Vale CentralWorld, I hardly knew ye

As I write this, one of Bangkok’s most exclusive shopping centres is burning. Even though CentralWorld was but a shiny building, albeit a massive shiny building with a hotel and apartment complex to boot, I’ve been somewhat misty-eyed remembering the good times I had there, and picturing its capacious atria reduced to smoking rubble.

Literally picturing it, in fact, thanks to a video on a Thai news site a friend sent me, the rest of which also makes for fairly depressing reading. Take a look – while the redshirts may not have been able to budge the Thai government, they appear to have succeeded in destroying much of the modern – and Westernized – heart of Bangkok.

Every time someone dies nowadays, or in this case a building is totalled, some dutiful Wikipedian rushes to their computer and rewrites the entry into the past tense, in what has become something of a ritual drawing of the curtains. The mall’s now reads as follows:

CentralWorld (Thai: เซ็นทรัลเวิลด์) was a shopping plaza and complex in Bangkok, Thailand. It was the second largest shopping complex in Southeast Asia.

For some reason, I find it rather sad when the present becomes the past, and things that once existed are consigned to history. Browsing through the Wikipedia entry that now serves as CentralWorld’s e-mausoleum tells me that it used to be called the World Trade Center. Melbourne’s one really ought to think about changing its name – it just might be bad luck.

I spent a day at CentralWorld in December 2007 which will live long in my memory. I had been holidaying in Bangkok with a few close friends when I had developed a nasty ear infection. We were due to visit a resort in Ko Samui, but on medical advice I stayed in the capital to recuperate, while the others headed off to the beach, leaving me – abandoning me – to spend a few days on my own. And “on my own” is not something I do well. Well, it being Bangkok, I received several unsolicited offers of companionship, but let’s just say I opted against them.

Wandering around the mercifully air-conditioned mall, feeling lonesome and rather sorry for myself, I took comfort in the reassuring embrace of some of my favorite Asian brands – Mos Burger and MUJI – and bought a cheap pair of Nikes at the groovy Zen department store, like the pawn of capitalism that I am.

In one of its two multiplexes, I bought a ticket to the World Happiness Screen. They offered a daybed, a sofa or a beanbag, and I opted for the latter, what with having being abandoned. And so I settled in to watch a film in such incredible comfort that I didn’t even mind when Nicole Kidman and her cohorts murdered one of my favorite books, Northern Lights.

But now the beanbags are no more. Poor, innocent beanbags – they never hurt anybody. Why did they have to be destroyed?

Perhaps they weren’t. I’d like to think that perhaps they survived, that perhaps the redshirts liberated them so that when they weren’t throwing petrol bombs at the police, they could totally chill out.

Anyway – when I was needy, in a confronting foreign city, CentralWorld offered me an opulent bubble where I could escape from the heat, and the noise, and the fear of being scammed by a tuktuk driver. I love Bangkok, with its intensity, vitality and unpredictability, but because I was feeling rotten, I needed an escape. And verily, CentralWorld was there for me.

Now, it is there no more. But while the building is in ruins, the mall will live on in the memories of those who visited it. They can smash its plentiful glass, and melt its magnificent escalators, but deep within our hearts, CentralWorld will remain, and we shall sing evermore its songs. Well, muzak.

At this point, I realised that I was in mourning for a mall. A pretty amazing mall, sure – like, even more amazing than Westfield Bondi Junction; but a mall nevertheless, and a fairly bland one, if I’m honest. And then I realised that the mall was at the heart of the problem.

Occupying the centre of Bangkok was more than just symbolism for the redshirts, many of whom hail from the north-eastern region of Isan. Its residents are ethnically Lao, with a different language and darker skin than the dominant Tai majority. I know a few people from Isan, and they’ve told me of their struggles with discrimination in what’s notionally the land of smiles. Often, menial jobs are the only option when they come to the capital for a better life, and they’re commonly nicknamed water buffalo, as though they’re slow.  It’s not surprising, then, that they’re angry.

A Thai person from Isan I spoke to this week put it very simply. (Clearly this is hearsay, but I have no reason to disbelieve her, since she sympathised with the redshirts.) Many of the protesters, she claimed, are being paid 600 baht a day to protest – $21. In the rice fields, they earn only 100 a day for backbreaking labor – a mere $4.

So of course they have come to Bangkok, and of course they’re angered by what they see, and of course occupying, and now destroying, playgrounds of the rich like CentralWorld has a certain appeal.

But it’s gone far beyond the chance to earn a few easy baht. The poor villages were given handouts under the former Prime Minister Thaksin – cynically, perhaps, but at least it was something – and since he was thrown out, life has gotten tougher in Isan. What’s more, the King, who is usually above politics, is perceived as being sympathetic to the elites – who generally make up the yellowshirts.

There will be no easy solution to this conflict, which has exposed Thailand’s steep racial and economic divide. Calls for democracy alone will not heal these wounds – if the election is fair, the red side may well win, since there are a great many rural poor.

And if Thaksin returns, there will be more allegations of corruption, and the next protests will be led by the yellowshirts, who shut down Suvarnabhumi Airport in 2008. Or there will be another military coup conducted by the elite commanders. Something needs to break this cycle and provide enduring stability, and the influence – and perceived neutrality – of the King is not what it was.

So, while I remember the shopping centre that was my refuge, I’d be better off reflecting on the millions of Thais who could never afford to shop there, and who have never been treated as equal citizens by those who did. While their means of expressing their dissatisfaction is unfortunate, their cause has its merits. And yet, as Thaksin has shown, their grievances are easy fodder for other, opportunistic members of the elite to exploit.

Ultimately, solving the enormous economic injustices of Thailand is far more important than rebuilding a mall. Unfortunately, it’s far more difficult as well.

A souvenir from this tourism website shows just how effectively the redshirts shut down the Westernized heart of the city:

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