certificate in teaching English as a foreign language. I got the education, and I hope I’ll get the certificate, too.
My school is on Silom Road opposite the Sala Daeng BTS (Skytrain) station — what would normally be a very convenient location. But neither the Skytrain nor the Metro has been running since last Thursday night. Since Friday, the school has been in an army-enforced no-go zone.
Lessons have been suspended and I am staying at a safe distance in a four-star serviced apartment. The advice from the school, and various foreign governments, is to remain well away from the fighting, which could erupt into open civil war at any time.
On Monday night, a group of us ventured to a popular riverside seafood restaurant, which was operating at less than a fifth of its capacity. Party boats sailed past with virtually nobody on board and only a handful of rooms at the Sheraton hotel opposite us were lit up. The tourism industry has been hit very hard.
The violence and the volcanic-ash cloud permitting, I will be leaving for London on Friday without having visited Bangkok’s must-see attractions or spent my hard-earned at the upmarket shopping centres, some of which have been closed for a month.
In an email to one of my teachers, I expressed my concerns for the future of this beautiful country and its welcoming people. “Yes,” he replied, “it’s very sad. I can see Thailand being split for many years now by the kind of bitterness that has plagued Northern Ireland or Lebanon.”
In an earlier gathering of friends — me, two other foreigners and two Thai women — the question arose: How could it come to this? The Thais, both middle class, in their 30s and with good jobs at offices that had been shut due to the violence, blamed the Red Shirts for reneging on an agreement that would have seen elections in November.
But nobody offered a clear way forward, or a reason why tensions that had been bubbling in the background for years had come to a head now. My Aussie mate, who has lived and worked in Bangkok for 18 months and endured the common Thailand frustrations of missed appointments and mixed messages, could offer just one answer.
“T.I.T.,” he said with a shrug and a raised bottle of beer. “This is Thailand.”
* Brett Debritz is a journalist who has worked recently for Pagemasters, The Herald (Glasgow), the Shanghai Daily, and The Sunday Mail (Brisbane). He is the “cultural commentator” and accidental war correspondent for the top-rating Spencer Howson breakfast show on 612ABC Brisbane.