The Gion nightclub, named after the historic geisha district in Kyoto, usually teems with Japanese tourists intent on experiencing Bangkok's pleasures of the flesh. Just across the street is a rather more decorous building, the private residence of Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. The proximity of the Thai leader's home to a glorified brothel not to mention the attendant street vendors selling grilled fish, iced coffee and chili-spiked papaya salad to Gion's working ladies exemplifies the easy contrasts of this city of 10 million people. Bangkok, wrote author Alec Waugh in 1970, "has been so loved because it is the expression of the Thais themselves, of their lightheartedness, their love of beauty, their reverence for tradition, their sense of freedom, their extravagance."
But now with Bangkok reeling from Thailand's worst political bloodletting in decades, Gion is shuttered, a golden gate drawn across the parking lot so often filled with BMWs and Mercedes. On May 19, army troops cleared out the so-called Red Shirt protesters from the rally site they had occupied for two months. At least 15 people were killed during the operation, bringing the civilian and soldier death toll up to nearly 80 since hostilities mounted six weeks ago. Now, a curfew in the capital and 23 other Thai provinces keeps would-be revelers from venturing out at night. The Prime Minister's residence is obscured by coils of razor wire, and swarms of policemen keep watch nearby.
Elsewhere in the Thai capital, the blackened hulks of torched banks, malls and government buildings offer testament to the ferocity of the riots that ensued after Red Shirt leaders surrendered to the authorities on Wednesday. Bangkok's signature scent jasmine garlands used as Buddhist offerings is now mixed with a top note of acrid ash. Instant noodles have been cleared from grocery shelves and panic buying grips local residents, who fear that the curfew and a possible further outbreak of violence could slow the supply of food to Bangkok. The biggest crowds on the streets of central Bangkok Friday morning were not office workers but municipal crews struggling to clean up the debris from the dozens of arson attacks unleashed across town. Lines of machine-gun-toting soldiers continued to march through the city on Thursday, their young faces peering out from under oversized camouflage helmets as they looked for remaining Red Shirt renegades.
The violent climax to the standoff between the government and the Red Shirts will cost Thailand $1.5 billion, according to the nation's Finance Ministry. But the political price may be much higher. The Red Shirts believe Oxford-educated Abhisit came to power illegitimately and have demanded elections; they believe a party sympathetic to them will win. Initially, Abhisit offered elections in November in exchange for the Red Shirts evacuating their protest encampment. But the anti-government leaders declined his offer. Now, most Red Shirt honchos are under arrest and will likely face charges of terrorism. On Friday, Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij said the government would not consider holding elections until political passions have ebbed and a safe campaign season can be guaranteed. Given the animosities that have been laid bare over the past few weeks, it's unlikely those tensions will be resolved before November. Yet a delay of elections will only enrage the Red Shirts, whose support is largely drawn from the nation's poorer classes.
By Friday afternoon, Abhisit had gone on television to assure the nation that normalcy had been restored to Bangkok. Although the city's train lines were still stalled, the traffic snarling the steamy streets proved that residents were once again willing to venture out to what two days before had been an urban battle zone. By next week, Gion will no doubt be welcoming a few straggling tourists into its air-conditioned confines.
But in his address, the Thai PM was also quick to note that "we recognize that as we move ahead, there are huge challenges ahead of us, particularly the challenge of overcoming the divisions that have occurred in this country." The nation's leading English-language daily, the Bangkok Post, concurred: "It will take years, if not a generation, to tend to the wounds, right the wrongs and reduce the gaps that have so divided us. Let us never forget for Thais do easily forget."
Yet harnessing the acute memory for which Thailand's patron animal, the elephant, is known is hardly enough. So far, no one not Abhisit nor his nemesis Thaksin Shinawatra, a self-exiled politician who is considered the Red Shirts' spiritual godfather has shown the level of leadership that will bridge the divisions in Thai society. Once the bright light of Southeast Asia, Thailand waits for someone, anyone, to rescue it from a seemingly unceasing cycle of political mayhem.