Here in sleepy Koh Phayam, a little island just south of Thailand’s border with Myanmar, the offer of electricity warrants a banner. What’s not making any headlines is the country’s lurch toward a coup, with political unrest and protesters bloodied and killed in Bangkok as the conflict rapidly escalates. The unrest was not even on our radar before we cleared in last November: we were more focused on the simmering rebellion near our entry point in the south, which continues to claim lives.
Once we arrived in Phuket in December, we started to hear stories. The first came innocently enough as a reaction to a question to a taxi driver about recent celebrations for the King’s birthday. Who knew that might be controversial?
The shorthand version: protesters from Thailand’s Democratic Party want the prime minister, Ms Yingluck Shinawatra, to step down; her response to set elections (scheduled for Feb 2) was not acceptable to them. Their reaction is to use protests to effectively shut down Bangkok and as much government activity as possible until she agrees, while making threats to physically remove her, and worse.
The Democratic Party doesn’t want elections, because Yingluck would almost certainly win again. Instead, the goal is to push out elections for indefinite months (years), and put the Democrat’s own “people’s council” in place in the interim. Doesn’t sound very democratic, does it? At the core is a loss of faith in the democratic process overall, which is subverted by corruption on all fronts. Today’s protesters are the same people who were in power just a few years ago, decrying the protests which ultimately cost them power. It’s messy, and this barely scratches the surface.
Does this affect us? It hasn’t yet. We’re aware, and we keep tabs, but we’re in sleepy backwaters that aren’t affected.
The first time we saw any evidence of unrest was at the Thai immigration office in Ranong just a few days ago. We took Totem up to this town at the border of Myanmar to extend our visas, with a nice little angle of approach that let us spend a couple of hours splashing in Burmese water near the invisible dotted line that divided an estuary between the countries.
In the Immigration office waiting area, a patio outside the air conditioned offices, a TV was set up to entertain the lineup of petitioners (our crew, and several dozen Burmese) showed a live feed of the ongoing protests in Bangkok. What looked at first like a fairly routine demonstration got ugly, and before I could think about what the children were watching, there were bleeding and convulsing wounded splashed across the screen.
Later, inside having our extensions processed inside by the very serious and officious immigration staff, yet another TV screen replayed the drama. Although the Burmese waiting their turn were as transfixed as we were, within the office the officials carried on business as usual and didn’t seem to even notice the screen. How can you not notice and be moved by a live feed of a mortally wounded human? It felt surreal.
The event made us think further about our own plans and strategies for dealing with unrest. My friend (and fellow cruiser) Diane has just published an article in Outside, a really interesting piece- Surviving Your Trip– that looks at strategies for overcoming different disaster scenarios while traveling. Diane and I had covered our plans shortly before we took Totem up to Ranong. We’re featured as one of five scenarios for disaster preparedness, but there are great takeaways for cruisers throughout the article.
Reviewing our approach for what we would do and how we’ve planned, both regarding the political instability here in Thailand and for other possible disasters we’ve considered, I found a common thread:
Talk to people.
So much of preparedness is about assuming a defensive posture, of plans and preparation. I think fundamentally, it’s also very much about what we put forward with our words and our actions. No doubt this will sound incredibly naive to many, but I believe that putting faith in human nature and giving it the benefit of the doubt is a positive way to prepare that shouldn’t be discounted. Positive interactions with people we may see routinely in a given area can foster the probability for support or assistance if it’s needed.
We did this in Jayapura, Indonesia, a very militarized town where many branches of armed forces are stationed to quell the Free Papua Movement. Wives of the secret police became my BFFs for the week, and Jamie found a friend in the Navy. We did this over and over in Papua New Guinea, where being forthcoming with the chief upon arrival to an island and open, honest, friendly interaction with islanders put them in our court- a deliberate strategy to help with the petty theft and bigger issues that have challenged other cruisers.
For now, we’re enjoying a very quiet stretch at a quiet island that’s untouched by the action near Bangkok, where a State of Emergency was declared to contain the protests. No action here. Just dogs, sitting in the water on the beach, because they can.
We’re grateful to be far from the action, and hope that the competing voices for power in Bangkok can see their way beyond self-interest to truly serve the Thai people.
If you’d like to read more, Time has a good synopsis that hits on the core issues and complexities.
Politically savvy followers know that reading this on the Sailfeed website puts a little cash in our kitty for the Totem Thai Exit Strategy.