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     Volume 7 Issue 49 | December 19, 2008 |

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A Rude Homecoming

Aasha Mehreen Amin

Suvarnabhumi Airport after being closed for days, goes back to normal.

It's funny how even a city as glamorous as Bangkok can lose quite a bit of its undeniable charm when you are told that you are indefinitely stuck there and cannot go home. That's the bizarre thing about humans, no matter how much fun they are having, at some point they just have to go back to where they belong. It is called getting back to reality.

I had gone to Bangkok in mid November for a relative's treatment and was all set to return on November 28 when I was hit by the strangest news. Thousands of yellow T shirted anti-government protestors had occupied Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport and were agitating against the government that they considered corrupt to step down. At first we were assured by local people that this was a temporary situation and we relaxed. Surely they couldn't just take over the airport.

But the uneasy feeling gave way to full scale panic as the protestors refused to budge and flights were suspended indefinitely, leaving thousands of foreigners stranded. It was the oddest feeling to be all packed and ready, to wake up each day, hoping against hope that the airport would be open, only to be horribly disappointed as the recorded message of the airport call centre announced that all flights were cancelled until further notice.

We were hooked onto BBC and CNN news but then the horrendous Mumbai terrorist attacks took place, completely predominating all news. Whatever little information we could gather from TV, the newspapers and local gossip, did little to make us feel hopeful. The airport siege was the culmination of months of conflict between the pro and anti government groups and one that was getting more and more difficult to resolve.

An elderly shopkeeper looked visibly stunned when I asked him if he liked Thaksin, the former prime minister who had been arrested and charged with wide scale corruption and whose brother-in-law had taken over from him. He explained that the country was divided almost 50-50 into the 'yellow party' (opposition) and 'red party' (pro-government). Now that I could totally relate to.

What bewildered me, however, were the rather jumbled up ideologies that had escalated the conflict. The yellow gang represented Thailand's elite and middleclass and they wanted to bring down the pro-Thaksin government that enjoyed the support of the farmers and blue-collar workers. For someone used to the traditional story of the suffering masses trying to fight against oppressive regimes backed by the rich, a government that the poor liked and the middle class hated and wanted to topple, seemed a little topsy-turvy. So was this a revolution of the elite against the oppression of the pro-poor? Well, judging from the number of huge, flashy shopping malls that sported the latest in designer goods representing the cult of consumerism, perhaps it wasn't such a far-fetched theme.

Newspaper articles stated that the army, the elite and middle class were all anti-Thaksin. No wonder those yellow T shirted people could get away with taking two airports hostage for one whole week without little resistance. Would it have been so easy, I wondered, if a few thousand peasants had come marching in and taken over the two most important airports of the country, paralysing international air traffic for days on end?

When a High Court verdict declared that the existing government had lost its legitimacy to govern, it seemed as if the political drama was about to come to an end, and so our agonising wait. But the yellow party members, though jubilant and apparently victorious, were still at the airports and, to make matters worse, furious pro-government red party had come to the airport to protest the court's decision.

The King's birthday on December 5, gave a glimmer of hope and sure enough by December 4, the airport was coming back to life. The Thai government, in an attempt to appease the grumpy, stranded tourists (who are the lifeblood of the thriving Thai tourist industry) arranged for accommodation and meal coupons at the numerous hotels all over the city. That was no small feat and with characteristic Thai efficiency and graciousness, the stranded were allotted hotel rooms. Many, however, were desperate to get out any way they could and hundreds of tourists drove off to a small naval airport where planes took them to another Thai city before their long-winded journey home.

For those of us who were still stuck, it was especially excruciating when Thai airways informed us that although the airport was up and running, it would be difficult to get a confirmed flight anytime soon.

Finally after hysterical outbursts and persistent calling, I managed to get two seats for my daughter and myself on a flight on December 5. We were stunned at how shiny and new the airport looked with not even the slightest hint that anything untoward had happened only a few hours ago. The only indication of the tremendous chaos that had ensued after the occupation were the long tables laden with free snacks and drinks and the complimentary chocolates from any purchase at the duty free shops along with a sweet note of apology for the ‘inconvenience’. My exuberance at seeing my compatriots at the airport terminal was quickly nipped in the bud as I witnessed, to my horror, one of them spitting out his phlegm right out into the other side of the glass railing that divided our terminal from another section. I tried to shut out the image as best as possible and concentrated on the happy thoughts of going home.

As the wheels crunched into the tarmac on homeland, it was hard to quell the growing excitement of being back, the anticipation of seeing loved ones and the relief of resuming normal life. But again, the exhilaration dwindled as we went en route to immigration. The bathroom was wet, with leaking hand showers and faulty door locks. Several flights had come in at once and the lines at the immigration section were endless. After about forty minutes we were done with immigration but now where on earth was the luggage? People were aimlessly running to and fro, trying to locate their luggage from the sea of suitcases and boxes strewn all over the floors. To my dismay, I found out that all the trolleys had been taken and we would have to wait till a new batch was brought in. The entrance through which the trolleys would be brought in, however, was clogged with frantic male passengers who had no qualms about jostling each other to get a trolley first. I watched in amazement as a young man practically shoved aside an elderly gentleman and shouted at him that he had come first and so he had the right to the trolley. The old man just let go of the trolley and helplessly stared at his attacker. There were airport officials on the other side of the glass door pushing the trolleys in but they did not lift a finger to try and sort out the chaos and make sure that the passengers lined up properly for the trolleys. Instead, they just stood and watched. On this side of the door a woman customs officer languidly said, "Why don't you go in and get the trolley, you will never be able to get it otherwise." I asked her why she could not do something to help which made her go into a tirade saying that she was in customs and so not responsible for such things, that I was out of line and so on.

At last a kind soul took pity on me and handed me his own trolley but the worst was far from over. I tried to hop my way through the obstacle race of strewn luggage to the conveyor belt and managed to retrieve our suitcases. But just as I was passing through the Green Channel after clearance from an official, another customs official stopped me and asked me to get my luggage scanned. When I told him that I needed help with the luggage, he was completely unmoved. After lugging the suitcases on the scanner belt and then shoving them back on the trolley, I was told that I had to get one of my suitcases checked as it had been given a 'cross'. By now I was too angry, frustrated and appalled by the rudeness of my fellow countrymen and told them that I could not lift any more suitcases. This had absolutely no effect and I realised that the only way I could get out of this hell hole was to get the ‘cross’ cleared.

The checking counter was again flooded by desperate passengers trying to get their luggage cleared. There were many people coming from the Middle East and I watched with disappointment as a customs officer unashamedly confiscated a carton of cigarettes from an old man and made him take out every single item in his boxes, speaking to him in a condescending tone and asking him what new items he had brought. When it came to my turn I was asked if I had anything new, any 'three pieces'. I felt humiliated at having to show all my belongings, especially since the suitcase was full of dirty laundry, thanks to the extra days of waiting. Finally I was cleared and mustering up as much dignity as I could, I walked out of the greeting area.

I had finally come home but it was a homecoming I would most likely never forget.


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