Monday, January 20, 2014

Life During Wartime

Yesterday, as I spent the afternoon sitting in the park reading a book, a grenade was lobbed by an unknown party into a crowd of protesters at the Victory Monument, a few minutes' walk down the street, injuring 30.

It's a cliche to say that in times of war, one should live life as normal, so as to not "let the terrorists win." And there's truth there-- after all, we run countless risks in our ordinary lives without thinking it, and besides, we need to live our lives regardless.

Over the past week or so, the streets have turned into ghostly, empty passageways leading to the loci of mass protest sites, barricaded by piles of tires and guarded by militants wearing bandannas and armbands covered in slogans. The tension has been there.

But when the additional threat of unknown and unknowable violence, committed by unknown parties who seem tied to neither camp in the current political fracas, the tension turns to fear, and that spot on Ratchawithee Road becomes blackened dread.

Terrorists, it's typically argued, use the methods of terror to project their voice. And a good Foucauldian would also say that it's a claim of biopower, the use of dead bodies for political means. But what often seems ignored is the spatial dimension, the way the active group crudely hacks out a piece of landscape. It's not for themselves, it's not claimed territory.

And when the terror itself is not claimed, there is no voice. The bomb site is pure threat, a scar across the face of the city.

It has been suspected that the leaders of the protest and their well-placed supporters among Thailand's commercial and aristocratic elite are using Reichstag tactics to levy public opinion, or to force a military takeover of the government. But there is no evidence for this, and I doubt any will arise. And as for the government's forces, they have no interest in creating chaos-- the police are being held back, and all they want is their electoral victory in a few weeks' time.

But it's this unknowability that reflects the polygonal nature of the Thai body politic. The international media, along with the more partisan members of the local media, depict a simplistic picture of two groups, red and yellow, in favor of Yingluck Shinawatra's Pheu Thai government and the legacy of the Thaksin government before her versus those against them. But you have a broad range, including red shirts who have been disappointed by Yingluck's tenure and by the self-righteous populist hucksters in the Pheu Thai party, swaths of the PDRC group led by Suthep Thaugsuban who find Suthep himself to be ungainly and corrupt, the hardcore supporters at either end, the former supporters of Suthep who are bothered by his increasingly unbending and anti-democratic demands, the hardline monarchists with their hateful phobias of modernity and egalitarianism, and you have the vast body of Thais who are alienated by the whole damn thing. Now compound this with the machine politics of the Thai parliament in which invisible lines of patronage and clientelism dominate, with cliques led by thuggish big men, old alliances formed in boys' boarding schools and military college graduating classes and century-old Chinese immigrant business alliances and common lines of descent from illustrious ancestors.

This big something, so much messier and more disparate than the 24-hour news cycle is willing to admit, creates a situation where it becomes entirely unsurprising that some cabal somewhere, meeting in the soft-lit halls of power, is willing to hand a few thousand baht to some poor peasant or out-of-work builder to lunge a bomb into a crowd on a bright Sunday afternoon.

And I know I am still the outsider to it all, the youthful foreigner who only half understands the signs and speeches in their original language.

But the notion of an outsider's perspective having any value at all seems to be at present roundly dismissed. Yes, the media perspective has been shoddy. But the PDRC has been accusing any journalist who asks hardball questions, or, for that matter, questions the wisdom of ousting a democratically elected government, as being a Yingluck supporter. Keep in mind these are the same people who tried to commandeer the media and force them to only broadcast the news from their perspective a month ago, and who lack any apparent sense of irony.

But the thing is, when outsiders are told they cannot understand an issue because of their nationality, rather than taking this a stern rebuke, they tend to be reminded of the rants of Vladimir Putin and Ariel Sharon, of the apologists for workers' rights abuses in Dubai and Singapore, and if we're to be a bit melodramatic, of the darkest moments of 20th Century Europe.

As I walk to work, I'm haunted by two specters: that of the authoritarianism that threatens to strangle me, and that of the terrorism that threatens to bleed me out in the street.

And that authoritarianism and that terrorism are united in their opacity. I'm living in a city that seems to be blanketed in a heavy fog of disinformation and violence. In a bit of jargon that George Orwell would have been proud of, a military spokesman, when asked about the tanks being held in Bangkok, answered that "the matter will be further explained on a later date."

When will it be resolved? The government has set an election date-- knowing full well they can expect a victory-- for the 2nd of February, but maybe that will be delayed. The PDRC refuses to negotiate, demanding an people's council (read: junta), and the more extreme members of his camp are suggesting scare tactics like shutting down all air control in Thailand. I'm reminded of the little boy who refuses to share his toy, and when asked to, simply smashes it against the wall.

For now, all I see in the future is awfulness. Even in the scenario I want to happen-- a peaceable election-- we will in all likelihood, see high emotions and ineffectual governance. The reforms needed will be difficult to pass and even more difficult to  implement. Democracy can flourish in Thailand, but until then, I sleep in a war zone.

Monday, January 6, 2014

In Din Daeng

My friends live in other neighborhoods throughout the city. In Thong Lo ("Golden Forge"), with its glittering cocktail bars and valet-parked Porsches, in Aree ("Generosity") with its tiny cafes and elegant mid-century homes, its warm colors and banana trees. But here, in Din Daeng ("Red Earth"), the city expresses itself as a blank zone, colorless and without shape.

Not too long ago, I went to an exhibition of photos of ordinary street life in Bangkok, most of which was rather anodyne, the sort of thing you see in tourist guides... street vendors frying chicken, beaming classical dancers in golden dresses, monks with alms bowls, all of them counterpointed against something like a businesswoman on an iPhone to indicate the juxtaposition of traditional and modern. But also on display were the photos of Rong Wong-Savun, a sort of Thai Walker Evans, depicting my neighborhood as it once was.

In the early '60s, at the height of the first Bangkok construction boom, the National Housing Authority redeveloped the old dumping ground on the northern outskirts of the city in the Robert Moses mode. The NHA tore down the slums, and in their stead, five-story housing blocks, akin to the khrushchyovka apartments built in the USSR in the same period, rose up with modern angles and white walls.

Nowadays, Din Daeng is to Bangkok what Southwest DC or certain areas of South London are to their respective countries-- a cast-concrete backwater at the heart of the national capital. From the window of a taxi, the apartment blocks continue for what seem like miles, the doors of identical buildings illuminated by floodlights, lining street after street, interspersed with minor government ministries, the overpasses and brick walls sprayed with angry political slogans.

On a closer level, Din Daeng is the migrant workers that smoke cigarettes from tenement windows, it is discount mu katha restaurants with mournful upcountry songs playing over the grilling of meat, it is the exhaust clouds over Vibhavadi Rangsit Road, it is the harmlessly insane woman who dances to the music in her head all day in front of her family's shop at the bottom of my street.

Why then, do I choose to live there? A lot of foreigners who live in obscure Bangkok neighborhoods praise their authenticity and friendliness. And there's a truth in that. I have my coffee lady, my washerwoman, my satay man who always makes the same dumb joke about not hitting my head on the aluminum hood over his stall. But "authenticity" is a problematic concept at best. And while there are genial people for sure, there are also the meth gangs that sit around chain-smoking and practicing their tough sneers, and lately, the tear-gas clouds that covered the area after political violence on Mit Maitri ("Friendly Relations") Road.

We build up slow relationships to the spaces we occupy through our daily and repeated motions, whether they're relationships of love, or hate, or neither. My walk to the metro stop or the supermarket slowly fixes my relation to the city I live in, as the infinitesimal motion of coral polyps builds a reef.

I can, when protected by a thin layer of capital, move from place to place, and have done so any number of times, happily. Many others in this globalized era do so without that, with only an empty stomach and the hope of a job in Dubai or Los Angeles or Hong Kong. But it's hard to be truly adrift, to not have some link to place. And for this moment, I have found that link. I wake up, and the corner of the city that I see from my bedroom window is familiar to the point of intimacy.