Sunday, May 23, 2010

Red Shirts in Bangkok – Penfold’s assessment

Thailand is not known for its gentle handling of protesters and those who voice dissent and this has been clearly displayed during the recent political unrest.

The inability, of government and Red Shirt leaders, to reach a peaceful conclusion to the whole sorry affair has largely been to do with the fact that they are unwilling to compromise or change their stance, for fear of losing “face” among their respective supporters.

In Thailand, as with many Asian cultures, the concept of face is deeply ingrained in society. In terms of Western values, face is similar to the notion of reputation or your standing within society. It equates to your social value and is a dynamic that occurs in both personal and business relationships.

The concept of “face” is not hard to understand because, even in the West, everyone likes to be seen in a positive light. Although many Westerners in Thailand do find it difficult to understand the lengths Thai people go to save face. Rather than admit to a mistake or seek a compromise they will do everything within their power to ensure they are not the ones who lose face.

I recently read that one of the stumbling blocks to securing an agreement to end the violence was that nobody wanted to accept responsibility for the deaths of protestors. This is a prime example of how “face” can be a serious problem. The violence could have been stopped, if certain individuals accepted culpability, but Prime Minister Abhisit didn’t want his government’s reputation tarnished and the Red Shirts refused to drop the matter for fear of looking weak.

So, the two sides remained at loggerheads and all the while the Red Shirts were occupying central Bangkok, government security force were engaging in indiscriminate violence and people continued to die.

Instead of diffusing the tension by diplomacy and negotiations both sides resorted to violence and what started as a political protest risked becoming a full blown insurrection.

But, as many observers will tell you, this is not the first time that a political dispute has caused death and bloodshed and it certainly won’t be the last, until Thailand’s deep-seated divisions and social inequalities are tackled.

Whilst Thailand is far from being a failed state it is on the edge of a very slippery slope and needs to take a step back and reflect. The violence does little help the country’s economy, with tourists staying away in droves, businesses and factories being forced to close and investors rapidly losing confidence. Any further damage, to the already weakened economy, will add to the woes of Thailand’s impoverished masses and could be a catalyst for future hostility.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Red Shirts in Bangkok – The beginning of the end?

With buildings burning and tanks rolling into the centre of Bangkok, the Red Shirt leaders have decided enough is enough and have surrendered to the police. It would seem that this is the beginning of the end for the hardcore of Red Shirt protestors who remain. However, this is not the end of the Red Shirt movement.

By sending the army to storm the Red Shirt compound and forcibly remove the demonstrators, the government is attempting to restore control and end weeks of unrest that has paralysed large parts of the city, but ending the demonstrations is a futile gesture, without endeavouring to acknowledge or address the massive social inequalities that are at root of the problem.

Life in Bangkok will return to normal for its inhabitants and the yellow shirts will quickly forget the issues facing the poor and disenfranchised, who constitute most of the Red Shirt movement and the Red Shirts themselves will go back to their farms or factory jobs, but the under-currents of tension and hostility will remain.

I liken Thailand to a volcano waiting to explode. The recent events have caused minor tremors but are merely a prelude to a major, devastating eruption that will have far reaching consequences, if the current government doesn’t act soon to tackle the divisions in society.

Thailand is at a cross roads and it is up to the government to chose the right path. Despite the months of protests, they have one of greatest opportunities in the last 50 years to make Thailand a fairer and more just society.

However, politics in Thailand is fraught with scandal, corruption and nepotism and many of those in the political establishment don’t have the courage or will to tackle the problems of mass poverty and deprivation and would rather bury their head in the sand and use their position to line their own pockets. But, by doing this they are storing up problems for the future and failing yet another generation.

Thailand will eventually drag itself into the modern political world, but more violence and blood-shed will occur before the ruling classes awake from their apathy and realise that we are in the 21st Century and even the poorest members of society have fundamental rights that can’t be ignored.

For more reports, updates and background information the following links are well worth a read

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Slum Angel

Many of you will be familiar with Mother Theresa, whose work with street children, among the slums of Calcutta brought her worldwide fame and adulation, but few of you, outside Thailand, will have heard of Prateep Ungsongtham Hata.

Khun Prateep, known as the “Slum Angel”, for her tireless campaigning, aimed at improving the lives of slum dwellers in Bangkok’s Klong Toey district, was herself born and raised in the squalor of this sprawling shanty town.

Consisting of tin huts and open sewers, Klong Toey is home to an estimated 100,000 people and is rife with unemployment, illiteracy, disease and drug abuse. The people live a precarious existence, often without basic amenities and have very few legal rights.

Despite the profound social problems Khun Prateep has, over the last 35 years, managed to nurture hope and give those living in Klong Toey the chance of a better life through the power of education.

Khun Prateep, in spite of her humble beginnings, was able to fund her way through night school and win a place at prestigious Suan Dusit Teacher Training College. In 1968, alongside her studies, she opened an informal school to help the children within her community.

She first came into the public eye, in 1976, when the Port Authority of Thailand served eviction notices on her school and hundreds of her neighbour’s houses. She lobbied the PAT and the government to reach a compromise and a new site was found for the inhabitants homes and her school was officially recognised.

Two years later, the Duang Prateep or “Flame of Enlightenment” Foundation, was established, aimed at directly tackling the issues of poverty and deprivation, together with raising awareness of the plight of the people living in Klong Toey.

Today, the organisation is still going strong and has helped thousand’s of people escape from the vicious circle of deprivation and disenfranchisement.

Many foreign visitors have volunteered at the foundation over the years and if you are going to do any charitable work when you’re next in Thailand then Duang Prateep, is as good a place as any!!!

If you would like to know more about Prateep Ungsongtham Hata, the Duang Prateep foundation or to find out about volunteering opportunities then please visit their website…..

For more general information the following websites are very useful…..

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Thai Smile

For many years Thailand has been affectionately known as the "Land of smiles" and to foreign tourists it's easy to see why.

No matter where you go or who you visit you will almost certainly be greeted with a warm smile, except, that is, by immigration officials!!!

In most Western countries, when you smile it means you're conveying a sense happiness or contentment. So, does this mean that all Thai's are happy or is there more to the Thai smile than meets the eye?

The Thai smile or "Yim" is complex function and can have many different meanings. It might convey pleasure or happiness, but, Thai's also smile when they feel negative emotions, such as confusion, anxiety and even anger!!!

Understandably, this can be confusing to foreign visitors and particularly those in the early stages of a relationship with a Thai person!!!! But, thankfully it does get easier to read the situation, the more time you spend in Thailand or in the company of Thai people.

In Thai culture, avoiding conflict, saving face and maintaning a social balance are fundamentally important. When you start to understand this aspect of the culture, you begin to see why Thai people smile even in situations that might be perceived as negative. If you try to understand the Thai smile, it will give you a fascinating insight into the Thai psyche.

I don't pretend to know all the subtleties of the Thai smile. However, in the following paragraphs I have listed some of my observations to try and give you a better idea of the true meaning behind the smile!!!

1) The "I'm very sorry for the mistake smile".

This is a very common occurence and you will often see it from service staff!!! For example, if you're in a restaurant and your waitress has brought you the wrong meal or when your airline loses your luggage!!!!

This can often cause anger and resentment among tourists who may think their problem isn't being taken seriously, when all the Thai person is trying to do, is apologise to you!!!!

2) The "I don't understand what you mean smile".

This often happens just after "I'm very sorry for the mistake" smile. For example your waitress has failed to understand what you have actually ordered for a second time!!!

It can further compound the sense of anger felt by the tourist who thinks they have made a very simple request and the Thai person is not making an effort to understand!!!!

But do remember that with this smile they are asking for your patience and understanding!!!!

3) The "please don't get angry with me smile".

For example, if you are in a bar and a Thai person bumps into to and spills your drink. They will quickly smile to express their regret and to offer you an apology.

However, this can easily be misinterpreted by Westerners. If you're in a pub in England and someone grins at you like a buffoon after spilling a drink down you're shirt, there is every liklihood that a fight will ensue!!!!

4) The "I'm incredibly shy or embarrassed smile".

This is a smile you will often see among children, youngsters or people who feel awkward in social sitautions.

School children might give you this smile if you ask them to stand up and talk in front of the class and I have also seen this smile when complimenting someone!!!!

This may also occur, for example, to take the awkwardness out of an embarassing situation!!!

If you fall over, a Thai person will smile, not because they are laughing at you, but to stop you from feeling silly!!!!

5) The "I'm going to fecking kill you smile".

You will see this smile, for example, if you have been in a road traffic accident and you argue with the Thai driver, causing them to lose face.

Thai people have incredible self-control and are extremely non-confrontational but even the most laid back person has their breaking point!!! Believe me, you don't want to be anywhere near a Thai person when they fly into an uncontrollable rage!!!

If you see this smile, you must leave quickly and not inflame the situation further!!!

6) The "I'm about to completely fleece you and you don't even realise smile"

This smile can be seen anywhere a financial transaction is going to take place and believe me you will pick up on this very quickly!!!

7) The "Mai Pen Rai or that's life smile".

This smile is very easy to understand and is used in tragic, difficult or trying circumstances.

The dog died, never mind, smile!!!! I've just contracted malaria, never mind, smile!!!! The wife is leaving and taking the house, never mind, smile.......I think you get the gyst of this one!!!!

An excellent website, on this very interesting topic, can be accessed by clicking the following link.......

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Red Shirts in Bangkok - A city on edge

Thailand's pro-government supporters claim they have staged co-ordinated rallies at over 40 military bases across the country, calling for the military to crackdown on the Red Shirts, claiming their protests are "illegal". The claim has yet to be independently verified, but what can't be disputed is that the situation continues to deteriorate.

The VOA (Voice of America) have published an interesting article on their website, about these new developments. You can access this information by clicking this link.

The British government have also updated their website to advise citizens against travelling to Thailand. For the the latest Foreign & Commonwealth Office news please click here......

A soldier was killed on 28th April, and early reports suggest that he was accidently shot by comrades, in a so-called "friendly fire " incident, when troops opened fire on a large group of Red Shirts heading towards a market on pickup trucks and motorbikes. At least 27 people have reportedly been killed and it has been estimated that nearly one thousand have been injured since the Red Shirts began the protests.

Thai security forces are not renowned for their constraint at the best of times and when their comrades are killed, this increases the likelihood that the current demonstrations will end in death and destruction. Unfortunately, there is a long list of protests in recent history, that have ended in mass blood-shed.

So far far the violence has been confined to Bangkok, but if it starts spreading to other parts of the country, then the government will be in a very difficult position and may have to end the stand-off using force, which so far they have been reluctant to do. If the government decides to introduce martial law, then this will give the opposition the excuse they need to resort to violence. It is not often that I feel sorry for governments, but on this occassion, Prime Minister Abhisit finds himself in an impossible position.

Whilst the situation continues and coupled with the disruption to air travel caused the recent volcanic eruption in Iceland, it will take many months, if not years, for Thailand's tourist industry to recover and it will have a lasting impact on the whole economy.

I have been hearing reports that in the last 24 hours, the Silom centre branch of McDonalds has been bombed. What philistines, is nothing scared? Any customers in the outlet at the time certainly wouldn't have been "loving it"!!!

But thank goodness it wasn't KFC.... so every cloud has a silver lining!!!