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The Black Swan Visits the Land of Smiles

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I was supposed to be on a plane bound for Bangkok yesterday.  However, the airport closed last Wednesday and even though it re-opened a week later, priority customers were taken care of first while people like me were left hanging.

It was very difficult to get any reliable flight information about my connection from Tokyo to Bangkok because the backlog of cancelled flights was so heavy.  Even the info on my travel agent’s computer conflicted with her boss’s and he sat just 15 feet away!  So rather than take a chance on getting stuck in Narita Airport, I sadly cancelled my travel plans.  

It seemed an easy task to go on this trip.  December kicks off the tourist season.  The weather is sunny and hot and the country is a safe, low-cost place to go.  The people are welcoming and accommodating.  And yet, the reason I wanted to go on this trip was because I thought it might be my last. 

The world has changed since I first began traveling 25 years ago.  We now must contend with terrorism, political crises, weather disruptions, economic declines, high oil prices and other serious problems that prevent or impede safe and convenient travel.

The situation in Bangkok was a big surprise to everyone.  My sister-in-law, who was to meet me in Tokyo for our flight to Bangkok, remained certain that the situation would be resolved quickly and peacefully because “the Thais are just not an antagonistic or violent people.”  Evidence of this cultural characteristic was the police’s decision not to use force to deal with the airport protesters but rather to use negotiation.  In this way, the country lived up to its reputation as the “Land of Smiles.”

What led up to the closings of the Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang Airports was a political unrest brought on by election fraud—and 16 years of discord in the country.  The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protesters wanted Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat to resign because they said he was acting as a proxy for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.  He had been ousted in a coup two years ago.  On Monday the Constitution Court dissolved the People Power, Chart Thai and Matchimathipataya parties on charges of electoral fraud and then threw out the prime minister on Wednesday.  The Bangkok Post said that some people now fear a power struggle may ensue over the selection of a new prime minister and that anti-government protests may recur. 

PAD’s takeover of the airports was shrewd and strategically timed.  The newly-built $4 billion Suvarnabhumi serves as Southeast Asia’s major hub for the country’s tourism and export trade, the basis of its economy.  The king’s birthday was scheduled for Friday, December 5, and no one wanted to see this national holiday spoiled by the protests.  Finally, the world would be watching.  The only thing PAD couldn’t plan on was the crisis in Mumbai, which dominated media coverage.

What is really distressing about this situation is that the “Land of Smiles” may be yet another “Black Swan event.”

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Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan:  The Impact of the Highly Improbable, contends that:

“…our world is dominated by the extreme, the unknown, and the very improbable…and all the while we spend our time engaged in small talk, focusing on the known, and the repeated.  This implies the need to use the extreme event as a starting point and not treat it as an exception to be pushed under the rug.”

A native of Lebanon, Taleb saw civil war suddenly break out in 1975 after his country had been a peaceful yet highly multicultural land for over a thousand years.  No one believed the conflict would last, nor did they anticipate it would take until 1990 to end.  This war was Taleb’s formulating experience of the “Black Swan” principle. 

According to Reuters, the effects of the Bangkok airport shutdowns are already devastating and pervasive.  For example, the protests stranded at least 230,000 and maybe as many as 350,000 passengers for days. 

Bangkok Airways (THAI) lost 20 billion baht (about $606 million) as more than 1,000 flights were cancelled and prospective customers abandoned their travel plans.  Low-cost carrier Thai AirAsia lost more than 320 million baht (about $9.5 million). 

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Although the airport made a “technical return to full operation on Friday” with a promise to return to “normalcy” by December 15, there is some question about skimping on airport security and it has many ambassadors hopping, including our own. 

On top of all this, the 81-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand became “slightly ill” with a throat infection and was unable to speak or attend his birthday party. 

“The nation had hoped His Majesty would give guidance for ending the country's political turmoil, but now is worried about the health of the monarch,” according to the Bangkok Post.  Reuters noted that during the six decades of the monarch’s reign, he has only intervened in politics three times. 

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Olga Bonfiglio is a Huffington Post contributor and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several magazines and newspapers on the subjects of food, social justice and religion. She (more...)

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Tracy reports from Bangkok that the airport looks ... by Olga Bonfiglio on Friday, Dec 5, 2008 at 12:42:10 PM