Buddhas and Watermelons

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It was a long walk to the Grand Palace, and as we walked I thought that if I was an artist, I’d like to do a series of paintings with religious icons taking on each other’s signature poses.  There could be Buddha, standing upright with a blinding light behind him, dressed to the nines in the Virgin Mary’s red gown and blue veil.  Then there could be Jesus, eyes shut, sitting in the Buddha’s squat with the Naga, the cobra with its great hood spread open, hovering over him.  Or Ganesha, on the cross, a nail connecting his bloody trunk to his feet.  On a crowded street in the middle of the afternoon, the thought amused me.

This was our second day in Bangkok.  The plan was to see the Grand Palace, but once we arrived, we were turned away.  That day was a religious holiday – a fact we had no idea of – and the Palace was closed to foreigners.  At the recommendation of a helpful stranger, we were put on a couple of tuk-tuks and lead on a tour of the three famous Buddha statues located throughout the city.  As part of the holiday, the government was giving free gasoline to tuk-tuks.  The tuk-tuks were in turn supposed to charge foreigners a lower rate.  The government had also reduced prices at the state-run tailor shop.  Arriving at the wonderful Sitting Buddha statue, we were greeted by a Thai school teacher.  He had been assigned by the government to stay at the Sitting Buddha statue until it closed, so he could tell tourists about it.  Speaking in a soft voice, he taught us how to properly bow our heads to the statue and ask for good luck.

Around this time, on our way to the Standing Buddha statue (Buddha statue number two, if you’re counting), I started to think that the Thai government must be pretty swell.  “These guys are great!” I thought.  “Free gasoline…cheap suits…putting teachers in places to tell tourists about Buddhism…what a great way to make a country feel unified!”  I even began thinking that the American government should do something similar, if not for a religious holiday, then for one of our nationalist holidays like Thanksgiving.  How proud would people feel if, for that one day, the United States government reduced gas prices and had educators spread about, teaching people about the history of our country?

I was really thinking the Thai government had it right when our tuk-tuk passed what looked like an army of people dressed in red shirts.  We were told that there was a dissidence protest going on.  The Red-shirts were an anti-government group of activists, and they were protesting the holiday.  How, I wondered, could anyone not support this wonderful gas-giving government?

It turns out that the Red-shirts might have a point.  I learned that the elected leader of Thailand – Thaksin Shinawatra – was ousted in a 2006 military coup.  In 2007, a new constitution was written, and in 2008 King Adulyadej appointed a new Prime Minister.  Shinawatra was exiled to Dubai.  In supporting his return (and a return to democracy) the Red-shirts had their camp site invaded by the government in 2010.  Ninety Red-shirt supporters were killed and several red-shirt leaders were imprisoned.  The Red-shirt-run radio station was shut down.  Still (or possibly because of this), support for the Red-shirts continues to grow.  Some police officers openly wear red clothing to show their loyalty to the movement.  They are called ‘tomatoes.’  Similarly, some members of the Thai military are said to wear red shirts under their green uniforms.  The nickname they’ve been given is ‘watermelons.’

My friends and I never made it to the third Buddha statue (Sleeping Buddha).  The dissidence protest had gotten so large it blocked the streets.  It was an interesting day to say the least, one filled with the tranquility of the Buddha, with a small smile on his enlightened lips, contrasted with the unrest on the streets.  I wonder if the government placed a teacher at the Sleeping Buddha, who would stand there by himself, waiting for the tourists to come, hearing vaguely the calls for change out in the distance.

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