Connect to share and comment
I clearly remember my first visit to Bangkok's Ratchaprasong district and its hyper-luxurious Siam Paragon mall. I sat by an indoor koi pond and took it all in: the second-floor Lamborghini dealership, the expanse of polished white floors, the milk-skinned girls with raven-black hair tottering on heels.
If I wasn't busy wondering how they drove that Lamborghini to the second-floor, it might have occurred to me that this shopping paradise would be the ideal backdrop for class conflict.
Thailand's self-proclaimed "commoners" -- a street faction known as the "Red Shirts" -- have upped their bid to drive out the government by occupying Bangkok's glitziest avenue. For nearly four weeks now, they've closed off key sectors of the capital.
These rallies have shut down major roads and cost shop owners fortunes. A smaller group of protesters even yanked down parliament gates and briefly rushed in, sending the deputy prime minister fleeing by Black Hawk helicopter.
All this has finally pushed the government to declare a state of emergency.
So just as Thailand's deputy premier went live on TV last night to explain the emergency decree, I set off for Ratchaprasong.
I'd planned to break through the congestion on a motorbike taxi, but the usual crew of drivers-for-hire on my street had vanished. I don't know for sure if they'd gone to join the anti-establishment protests. But given the stickers reading "Does the Blood of Peasants Have No Worth?!" that have recently appeared on their motorbikes, well, let's call it a hunch.
Once I finally arrived at the site via elevated train, the protest was rocking. Visually, the rally struck just the commoner-aristocrat juxtaposition its planners were looking for.
There were no perfectly quaffed shopping princesses here, but plenty of protesters in shirts reading "COMMONER" (in Thai, of course) at the base of towering malls and spendy trattorias. This guy was camped out by a display ad featuring a windswept blond fondling her Gucci purse.
Clearly, the government and the military can't allow the ongoing occupation of Bangkok's premier shopping district. Protesters have promised to return home if the prime minister dissolves parliament immediately, but he's said that would take at least nine months. Even the threat of prison terms for protesters who remain encamped has failed to scare them off.
So now it's military intervention time. But cracking down on the Red Shirts, even after they've been warned time and again, is a more delicate situation than you might think.
In America, if a throng of protesters tried to invade the White House or Capitol building, they'd probably end up dead or in the ICU ward. Moreover, the soldiers who shot them would probably be hailed as heroes on cable news networks.
But as I've explained before, Buddhist-driven Thai society tends to award the moral high ground to whichever side appears on the evening news carrying out the broken, bleeding body of their comrades. Tolerance for bloodshed here is very low. At this point, a guns-blazing crackdown is probably out of the question.
So why not flush them out with water cannons? Or use this recently acquired device: a sonic cannon that blasts your eardrums with painful sounds waves? (I snapped this photo outside the prime minister's house shortly before protesters doused his driveway with human blood. The device was not used that day.)
The army and police have threatened to do all of that. But they're also aware that these rally sites are full of small children and elderly women. If a sound cannon goes off, newspapers and TV outlets will be displaying photos of cute kids cupping their ears in pain.
Around 1 a.m. last night, just before I caught a motorbike taxi ride home, I captured a bit of the street scene on video. See that little kid bopping around to bad techno near one of Thailand's busiest intersections? You may question the parenting style of a dad who brings his children out during a state of emergency as a crackdown feels imminent.
But now that grandma and the kids are there, do you really want to see soldiers blow them down the street with high-powered water hoses? Neither does the Thai government.