Monday, May 17, 2010

Building peace amidst conflict in Thailand

The glitzy part of Bangkok where there are five star hotels, luxurious shopping centers, and even a prestigious country club, have turned into a battle field. Lumpini Park, the biggest and most beautiful park in the city is no longer safe for morning jogs. Along the fence that encloses the large park, soldiers have put up camp and are shooting at people with M16s and real bullets. And even though on the television channels broadcasting news of the months-long protest and confrontation between the “Red Shirts” and the police and military, the SMS messages rolling across the bottom of the television screen urgently call for peace and tolerance, the scene on the street betrays any such spirit.

On Thursday evening, May 13, as my taxi took me to Phetchaburi Street for dinner, we had to drive by Withayu intersection, where only minutes before, a rogue general who supported the Red Shirts had been shot in the head. I, of course, did not know what had happened, not until a friend called me later and told me to be careful since shooting had begun in the area. Leaving the buffet restaurant to return to my hotel in Bangrak district, I had to convince the taxi driver that there would be a way to get to my hotel. Still, we had to pass by the area where violence was taking place. To my surprise, people were crowding around, stopping on their motorbikes, as if to take in the scene of a festival. Weren’t they worried to get hurt, or die? I thought to myself.

The next morning, I had to go to the Vietnamese embassy at 10 a.m. to pick up my passport and my 5-year visa exemption document. The Vietnamese embassy happened to be on Withayu street, which was blocked off to traffic, and the American Embassy, which was less than a kilometer down the street, had also been closed. A friend of mine called into the embassy and was told that the Vietnamese embassy was open for business. But to get there, I had to take a taxi from my hotel, got on the expressway which seemed to go in the opposite direction from my destination, and finally got to an exit that was not too far from the embassy. Unfortunately, the exit had been blocked off. I had to get down from the taxi and hop on the motorbike to make it to the embassy. But even then, it wasn’t a ride without detours.

Friday afternoon, the violence escalated even further. More streets were blocked. Shooting spread to Praram 4 Street. Sathorn Avenue was closed as well. Vehicles from those streets started to pour into the tiny soi and alleyways inside, creating congestion that lasted for hours. At 1 p.m. I got on the taxi to go to Minburi District on the outskirts of the city, where I was scheduled to celebrate a wedding at 4. I just barely made it to the church on time.

Four days later, the tension and danger in Bangkok have not waned. Fighting are still taking place. Various sides are still standing their grounds, not the least, the government, which has decided that it has to forcefully remove the protesters. The government rescinded its peace plan offered last week after the protesters demanded even more. It has also given the protesters a deadline for dispersing.

Here in Nong Bua Lamphu, nearly 600km away from Bangkok, and the home of many “Red Shirt” supporters, the streets are peaceful. But there is a war broiling underneath, at least in words. Everyone seems to have an opinion about the other side. And the words reserved for them are usually not every pleasant. In Bangkok, getting on a taxi, one knows which side the driver is on by the radio station that he is tuning in.

At my church, we don’t take sides even though the last month, we have constantly been praying for peace in Thailand. Every Catholic church has been encouraged to pray for peace. Many Catholic lay groups are doing the same. But, as I said in church last Ascension Sunday, praying is good. But it’s not enough. We have to build peace by our own actions. Peace, and the kingdom of God are something that we don’t wait for, but actively make happen in our own lives and the lives of others.

My various projects in the Life Ruam Kan program aims to contribute to this peace building process. We want to create bridges for people to be able to come together, to get to know one another through dialoging with one another, and sharing their lives with one another. We want to build a community that accepts and celebrates diversity instead of fearing it and making it a source of conflict.

Next Sunday is Pentecost. In our church, we will have the prayer of petitions in multiple languages – Thai, Vietnamese, German, English, Tagalog, and Indian. These are some of the languages present in our community. No doubt we will be praying for peace, peace that will come about through our own efforts alongside with those of others who realize that actions need to go along with words.

Nong Bua Lamphu, 17.5.2010

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