Saturday, May 22, 2010

So they flew the Super-Constellation all the way from Rimini / And feasted them on fish and chips from a newspaper facsimile

What a very odd few months it has been.

What a surreal few weeks.

Both gross understatement I think, but better that than gross overstatement. I think odd and surreal describe the extended period better than any adjectives that imply bloodshed, disaster, civil mayhem or urban warfare.

There have been those much reported moments of awfulness too but mostly those were limited to four bloody bursts with extended periods of stalemate, which when they came were truly horrific, even sitting on the outside looking in as a (close) observer who could, this last week, see the smoke rising a few kilometres away, whilst, however, pretty much everything in our almost completely Thai suburb, seemed day to day to be as it always was, which of course gave it another level of surealness.

And indeed that was the way for 90% of this city, where life was largely unaffected until the very last few days when a curfew and the curtailing of train services finally intruded into the rest of the town.

However if you read the voluminous posts from much of the international media you could be forgiven for thinking that Bangkok, and indeed Thailand, had turned into some huge war-zone, with The Times in one report calling Bangkok a 21st Century Sarajevo for god's sake, which was not only inane but plain irresponsible. CNN said Bangkok was almost unrecognisable after four days of clashes. Really? I guess the ten million or so here missed that bit as they mostly went about their daily lives, although for others, inside the more troubled zones, life changed a lot, and, even more so for the thousands who were trapped without power and water for 48 hours or more as chaos ranged outside their doors.

For a better commentary on this, I point you towards this pretty convincing and well argued blog post from Somtow's World:

There is one final element that must be mentioned. Most are not even aware of it. But there is, in the western mindset, a deeply ingrained sense of the moral superiority of western culture which carries with it the idea that a third world country must by its very nature be ruled by despots, oppress peasants, and kill and torture people. Most westerners become very insulted when this is pointed out to them because our deepest prejudices are always those of which we are least aware. I believe that there is a streak of this crypto-racism in some of the reportage we are seeing in the west. It is because of this that Baghdad, Yangon, and Bangkok are being treated as the same thing.

I found the repeated claims of a descent into civil war made by offshore media and, much worse, the more idiotic non-professional commentators had the same taint, especially when you, with even a little bit of research would likely come to the same conclusion that this poll (conducted by a reputable University, not any governmental organisation) arrived at: 74.5% of Thais support the current government's road map. This may well develop into an uglier situation and standoff, but it is not there yet.

I was amused by this, from a Thai English language news parody site:

Finally reaching the nearest fire, a smoldering noodle shop on Rama IV, they piggy-backed on the hard work of locally based correspondents who had been covering the story for months and years, been shot at and risked their lives.

Funny but oh so true, more than a few journalists arrived at the airport, donned a flak jacket and were instant experts.

As this story approached the end of this particular stage (you would be nuts to think that this anything close to over) there seems to be some sort of consensus that only one network or major news-outlet that came out of this with reputation more or less intact, Al-Jazeerra, who not only seemed to actually capture the story correctly as it happened but didn't fall into the cliches about despotic third world governments and selfless unarmed freedom fighters for democracy. CNN, BBC, The Guardian, The Times, Reuters, AP and others all got a huge fail in their attempts to add perspective. The NYT seems to have been unable to work out exactly what was going on so gave up. Foxnews were unable to work out if Thai people came from Taiwan and couldn't find that on the map either so decided to concentrate on the bigger story: an Arab-American Miss USA. CBS went even further with that and decided to work out if this had an impact on national security, good grief......

Fortunately you could, and indeed were wise to, largely ignore the traditional media as this (Bangkok, not Miss USA) was a incident, or more correctly, series of increasingly violent incidents that were utterly dominated by the newer media. The reporting from Bangkok in the past weeks was completely owned by Twitter, supported strongly by Facebook and YouTube, perhaps more so than even Iran a year earlier, given the deep penetration of smart phones in this society. The traditional news services and wires were largely irrelevant to the ceaseless and immediate flow of news, information, data and propaganda. Indeed, if you relied on those services you were way behind the day's flow. Brigid, three days back, commented to me that the story being run by the New Zealand Herald was such old news, and I had to point out that it was Reuters sourced and correct about twelve hours earlier, but the torrent of instant twitters, with images and video, made it seem like such ancient history.

The visuals on various blogs and twitter services like TweetPhoto and Yfrog were both incredible and instantly broadcast globally, and, yes, made mostly from phones, although the odd more traditional site provided some incredible imagery, with deserving some special mention.

I've had an endless stream of emails from from all over the world asking if we were ok. I think it's fair to say that not for a moment did we feel threatened and there was never an inclination to leave, with pretty much the whole expat community, outside the immediate central zone where this mostly took place, sitting tight and sharing that sentiment. The streets around our part of upper Sukhumvit were never less than bustling with people of all races throughout this.

And the questions as to whether we regretted leaving Bali seven months ago have the same answer: no, not at all, not for a second, quite the opposite. For all the awfulness of the past two months, this is still a wonderful country and city; and unlike Bali where we were very much targets, you simply don't have to live with the oft stated 'it's not a matter of if but when' that you hear everywhere there, from Indonesians and foreigners alike.

Now, I guess we wait.


Will Robe said...

I wish you'd post little bit more about this.

I worked as a journo in Indonesia for several years, and always found your commentary on Indonesian life refreshing and insightful.

Too often the international press takes the hysterical position, ramps shit up in order to get their stories pulled from the wire; it's a shame you don't have a column somewhere... but that's the press.

I'd greatly appreciate a more regular post from you regarding the red & yellow in Bangkok.


Simon said...

Cheers Will. I've been rather busy with a couple of projects and have not posted recently as much as I perhaps wanted to, but I appreciate the feedback.

I'm actually working on an extended commissioned piece on Indonesia right now. As I'm sure you know It's an odd and confused country, in that as much as you want it to succeed it seems to be its own very worst enemy. The ugly political stuff in Jakarta right now seems to have turned a corner back towards the cronyism and personal fiefdoms of the late 20th Century, at the expensive of the masses. It's sad to watch it happening all over again. All you can do is hope, but I fear it's a much bigger powderkeg than Thailand.

Thailand seems to understand more the balancing act it needs to perform, even if it took the shock of the last few months to really drive that home.

Will Robe said...

Yes. If you have any heart it becomes impossible to live there, eventually. Or at least I found that.

It is a tragically unhealthy place. I felt that living there was like being privy to constant bullying, or torture-specifically some kind of water torture or death-by-a-thousand-cuts. Impossible to stomach, impossible to understand, and impossible to stop. Maybe it is being too kind to the long-termers, but that's a pretty admirable sort of reason for alcoholism as reasons for alcoholism go.

How can the Indonesian upperclasses have such callous disregard for their own country? They will leave their grandchildren with nothing to steal. At least the rich in most other countries, bar some African countries, make sure to leave enough for their children to plunder.

We used to joke a lot about the reason for their disregard. Perhaps Allah had informed the top-tier that the country was going to be destroyed in 50 years, in order that devotes wealthy enough to fund mosques could decamp to Germany or Dubai and build him mosques there, in two of the wealthiest's favorite playgrounds. Sadly, probably, not far from the truth: In half a century the country will be better off obliterated, the weathy will have left with the country's wealth and a merciful God will continue to not exist (as the top-tier continue to pray for their good fortune).

I was robbed twice on the way out of the country: first by a policeman and then by a customs official. They seem to have a unique talent at spotting bules who are late for international flights.

Still, I have the strongest craving for a plate of fried cow's lung this afternoon.

Thailand does seem a much better bet in the long-run.