Rumors filled the newspapers, like the Bangkok Post's report of the Royal Thai Army's 2nd Calvary Division moving toward the capitol to quash unrest.
The cabbie took his eyes from the road and made a shooting motion with his hands. There would be violence, he said. Red ribbons, the color of the opposition, fluttered from the rear-view mirror.
He was right, as tanks rolled into Bangkok a few days later, buses burned and protesters died. A year later, the turmoil has worsened. More Thais are dead, some 800 injured in the country's worst political violence in 20 years. The cabbie's resigned voice predicting violence is burned in my mind. The bafflement I felt then has only grown.
From the surface, Thailand is an unlikely location for violent political upheaval. Rarely will you find a kinder, more welcoming population. There is a gentleness and warmth about Thais that is disarming and becomes even moreso when you realize it is genuine. The national discreetness extends to the violence. A few blocks from protests, you can't tell anything is amiss. Foreigners aren't targeted. Most Thais keep smiling and carry on as if nothing is different, only adding to the bizarre feeling. How could this land be on the brink of all-out civil war?
Deep-seated problems fester behind the smiles, in the divide between the mostly rural and poor supporters of ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinwarta, ousted in a 2006 coup, and those opposed to him and backed by Thailand's elite. Thaksin's supporters are red-shirts, the opposition yellow shirts.
In between is King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the aging glue holding the country together (confusingly, yellow is also the color of the monarchy, and the country is virtually covered in yellow on royal occasions). He is revered by Thais on both sides of the divide and is supposed to be above involvement in politics. But his Privy Council is essentially a political arm. Whispers and riddle-like statements link the council to the chaos. Criticizing the monarchy is a significant social faux pas, not to mention illegal.
It's a confounding, complex mess of factions, agendas, protests, counter-protests and power-plays. Unraveling it can give you a headache. No solution is in sight. More violence seems inevitable.
So, I think about the cabbie and that sweltering day in the Land of Smiles and am sad. Sometimes, everyone is right and everyone is wrong. And no one wins.