2008.12.06: December 6, 2008: Headlines: COS - Thailand: Safety: The News Journal: Thailand RPCV Mary Matterer caught in Bangkok protests

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Thailand: Peace Corps Thailand: Peace Corps Thailand: Newest Stories: 2008.12.06: December 6, 2008: Headlines: COS - Thailand: Safety: The News Journal: Thailand RPCV Mary Matterer caught in Bangkok protests

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Thailand RPCV Mary Matterer caught in Bangkok protests

Thailand RPCV Mary Matterer caught in Bangkok protests

The Matterers knew before leaving that Thailand's prime minister was unpopular. But they were not alarmed because Mary had seen a peaceful, well-contained demonstration when she lived there as a member of the Peace Corps in the 1970s. But, she said, "I had never seen, in my three years in Thailand, any attempts to shut down the airport." So they flew to Thailand on Nov. 22 and spent a couple of days in Bangkok before Joe's group needed to go north to Chiang Mai for work there. "That was the day they closed the airport," said Mary, an attorney in Wilmington. Flag-waving protesters in yellow shirts and caps stormed the prime minister's office and besieged Bangkok's international airport -- stranding travelers -- as gunfire erupted on the capital streets amid demands that the prime minister resign. Both protesters and government supporters were reported hurt in street clashes marked by gunfire, an airport bombing and troops shooting into crowds. When Joe's group finished work in Chiang Mai and had to get back to Bangkok, there were no flights and Bangkok's airport remained closed. "It took about half a day," Mary said, "but we rented vans to drive down from Chiang Mai to Bangkok." They avoided airports and saw no violence or protests. But they saw people wearing the bright yellow shirts of the government-opposition People's Alliance for Democracy. "We saw some 'yellow shirts' just passing on the streets ... a few people on their way to the demonstrations," Mary said. Still, they did not feel threatened or fearful -- and Mary stressed to her children that it was not like India's recent, deadly terrorist attacks targeting Westerners. "This wasn't like Bombay [Mumbai]," she said. "We still felt safe. When we were in Bangkok, and you went out on the street, it was business as normal and people were friendly ... and happy to have us there."

Thailand RPCV Mary Matterer caught in Bangkok protests

Couple caught in Bangkok protests
Newark woman, husband home safe after facing delay and frustration

By ROBIN BROWN The News Journal

December 6, 2008

Caption: Joe and Mary Matterer were forced to rent a van and drive to the southern tip of Thailand and through Malaysia in order to find an airport that could fly them back to the United States. "We saw a lot of the countryside," Mary said.

Mary Matterer almost wasn't able to join her husband, Joe, on his business trip to Thailand last month.
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At the last minute, a work issue that nearly kept her home cleared up, so she snagged a ticket and flight insurance.

But what began as part of her husband's work at the English Institute at the University of Delaware left them stranded in the exotic, far-away land as protesters occupied airports in anti-government actions that partly paralyzed Bangkok.

Matterer, who returned to Newark Wednesday, said she was grateful while in Thailand that she could reach her three grown children to tell them her and her husband were safe and fine.

"You know how I did that?" she said. "My Blackberry. It was my lifeline."

Over the summer, protests by the People's Alliance for Democracy gained momentum, accusing Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat of being a puppet for his predecessor and brother-in-law, who was ousted in 2006.

Living in exile after a bloodless coup, ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is said to be planning to return, despite being convicted and sentenced in absentia to prison for corruption and abuse of power.
Gunfire and bombing

The Matterers knew before leaving that Thailand's prime minister was unpopular.

But they were not alarmed because Mary had seen a peaceful, well-contained demonstration when she lived there as a member of the Peace Corps in the 1970s.

But, she said, "I had never seen, in my three years in Thailand, any attempts to shut down the airport."

So they flew to Thailand on Nov. 22 and spent a couple of days in Bangkok before Joe's group needed to go north to Chiang Mai for work there.

"That was the day they closed the airport," said Mary, an attorney in Wilmington.

Flag-waving protesters in yellow shirts and caps stormed the prime minister's office and besieged Bangkok's international airport -- stranding travelers -- as gunfire erupted on the capital streets amid demands that the prime minister resign. Both protesters and government supporters were reported hurt in street clashes marked by gunfire, an airport bombing and troops shooting into crowds.
Getting home no easy task

When Joe's group finished work in Chiang Mai and had to get back to Bangkok, there were no flights and Bangkok's airport remained closed.

"It took about half a day," Mary said, "but we rented vans to drive down from Chiang Mai to Bangkok."

They avoided airports and saw no violence or protests. But they saw people wearing the bright yellow shirts of the government-opposition People's Alliance for Democracy.

"We saw some 'yellow shirts' just passing on the streets ... a few people on their way to the demonstrations," Mary said.

Still, they did not feel threatened or fearful -- and Mary stressed to her children that it was not like India's recent, deadly terrorist attacks targeting Westerners.

"This wasn't like Bombay [Mumbai]," she said. "We still felt safe. When we were in Bangkok, and you went out on the street, it was business as normal and people were friendly ... and happy to have us there."

Government officials promised to compensate stranded Westerners 2,000 baht a day -- about $56.54. The Matterers filed an application at their hotel, but heard nothing back.

But they did get frustrated.

Their reservations for a flight home at 6 a.m. Monday were worthless. Even if they had gotten back to Bangkok in time, there were no flights out -- and thousands were stranded.

With both of Bangkok's airports closed, the government opened one south of the city for emergencies and some governments hired flights out of there for their nationals.

But all the flights -- like all running trains -- were booked solid while the Matterers were in a van with Joe's colleagues, trying to return to Bangkok.

Once there, they spent some time trying to find alternate reservations until it grew clear there were none to be had.

"They would wait all day for a ticket and there weren't enough to go around," Mary said. " ... The two choices the Westerners had in the hotels were either to stay and wait it out or go south, because you could go across the border into Malaysia without a visa and you did need a visa to go to Cambodia or Laos."

So they rented vans again.

"We left Bangkok and drove all the way down to the southern tip of Thailand ... and went into Malaysia, then went into Kuala Lumpur -- that was the first place planes were readily available," Mary said. They flew home, by way of Tokyo, and arrived Wednesday night.

Their trip had grown from about a week to 10 days, but they haven't figured the added costs.

"That remains to be seen," Mary said, adding they had to use multiple airlines and are "trying to find out who's going to compensate for what."

Then, she said, there will be a claim to file on the flight insurance she nearly didn't have.

"That was the first time I ever bought flight insurance," she said.

And the 2,000 daily baht from the Thai government?

They don't expect to see a single baht. They think the compensation may have been subtracted from their hotel tab, but they couldn't tell for sure. Still, they appreciated the gesture, even if the government couldn't reopen Bangkok's airports quickly.

"The Thai government was sympathetic -- they rely on tourism a lot -- but this is going to hurt them," Mary said. She said they read news accounts of layoffs in the tourism industry while they were in Bangkok.

Thailand's turmoil, which shut Bangkok's airports for eight days, prompted suspension of the Thai parliament and was expected to dampen birthday celebrations for King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest reigning monarch.

The protesters' yellow shirts are said to symbolize loyalty to him and some reports say the queen and army back their cause, but the king kept mum.

His birthday speech Thursday was anticipated, but Thais were shocked when he failed to speak, apparently for the first time since becoming king in the 1940s.

After a one-hour delay, the crown prince and princess made statements, saying he was sick -- while skeptics suggested he was dodging the prickly political situation about the protests.
Home with a story to tell

By then, the Matterers were home in Newark, glad they only faced delay and frustration.

And they will think twice before going back. "I would look who's in power before I would go back because I think there's a possibility people could be stranded again," Mary said.

She and her husband found an unexpected plus in their forced road trips in Thailand.

"We saw a lot of the countryside we wouldn't have seen," Mary said. "It was beautiful."

Beyond that, they came home with quite a story to tell.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact robin brown at 324-2856 or rbrown@delawareonline.com.




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Story Source: The News Journal

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