Thailand's 'Land of Smiles' Turns to Terror

BBDO Bangkok's Suthi Sucharittanonta Describes Life in a City Under Siege

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Barricades built by anti-government 'red shirt' protesters near Bangkok's Saladaeng neighborhood.
Barricades built by anti-government 'red shirt' protesters near Bangkok's Saladaeng neighborhood. Credit: Suthi Sucharittanonta
Thailand, known to tourists as the "land of smiles," hasn't had much to cheer about lately.

The country is polarized between "yellow shirts," urban and educated Thais, including the military and business elite supporting King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's shaky government, and "red shirts," or rural supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

The protests began in early March, which led to the cancellation of AdFest, one of Asia's top annual gatherings for the ad industry.

Over the past week, the dispute turned extremely violent. Anti-government protesters have taken over several square miles of Bangkok's commercial center. After weeks of stalled negotiations, the military is trying to regain the territory, and it is now using live ammunition.

Suthi Sucharittanonta
Suthi Sucharittanonta
Today, downtown Bangkok looks more like Baghdad than a modern, tourist-friendly Asian metropolis. Business in the capital has slowed to a standstill as gunfire and grenades rip through the city, costing dozens of lives as well as billions of dollars in lost revenue from commerce and tourism.

Below is a description of life in a city under siege by Suthisak Sucharittanonta, chairman and chief creative officer of BBDO Worldwide, Bangkok. Mr. Sucharittanonta, better known as "Khun Suthi," is one of the best-known creatives in Asia.

Saturday, April 10, 2010
Fierce clashes between red shirts protesters and Thai troops left 840 injured and 22 dead.

Thursday, May 13, 2010
We worked in the office as usual until the building manager told us to leave the office by 3 p.m. We received messages from insiders that army troops would take control of the mobs by Sunday. Twitter was flooded with warnings. Traffic froze, so I got out of my car and walked home. I saw many construction workers and motorbike taxis racing wildly towards the protesters' camp. At that point, I sensed violence would erupt soon.

Bangkok's Rama IV Road after blasts and gunfire. The photo was taken by Mr. Sucharittanonta's daughter's piano teacher near his home, where he was trapped without electricity.
Bangkok's Rama IV Road after blasts and gunfire. The photo was taken by Mr. Sucharittanonta's daughter's piano teacher near his home, where he was trapped without electricity. Credit: Tim Johnson
Friday, May 14, 2010
In the early morning, I took photos from my balcony as usual, and heard gunshots. My family and I decided to leave our condo on Sathon Road. That night, chaos took root in many areas, including Saladaeng, Rajprasong, Sathon and Rama IV roads, including explosions and gunfire in front of BBDO's office building. Luckily, we'd already left.

Saturday, May 15, 2010
I was sick of the news and tons of tweets flooding my time line, most of which were coming directly from news reporters from the clash areas. It made me clearly see how powerful social media is, compared to our country's free TV networks, which still show soap operas and stupid game shows.

Sunday, May 16, 2010
Loud blasts were heard around Bangkok's main business areas, but I'm sure God heard our prayers at Sunday mass.

Monday, May 17, 2010
Schools and offices were closed. BBDO staff have been working from home or holding meetings at places far from the red zones, which I would rather call a war zone because the red shirts are now using hand guns, hand grenades, M16 rifles, M79 grenade launchers and RPG anti-tank weapons.

Thai flags are hung like banners in front of shops along Rama IV Road.
Thai flags are hung like banners in front of shops along Rama IV Road. Credit: Suthi Sucharittanonta
Sunrise in Bangkok as seen from Mr. Sucharittanonta's balcony. Gunshots were heard in the distance while this photo was taken. The family has vacated the condo for a safer location.
Sunrise in Bangkok as seen from Mr. Sucharittanonta's balcony. Gunshots were heard in the distance while this photo was taken. The family has vacated the condo for a safer location. Credit: Suthi Sucharittanonta
Thai flags in front of BBDO's office building in Bangkok on Rama IV Road before violence erupted in the city.
Thai flags in front of BBDO's office building in Bangkok on Rama IV Road before violence erupted in the city. Credit: Suthi Sucharittanonta
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Black smoke from burning tires billowed over Bangkok's downtown streets, and gunfire, firecrackers, grenade blasts, looting and blood are all around. The city resembles scenes in American civil war movies.

Now I'm calling my staff to check if they have any meetings, still photo-shoots or TV films scheduled, and whether it's worth risking their lives by commuting past the red zones and if they can postpone or at least avoid going near those areas.

The fighting hurts everyone here, not just those who are physically injured. We have never seen anything like this in our city or in our lives. The anti-government protesters have been blocking the Rajprasong business area for two months. Now the situation is getting worse and no one can predict the ending.

We no longer have an office to work in, we just hide ourselves and work at home. Our clients' campaigns have been postponed or canceled. It will definitely affect all businesses ... except arms dealers, of course.

In the ad world, Thailand is well known for humorous ads that always make audiences smile and laugh ... now those of us who created those ads can't even make ourselves smile. From an outsiders' view, this may look like a war between the government and the anti-government "red shirt" protesters, but this city is really a victim of terrorism.

From May 14-18, the casualty count reached 84 injured and 36 dead, and chaos still reigns here. Thailand, the land of smiles, used to be one of the world's most beautiful places to visit, but now it is ranked among the world's most dangerous destinations. It will take time to heal this deep wound. In the end, however, I'm sure we will wake up from this nightmare and smiles will come back to our country again.

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