The blood may be washed off the streets, but the Land of Smiles could take years to recover.
by Peter Delevett, an award-winning travel writer and editor at the San Jose Mercury News. His 14-month, 14-country backpacking trek through Asia and Europe formed the basis of the forthcoming travel memoir, Walking on the Moon. He and his family live in one of America’s three remaining Japantowns.
Some of us, if we’re lucky, find a moment where what we’re meant to do in the world clicks into focus. For me, it was the spring of 1992, when I was laid up for six weeks in Bangkok with Dengue fever.
Stuck in bed, muscles aching from “breakbone fever,” I huddled in my cheap guesthouse each morning with the English-language newspapers, following a political inferno that had raged for months. The elected government had been toppled with the excuse of cleaning out corrupt officials. The coup leaders had hand-picked a senate and forced through a bogus new constitution, and shortly after I’d gotten to town, the junta named a general prime minister.
The local papers had refused to take this lying down. While government-controlled TV insisted there was nothing to see here, the Nation and the Bangkok Post stubbornly reported on the students and housewives and yuppies who were taking to the streets in increasing numbers each day. It seemed a virtuous cycle: the papers reporting on the protests, the protests growing larger as people read and saw what was happening to their country.
I was 22, not quite a year out of college, and struggling with what to do with myself. Journalism had always seemed my calling – I come from a family of newspapermen and women – and I’d worked on school papers since I was nine. Still, after graduation I’d decided to backpack for a year around Asia, and the more I’d traveled, the more I wanted to – seduced by the endless rhythm of the backpacker circuit, terrified of being locked in a cubicle.
So the events of Black May moved me deeply, the courage of those students and housewives and yuppies who kept taking to the streets even when the soldiers opened fire, when the streets ran red. And, especially, the courage of those journalists putting their lives on the line to tell the truth, until finally – miraculously – Thailand’s wildly popular king stood and called, enough. The junta was forced to bow, knowing that to go against him would bring the entire country out in force.
King Bhumibol’s photo adorns every Thai home and business in which I’ve ever set foot; the first time I went to a Bangkok cinema, I was amazed when before the show the king’s image strode across the screen and the Thais all stood to honor him. And as I watched the general surrendering to this quiet man-god, literally crawling to him in humiliation, tears came to my eyes. “The Thais have won,” I wrote then, “and dictators everywhere must quiver.”
I’ve spent most of the two decades since as a newspaper reporter and editor. American democracy isn’t quite so fragile as Thailand’s – nobody took to the streets with guns and Molotov cocktails after our 2000 election – but I like to think that what I do still makes a difference in society, helps to keep politicians honest and people informed of how their money is spent.
Which is why the Bangkok riots of this past spring wounded me so. Thailand has pretty much been a mess the past four years, since a military coup overthrew another prime minister. This past spring’s violence – the worst since that horrible, magical spring in 1992 that I watched entranced – claimed close to 100 lives, and this month the government extended a state of emergency.
The blood may be washed off the streets, but many veteran expats say the Land of Smiles could take years to recover.