Protest against Tabexpo 2009or, The Thai Anti-Tobacco Movement ROCKS. BIG TIME!

Until today, the biggest anti-tobacco protest (and I mean 'protest', as opposed to convention/conference) I'd ever attended was in Washington DC about 3 years ago. Of the 5,000 attendees at the 13th World Conference on Tobacco OR Health, about 200 of us marched through the streets of DC (with a large police escort) to the White House, where we demanded (that's right, we demanded, dammit!) the US take serious action against tobacco, including long overdue ratification of the FCTC (which, as far as I know, still has not been done). In any case, that whole trip -- the conference, the protest, the networking, etc. -- was incredible, BUT...

I just got 'home' from the biggest, best and most powerful anti-tobacco protest ever! And when I say 'powerful': If we're talkin' earthquakes, all previous protests (great as they've ALL been), have been 'minor tremors', barely registering on the Richter scale...and hardly noticeable by anyone, especially the tobacco industry (TI).

But this one rocked those bastards... and has triggered a tsunami that just might, with any luck at all, wipe them out!

In typical 'Errol' fashion, I was late getting to the protest site this morning. With many curious onlookers (including hotel staff), I loaded the Grim Reaper costume, the SICKARET and 3 placards into a taxi for the 5-minute drive to the convention centre (BKKCC). With the temperature in the mid to high 80s (yes, fahrenheit) and very high humidity, I'm hoping an Arctic front will blow in. No such luck.

Having scouted out the BKKCC area a couple of days earlier, I knew exactly where to go. And besides, I'd been reminded that, with 150 - 500 people protesting, I couldn't possibly miss it. Well, I missed it!

Not seeing any sign at all of a protest, I got the cabbie (who spoke virtually no English) to pull over. A security guard approached and, seeing my gear (especially the SICKARET) in the back seat, asked an unspoken question by putting his hand to his mouth in a smoking gesture. I said yes. He pointed and, in Thai, told the cabbie where to go, as it were.

A couple of blocks further and I see about 100 people (mostly highschool-aged kids) on the sidewalk... some in costumes (including less-elaborate [if I may be so bold] Grim Reapers, cigarettes, etc.), most carrying placards (in English and Thai)...and ALL wearing very cool t-shirts that say, "TOBACCO KILLS!" in big bold letters on the front and "5,400,000" (plus some other text) on the back. And there are at least 2, maybe 3 dozen helmet-wearing police officers. And I'm thinkin', "This is cool!"

I climb out of the cab, haul my gear out and this crowd is on the move, heading for the main entrance of the BKKCC. Again, with very few of them speaking English, the expressions on their faces ranged from curious/confused to "What's this white guy been smokin'?" to smiling/thumbs-up/understanding. And I still don't see any of the dozen or more SEATCA people I've met! Anyway, I start getting into the costume.

Many of the kids had brought drums (bongos, etc.), so a little drumming started...bearing in mind, of course, that I had been very politely reminded, on more than one occasion, that Thais are very quiet, unassuming, respectful and peace-loving pacifists; the police won't have a problem with me (Grim) as long as I don't say anything, don't yell, etc. And a megaphone? Forget it!

More people arrive, all wearing the same t-shirts described earlier. And more...and more...and more! Again, I'm thinkin' this is so cool; we're gonna break the 200 mark! The drumming -- and the chanting/singing is getting louder and louder...and a couple of large groups of kids are dancing what appears to be very choreographed/rehearsed dances. And I see -- and hear -- a couple of those 'forbidden' megaphones! And more and more young people arrive, by the bus load! And I'm totally blinded by all of the damn camera flashes...if not from kids taking pix of their (initially somewhat reluctant-to-pose-with-Grim) friends, from media... and even a few security guards and police, who I was very happy to pose for, especially after they smiled, gave me thumbs up, etc.

The atmosphere was absolutely electric...and no, I'm not talking about lightning. That said, there had been some thunder and lightning (and a major downpour) a few hours prior to the protest but, notwithstanding the scorching heat (especially for me, in the heavy black robe and hood, etc.), the weather was fine.

Apparently, the protest organizer -- Dr. Prakit -- had 'negotiated' a deal with the Tabinfo people and BKKCC management. The original plan was for a 'quiet' protest, to last for 3 or 4 hours. But the Tabinfo/BKKCC people, clearly having no sense of the number of protesters, chose the 'noisy' protest, which lasted about 1 1/2 hours. The intensity level went through the roof. I'm thinkin' that, in hindsight, the Tabinfo people would have chosen the 3 or 4 hour quiet protest.

There was tons of local and international (i.e., Southeast Asia) media there, so there should be lots of pix/video/stories on the net, including the SEATCA site. I'm guessing it will be front page in the local (BKK) papers tomorrow although, realistically, how many times can we expect to make the front page?

A front-page story in today's (Nov 11) Bangkok Post is 'interesting', to say the least. Entitled, TTM withdraws products from Tabinfo Asia, the first two paragraphs read, "The Thai [government] Tobacco Monopoly is withdrawing its tobacco products from the Tabinfo Asia 2009 expo which kicks off today. The TTM board decided on Monday to use the gathering of global tobacco producers and distributors to promote tourism rather than tobacco products."

It is simultaneously absurd, obscene and hilarious that a branch of the Thai government -- while being a party to the WHO's FCTC -- is, for all intents and purposes, a tobacco company! And then (almost as if its conscience suddenly caught up with it, but still not wanting to sever its tobacco ties completely), less than 48 hours before the opening of Tabinfo, the TTM decides it's going to "promote unseen tourist destinations and Thai culture" instead?!? I love it!

Another big story today, in a BKK paper called The Nation, is entitled, "Tobacco industry 'dodges ad bans by pushing habit online.'" (Different article in The Nation: Hundreds of Thais protest tobacco congress in Bangkok.)

I made 3 placards; 2 appropriate for (pro-tobacco) Grim and 1 anti-tobacco one. They are, respectively, 1) MY OL' PAL JOHN LUIK SAYS, "HEY THAI KID$, PLEA$E $MOKE..." and, on the flip side (AOTFS), "OUR BU$INE$$ I$ DYING!'", 2) "LOSING THE BATTLE IN THE WESTERN WORLD, MY FRIENDS AT THE TOBACCO INDUSTRY HAVE DECLARED WAR ON THAILAND..." AOTFS, "AND WE HOPE YOU WILL DO NOTHING ABOUT IT!" and 3) "JOHN LUIK: YOU GIVE CANADIANS A BAD NAME!" AOTFS, "GO HOME, JOHN...AND TAKE YOUR PREDATORY PUPPET-MASTERS WITH YOU!"

Acting on Mary Assunta's suggestion, I'm currently trying to set up a debate between myself and John Luik. Stay tuned.

And finally, I just about forgot: THE ESTIMATED NUMBER OF PROTESTERS AT TABINFO ASIA 2009 TODAY WAS BETWEEN 600 AND 650! "Wow!" is right!

Article by Patrick Winn in GlobalPost: Asia's pushback to big tobacco

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