Saturday, January 13, 2007

Bangkok still on edge


More violence is expected in the Thai capital over the next two months.

THE two-minute walk from the Asia News Network office to the 7-Eleven store in The Nation Tower in Bangkok is normally a straightforward event.

But since the deadly bomb attacks that ripped through Bangkok on New Year's Eve and last week's bomb hoaxes and counter-coup rumours, there are now military checkpoints at the entrances to the 40-storey building owned by The Nation newspaper.

At the main entrance, soldiers and security guards armed with portable metal detectors rifle through personal belongings of people entering the building.

And at the adjacent Evergreen View Tower, the building management announced last week that it was checking all vehicles entering the condominium block.

These are visible signs that terror has struck the mind of Bangkokians after coordinated blasts in nine areas claimed three Thai lives on Dec 31.

With that as a backdrop, I was in two minds after reading an e-mail from “Thai Takes” reader Alice Tan from Malaysia. “I'm planning to travel to Bangkok this weekend for a short holiday. Could you let me know the situation in Bangkok? Is it safe to travel or should we cancel our holiday?”

It was a difficult question to answer. In fact, it was easier to answer similar e-mail enquiries from Malaysia sent the morning after the Sept 19 coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

At that time the gut feeling was that there wouldn't be any bloodshed. And indeed it was a “Happy Coup” where smiling civilians presented roses to the soldiers.

This time it is a Bangkok on edge. And political analysts are calling 2007 “Thailand's Year of Living Dangerously.”

Even the military-backed interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont is expecting more violence in Bangkok over the next two months.

Last week, he warned the public to be alert and prepare for a new threat to their lives after the deadly bombings.

In the eyes of Chai Rathchawat, an editorial cartoonist from the Thai language tabloid Thai Rath, the new threats to the lives of Thais have amusing consequences.

His cartoon “Be optimistic after bombing in Bangkok” showed several situations: a husband smiling because his shopaholic wife is now staying at home; a one-baht coin is now more valuable because it can be used for public phone calls to inform of a bomb scare; and the sale of Buddhist amulets has increased.

His cartoons revealed that Thais, who are known for their mai pen rai (Thai for “no worries”) attitude, are worried about when and where the next bomb will explode.

And it is not only in the funny pages where their fear is apparent.

Popular shopping areas in Bangkok such as the Chatuchak weekend market and Siam Paragon are less crowded these days and food delivery services are enjoying roaring business, as people are afraid to venture out.

Most of the rubbish bins in the Thai capital have been removed, making my Singaporean friend anxious whenever he wants to dispose of his trash.

Avudh Panananda, The Nation newspaper's military expert and one of its must-read bloggers, gives an insight into the security situation in Bangkok.

“Bangkok is not Beirut. It is low-key political violence,” he said, adding that foreigners were not the targets.

But weren't eight foreigners injured in the blasts?

Unfortunate, Avudh said, as it was unintended. “For example,” he said, “in the Pratunam Pier bombing, the bomber did not factor in that shrapnel would strike three foreigners at the nearby Best Sea Foods Restaurant.”

However, he warned that more political violence such as arson attacks in the northeast of Thailand could not be ruled out.

“The Thaksin issue has not been settled,” he said, adding that this meant Thaksin was a convenient scapegoat when violence erupted in Thailand.

My response to Tan's question: if she didn't fancy worrying whether a loud explosion was from a bursting tyre or a bomb, stay away from Bangkok.

Visit the City of Angels, however, if she believed in fate, because if it was fated, a buffalo would tumble out of the sky and crush her while she walked to a 7-Eleven store in Puchong.

(Published in The Star on Jan 13, 2007. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)