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    Wednesday, April 15, 2009

    Thailand's stress-relieving street battle

    Bangkok: There were just two of us on the empty street. Me, and the guy with the gun.

    We were in the centre of the Thai capital, in broad daylight, but it couldn't have been more deserted. All the shops on Nakhon Sawan Road had their metal shutters pulled down after 24 hours of violent protests in the city. The road behind me was blocked by a burned-out bus that red-shirted protesters had positioned to keep the army out of their encampment.

    There was nowhere for me to run. My assailant trained his weapon on me and let loose a jet of water straight into my chest.

    He then collapsed into giggles like the six-year-old he was.

    After days of escalating tension in Bangkok as the army faced off with supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a hint of normalcy returned to the usually jovial Thai capital yesterday.

    The state of emergency imposed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is still in effect, and there are still soldiers on the streets, but most of Thais moved on to the important business of celebrating Songkran, the lunar new year.

    That means heading out into the sweltering hot streets (it was 33 C today) with a water gun and an attitude. Buddha images are “bathed,” and so is anyone who walks into splashing range.

    Many Thais appear to believe that extra karmic points are awarded to those who douse foreigners who walk around lost in thought, or women of any nationality foolish enough to wear white. Motorcyclists are another favourite target.

    The clashes on Monday between the Red Shirts and the army (which left at least two people dead and more than 100 injured) led some to dub this holiday the “Black Songkran.” But Thais are a resilient people, having endured a staggering 18 coups in the past eight decades, as well as countless popular protests.

    Even at the height of the violence this week, much of Bangkok carried on as if nothing abnormal was taking place. In the famous backpacking district around Khao San Road, it was as though this troubled place called “Thailand” that the newspapers were writing about was somewhere far, far away from the merry stretch of bars and restaurants.

    Nonetheless, the city emitted a collective sigh of relief when the leaders of the Red Shirts called off their protest on Tuesday, putting at least a temporary end to the crisis. Maybe, just maybe, it will be a happy new year after all.

    Me, I'm taking my cue from the kid and going shopping for a Super-Soaker.

    Or at least a rain slicker.

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