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Plus Ça Change

My word how things change.

When I came to Bangkok, I remember there were 3 buildings of more than 7 storeys. One was the tapering triangular structure of the Dusit Thani, which set an aesthetic example which later high-rises studiously ignored. The second was the glass-and-steel Chokchai building, whose construction on Sukhumwit suffered the hiccup of a bankruptcy until the CIA was rumoured to have quietly helped with the financing so it could stick its satellite dishes on the top. And the third was Thai Daimaru at Pratunam, which was so nondescript it has long since been demolished in favour of something much taller and equally nondescript.

And now. I can see double that number through my tiny bathroom window just by sitting on the lavvy (though I can only name one with confidence).

And then there are the things that don’t change.

I arrived when the legacy of roundabouts bequeathed by Sarit was being relentlessly demolished. His debauched lifestyle had led to a number of visits to the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre where he had been taken with Washington’s unusual (for the US) traffic circles. And, being both a dictator and devoid of any technical expertise, he had ordered these built at numerous Bangkok intersections.

Now say what you will about the average Thai drivers’ respect for red lights, it is nothing in comparison to their idea of what constitutes ‘priority to the right’, the principle that traffic wishing to enter a roundabout must give way to the vehicles already in it. The traffic density of a Sunday morning was easily sufficient to cause chaos.

Once the dictator had rotted to death from the inside out, the horrendous traffic jams were going to be solved by ripping out the circles and replacing them by traffic lights. And where, for reasons of patriotic architecture, they could not be ripped out, such as at the Victory and Democracy Monuments, they would be controlled by traffic lights anyway.

But the traffic was still jammed.

Right then, flyovers would be the answer. (These are now being renovated to be earthquake-proof, which might be more reassuring if I could be sure that the nearby buildings wouldn’t collapse on top of them). Still jammed.

One-way systems. Even bigger jams.

Expressways. Jams now at two levels.

Bus lanes. So laughable they were almost immediately ignored.

Even with swish mass transit systems a la BTS and MRT, the traffic is still a nightmare.

No, Bangkok traffic has been solidly stuck for decades. And despite numerous examples of success in other cities (Curutiba is my favourite – look it up), it will doubtless remain so for the simple reason that while for the majority it causes lost time, wasted fuel, and frayed tempers, for a small but influential minority – oil companies, car manufacturers, bridge builders, even advertising salesmen for Jo So 100 – the current situation is very profitable thank you.

And if you are in the top echelon of car owners, you’re not driving anyway. You’re reading the paper, scanning your e-mails or even watching something rather naughty in air-conditioned comfort. And the elite of the elite get the roads cleared for them and probably have to use a dictionary just to understand ‘traffic jam’.

Another permanent fixture has been police corruption. Efforts at reform here have been less visible, but equally ineffective. And in fact, corruption is only the most salient feature of a deeply dysfunctional system.

Take, for example, the fragmentation of Thailand into precincts, each the bailiwick of one police station. The boundary of each precinct is largely unknown to the general public and even to police officers from elsewhere. But each is jealously guarded and no station will trespass onto another’s pitch.

Most Thais are aware of this situation and when they report lost property, swear it disappeared right outside the police station where they are making their report. Tourists, however, can be blindsided, like the Korean honeymoon couple robbed by a taxi driver within hours of arriving in the country. Their initial attempts to log the incident were rejected because in their ignorance of Bangkok’s geography, they could not specify the exact location of the crime.

The expectation that victims of crimes will conduct their own investigations, the reluctance to do more than write a report, and a propensity to ‘settle’ disputes without filing charges for blatant crimes, mean that the first step in the judicial process becomes an almost insurmountable obstacle, such that many give up and even more never bother in the first place.

Not so if you are recognized as a member of the elite. Any infraction against you will then be pursued with exemplary zeal. And any infraction by you will be covered up, spun out until everyone loses interest, or subjected to an investigation so botched that any prosecution will be full of holes.

The outcome is a justice system that preserves the status quo and where judges only rarely have to invent fictitious arguments to keep the hoi polloi in their place.

So what are the chances of any reform of law enforcement? Well I expect it any day now. Just as soon as they’ve sorted out the traffic.

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