First she told me she wanted to get rid of the government. Then she asked me how I liked the dumplings.
It was late afternoon in Bangkok’s Chinatown, and we were having lunch with one of Thailand’s political protesters.
Eight floors below us the narrow streets were gridlocked with cars and tuk tuks, motorcycle taxis swarming through each crack like blood vessels. But here in this quiet Chinese dining hall, the round tables for six and stately hardwood chairs had plenty of room enough for everyone.
Malee, our host, beckoned to the waiter and asked us a few questions about our preferences. Then she fired off a a number of orders in Thai before turning back to us and beginning to share her story.
Expressing one’s opinion in protest can be a dangerous business in Southeast Asia. Even so, “Malee” (not her real name) doesn’t exactly conjure up “radical” when you first meet her.
An elegant woman of a certain age, she’s a publisher and writer, a mother with grown children, and a world traveler who zips around this frenetic city of 6 million at the wheel of her own sports car. Personally, I wouldn’t drive in Bangkok if my life depended on it. As far as I can tell, anyone who does is pretty much taking her life in her own hands! But Malee is busy, global in her perspective, and most of all independent.
She is also a fiercely proud Thai who is worried for the future of her country. And as a successful businesswoman of means, Malee told us she’s willing to take responsibility for helping it get through the current political turbulence.
That has meant for the last few months that she has made near daily visits to protest sites. There she helps to rally spirits, share information, and network with other members of Thailand’s intelligentsia.
Her Facebook page reflects this passion. These days it has a steady stream of updates, reposts and news about the political crisis.
Protesting isn’t all Malee is up to; she’s also working on her latest book. Appropriately, it’s about Chinese cooking, and one of the reasons she chose this restaurant is that she knows the owners and has been able to go in the kitchen to learn some of secrets of the chef.
One by one the dishes arrive. I spend a good amount of time on a duck specialty that features skin wrapped up inside a chewy, thin crepe. Delicious. Then more dishes come. And more. And still more. Eventually we can eat no more and we have to give up. Fortunately, I’ve learned by now that when you want to show that you are full in this food loving nation, you need to leave a bit on the plate. Otherwise, someone will just put something else on it.
Food is at the heart of one of the biggest complaints about the current administration, too.
Thailand is the world’s second largest exporter of rice, and like many Thais, Malee’s family has roots in the rice business. She is immensely proud of her country’s efforts to become a leading producer of high quality rice. But now it’s all at risk: “It took the Ministry of Commerce 12 years to put Thailand to the top of the rice exporter in the world,” she told us. “It has only taken this government two years to bring us down.”
At the center of the rice dispute has been a plan to subsidize northern rice growers by the Shinawatra government. Widely viewed as a scheme to trade government funds for votes, the budget for the plan was eventually mismanaged, leading many rice farmers to complain they weren’t getting paid. Meanwhile, the quality of rice coming from Thailand has been falling as farmers saw there was no longer any benefit to producing high quality output.
Malee explains to us that the bungled rice plan is just one example of self-serving government policy that threatens to undermine a centuries-old commitment to quality in Thai rice production. In essence, it’s upending what it means to be Thai.
Eventually the dishes are cleared. As we talk, my primary takeaway from Malee is her sense of disappointment and even sadness. It’s not that money, corruption, or conflict are new in Thai politics.
But for six decades the most intractable political challenges in Thailand were resolved in the shadow of the watchful patronage and support of King Bhumibol — the world’s longest reigning monarch. Now in his late 80s, the King’s days of being an active symbol of Thai unity are coming to an end.
And so the conflict today is as much about the future as it is about the present. What will Thai identity become once the king is gone? This — in a nation that puts the king’s photo literally everywhere and still pauses each day at 6pm for the national anthem — is most of all what concerns Malee and her friends. And it’s what brings her to the protest sites each day.
Thanks to her financial means and personal connections, Malee’s interests could take her anywhere in the world. But “right now,” she tell us, “I have no plans to travel. I need to be here.”
We say good bye and Malee vanishes into the kitchen — at least for today. Tomorrow she’ll be back on the other side of the barricades.