Nick Curry

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Anti-Thaksin rally in Bangkok

On the way back home today (well, back to the gym that is), I had the good fortune of happening upon an anti-Thaksin rally in front of the Royal Palace just as I was changing buses. I had wanted to assist to one of these last time I was here, but at the time the location was changing constantly, and to be quite frank I had assumed they had petered out.

Some background on these: Thaksin Shinawatra is the Prime Minister of Thailand, and comes from the richest family in Thailand. Around a year ago, Sondhi Limthongkul started criticising Thaksin on his daily TV show on public Channel 9, following which the show was axed. Sondhi then took his show on the road in protest, alleging that the Prime Minister had ordered television execs to boot him off TV. He started staging the show at Lumpini Park in central Bangkok, and has taken it around Thailand, culminating in a march on February 4th to submit a petition to oust the PM.

At first, most thought Sondhi’s criticisms were the result of personal antagonism resulting from some of the PM’s decisions going against Sondhi’s business interests, Sondhi being a bit of a mogul himself. However, the show quickly gathered momentum in Bangkok, with numbers purported to exceed the 100′000 mark turning up at Lumpini to assist to his show. Following an intervention by the King, the numbers attending had dwindled earlier this year, and the Feb 4th march was thought to be a face-saving “soft landing”, allowing Sondhi to make a final gesture without the embarassment of putting on a show to an inexistent audience. However, following Thaksin’s January 24th sale of Shin Corp and the ensuing slow-burning rage, numbers are on the up again and groups which had previously ignored Sondhi, such as school and university teachers, are now turning out to support him.

Tonight, the crow had turned out in force, but the overall feeling at the venue was calm. Although people obviously felt strongly about the cause they were supporting, decked out in yellow headbans and t-shirts and waving yellow and Thai national flags, what greatly surprised me compared to similar demonstrations I had seen in Paris or London was the peacefulness of the crowd. Everyone was sitting down and listening to the show, but there was not even a hint of violence, something I had never experienced in Europe. After walking around for a while I started chatting to one of the demonstrators/audience member, who told me he had driven over a couple of hours just to see the show. He was curious as to how much I knew of the reasons people had for demonstrating (I had been reading the papers for the past couple of months, so was reasonably well informed), and compared this protest to the recent ones in France. I couldn’t help but disagree - the two were for different reasons and were carried out in different ways, hopefully also with different results. As I wandered around the crowd, I noticed how diverse the audience members were - old, young, from all social classes, mothers with their children, couples, grandfathers, upper-middle class middle-aged couples, all waving yellow flags and cheering or laughing at the speaches. Nothing could have been more different than the desperate riots that rocked the French suburbs for a month or so late last year.

I didn’t stay long as I couldn’t make out the speeches - everything was, naturally, in Thai. But I did notice the TV cameras (Sondhi airs the show on his own satellite channel and spreads them on VCD) and also the free refreshments being given out, the sound and lighting systems, and though I agreed corruption should be stamped out I could not keep from wondering who was paying for all of this.

posted by Nick at 10:49 am  

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Luang Prabang

I arrived in Luang Prabang yesterday, taking the plane from Chiang Mai. I therefore skipped the Chiang Mai - Chiang Rai - Huay Xai (Laos) - Luang Prabang trip most backpackers do, the last part of which is normally travelled by boat. So, Luang Prabang is the first I see of Laos, and I must admit I am a little disappointed - the scenery around Luang Prabang is amazing, with the Mekong rever running by it and the lush green karst mountains surrounding it, and the city itself is a collection of mostly tradition wooden housing, but most of these have been converted to guesthouses. The town is almost entirely geared towards the tourist trade, the night market contains nothing but tourist fare (no food or other catering to locals, except a couple of stands selling Thai CDs). There are a lot of theravada monks in orange robes running around, which makes for great photos, but it’s hard to get a feel for a place which seems like it only exists for tourists.

So, the main thing to do here is see the sights (the beautiful Wat Xieng Thong and the surprisingly understated Royal Palace), eat baguettes and coffee, and shop - there is not much else to do (although it might be possible to illegally rent a moped and explore surrounding villages, will have to check that out). Might as well take advantage of what there is though- I’m planning to leave on Friday, making it three days here, which sounds like just about as much baguettes and coffee as I can eat…

posted by Nick at 11:41 am  

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