Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Down and out in a blind man's paradise

The woman in her late 20s excused herself from the conversation she was having with a student interviewing her for his research, to do "some business". She came back less than 10 minutes later - and B12 the richer.


The scene occurred in Soi Sa-ke near the Grand Palace, where the woman is homeless, meaning she is not a permanent "resident" beneath her roof of sky and her floor and bed of concrete and soil.

More than 500 people live here - if their existence can be called "living" - just around the corner from the majestic national landmarks of the Grand Palace, Pinklao Bridge, White Chedi, Sanam Luang and Rama VIII Bridge.

They are a motley crew of runaways, addicts (some HIV positive), drug dealers, panhandlers and others.

Many came to Bangkok to join protest rallies, then returned to find life in their rural hometowns suddenly empty after their experience of political demonstrations.

They returned to the capital - physically and mentally challenged individuals whose families have given up on them.

These are people who have fallen through the capitalist fissures, lost their jobs and then their homes. They were either too proud to beg for help from friends and relatives, or they had none to begin with, or they knew they would be spurned anyway as symptoms of a "social disease". They are unskilled, unable to stuff their resumes to apply for a new job

They are children of families who have resided here for decades. But they have little idea what "home" or "family" means. The streets are their school, gangsters their teachers, addicts hungry for a fix their customers.

They are bona fide Thais, but without the benefits that citizenship confers. Either they are no longer registered at their old family home, or they have lost their citizen ID card and can't get a new one without a residential address. Many were born to a mother who has no nationality, is illiterate, or has lost her mental faculties. Without a national ID card, they can't get medical care or access to any other social safety net the government has in place.

There are scumbags who force the already browbeaten homeless to buy their lists of the almshouses that offer free meals around the city. Each and every one has to buy this list, which comes out every week and costs Bt20. They are not allowed to share the lists. The scumbag-purveyors divide the city like personal fiefdoms, lording it over their defenceless prey.

Some NGOs are active in the area, but they focus mainly on handing out food. Perhaps they have been here long enough to believe that whatever effort they make to salvage the wrecked lives will be futile. The problem is too multifaceted to be solved easily, if at all. They may be unwittingly enablers - if the number of the homeless dwindles, so will their donations from the public.

So every year, they will always report that the number of dispossessed and down-and-outs has risen.

Meanwhile, the downtrodden go mechanically on with their "existence". They know neither happiness nor sorrow. Emotions are irrelevant and alien. Each carries a backpack with few items of clothing. When they feel they need to clean up, they pay to enter a public washroom - if they have the cash to do so. As for calls of nature, they pay for them if they have to, or use the side of the road if they can do so without getting caught. They rummage through trash bins in search of empty bottles, cans, paper and leftover food that they can then sell or eat. The panhandlers go to work every day (unless they are too ill) under the watchful eye of their mafia bosses - who will take most of the cash at the end of the day. Boys and girls graduate to selling sex whenever, wherever and whichever way their customers dictate.

These are people who are not just homeless and stateless; they have no hopes, cherish no dreams. To do so would be too unbearably painful. To them, there is no past, no future, not even a present they can call their own. They are just "here", and couldn't care less about "what is" or what is to become of them.

In a nearby parallel universe, gleaming and glorious structures attract admiration from onlookers.

In this universe, the cost of a single upscale wedding party is enough to transport all the homeless unfortunates to a "heaven" beyond their imagining.

The rest of us look at this kind of lavish spectacle with great admiration. We do not see our less fortunate compatriots: we do not want to see; we cannot see. The lure of bright lights and money keeps our eyes are wide shut, oblivious to the plight of a group of people whose lives we refuse to acknowledge.

"For all the dreams we've dreamed

And all the songs we've sung

And all the hopes we've held

And all the flags we've hung,

The millions who have nothing for our pay -

Except the dream that's almost dead today."

(Langston Hughes)

Pornpimol Kanchanalak for The Nation, Bangkok

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