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Photo: Dane Phillips

Living as an expat in Bangkok, Dane Phillips saw the recent protests firsthand – and wonders how he could still be so far away from it all.

Ed. Note: This piece was written just after the military crackdown in Bangkok last week, and before the purported “return to normalcy” today.

I LIVE ON THE edge of the protest site in Bangkok, and I watched much of the city burn from my office window this morning. I’ve had soldiers with machine guns as doormen for weeks, and the echoes of explosions and gunshots have replaced the noise of traffic and bustle in the city.

Today, I had lunch at the hospital across the street because it’s the only thing open on a roadway that has been blocked off to make way for tanks and police vans. As I walked out of the front door, an ambulance rushed in. It was carrying a journalist who had been hit by a grenade.

I was fortunately in front of the vehicle, so I only saw doctors and his cameraman rushing him into the hospital. But I noticed moments later when they brought out a bloodied gurney to rinse off.

The events of the last couple of weeks (and this moment in particular) have made me constantly aware of distance. It at times seems strange that I live so close to an area that has been prevalent in international news for two months. I felt especially near to the chaos this morning when I could see events and locations more clearly with my own eyes than I could even on television.

A Safe Distance

Photo: Dane Phillips

For weeks, I have heard sounds only described in newspaper articles actually bouncing from deserted buildings in my neighborhood. So I am close, but simultaneously unfathomably far away from it all.

I have never felt like I was in any real danger, despite the fact that dozens of people have been dying just a few blocks from me.

Both protesters and soldiers have had the pall of death hanging over them every hour of every day, and yet I remain safely partitioned from that threat…by my nationality, my ethnicity, and my money.

I get to sleep in a safe bed every night because I can afford a few hundred dollars a month rent.

More importantly, I’ve never been driven by poverty to fight the establishment. I carry freedom with me as conveniently as a passport, because as a Westerner I have never faced the kind of oppression I’ve seen in so much of the world.

And because a foreigner dying is much worse press than a local dying, neither side would want anything to happen to me. So distance is not absolute. It’s Zeno’s Paradox: despite the fact that I can watch all of this going on, I could never actually get there.

It’s also fascinating to me that there is a closeness where one might expect distance to exist. There seems like there should be a rift between protesters and soldiers, who have of course been fighting and killing one another. But the fact is that they often come from similar backgrounds.

One in the Same

Photo: Dane Phillips

As is the case in many nations, the wealthy have no need to undertake military service, so these soldiers actually come from the same rural areas and feel the same disillusionment as the protesters.

They have, in fact, been seen chatting it up during times of calm. It’s part of what has allowed the protests to go on as long as they have.

Soldiers are in no hurry to rush in and harm or kill people who are not only their countrymen, but also their socioeconomic equals. So there are impoverished people on both sides of the barricades.

It’s just that some picked up rifles and others took up plows in an effort to make a living. And the reality as I see it is that both sides are merely enforcers for wealthy elites with differing agendas. They are individuals closely linked by their overwhelming similarities, but ultimately distanced by their loyalties.

And then there is time, the most powerful creator of distance. All of this will seem unimaginably far away in a matter of weeks. Life will return to normal. The streets will be cleared. The fires put out. The malls and hotels restored to their former grandeur. People will go to IMAX movies on a street where the poor tried unsuccessfully to change the world.

They will stroll casually through a park where soldiers are at this moment being killed by grenades and homemade bombs. But their blood will soon be washed away and their existence forgotten, because these are events everyone in the country will be in a hurry to put behind them.

So as improbable and terrible as it seems right now, I have a feeling that for entirely too many people, all of this will eventually be the only kind of painful memory they can actually deal with: a distant one.

Do you think Westerners could ever fully understand the plight of government oppression against many of the poor in the world? Share your thoughts below.

Community Connection

Over at Matador Change, Ross Tabak provides a stunning photo essay of the Protests in Thailand.

About The Author

Dane Phillips

Dane Phillips grew up in Texas but has traveled extensively throughout the United States, Europe, and North and South America. After exploring Southeast Asia for a year, he settled in Bangkok as an editor and writer in 2007.

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  • Lou

    My immediate response to the question on whether or not Westerners could ever fully understand the plight of the poor is NO. Us privileged ex-pats and travellers can always pack up and leave but the ordinary citizen in the streets of Bangkok or any other developing nation capital do not have the same luxury.

    I will admit that I lived and worked in Thailand during the military coup of 2006 and most of my Farang colleagues and I were completely oblivious of what was going on in the country. It was only when our “livelihoods” – making more money than most of the locals in the tourism industry – were being jeopardised that we gave the coup any thought.

    But what responsible traveller can do is to stay informed but keep a low profile. We don’t want to create problems for the people who have to live with the consequences.

  • Evan DeCosse

    Its a two sided coin. Many westerners see these things are sometimes more put off by them than many of the locals. I’ve seen many places that I get angry walking through because I can’t believe the people allow themselves to be put through life like that. But they still come out as the happiest and contentest people I’ve met, where as others have that semblance of counter culture and the feeling that they are able to change it, wether realistic or not.

  • Turner

    I hope they can put it in the past; still freaky to see how this thing has escalated.

  • Benz

    As a Thai living in Bangkok, I think that after all that had been happening the last weeks – chaos burning, grenade attacks, assassination attempts (a shock therapy for Thais)… life in Bangkok will quickly resume.

    BUT the issue at hand is far from being resolved. The differences between parties are too deeply rooted. It will take time to heal. I would advise travelers who are planning to visit Thailand in the coming months to close eye on the news. If you have a friend who is Thai or better, a Thai living in Thailand, ask them for updates.

  • mzelum

    ‘much of the city burn’…oh please…. the trouble was limited to downtown and to a limited number of’s a huge city remember.

  • Dane

    There were 29 major fires in the middle of the city that day, all relatively close to one another, so the skyline was ominous. Yes it’s a sprawling metropolis, but for people who live here, it was a surreal vision to see plumes of black smoke rising all over the financial and commercial center of the city. Massive buildings were gutted, including the second-largest shopping mall in Southeast Asia. Aside from Khao San, this small section of the city is what people think of when they think of Bangkok. I was describing what it felt like while it was occurring, and I think it’s a valid description.

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