Mention Bangkok to anybody who has lived or traveled in the Thai capital and their mind will drift to mouth-watering food eaten on a wobbly folding table on the side of the road. They invariably will start praising the fuming piles of Pad Thai, freshly cut papaya salads, crispy omelettes, grilled pork neck or sizzling seafood available on every street for a tenth of the price of a Big Mac. On 17 April, all of this was supposed to have come to an end.
On that day, a ban on street vending along some of the city’s most famous food destinations came into force, pushed by the city governor, Aswin Kwanmuang, and the man who put him there: Prayuth Chan-o-cha, a general who took control of the country after staging a coup in May of 2014. In March, metropolitan police officers handed out notices to vacate the sidewalks with the declared objective of cleaning up the city and preventing any hindrance to its pedestrians.
The move has been met with a popular outcry. Critics have pointed out that the ban will sacrifice thousands of vendors’ livelihoods, and the economic survival of urban poor in an increasingly expensive city, on the altar of middle class dreams of cleanliness and respectability. Even Thais who favor a slicker Bangkok have denounced the absurdity of implementing this policy just a month after CNN named the Thai metropolis one of the world capitals of street food and condemned its predictably disastrous effects on tourism, the only industry that has kept the Thai economy afloat since the military takeover. These are essential objections and Bangkok would suffer greatly by losing one of its most distinctive features. Yet the military attack to street vendors signals something broader and more sinister than putting aesthetics over culinary, social, and economic concerns. It’s about imposing an authoritarian order over Bangkok and crushing whoever defies it.
In other Asian countries, like Singapore or Japan, street vending is governed by a formalised system of licenses, schedules, and screenings. In the Thai capital it is driven by the vendors’ ingenuity, constant appearances and disappearances, and flexible uses of space: a petrol station may become a portable bar at night, a bank’s car park is covered by portable gazebos and transformed into a restaurant serving delicacies from the Northeastern region. This show of creativity, disregard for planning rules, and defiance of established boundaries infuriates the Thai military regime.
James C. Scott has suggested that states have ‘always seemed to be the enemy of people who move around’. For authoritarian regimes this war against wanderers turns into an obsession. British colonialism was tormented by unruly nomads and its French counterpart by the contorted alleys of the Arab Kasbah and its impenetrable veiled women. Maoist China was fixated with wandering Tibetan monks, and contemporary authoritarianism with illegal migrants and their uncontrolled movements. What united all of their enemies was the defiance for physical and mental borders, an attitude that has been a perennial source of frustration for authoritarian governments.
Even if with different vehemence, these regimes have deployed all of their available tools to record, organise, and block defiant subjects. Sometimes they raise walls in the desert, others times they build new cities and forcibly relocate people. In extreme cases, they create camps to contain and exterminate them. While the Thai government’s ban on street vendors may seem less violent, the result is the same: an attack to ways of life that don’t fit into the rigid grid of military mindsets.
Since he came to power, the Thai dictator has followed its egregious precursors. First, Prayuth cracked down on illegal migrants, refusing to provide safe harbor to Muslim groups escaping ethnic persecution in neighboring Myanmar, deporting thousands of Cambodia workers — allegedly killing nine in the process — and imposing tighter controls over working visas. Then, he directed his attention to open public debate, particularly in relation to the heavily guarded territory of the monarchy. Lese majeste law, which punishes any critic of the royal institution with 3 to 15 years of jail, was used with unprecedented alacrity. Before the 2014 coup, only 5 people were behind bars for this crime, and other 5 awaited trials. Since the establishment of Prayuth’s personal rule, 68 people have been charged. Now his war against people who defy boundaries has moved to Bangkok’s wanderers par excellence: its street vendors.
Promises to impose order over Bangkok’s vendors are nothing new. They are almost ritual components of enthroning new city governors and appeasing the urban middle classes. Invariably, however, they are put aside once citizens, interest groups, and local residents come knocking at their door. Yet, unencumbered by the need to win popular support, the regime displayed unprecedented violence and disregard for auditing practices, negotiation, or the effects of its policy on Bangkok’s citizens. Under military rule, avenues of negotiation or resistance are almost not existent and any organizing against the junta’s orders can be met with lengthy detention on sedition charges or suspicious roadside killings, as people who questioned the boundaries of their control have learned on their skin.
Nomads, as the the travel writer Bruce Chatwin once wrote, see frontiers as a form of insanity. For soldiers they are a raison d’être, one they are accustomed to guard with brute force. People who disregard them ridicule the military obsession for order, discipline, and categorization, revealing the risible pretense of absolute control. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, vendors who move fluidly through material and mental grids reveal the pettiness and fragility of authoritarianism. In between exquisite meals, they remind us that order is always open to challenges and that great pleasures reside in its cracks, a lesson that scares military regimes more than anything else and that Prayuth is now determined to silence.
Claudio Sopranzetti is a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford University. He is the author of the forthcoming book Owners of the Map and is currently working at Awakened, a graphic novel on life in Bangkok. You can follow him on Twitter at @anthroaddict.
Header image via Flickr user Ronn Aldaman, used under Creative Commons licence.