March 11, 2014 00:00 By Achara Deboonme
A drive into the heart of Bangkok last weekend proved a real adventure, a reminder that when law and order is missing, life anywhere in the world can be miserable.
I was elated when People’s Democratic Reform Council leader Suthep Thaugsuban called off the Bangkok shutdown on March 3. My first thought was that city life could now get back on track, with residents free to roam without fear of traffic jams or unexpected incidents.
It was an illusion. A group of anti-government protesters was still in position outside Government House last weekend. A section of Phitsanulok Road remained blocked, forcing cars on the way to Rajdamnoen Avenue to make a detour. On my way to Rama VIII Bridge, I was among them. After turning left at Nang Lerng Intersection, I took a right turn to Krung Kasem Road only to find that Rajdamnoen Avenue was still closed. Driving another block, I turned left. At the end of the narrow road, I was supposed to make two more left turns to reach the bridge. But at an intersection, a sign ahead told me I couldn’t go left or straight on. “Whatever”, I thought to myself, before cranking a right turn to reach Rajdamnoen Nai Avenue. From there, I took the Pinklao Bridge to get cross the Chao Phraya.
If I had a friend living in the area and available to ask online I could have avoided the traffic misery. Unfortunately, I’m not a taxi driver with a network of colleagues to ask on a LINE group chat. The road signage remains the same, but drivers have to discover their own way through the blocked routes. Even PDRC’s Facebook page fails to provide any information on the day’s traffic conditions, preferring to fill us in on politics updates.
I’m not surprised that more and more foreign visitors are making their own detours when visiting Thailand. According to Thai AirAsia, January saw higher passenger traffic at Chiang Mai and Phuket airports, while the number at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi dropped. And this is just part of the “new normal” that has reigned since the protests started.
As the rallies continue, more reports of violence are surfacing. As well as grenades and drive-by shootings, there has also been news of physical attacks. More than 20 people, children among them, have lost their lives, and over 700 have been injured. A man was reportedly attacked at Lumpini Park and his body dumped in Chon Buri, leading to an arrest warrant being issued for a protest leader. Last weekend, a man was attacked and reportedly had money and an iPhone stolen. In normal times, we at least have the assurance that police can help. But nowadays, who you can turn to? The beleaguered government? Soldiers in their camouflaged bunkers? Suthep?
My sympathy goes out to people in the deep South who have suffered from far greater violence for over 10 years now. I also feel a great deal of empathy for people in other violence-hit parts of the world.
In Syria on Friday, government helicopter gun-ships killed at least six people when they dropped barrel bombs on the strategic rebel stronghold of Yabrud, close to the Lebanese border. Three years of civil war has devastated the lives of an entire generation of children. It’s cost the lives of more than 11,000 kids and turned more than 1 million into refugees. It has subjected them to trauma, indiscriminate shelling and even torture. (Highly recommended is this video by Save The Children-UK; as of yesterday it had received over 21 million hits: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RBQ-IoHfimQ)
Consuming so much news on violence there is a danger that we are getting familiar with the “new normal” and no longer taking its horrors as seriously. The more we consume it, the more we’re inclined to think that the situation is beyond our capacity. But as long as we keep our distance, we should be okay. Life goes on. It’s as simple as that. Fighting in Syria does not directly concern Thais. To most of us, the violence in Bangkok or the deep South is too far away.
Like other ordinary folk, I don’t mind if the anti-government protest campaign continues or if individuals and business groups continue to support its cause. For now, I have resolved to avoid at all costs travelling to areas I’m not familiar with and for which I have no traffic news. I would not dare to move any road barricades placed by protesters, as they deem that tantamount to a protest against their “patriotic actions”. But that’s easy to swallow. I still hold Thai citizenship, though my constitutional rights have been infringed.
What else can I do? Bangkok is just getting scarier, particularly for someone who is not yet familiar with the violence.