Friday, April 23, 2010


So I understand that the situation in Bangkok has gained more international attention now as violence has escalated, and I thought I'd share a bit about what it's like to be in a nation where there is such civil unrest.

But before I go into my perceptions, I'll give you all the best, un-biased run down of what's up that I can. Feel free to check facts for yourself, I'm no news/politics junkie.

So a few years ago, Prime Minister Thaksin was in charge. He gained the support and love of most of rural Thailand by providing funding for projects in the countryside and (as far as I understand) NOT simply ignoring the country-folk. At the same time, however, he was involved in some shady dealings in the city and got into trouble for something financial. At that point half (I think) of his assets (which are in the billions, USD) were frozen and he fled the country to avoid a jail sentence. He is now living abroad under self-imposed exile, though it sounds like he's found plenty to keep him busy.

As I understand, Thaksin's successor, PM Abhisit was appointed, not elected, and his apparent failure to attend to the needs of the people in the country-side (and that IS the majority of the Thai population) has generated a lot of discontentment and calls for the re-instatement of Thaksin (which I'm pretty darn sure won't be happening) or to have a legit election. Thus we have two factions, the Red Shirts (who support Thaksin) and the Yellow Shirts (who like how things are now). The Red Shirts are basically the common people from the country, and the Yellow Shirts are the city-folk and more affluent.

Over the past few years, there have been clashes (the Red Shirts shut down the international airport in Bangkok for a while shortly before I came here, and there were demonstrations in Bangkok last spring), which have apparently culminated in the current events. What is going on now started out peacefully enough about a month ago(Red Shirt party tried to get enough people in BKK to block traffic in some key areas, peaceful, light rallies). It escalated a bit when a bunch of protesters donated blood to be thrown on the residence of the current PM and some grenades were fired into an army base. At first, the protesters were tolerated, and peaceful dissolution was attempted. Now the Thai government has declared a state of emergency and called for the end of the protesting, granting the police and military permission to use force as needed. Also members of the Yellow Shirt group have joined in, and the violence has increased, from shooting marbles with slingshots to increasing use of explosives. People have died, people have been injured, and the Peace Corps has (quite appropriately) banned all non-essential travel into BKK, and the US State Department has issued a travel advisory to American travellers.

So what's it like for me to be here now? Surreal is an excellent word.

In my village, things are quiet. A fair number of people have their red flags out, red-supporting shirts, and sometimes when I go to the market, people will have their radios on listening to people making speeches and they (the people at the market) will cheer every now and then. And maybe that's because my community is fairly homogenous. I did have an interesting talk with a local Yellow Shirt supporter who criticized the Red Shirts for being too reactionary and not using critical thinking, but I also feel like he keeps his views to himself for the most part, so as to avoid conflict. I've heard several false reports from community members that, "The Red Shirts won! Abhisit is resigining!" but this does not appear to be the case from the news sources I've checked out.

So it's interesting. There are definitely a LOT of layers to everything that is going on, as I feel would be the case in such circumstances anywhere, but because this is Thailand and things can be very subtle and indirect (not that blowing shit up is very subtle and indirect, but the underlying-underlying motives might be), those layers can be tough to perceive (especially for me, with less than perfect Thai and an imperfect understanding of the political situation). I think that within the Red Shirt party, there are a lot of conflicting interests (the people who had only wanted a peaceful demonstration, and the agitators who were hoping and waiting for things to escalate). And then there are all the Red Shirt supporters who stayed at home, some of whom support things openly (with their flags and shirts and loud radios), and some of whom do so quietly, and those who maintain their indifference.

So my plan is to be like my neighbors. I keep my political opinions to myself (though every now and then I get a chance to discuss things with people in private settings and it's interesting to hear their views), and I'll keep checking headlines. There really isn't much more I can do besides hope that things don't get too much more out of hand. I do have a meeting in BKK coming up in about 4 weeks, so if this could all get cleared up before then I'd really appreciate it, OK guys?

So if you see headlines about violence in Thailand, you don't need to say, "Oh my goodness! Eli is in Thailand! I wonder if he's OK?!"


Monday, April 19, 2010

Did you know?

Did you know that the Thai word for "orgasm" is the same as (one of) the word(s) for "awesome?" Now I understand why my girlfriend used to say "Orgasm!" when something cool happened. And really, it makes perfect sense. Can you name something more awesome than an orgasm?

Anyhow, that seemed like a better opening than another stupid apology for tardiness in blog posts. Without re-reading all of my blogging to this point in time, I feel like my entries have evolved from descriptions of what I'm doing (though those are still included when cool things go down), and shifted more towards my thoughts, impressions and epiphanies. And I just had me one of them epipha-thingies.

The thing that is so cool and bad-ass about the Peace Corps, at least for this volunteer, is the two year commitment. It would be very difficult to put myself into the circumstances I find myself in any other way, with a reasonable amount of language and cultural instruction, followed by a work placement in a cool rural community. And I get to do this for two years. After about 6 months, I was feeling like, "yeah, I've seen it all." Nothing was making me say, "Oh my goodness! I can't believe things like this are happening!" And that feeling has simply continued to grow. I think that realization became most apparent to me after my family's recent visit (Hey family! Thanks for coming! It was great to see you!). I kept thinking, "Yeah, this is probably cool for them, but it all seems so typical to me," which led to me always wondering if I was doing my part as a host (I'm sure the fam will say "Of course you did, Eli!" but I still have to wonder).

And anyway, my new epiphanimity is that this sense of jaded-ness is actually an amazing thing. If I were only here for 6 months, I never would have got past that, "Holy crap! I'm in Thailand! Everything is so amazing!" state of mind, and yeah, I would have had an awesome time and gone home and told everyone about how cool it was to be a volunteer in Thailand for 6 months, but...

Here I am now at a little over a year in, with about another year (of Peace Corps service, already thinking about possibly staying beyond that) to go, and I'm well past that, "Holy crap!" phase. I feel like I can view things from a fairly Thai point of view, my communication skills continue to improve, I have established myself as some sort of member of the community, and I get to do all of this for a substantial amount of time still.

And that's why Peace Corps is cool.

And now I'll wish everyone a happy Songkran (remember that crazy water-fight New Year's party I talked about last year?) and let you all know that I will be shaving my head an eyebrows and donning orange robes for a few weeks shortly as I become a monk (something pretty much all young men do for a brief period sometime in their 20s). It'll be like that Bar Mitzvah I never had. I'm even learning to chant in a dead language!