On the morning of May 19, all hell broke loose across Bangkok. While more than 1,000 people were injured and over 50 died in the two months leading up to this day, May 19 was the most violent, bloody climax imaginable.
Not far from our slum house—just a few-minutes walk away—a mob was using grenades, M-16s, and machetes to fight the army and loot convenience stores, luxury shopping malls, and banks. By midday, the crazed mob was inching ever closer to our slum.
I looked up from the Klong Toey Community Centre and saw plumes of smoke rising into the sky from not-too-distant business buildings. Everyone who had gathered was transfixed as army helicopters landed on top of one of the closest large buildings—the burning Channel 3 skyscraper—to rescue TV executives and staff from the fires, looting, and rioting going on below.
The Red Shirt protest leaders had surrendered after army tanks crashed through their protest areas in downtown Bangkok, but now Red Shirt supporters, some armed with M-16s and grenade launchers, were exacting revenge across the city. Targets of the Red Shirts were banks that had held on to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s assets, media outlets that had not fully supported the Red Shirt protest’s cause (including Channel 3), and some of the largest shopping malls, which were set alight and turned to rubble.
Urban Neighbours Of Hope (UNOH) workers, including myself, quickly gathered together with our children at the community center, trying to decide what we, and our neighbors, should do. Getting in and out of Klong Toey was difficult now, and there was a rumor the Red Shirts were coming to burn down our slum. Many of the young men whom I coach in football had grabbed baseball bats and machetes to guard the two main entrances to Klong Toey.
Since early March, tensions had been rising, with Red Shirts from across the countryside converging on Bangkok in support of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin. Bangkok’s main commercial hub had been blockaded by Red Shirt protesters after Thaksin’s assets were only partially released. There had been more than 50 deaths and more than 1,000 injured in Red Shirt grenade attacks and clashes with army and police during this time.
We had some close calls ourselves. Ben Rowse (brother of UNOH-Melbourne worker Hannah Rowse) was about to step onto a train at a station when four grenades went off. He was rushed to a hospital and fortunately sustained only cuts and bruises; he is continuing his work in Burma.
I was to pick up the computer I am writing on now from a repair shop near this station at the time the grenades went off. My computer wasn’t ready, so I avoided any danger.
Chris McCartney, another UNOH worker, heard shots fired and saw people fall to the ground, so he kept riding his motorbike. On the morning of May 19, my mom was with my son, Aiden, at a local shopping mall when suddenly shots rang out and bombs went off nearby. They eventually found someone who helped them across the road and found a tuk-tuk that brought them to my office.
This all was happening about a five-minute motorbike ride from our home and was getting closer throughout the day.
The neighborhood was deeply divided over Thaksin. Even our house church had strong supporters of both Red Shirts (pro-Thaksin) and Yellow Shirts (anti-Thaksin).
The Red Shirt barricades of tires, sharpened bamboo poles, and barbed wire had been in place in central Bangkok for more than two months; battle-ready soldiers were in the streets, even near our kids’ schools. Skirmishes and explosions were common on the edge of the protest barricades, but an atmosphere of quiet, anticipatory dread fell across the rest of the city until exploding early on May 19.
Perhaps these apocalyptic images of social conflict exemplify why the transformation of slums should be so important for all people today, including Christians. We know currently more than 1 billion people live in slums (1 in 6 people), and this could double in the next 20 years. The world’s poor live within touching distance of the rich and famous, and are nurtured and informed by the same media and marketers. The fact that these poverty-stricken masses cannot access such comfortable lifestyles produces a toxic cocktail of guilt and resentment. From this perspective, the looting and destruction at Bangkok’s luxury shopping malls located only a few kilometers from the slums should not have been be a surprise.
Christians surely have something to offer here.
The Radicalized Poor
How and why the rural and urban poor became radicalized as Red Shirts is also a warning. At first glance, it makes no sense so many poor would leave what they are doing and put their lives on the line for Thaksin, one of the richest people on the planet. For this is not an uprising of the poor, but an acting-out on behalf of a billionaire. Even while in exile and with his official assets seized, Thaksin bought Manchester City football club and a Greek island.
Some of this can be explained by Thailand’s patron-client relationships where the people seek a benefactor to look after them. Thaksin offered to be a kind of megabenefactor for the poor. He provided 500 baht (Thailand’s currency) a day plus food for each Red Shirt protester who signed on each day, and 1,500 baht a day for those on frontline “security.” Not only that, if the Red Shirts won the cause against the government there would be homes and cars for everyone who wanted them.
This was part of Thaksin’s appeal while in office too, though very few of his populist schemes actually worked for many people, and Thaksin certainly made more money in office than as a private citizen.
The sheer amounts of money on offer and the idea of such a benefactor was hard for some of my Klong Toey neighbors to reject, but it was almost impossible for many in the poor, rural northeast to ignore. What other options are there for finding the good life?
Messianic figures able to manipulate the masses for their own benefit should be expected as poverty and urban slums increase. There are only so many helicopters that can whisk people to safety. In a world with so many urban poor, no one can be immune from the chaos.
As the UNOH team sat around our regular Communion table in classrooms of the Klong Toey Community Centre in the late afternoon of May 19, we were deeply aware of two primal impulses: fight or flight.
The impulse to flee was being echoed from the Australian government and some of the parents of our team. Many nongovernmental organizations and missionaries had evacuated Bangkok a week earlier. It’s a harrowing thing to read a text message from your embassy saying it has already evacuated and basically, “Good luck, you’re on your own now.” As a parent with two of my children with us (Amy, 13, and Aiden, 6) as well as three children of UNOH workers, I was deeply aware of the potential trauma.
But there also was an impulse to overstretch our role and to try to be heroic in reckless ways that were unhelpful to the cause. For example, should we join our footballers, who had grabbed the baseball bats, and go and fight the mob coming toward us? What good could we really do in this urban chaos?
In the end, while we prayed together around that table, conscious of friends praying for us around the world too, we all had peace to stay. While all workers were given the freedom to leave, we all decided to remain in our slum that night; we all stayed together at the center so no one would be isolated. What we had to offer was our solidarity in Christ.
Of course, what would it say about the Jesus we say we follow if we left our neighbors when the going got tough? Some of us did venture out to give moral support to our friends on the front line at different points during the night. As rioting continued during the night, over 50 more people died and hundreds more were injured.
Standing Another Day
As the sun rose early the next morning, I did have a baseball bat in my hands at an entrance of our slum, but it was for fun; I was playing with some of the footballers who had stayed awake all night. The Red Shirts had not come much closer. Though some fires were started, all had been snuffed out quickly and no damage was done. We lived to stand with our community another day.
As Aiden rose that morning, I tentatively asked, “How you going there, Mate?”
He looked up from a mattress on the floor in one of our classrooms and said, “Great, Dad. When can we do it all again?”
I smiled and joked back, “Next time there’s a riot, Son.” Amy and I went for a motorbike ride to survey the damage and to find something to do that day.
“If I get shot,” Amy said matter-of-factly, “I’d like to only get shot in the arm. Because it wouldn’t hurt that much, but I’d have a great story to tell with it!” We found an open movie theater, and the entire team went and watched the latest Shrek movie as if nothing had happened.
I am not sure what our kids will make of our faith or our world when they are adults. They have witnessed some awful, real-world things, but I doubt they’ll think our faith is boring or irrelevant. I hope they can see that Christian fidelity requires we stand with people as the crucified and risen Jesus stands with us and on the side of the poor. That faith is active and alive and may well cost us more than we bargain for, but it is worth it to see our lives count for something.
Rarely is faith in action convenient, but anything less than giving our lives undermines the God who “became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message). Jesus calls us to “come follow me.” Urban chaos will subside, but how we live for Christ within it lasts forever.
Bangkok-based Ash Barker is international director of Urban Neighbours of Hope.