By Paul Reitman, expat from Nepal, stuck in Bangkok
[The Nepali version of this article, written two days ago, appeared in today’s Kantipur Daily]
Of late, there seems to be a growing relationship between democracy and jumbo jets, although there has always been some connection ever since Jumbos first took to the air. In recent times, struggles around democracy (or not) have involved hijackings of aircraft, the ramming of planes into skyscrapers, and as seen in Bangkok just this past week, the hostage-taking of several international airports.
Donmueang International Airport is the epiphany of modern air travel. Ultra-modern, highly efficient, and stylistically appealing to those that love glass and steel, yet currently occupied by pro-monarchy protestors sporting yellow polo shirts and brandishing bamboo canes as well as expensive new golf clubs, and able to ward off one of the world’s best equipped police and military forces. The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) is not your typical rag-tag band of protestors. They are middle & upper class Thais; shop keepers, executives, and even airline hostesses and stewards, and their struggle is not tied to any poverty or religion but to a love for their King and their accusations that the current and freely-elected government is corrupt and beyond repair.
They want Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat and his party out, and out now, or the Thai import/export and tourism business will remain at a standstill, leaving hundreds of thousands of would-be travellers unable to fly in, or get out. And the unseen and unreported tonnage of manufactured goods is also stacking up faster then international orders from the west can be cancelled for another reason: the global slowdown of any want for these Thai products. In short, this is a bad situation only getting worse by the hour.
But what of the Nepalese trying to get home from long trips abroad or in need for a good Dhal Bhat fix? They are stacking up as well, piled into 5-star hotels or friend’s houses, unable to get back to the motherland. As a Nepali Bhayo, I am currently stranded in a nice hotel with three squares a day dreaming of that Dhal Bhat too, and missing mero shree mati and mero kukur. I am missing my other friends and my business. It’s been a week now, and there is absolutely no information forthcoming from Thai Airways on when flights to Kathmandu will actually resume. Everyday, I just keep booking flights that never leave. It is rumoured that there is an offer from Thai Airways to just dump anyone off in Delhi, and from there they are on their own as far as getting home, but the exit route is through the small military airbase U-tapao – about 100 clicks from Bangkok – and where international tourists are being bussed and then squeezed into small spaces by the thousands, only to wait outside in tents with just port-a-potties for relief. Many travellers are being re-booked into 1-star hotels to wait again. Less then 10,000 passengers of the estimated 300,000+ have left via this incapable airport since the siege began, and tempers are beginning to flair as reports of the Thai PM playing golf in Chang mai circulate, anti-protestor grenades go off (red shirts) and the military and police look to be in cahoots with the yellow-shirted PAD, unwilling to displace a single yellow-shirted protestor from the two major Bangkok international airports.
While irritated, I am not as angry as most. I still remember turning around mid-flight inbound to KTM from Bangkok in Feb 2005 when the King closed the only jumbo jet access into Nepal. Fallout from another democratic movement, but one that ended in a day or so, and seemed much more relevant then the one taking place in Asia’s New Rome. The giant pillars of hundreds of high-rise hotels and new mega-malls all seem colder then their icy aircons can ever make them this week…empty of new clients and sporadically inhabited by those stuck and without any money to spend. Instead of Rome burning, this is an empirical city beginning to freeze to death. My particular hotel is already a frozen-waste land – the entire lobby is covered in fibreglass snow, made up to be North Pole, complete with lighted reindeer and a statue of Santa Claus – but not a child or shopper in sight.
So along with other stranded Nepalese, I watch the news from Wall Street, Mumbai, Iraq and the Congo on the BBC – there is no good news to be heard – just the same old bad news detailing the childish antics of humans struggling to make their way to the top over the backs of others. Yellow shirts, Red shirts, Muslims, Christians, Freedom fighters, Terrorists, it’s all starting to blur into a bad advert for the species, making me miss the calm of Kathmandu all the more, where planes fly at least 364 days a year. We in Nepal often grumble over a stray Bahnda here or there, but in Thailand, when things close, they do so on an unfathomable scale – rudely pissing off every single visitor and international businessperson in the country.
My Nepali wife is livid; she is cursing the PAD hospitality, and she can’t reconcile the reputation of Thailand with the actions of the yellow-shirted middle class. Hostage takers are terrorists in her eyes, whether they are holding one person, or over 300,000 at once. But what I see seems ridiculous; an elected government by the majority of Thai voters being held hostage (the home of the PM has been besieged by the PAD for months) and a police force turned impudent over an unfortunate killing of a protestor a few weeks back, coupled with the military clearly siding with the pro-monarchy protestors – a situation that any Nepali citizen can envision. It’s a drama that could have been played out in Nepal, but did not. Let’s thank the gods for that, and pray for a swift and peaceful resolution of this mess in Thailand that could mean long-term suffering for millions if the airports remain shut. But for now, in the words of just one of the many Nepali travellers that I’ve met, Samir from Dharan reminds me – “Ke Garne.”
Paul Reitman is the CEO of Phoenix Studios Nepal The protests are over in Bangkok and Paul hopes to land Kahtmandu by Sunday.