It’s been a terrible couple of months here in Thailand. As you’ve probably seen in the headlines, parts of typically friendly and laid-back Bangkok looked like a war zone last week. From my apartment in central Bangkok, just a couple of blocks from the main protest area, I could hear shots and explosions as anti-government protesters, who had been occupying areas of central Bangkok for two months, were pushed out by military troops on May 19th. As protesters were disbanding, arsonists set fire to more than 30 buildings in the capital, targeting malls, movie theatres and banks. Bangkok’s skyline filled with columns of smoke but it wasn’t the property damage that was the most shocking or tragic part. In a one-week period leading up to and including the military operation, more than 50 people, mostly civilians and at least one journalist, were killed and hundreds more injured.
As the dust settles and cleanup begins, everyone is trying to make sense of the current situation.And the upheaval was not just confined to Bangkok. Provinces in Northern Thailand, Northeast Thailand and Central Thailand also saw riots and attacks on government buildings, though fortunately there were no additional deaths reported.
The Thai government has imposed a strict curfew until this Sunday. Armed soldiers are patrolling the streets and dozens of embassies, including the US embassy, have issued travel warnings advising their citizens to avoid Thailand unless absolutely necessary.
Thailand is no stranger to political instability–there have been 17 coups in the past 70 years, the last in 2005, but it’s been decades since there was violence on this scale. And while this week’s military action put an end to protests, nothing has been done to address the deep social, economic and regional rifts that started them the first place.
As the dust settles and cleanup begins, everyone is trying to make sense of the current situation. Some political analysts say Thailand has changed forever and the “Land of Smiles” is a thing of the past. Others are more hopeful and believe that the Thai people can and will work through the issues brought to light by the protests and reconcile with one another.
I’m not sure what the future holds for Thailand. People are saddened and shocked by recent events and there isn’t a lot of smiling going on in Bangkok right now. But the Thai people’s general openness and kindness towards strangers has not changed a bit. Even the soldiers, a menacing presence in any situation, have been generally kind – one offered me a cold bottle of water yesterday while I was out walking my dog.
Much of the country, even Bangkok, is the same wonderful place it has always been for visitors and when things stabilize (hopefully in the next week or so) there’s no reason to skip a visit here.