Thailand's Ghosts, Political and Not

Keeping the spirits satisfied is never easy, and an election now hovers.

By Steve Burgess 3 Feb 2011 |

Steve Burgess is away from the local movie theaters, filing dispatches as he roams Asia.

Ghosts are a material concern in Thailand. Ghost maintenance and ghost insurance are daily issues, dealt with through spirit houses, gifts and appeasement. Walking through Bangkok in 2011, that view of Thai life has never seemed more appropriate.

The thoroughfare in front of Bangkok's Central World shopping centre is always a busy place, with taxis and buses inching along six lanes of traffic while food carts and vendors line the sidewalks. It looks almost precisely as it did two years ago. That's the eerie part. As is usually the case with ghosts, it's what you don't see that is really spooky. One year ago this street starred on countless violent news clips, a main battleground between troops and protesters from the Red Shirt movement, a place where tanks rolled through to crush barricades and bodies. Now almost no sign remains, except one -- a dark tower at the south end of the plaza, surrounded by construction hoarding and topped by cranes. This part of the Central World complex was burned by Red Shirts in a final paroxysm of anger. And it is here one recent Sunday that the ghosts of Bangkok's recent troubles materialize again.

As police watched from a pedestrian overpass, Red Shirt protesters took to the street in front of the burned-out skyscraper, exhorting passing cars that often honked and waved in support. It was not a universal sentiment. "I don't think they should be allowed to do this in the streets," said a frowning, well-dressed young woman watching from above.

A couple of days later it was the turn of their yellow-clad opponents to block traffic on a march through the city. It may merely be a mild echo of last year's troubles. But it surely must make locals shudder. These kind of ghosts Thais don't need.

How to stop ghosts from closing your eyes

Ghosts are usually a more practical issue for Thais. Tom, a tourist guide from the northern Isaan region, gave me some tips on ghost maintenance. "When you buy a car," Tom explains, "first you take it to the temple to be blessed. Then you must hang garlands of flowers over the rear view mirror to appease the ghosts. Why does a car crash when nothing is wrong with it? Ghosts close your eyes while you drive. So you must make an offering." (Tom must often travel protection-free, as Western tourists tend to favour an unobstructed windshield over the flower-bedecked, ghost-protected version. Just one of the hazards of Tom's job.)

More of Tom's motoring tips: if you want protection from accidents, take your new car and hit something benign, like a basket. This will protect you from more serious crashes. And be careful about putting animal figurines, particularly tigers, on your dashboard. They may cause you to run over small animals. Tom had such a figurine -- his son was born in the year of the tiger -- but he removed it after hitting two cats. "The tiger was hungry," Tom explained.

Tom also explained how you can curse your enemies with a stolen monk's bowl, but it may be best not to get into that. He did speak with some amusement of tourists who buy "ghost houses" to decorate their homes. These little miniature temples are intended to be set up in the yard or on the porch as ghost condos, enticing ghosts out of your home so they will not wake the baby, frighten the animals, and so on. But Westerners put them in the living room or parlour, which defeats the purpose. It's like setting up a cockroach buffet behind the fridge. However, as long as the little shrine has not been blessed by a monk, Tom says you're probably okay.

Election in the air

Dealing with Thailand's political ghosts may be trickier. Thai political troubles require some study. The Red-Shirt-Yellow Shirt face-offs have never been as straightforward, or frankly as inspiring, as the kinds of uprisings that have rocked Tunisia and Egypt. These days it's more confusing than ever. The result of last year's stand-off seemed to be total defeat for the Red Shirts and, by default, victory for the Yellows. But today the yellow brigades are still unhappy. The government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, attacked by the Red Shirts last year, turns out not to be to their opponents' liking either.

Still, this time around the arguments seem less dangerous. The right wing Yellow Shirt groups are complaining of a soft government response to a border dispute with Cambodia. It seems to be devolving into a more standard political divide, less elemental than the power struggle that climaxed on Bangkok's streets last year. Elections will come soon. Should they come off without major trouble, Thailand's ghosts may get some much-needed rest this year.  [Tyee]

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