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Aunties Mad As Hell

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By Andrew Biggs

You may have noticed it’s been difficult to get your Thai friends to go out on a Wednesday or Thursday night.

That’s because the country is in the grip of a soap opera on Channel 3 called Buppha Sanniwat. Everyone is watching.

Thai soapies usually feature violence, betrayal, corruption, fabulous wealth and injustice. Interestingly, Buppha Sanniwat features none of these, but that doesn’t matter. Thais are getting those ingredients in real life thanks to two axe-wielding aunties on Srinakharin Road.

Everyone is watching that one, too. Their story is one of violence, betrayal, corruption, fabulous wealth and injustice. No wonder the whole country is riveted.

It was so audacious it even pushed Premchai and the black panther off the front pages which, if I were more of a conspiracist, would believe it had been planned that way.

And here is the exciting addition to the raging aunties story — I know the area like the back of my hand.

Yes, dear reader, for the past 10 years I have walked right past the now-famous gates outside their home. I have been a constant patron of the vibrant, bustling markets that encompass the aunties’ house like a marauding army.

For 20 years I have exercised regularly at Rama 9 Park off Srinakharin Road. In fact this column, now in its tenth year, started off because of my running the 5-km track around that park while I trained for the Bangkok Marathon.

My subsequent account of that 42-km run was published in this publication under the ego-shattering headline “Run, Fatboy, Run.” It came from the name of a popular movie at the time — can’t think of any other reason the editors would want to call it that.

The same dishonorable editors who thought that title up then asked me to write a weekly column about life in Thailand, and look, ten years later I’m still here. But we are off on a tangent. This is not about Thailand’s most famous Australian idiot savant. It’s about mad-as-hell aunties acting like a scene out of a soap opera.

The road between Srinakharin and the main entrance to Rama 9 Park is a straight one that cuts right through a housing estate called Seri Villa.

Saturday and Sunday mornings at the park are alive with joggers, tai-chi adherents, bicyclists and families on brisk walks. Once the exercise is over they wander out those main gates and into colorful, bustling markets on either side of the road.

There are buskers and parades of monks receiving alms. One market is devoted to herbal remedies.

The choice of local food is cheap and astounding. There is a coffee bar where an amiable elderly gentleman explains his meticulous drip method. It is a community of vendors catering for absolutely everybody …

… with the exception of one mansion right in the middle of it.

A tall concrete wall surrounds it, not unlike the type of wall an embassy would construct to keep out jihadists. The main iron gates are elaborate and ornate but even those you can’t really see.

They are plastered with signs exuding plaintive calls for help. They detail court orders demanding the markets be shut down. Court appearances. Calls for justice. Demands that absolutely nobody can park in front of their house. It isn’t enough their neighborhood is defiled. They have to go and defile their own front gates as well.

For years my feeling was this: You have bought a house right in the middle of a prime tourist destination. Here is a community of thousands of small vendors eking out a living. Sure, it’s probably a bit of a hassle on a Saturday and Sunday morning, when half of eastern Bangkok comes to visit. But isn’t that like a resident next to the Eiffel Tower complaining of the crowds and disruption? If you don’t like it — and you are clearly not screaming for a quid — why not find another place to live?

That’s how I saw it. How unfair would it be to evict an entire community for the sake of one single, solitary house — >>mansion<< — right in the middle of it all. Where is the justice in that?

When the home-owners, two ageing aunties, finally appeared in the media two weeks ago — to take an axe to a pick-up parked illegally in front of their home — it was like welcoming an old friend. So these are the residents of the mysterious mansion I’d trudged past all those years!

Two things immediately rose up in my heart.

The first was schadenfreude. We all harbor a secret desire to smash illegally-parked pick-up trucks; at least I do. That is probably something I need to work on with my therapist, but in this country, drivers of pick-up trucks have on average a lower intelligence quotient than the general population, which explains their lack of road rule knowledge. That sounds cruel, I know, but sometimes in life you just gotta take an axe to idiots.

The second feeling was compassion. For the aunties, not the pick-up owner.

The subsequent media attention these two received revealed how wrong I’d been in my thinking.

Those markets were illegal. They were set up in residential zones. One seeks peace and quiet in one’s choice of residence; one does not purchase a mansion smack bang in the middle of markets.

And as it turns out, this is not a case of which came first. The chicken came way before the egg, and those two women sure as hell aren’t eggs.

With all the money they have (they own the land upon which Paradise Park is built), they have been unable to ensure the relevant city officials carry out their job of ensuring a residential zone stays that way.  

I sympathize with them and understand their frustration. I used to live in a townhouse; overnight my next-door neighbors turned their townhouse into a late night karaoke bar. Nobody dared do anything because the owner was a cop. The only solution, friends told me, was to move house.

I didn’t; the place closed down after a few weeks thanks to some diplomatic meetings between myself and the cop. But it does show what happens when law enforcers do the wrong thing. One feels helpless and frustrated, and those are the feelings that precipitate picking up an axe.

The BMA’s Public Works Department along with Prawet district are responsible for allowing a quiet street turn into a cacophony of street markets.

It began in 2008, coincidentally the same time I started running around the park. Six officials have been in charge of the bureau in that time, one current and five retired.

If proponents of justice have any extra time on their hands — highly unlikely in between following the cases of the Red Bull heir, Pravit Wongsuwan, Premchai and the black panther — they should add those six to the list to watch. For Thai society to really develop, the population needs to be closely watching more than just Buppha Santiwat.

What possesses BMA officials to ignore five huge markets?

A lack of manpower? That is out of the question. Look at the voracity and enthusiasm they displayed in shutting down other markets around town. One would suspect the task of killing a market could well relieve them of the tedium of otherwise docile civil service life. At least they get out of the office.

So what is it, dear reader? Why would BMA officials turn a blind eye? I can’t think of a single, glaring, reason. Can you?


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