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Unrest in Thailand Doesn't Faze Study Abroad Students

Last spring, 16 UC students studied at Thammasat University, in contrast to the 26 currently in Bangkok. Thirty-five are expected for the summer session that begins in June, The Daily Bruin student newspaper reports.

By Julienne Lauler for The Daily Bruin

May 13, 2010

Reports of political unrest and violent protests might be enough to deter some students from studying abroad in Bangkok, the epicenter of a seemingly relentless struggle for power in Thailand.

But the political turbulence did not faze the 26 University of California students who chose to study abroad at Bangkok's Thammasat University this quarter.

In fact, for many, it was precisely this volatile political environment that drew them to study in Bangkok in the first place.

"I wanted to come because of the political situation, as I knew history was about to be made in Thailand with the trial of (former Prime Minister) Thaksin Shinawatra," said Andrew Bhusiririt, a fourth-year sociology student currently studying in Bangkok.

In the last few years, the popularity of the Bangkok program has increased even as the political situation has intensified.

Last spring, only 16 UC students studied at Thammasat University, in contrast to the 26 currently in Bangkok. Thirty-five students are expected for the summer session that begins in June, according to Thanet Makjamroen, Ph.D., the UC Education Abroad Program director in Thailand.

The political protests began in 2006, when the People's Alliance for Democracy, or "Yellow Shirts", accused Shinawatra of corruption, ultimately leading to a coup d'etat in 2009.

Following the coup, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, or "Red Shirts," emerged to disrupt the functioning of the current government, according to the UC Education Abroad Program website.

The Red Shirts' demonstrations have paralyzed Bangkok's commercial center and forced some shopping malls and hotels to close, devastating Thailand's most important industry, tourism.

But although the protests have wreaked havoc on Thailand's economy, their effect on the experience of UC study abroad students has been minimal.

"The most obvious disruption has been a big increase in traffic. Bangkok already has more traffic than L.A. – it doesn't need any help," said Emily Pichler, a third-year psychology student.

Though the students have to avoid certain shopping areas, there are plenty of other places to shop and other things to do, she added.

Last April, during the Thai New Year holiday, marked the only time the anti-government Red Shirt protesters migrated near the university campus where UC students were residing.

During this time, however, many of the UC students were traveling in northern Thailand, and managed to avoid the bloody demonstrations during which about 20 protesters were killed.

Since then, although there have been continuous protests, sometimes with shootings and grenade explosions, the protests have taken place in clearly defined locations which can be easily avoided by students, Makjamroen said.

"There are news of grenades going off and civilians and soldiers getting shot, but that only happened in the areas where the Red Shirts are concentrated, so my friends and I knew to stay away from those places," said Haisun Chu, a fifth-year marine biology student.

"The most I have seen was Red Shirts driving by on their motorcycles on their way to the protests," she said.

Additionally, while protests have caused serious transport and commercial disruptions, the violence has not been directed towards foreigners, according to a statement from the UC Education Abroad Program.

But if there are protests, Makjamroen said he is committed to keeping the UC students safe.

Because tourism is such a huge part of the Thai economy, protestors don't want foreigners to get hurt, said Caitlin O'Donnell, a third-year psychology student who studied in Thailand during the fall. But if there are protests, Makjamroen is committed to keeping the UC students safe, according to the students.

"We're given updates almost immediately whenever there is a large protest or any acts of violence," said Sam Quintanar, a fourth-year UC Berkeley political science student. "In case anything particularly dangerous has happened, we are warned via text message and expected to immediately contact (Makjamroen) to let him know where we are."

While the prospect of occasionally violent protests was initially a shock for a number of the students, it has since become routine, and the protests are now greeted with interest, rather than fear.

According to Makjamroen, "Students feel safe, I feel safe, everyone feels safe. In Bangkok right now, everything goes on as usual."