One night at ground zero: Sanam Luang


Published in the Bangkok Post, 14/01/2009 at 12:00 AM

I had a vision of the future of Thailand the other night at Sanam Luang, and though the picture wasn't a pretty one, it gives cause for both hope and despair.

Sanam Luang, clockwise, from top: This public ground is a venue for all sorts of activities, from royal ceremonies to political demonstrations; a university student feeds pigeons; homeless people spend the night amid the cold weather; fortune-tellers also offer their services in the park.

Ever since the world economy was sent into a tailspin by the collapse of Lehman Brothers and Wall Street's Black September, the spectre of massive unemployment and economic depression has haunted the world from Iceland and Poland to America and Russia; no major economy is likely to be spared, not even manufacturing heavyweights China and Japan, certainly not tourism and export-dependent Thailand.

Sanam Luang, as the ground zero for revolutionary upsurge and reactionary crackdown, has seen its share of tragedy and transformation, from the rise and fall of political fortunes and from free speech and peaceful demonstrations to blood-curdling violence.

Like Beijing's Tiananmen Square, it is an open place where people can gather, surrounded by architectural icons of state power and memorials to populist uprising.

Like the Mall in Washington DC, the semi-enclosed space is an uplifting tourist photo opportunity spot by day, while it becomes a rather more sordid and spooky site at night.

But Bangkok's traditional central plaza is both more exotic and down-to-earth than its heavyweight counterparts overseas, its rounded curves more on a human scale, its scrawny lawns and stained footpaths more alive with people round the clock.

Over the years, it has seen petty markets ebb and flow, from the glory day of fruit stalls and used book stalls to the current state as a modest market for used goods that doesn't really come alive till after sunset.

Midnight merchants man the sidewalks, paying fees of 5 or 10 baht a day to unofficial protectors, swelling the sidewalks, selling inexpensive food and recycled goods.

In recent months they have seen their ranks swell, joined by newly arrived homeless men and women who sit huddled around small fires or wrapped up in blankets to fend off the unusually cool seasonal winds.

The midnight market might be shabby and dark but not without warm smiles and occasional laughter. Life, conducted out in the open, for everyone to see, is life stripped free of fashion and narrow pretences of social propriety.

Existence is focused on the here and now, making enough to eat another day, getting through another night, an existence reduced to bare necessities - food, drink, a modicum of protection from the elements, and what safety and comfort can be found in the company of friends and relatives.

The spectre of poverty enveloping the nation is frightening enough, especially to those too young or too rich to know the pain of loss, but everyone can learn from the example of people who have already been hit by calamity, everyone has something to learn from the resourcefulness of those already poor.

Their example, easily neglected in boom times, teaches the important lesson that life goes on, with or without fancy cars, clothes and shopping malls; life goes on, with or without brand names and designer goods and canned entertainment.

In the simpler, harder life long known to those eking out a living in city slums or a dry patch of land in a rural province, there may even be an upside unknown to those made unhappy by excessive consumption and alienation: the possibility of shared grief and joy, of community and fellowship.

When times were good, Bangkok's poor and downtrodden were the ultimate "others", their human needs somehow less pressing, their poverty a problem apart from our lives.

When times get bad, which most indicators suggest to be the trend, the callous social distinctions between the poor and the middle-class begin to collapse. Increasingly, we are them and they are us.

Only the rich are different - entrenched, cushioned and cocooned by the generational accumulation of wealth and an inherited ruthlessness that permits them to think they are somehow entitled to much, much more than their share.

The economic downturn has only just begun; more unemployment, broken contracts and broken dreams are to be expected. Those people who are poor already know a few things about what the rest of us will be learning with time.

Life is tough, lived one day at a time. Poverty is ugly, but the wit and persistence of those with nothing left to lose has its lessons for all of us; life lived on the streets is not without moments of inspiration and beauty.

As money grows scarce and incomes shrink, homes and cars are abandoned, so too will the range and radius of "normal" activities be reduced.

Jetting off on vacation, staying at fancy spas and partying at five-star hotels will fade, big luxury malls are bound to go bankrupt, even the automobile-centric lifestyle, with its waste of oil and ruination of the air itself will come to be questioned.

One reason why an abysmally weak tourist season looked okay on the surface over the New Year's holiday was a sudden surge in travelling closer to home. Neighbourhood hotels saw increased bookings even as luxury giants grew as empty as echo chambers. Instead of travelling abroad, Thais went to visit relatives or domestic resorts in the mountains and by the sea.

Of course, if Thais are thinking that way, it should not be surprising that Europeans and Americans and Japanese are thinking in similar terms - staying close to home to tide themselves through tough times - and if so, then the tourism boom is over.

Instead of looking forward to tourist arrivals increasing each year by a million, it may be a million fewer each year for several years to come.

Political disturbances and gnawing uncertainty indeed may reduce the attractiveness of Thailand on a month-by-month basis, but bigger downshift factors are at play, factors beyond the control or ken of any political actor.

Sanam Luang has a pointed political history and rumours have it that it will soon be flooded with armies of the poor of another sort: mobs for hire, idle and angry youths, dispossessed workers. Whether their shirts be red, yellow, purple or green, the fraying of Thailand's legendary civility, the gullibility in following false prophets and the readiness to put lives on the line, is underwritten by frustrations of increasingly impoverished and besieged lives.

In good times, when cash is flush and there is fun to be had, getting people to demonstrate in the streets day and night, a provisional form of homelessness, would be a hard sell to all but the most desperate. The harsh life once endured only by hardy and wizened activists such as the Assembly of the Poor, is now becoming routine; increasingly, people from all walks of life willingly walk the line of civil disobedience.

Most of Thailand's leadership comes from a small political oligarchy of extremely well-to-do families with deeply vested interests.

Those leaders who are serious about healing the nation's ills should spend a night or two at Sanam Luang to better get the pulse of a nation both proud and fearful. The Thai social fabric is being torn asunder, brother and sister citizens have been abandoned like the detritus of a civilisation in decline. There is all the more reason to be anxious for the future if people can't learn from the hard lessons of the present and the recent past.

Philip J Cunningham is a free-lance writer and political commentator.