Monday, November 18, 2013

Conflicting rights - Bangkok, Thailand

Seated on the tables barring the passage
Sometimes we have a lot to learn from the simplicity, the humanity and the flexibility of South East Asians (for an example you can take a look at the last picture below). Or better, to re-learn, as fifty or sixty years ago we were pretty much like them.
For some other aspects though it is better for us to go and take our lessons somewhere else. I realized that when I was having a bite and a beer at at table near the edge of a street in Bangkok. The restaurant management had placed their tables on the section of the sidewalk in front of the entrance. Normally people prefer to walk on the road - especially in this area and in the evening - turning it into a sort of pedestrian area. The road was jammed though, as it often happens here: a taxi, a tuk-tuk, a street stall and a few people ordering their food. The passersby were forced to move to the sidewalk. Notice that this is exactly the opposite of what should normally happen. This is a very common thing in Asia though, and it is not what I intend to point out here.
People had started to use the sidewalk then, carefully zig-zagging among the tables. When the restaurant owner noticed that he didn't like it at all, reckoning that is was very bad for his business. He beckoned to the waitress and told her to do something. She started to look around nervously, not knowing exactly what to do. After helplessly looking at a dozen people who found their way between the first table and the wall she decided to take the initiative, she barred the next guy's way by placing herself in front of him and asked him to use the road instead, politely but firmly and authoritatively as a policewoman could have done. She even used a slightly irritated tone, as if she had meant: "You could well have though of that yourself! You didn't really need me to tell you, right?"
When she finally managed to divert the flow of people to the road she decided to permanently block the passage by placing two tables across it. In order to make sure that nobody misunderstood the message she sat on top of them. 
This is a form of arrogance that one can experience very often around here.
And to tell the whole story it is not exclusively the business operators' fault. The whole system is wrong. The police asks money in exchange for the authorization to use the sidewalk, making profit out of a public space that should be used by everyone free of charge. The shop and restaurant owners have paid the fee (which is actually a bribe) and are convinced that they have a right to use the space and to forbid the passersby to share it. People see that the passage is blocked and take it for granted that it has to be that way.
In fact it doesn't necessarily have to be that way, but a revolution from the bottom up would be needed to clarify that concept. 
Here not only revolution but protests and appeals are staged in support of the politicians who protect one's economic interests, not for unimportant things such as the right of pedestrian to the use of sidewalks. 
Government opposition protest
Buskers and drunks having a hell of a time in front of a police station (one of the nice sides of life in South East Asia)

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