A TALE OF THREE CITIES: BANGKOK, SEOUL, and WASHINGTON D.C.
by Ralph Karst
(all photographs by Ralph Karst)
On my way to spend a few weeks in India with Eli Toast, I stopped for a few days in Thailand. My arrival in the Land of Smiles coincided with the latest episode in the long-running farce/tragedy known as Thai democracy. For the past several months, Thailand has been wracked with protests, mostly centered in Bangkok, the country’s capital and overwhelmingly largest city.
I was staying in the Sukhumvit Avenue area, up near the Nana intersection. Anybody who has been down there will attest that the streets, sidewalks and intersections of Sukhumvit Ave. certainly don’t need any extra help in the “vibrant and colorful” department. Any day—morning, noon and night—that street is a steamy, rollicking carnival of commerce and confusion. Tourists and expats from dozens of countries jostle with locals amid the food carts, street stalls, trinket peddlers, and sidewalk bars, with non-stop taxis, tuk-tuks and buses roaring by, and the Skytrain rumbling through on elevated tracks overhead. Come sundown, and the city’s notorious sex trade switches on the neon lights and takes up its seedy strut. Faster, Sukhumvit, Kill! Kill!
So imagine adding to this heady mix a healthy dose of political protests—a whiff of revolution, even. One morning, I exited my hotel to witness a ramshackle parade of pickup trucks, motorbikes, and tuk-tuks, most of them decked-out with Thai flags and packed with boisterous Thais, most of whom were blowing whistles, shouting, waving, and fist-pumping.
This wasn’t unexpected—I knew from The Bangkok Post that this was the day that the protests were scheduled to fan out from the Democracy Monument near Khao Sahn Road to a number of strategic intersections throughout the city, where they would stop traffic and set up “Occupy”-style encampments. The nearest targeted intersection to me was Asok—a massive crossroads that had a Skytrain stop, a subway stop, a number of large hotels and shopping centers, and was near the entrance to Soi Cowboy, one of the prime go-go bar areas.
After breakfast, I walked down to Asok to check out the scene, not really knowing what to expect. Well, the intersection was closed down, alright. A tent city had sprung up, food stalls and “Shut Down Bangkok!” souvenir vendors were everywhere. A huge concert stage replete with big video screens was going up. Clearly, this protest had some money behind it. Barricades were set-up in all four directions. Police were nowhere in sight. Tourists, me included, were not turned away or discouraged at all from walking into the protest site. At first I observed it all overhead from the Skytrain station and overpass, but soon I walked down and went through the barricade passes without anybody giving me a second glance. Things were obviously just getting started, but the whole thing had a cheery, festive atmosphere. There had been violence elsewhere in the city in the previous weeks, but the word was that the cops (and military) were going to let the protesters do their thing for the time being. The protest movement had pledged not to disrupt the Skytrain, subway, or the airports—can’t mess with flow of tourist dollars, after all.
That evening, I walked down again. Soi Cowboy was open for business as usual—a kaleidoscope of neon and Thai go-go girls and sex tourists and pumping music and Wayne fucking Rooney on the TV screens everywhere. Yet where Soi Cowboy met the main Asok road, there was now a full-on rally going on, with the intersection jammed with thousands of protesters. Frankly, it didn’t seem that political. It was more like a big open-air concert / block party. There were traditional Thai dancers, B-boy dance crews, folk singers, etc., but occasionally a speaker would get up and whip the crowd into a frenzy of deafening whistle-blowing with some fiery rhetoric, the huge speakers and video screens carrying his voice and image hundreds of meters out in all four directions of the intersection.
As I said, it was a peaceful gathering, and I saw many foreigners gawking, walking to and fro, snapping pics, and filming. Still, I imagined what this and the other occupied intersections were doing to the city’s notoriously awful traffic jams. A few times after the “Occupy” thing kicked off, I took the Skytrain down Sukhumvit, and the normally moderately packed train cars now featured almost neutron star levels of density. I couldn’t fathom what the traffic was like in the areas closest to the rerouted, shutdown intersections. As peaceful and festive as things seemed, these folks were definitely fucking things up. The day before I left for India, this amazing thought wandered through my mind: “Whew! I’m glad I’m flying to Kolkata to escape this craziness!”
The roots of the current Thai turmoil are complex; you can read about it elsewhere, but I’ll try to nutshell it: Thailand’s social and economic elite (which is to say, Bangkok’s elite) are at loggerheads with the current Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra. Shinawatra is the sister of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who was booted by a military coup and convicted of various corruption charges by the Thai Supreme Court, and who now lives in exile in the U.K. The Shinawatra family are seen to have bought their way into power courtesy of their family’s fabulously huge business wealth, which they have allegedly spread around Thailand’s poor northern and eastern areas into to buy influence and votes. New elections are scheduled shortly, but the protesters believe that the Shinawatra clan will just rig it again by basically bribing the poor(er) rural majority to vote for them. The protesters want to delay the election by several months, and in the meantime, reconfigure the National Assembly not with elected officials, but with appointed figures representing various professions. This results in the paradoxical position of the people actually crying out for less democracy, not more.
So, as I enjoyed a leisurely walkabout the Indian sub-continent with Mr. Toast, I pondered the Thailand political mess, comparing it with the landscape back in South Korea, and in my homeland of America. Which country’s politics are more fucked up? Let’s take a look!
South Korea has its notorious brawling National Assembly; a current president who’s the daughter of the former military dictator who was assassinated; a recent election featuring charges of the country’s spy agency filling internet chat-rooms with pro-Park Geun-hye/anti-Moon Jae-in messages; the inevitable shoddy cover-up of said spy scandal; a recent former president who, under bribery investigation, killed himself by jumping off a cliff; and a fringe left-wing party who was caught on tape plotting sabotage to aid a North Korean invasion. Oh, and the President’s press secretary basically sexually assaulted a Korean-American press assistant during the President’s first state visit to the U.S. Not bad! Can you top that, Mr. and Mrs. America, and all the ships at sea?
Well, America only features a government that recently shut itself down over a few ticks of increases or decreases in taxation and spending. Plus we have a current opposition party who have openly declared that their only agenda is to make the current president fail, badly, by opposing everything he proposes from major policy overhauls to nominees for dog catcher. We increasingly have elections that many see are wholly illegitimate—sometimes with good reason (2000, Bush vs. Gore), and sometimes without (Obama vs. the “birther” nut jobs). Republican state legislators in swing states like Florida and Ohio continuously vie to pass election laws designed to disenfranchise voters likely to vote Democratic. On top of that, our calendar is studded with gun massacres in schools and movie theaters that mostly result in—less strict gun control laws!
And Thailand? Well, in addition to the above-mentioned chaos, I’ll give you one fact to sum it all up: since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, it has had by some counts, 11 successful and 9 attempted coups. Welcome to Thailand—it’s coup-rific!
In looking at these three countries, what strikes me as key factor is the level of economic polarization. Thailand has allowed itself to become a country where wealth and power is overwhelmingly centered in its capital city, to the detriment of the majority rural poor. For all of the current “Occupy Bangkok!” protestors’ cries of corruption in the current government, international corruption indexes and watchdogs have found that Thailand hasn’t become any more or less corrupt with the Shinawatra regime. Really, it boils down to the rich, well-connected elite bristling at the effrontery that the rural poor might, you know, actually vote for people who want to help them.
South Korea might seem, on the surface, to be similar. Like Bangkok, Seoul holds about a quarter of the country’s population. South Korea’s politics, media, entertainment and arts are overwhelmingly based in Seoul. If you live in any other city for a period of time, you will see the brain drain as talented people, especially young college grads, in any given field, gravitate toward Seoul and its suburbs.
However, it’s not quite so simple. South Korea, of course, with its export-oriented heavy industry and electronics, has created a huge middle class, a middle class that rose up and banished the military dictatorship once and for all in the late 1980s. Park Chung-hee, whatever his faults may have been (and he had many), spread the truck around quite a bit. Pohang has POSCO. Ulsan has Haeundae shipbuilding. Busan has the country’s biggest port. Samsung has factories all around the country. Korea’s 2nd tier cities (Busan, Incheon, Daejeon, Daegu, Gwangju) and even 3rd-tier cities (Cheonan, Gumi, Suwon, Jeonju, etc.) don’t feature the vast differentiation in development and infrastructure that you see between Bangkok and everywhere else in Thailand. In Thailand, after Bangkok (8 million city, 14 million metro area) the next biggest city is Nonthaburi, at about 250,000. That’s a continental shelf-level drop-off.
Americans—we like to shake our heads at the apocalyptic scenes popping up on CNN: snipers picking off civilians in the Maidan in the Ukraine, rows of nerve-gassed corpses in Syria, burning buildings in Tahir Square, Cairo. America’s greatest assets are its transparent (relatively) economic, political, and legal system, and its political stability. Transfers of power are democratically determined and accepted as legitimate.
And yet,frankly—and incredibly—I feel it’s America, not South Korea, that has the greatest danger of experiencing Thailand-style upheaval in the near future. All economic evidence points to a huge and accelerating inequality gap in the U.S. Since the 1970s, each economic crisis seems to have re-jiggered the system increasingly in favor of the rich and against the poor. Obama has tried to make this a salient issue, but the Republicans have so hobbled him in the budget wars that any kind of massive social spending to address gaps in either opportunity or outcomes are well nigh impossible. The political, social, and cultural cracks are widening, the rancor and bitterness in our political discourse is becoming more noxious than I can recall.
Economists have demonstrated that income inequality leads to inefficiency. I won’t delve into their arguments, but on the surface, the idea makes sense. Which is better if you’re making, say, $500,000 a year—paying an extra $10,000 a year in taxes to help pay for better schools and affordable health care for all, or paying $100,000 for private school for your kids, bodyguards, home security systems, guns, and kidnapping insurance? Republicans love to say that Obama and the Dimmycrats want to turn the U.S. into Greece. Well, how about not turning us into Venezuela, Republicans?
O.K., pop quiz, hotshot! I just got back from vacation from a country riven by political, social and economic polarization. It is a country where recent elections have been seen as fraudulent and illegitimate by many. Major intersections and public spaces were recently occupied by protestors for periods of weeks. Violence has been increasing—several have been killed already—and worse violence is thought by many to be inevitable. Where was I?
The answer, depressingly, is not so easy, is it?