Grim forebodings as discontent simmers

Dev Nadkarni/ Bangkok Diary

It takes me four hours to fly from Mumbai to Bangkok. Then five hours in a taxi from the Thai capital’s swishy Suvarnabhumi Airport to a hotel in the city – and that’s not even the hotel in which I am booked to stay for the next few days. It is impossible to reach that hotel today or even tomorrow, I gather from the taxi driver’s heavily Thai laced English emphasised by jerky gesticulations, which I seem to understand better than the words and sounds I hear.

We are ploughing our way through a citizens’ protest. Aerial pictures on the front pages of newspapers the next day show masses of people thronging the city centre’s Democracy Monument – the kind of picture of a sea of humanity we see at the funeral of a popular leader in the world’s more populous parts. The police say there are 150,000 people. The opposition says there are a million. Some media reports say half a million. Anyway, there are enough people to make a 40km drive from airport to city last five hours.

The protestors want Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Government to step down. They say the Government is actually run by proxy by her brother, controversial former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. They accuse it of corruption. The immediate reason for the protests, however, is outrage at a proposed new Amnesty Bill, which was passed by the ruling party on November 1, which the Senate turned down 11 days later.

The Constitutional Court ruled that the proposed constitutional amendment is illegal, which the Government rejected saying the court had no jurisdiction over it. It’s a classic case of the legislative and judicial arms of a democracy clashing. So far the executive has steered clear. But the protestors are about to force its hand, too. They are storming Government offices, cutting off power and water supply to them, blockading public access to administrative services – and as the latest reports say, they are asking the country’s armed forces to pick a side: either pro or anti Government.

When similar protests took place a few years ago, the country went into lockdown for weeks. The airport was blockaded for weeks with international tourists stranded for days, sleeping on the floors of concourses. My taxi inches past swarming crowds. They are all smiling and waving flags and plastic palms. Many are whistling intermittently. Whistling has become a signature of Bangkok protests through these past years.

Motorists and motorcyclists appear to have infinite patience. They wave enthusiastically at the pedestrian protestors, smiling all the while. They don’t seem to mind that they are being delayed in reaching their destinations because of the hordes of protestors. In all these four hours I hear no honking. Not a single honk or toot – just whistling and lots of smiling and waving. My cabbie seems to be full of sympathy for them. It comes as a bit of a surprise when I later read that some 50 people died in violence during the last protests. For now, I can’t imagine how such disarming chumminess between the blockers and the blocked could lead to violence.

I am here to attend the UNESCAP hosted Asia Pacific Business Forum, which was originally supposed to be held in Sydney but was shifted to the organisation’s headquarters in Bangkok. Among the reasons cited for the shift was the raging bushfires in New South Wales I remember reading in one of the emails. Access to the UN offices in Bangkok is blocked. So the venue is changed. Again. It is now in a hotel not far away from mine. But it’s a challenge even to get there.

On the morning of the first day of the meet, my hotel concierge says the new venue is out of bounds for any form of transport. A colleague who has got to the venue texts advising me it’s possible to get there only by motorcycle taxi. ‘Get your hotel to write down the address in Thai. The drivers don’t know English,’ his text says. I call for a motorcycle taxi. But I can’t sit astride the pillion, nursing as I am a painful meniscal tear in my knee and a brace between thigh and calf – and armed with a walking stick to boot! I give up.

But I am able to get to the venue on day 2, though what’s normally a 10 minute cab ride takes me 70. I walk into a presentation about productivity. I wonder how much of productivity this country is losing because of the protests.

I gather a Pacific Islands team has made an impactful presentation on day 1 of the forum, which is about putting the ‘P’ (Pacific) back in APBF. Though the forum is not new, the islands have tended to be glossed over in past years. This year, the islands are purposefully involved with the presence of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat’s trade arm Pacific Islands Trade & Invest’s Trade Commissioners from Australia, China and New Zealand. Representatives from Tonga, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Micronesia are also present and interact with business leaders and Government representatives from ASEAN countries.

Presentations at the meet outline both the opportunities and challenges that the Pacific Islands face while dealing with Pacific Rim countries and ASEAN members. While, it is great to see the emphasis put on island nations as being an important part of the larger Asia Pacific context, what becomes evident is how much of catching up the islands region has to do in order to do business seamlessly with Asian nations. For instance, the ASEAN will be a single market in 2015. While this presents great opportunities, it also puts forth administrative and logistical challenges.

In a globalised world, the importance of ICT and connectivity cannot possibly be overstated. That’s where great opportunities lie for the islands. Opportunities in back office support operations, call centres and other related services. This becomes evident at the presentations. Tongan Call Centre operator ProComm Services makes a compelling case for such business initiatives through its Managing Director Sisi Fine – showcasing Pacific Island capability both in terms of technology and human capacity.

The forum is great exposure for the islands. A calling card that spells possibilities is placed in the lair of the Asian Tigers. The trick will be to stay engaged with those countries and develop business and trade possibilities over the coming months and years. The possibilities are indeed tremendous and very real. It’s a matter of how well the region rises to the occasion.

As I leave the venue, my thoughts are on how long it will take me to get to the airport. It took me five hours the other day. I still have six before my flight. I ask a few people how long it will take me to get to the airport. I get differing replies – from 1 hour to 4 “depending on mob,” everyone says. I decide to play it safe and hop into a cab a full five hours ahead of my flight. I get to Suvarnabhumi in an amazing 45 minutes – leaving me four hours to scour the duty free shops in the comfort of my wheelchair.

Meanwhile, the unrest in Bangkok is simmering away, with all the signs of coming to a boil.

First appeared in December 2013 edition of Islands Business magazine