Bangkok Dispatch: "Something's Changed"
Last Thursday night, we learned that Seh Daeng, a renegade general who sided with anti-government protesters, had been shot in the head by a sniper. (He was shot while being interviewed by Thomas Fuller of The New York Times. You can read an account here.) We’d been planning a weekend with friends at one of our favorite island resorts—a much-needed respite from the claustrophobia of Bangkok. But my husband, S., is a journalist, so it looked as if we had to scrap our plans. “If a crackdown doesn’t happen by the morning, we’ll go,” he promised.
Despite sporadic clashes throughout the night, Friday morning proved calm and away we went. But we couldn’t leave Bangkok’s troubles behind. Friends sent updates, while my husband would hunker down with his iPhone, scrolling through headlines, emails, tweets. At dinner, we’d discuss the situation, the Thais among us expressing sorrow over the present and fear for the future.
On Sunday morning, we learned 24 more people had died in street fighting, and, we dropped all pretense of avoiding the news. S. called some sources during the drive back, and after every conversation, we’d ask, “Who was that and what did he say?” As we neared Bangkok, army checkpoints began appearing. At one checkpoint, a soldier motioned our van to slow down. S. had a red t-shirt on, which a friend joked aroused suspicions. In the city, the streets were deadly quiet. Across town, protesters had set alight barricades of tires. Journalist friends reported being shot at by soldiers. A Canadian reporter was seriously wounded. The government and protest leaders were calling on women and the elderly to leave the main protest site. Some families had already taken shelter at a nearby temple—temples being the refuge of last resort.
As a longtime resident here, I’ve never been worried about my personal security—not during the 2006 coup, not during the 2008 airport takeover, not during the riots last year. You knew where the violence was and simply avoided those areas. Besides, foreigners weren’t targeted and the previous incidents proved short-lived. And for a while, I haven’t minded the inconveniences caused by the two-month-long protests.
Bangkok still isn’t Sarajevo. We’re not ducking sniper fire on our way to buy bread, and in our quiet, leafy neighborhood, I’m not afraid to go for a walk at night. But something has changed. The area where the fighting is seems to widen by the day. Friends who live within earshot of the battles have decamped elsewhere. The State Department has issued an advisory against all travel to Thailand while the U.S. embassy is holding a town hall meeting online on Tuesday because of security concerns. Protesters have threatened to bomb department stores. Even at the grocery store in our safe precinct, residents are stockpiling food, just in case.
Since Thursday, 36 people have died and 250 people left wounded. The situation is volatile, and it doesn’t look like it will end well. Both sides are armed and embittered. Thai society is more polarized than ever, and mediation doesn’t seem to be working.
This time, I’m worried, but not for myself. I’m worried for the journalists who are covering this story and for the families sheltering in the temple. And I’m worried for our Thai friends, and wonder how their country’s psyche will recover from this.
Jennifer Chen is Travel + Leisure's Asia correspondent.