– and you remember your sense of awe when, past the first appalling concussion and smoke and splash around of blood and shredded flesh, those youngsters do the unthinkable logical thing:
urged on by their leaders, they master panic and sit down, even clearing a path for the first-aid squad that comes rushing to the victims. By then, grenades and petrol bombs have become a routine risk in their ever ongoing protests, which are riots of colours with plays and songs and indignant if polite vociferation punctuated by – to your newcomer’s ears – puzzling “khrap-khrap” and “kha-kha”. The best died young, in those days. A few weeks later, in the sweltering heat of dusk, when not a leaf stirred, a hundred irate police officers passing Maekhong bottles around in gulps and bounds tittuped down the lane to the prime minister’s house and undertook to ransack it. You happened to be his almost neighbour and almost delirious with a bad case of the flu that day. You stand watching as the mob breaks its way through the fence, spreads inside like fire ants and sets out smashing furniture and then, finding no one to bash, begins to shoot. It’s so unreal you just stand there until some seasoned reporter pulls you to the ground with a blast of expletives.
It was all this you kept thinking about. And then more. Thought of urbane beer-guzzling Neil Davis, heavy camera on shoulder, sweating profusely in his safari suit, standing filming deaf to all warnings and then falling dead in the line of fire of a tank muzzle, during one of those periodic coup attempts Bangkok has learned to live with.
Later, elsewhere, in Tiananmen Square, hands down, head bare, a lone man had walked and stood his ground and made a whole column of armoured cars grind to a halt. The whole world was watching on TV from a distance (tele lens from above). You saw the picture the next day in the papers. How did it end? What did they do to the democrazy hero once the camcorders were switched off?
How will it end? Yesterday round lunchtime you snatched a few moments to walk up to the Royal Esplanade, approaching it from the other side of where the grenade had exploded that time. The bridge is bare of traffic, cut off on the other riverbank by a cordon of guns and goons and chevaux-de-frise. There are more of these on the side you come to – a row of metallic fences, coils of barbed wire, uniformed automatons with blank faces under bulbous helmets toting black weapons like sacerdotal dolls and strutting back and forth under the scorching sun, which flashes on every barrel
every spire of the golden-red festoon of palace tops beyond the dusty trees over there. Fluffy bits of clouds creep through a white-hot sky. The tarmac shimmers with heat and smells of diesel, dust and death. The crowds of the days before have been pulled back. You guess there must be some milling about going on by the Royal (the hump of the road hides the bottom part of the hotel) and down the main avenue, perhaps as far down as the Dusit palace where the king keeps inexplicably quiet. Between the trees on the esplanade there are cryptic comings and goings of jeeps. Nothing to be seen but brute force under raw heat. Nothing to be felt but a sense of imminent disaster. You slouch back through the quiet back lanes to the mountain of work waiting on your desk.
Thus it was another day of hard grind in front of the computer, after so many other days and nights of hard, patient, maddening, endless grind. Will it end? How will it end? That night, there was a clash around the Esplanade. Buses were commandeered and set ablaze. The Public Relations Department building shot up in flames, a blatant provocation. The military corralled demonstrators into the lobby of the Royal hotel. TV footage there showed the boots in action. You missed all this, laying out pages until late at night, came out dazed to rattle after rattle of lead firecrackers in an unquiet sky, crossed the river in the dinghy the old woman operates after normal ferry hours, bless her, found a taxi back to sleeping wife and daughter, and four blank hours later, this very morning, read all about it in the papers while gulping the usual two mugs of Arabica with butter-’n’-jam toast. Confrontation had been building up for weeks. Ever swelling crowds armed with neckties, portable phones and pluck, versus the might of the military once again in power and once again gone berserk. Angels and devils, the papers were saying. You wished it were that simple, but you hadn’t watched the local scene for nearly twenty years to believe in black-and-white fairy tales, give or take the proverbial “third hand” and sundry “dark influences”, fig-leaf shorthand of no-balls journalism. Angels and devils – each pulling strings, each being pulled. The soldiers yesterday had rings of sweat under their armpits and rings of worry round the slits of their eyes.
The froth of the times had spilled over your staff like draught beer.