THE MIDWEST THEN, THAILAND NOW
Chiang Mai reminds me of the Midwestern college towns I lived in back in the late sixties and seventies. Back then, I was a student living in a student ghetto. Here I am a foreigner, a retired expat, living in a tourist ghetto with my peers.
Just as before, my days are filled with selfishness and seeking after pleasure. My only responsibilities are to myself. Back then I debated cutting class or bothering to go. Should I change my major? Today I wonder where will eat. Which of the many massage parlors will I grace with my presence today? In the spring of 1970, student riots spread across our country, mostly in reaction to the Viet Nam War. For some, it was merely an excuse to flaunt authority and get a first taste of tear gas. The president of the University of Missouri announced that groups of three or more people were not permitted on campus, and that a curfew would be enforced by campus police.
Two days ago, in the spring of 2014, the Thai military staged a coup d’etat, arrested all the political leaders of all parties, deployed soldiers to enforce a strict curfew, and declared groups of five or more to be subject to arrest. All television broadcasting ceased, save for the army channel, which featured a graphic reading “National Peace and Order Maintaining Council,” with patriotic music in the background. This display was punctuated at unexpected intervals by a short clip of a Thai army general reading a pronouncement along the lines of “The constitution has been suspended,” or “all internet communication is being closely monitored.”
Back in our Midwestern college town we celebrated the fact that we could now forego attending class with the best excuse of all, there was no class. Final exams were cancelled. Some universities gave everyone a grade and course credit anyway, others declared the whole spring semester as washout. Here in Thailand, the number of tourists dwindled steadily over the months of unrest, and has now hit a new low. When I arrived at the airport in Bangkok two weeks ago, it was strangely empty. Usually I have to wait up to an hour to get through immigration, but in this case, there was no one ahead of me in line. This is turning into the lowest low season ever, and businesses that cater to tourism are hurting mightily.
Except for the four dead in Ohio and a few academic buildings burned down, the student unrest of 1970 left little permanent damage. At least in this country, many of the changes ended up being beneficial. Confidence in government and authority took a nosedive, but that might not have been such a bad thing. Aside from a few hillbilly college presidents blaming outside agitators for the student riots, most Americans learned something beneficial from the experience. I don’t know what’s going to happen here in Thailand. Will anybody learn anything new, or is this just a replay of the 18 other coups that have happened in recent memory?
In 1970 I carried a draft card and was required to display it on demand by any officer of the law. On a spring break trip to Juarez, Mexico, we were stopped by the highway patrol of every state between Missouri and Texas and obliged to show our draft cards. Sometimes we were frisked and our car searched by police looking for marijuana. At that time, at least in Texas, a possible penalty for possession was death. Fortunately, we didn’t have any. A few years later, I was happy to learn that Nixon was forced to resign mid-term, and the year I graduated from Iowa, the North Vietnamese finally won the war they had been fighting first with the French and then with America.
My graduate assistantship had been to program entertainment for the student coffeehouse on campus, but when I approved a Viet Nam Victory rally sponsored by a legitimate student group, the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War, my employers at the Student Union bowed to public outrage and fired me. Here, nothing has happened to make me feel like I am really part of the problem or the solution. Foreigners here are simply walking wallets. These political troubles concern only Thais. The man who runs my guesthouse is apologetic and slightly embarrassed that the television and Internet no longer function, but there’s nothing either of us can do about it. It’s a fact of nature, like the intense heat we’re now enduring, or the monsoon rains that are sure to come any day now.