Friday, December 5, 2008

The Black Swan Visits the Land of Smiles

I was supposed to go to Thailand three days ago, however, protesters closed the airport the week before and made connecting flights to Bangkok impossible. A week later when the airport re-opened, the backlog of cancelled flights made reliable flight information difficult to obtain. So rather than take a chance on getting stuck in Tokyo’s Narita Airport without my connection, I sadly cancelled my trip.

It seemed an easy task to go to Thailand. December kicks off the tourist season with hot and sunny weather. Thailand is a safe, interesting, low-cost place to go. The people are welcoming and accommodating. It is a casual place so packing is easy. However, something was brewing below the surface that gave everyone a big surprise.

The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) wanted Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat to resign. They said he had committed election fraud and believed he was acting as a proxy for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who had been ousted in a coup two years before. To press their point, the PAD took over Suvarnabhumi International Airport and Don Muang Airport, which handles domestic flights.

A lot of people were pretty angry about the PAD’s protest, besides the 230,00 to 350,000 people who were left stranded. The new, $4-billion Suvarnabhumi serves as Southeast Asia’s major hub for tourism and export trade, which is the foundation of the Thai economy. Its closure threatened economic disaster. The king’s birthday, treated as a national holiday and scheduled for Dec. 5, would be spoiled. Finally, once the crisis began, the government knew the world would be watching, so it had to handle the situation well.

My sister-in-law and I watched the news intently for developments. We were to meet in Tokyo and then go on to Bangkok. She kept telling me that the situation would be resolved quickly and peacefully because “the Thais are not an antagonistic or violent people.” This seemed to play out because the police largely resisted using force against the protesters.

On Dec. 1, the Constitution Court dissolved the People Power, Chart Thai and Matchimathipataya parties on charges of electoral fraud. It then threw out the prime minister on Dec. 3. The PAD protesters had won. When my sister-in-law passed through the airport two days later, she noticed no evidence that a major disturbance had just taken place.

The situation in Bangkok barely received any media attention, neither its crisis nor its resolution, but what distresses me is that this crisis may be “Black Swan event.”

Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, is a native of Lebanon. He comments that his country was a peaceful, multicultural land for over a thousand years. When civil war suddenly broke out in 1975, no one believed it would last because past history dictated that it never did. People stayed in hotels for months waiting for things to blow over. Others were exiled for years waiting. No one anticipated that the war would go on until 1990.

Taleb’s homeland experience eventually led him to formulate the “Black Swan” principle, which recognizes that “our world is dominated by the extreme, the unknown, and the very improbable” and getting to be more so. These events can be bad, like the Lebanon civil war or 9/11, or they can be good, like J.K. Rowling’s chance creation of Harry Potter or Barack Obama’s unprecedented election to the presidency.

When extreme events occur, Taleb says that we should regard them as “starting points” for a new direction rather than just a blip in an unchanging continuum. Understanding these events through the lenses of the past doesn’t accurately provide insight into their handling in the present or their effect on the future. In fact, it cripples innovation and flexibility and dealing with reality.

The airport closures in Thailand were an extreme event in a place that hasn’t traditionally had much conflict. The country is known as the “Land of Smiles” for that very reason. However, Reuters reports that the effects of the airport shutdowns are already devastating and pervasive, which means that last week’s standoff could lead to further conflict, which could escalate to revenge, retaliation, even war.

Let’s look at what has transpired so far. 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).

The airlines are looking into whether or not they will press legal action against the protesters. The courts must then determine whether the airport demonstrations should be classified as a riot or as civil unrest. The PAD says it anticipated possible legal action and already raised funds for its defense.

Although airport officials managed a “technical return to full operation” with a promise to “return to normalcy” by December 15, there is some question about their skimping on airport security and that has many ambassadors hopping angry, 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.

Everyone wants a return to normalcy, of course, however, will it be possible? I hope so, especially since some Thais fear that there might be a power struggle over the selection of a new prime minister and result in more anti-government protests, according to the Bangkok Post.

Actually, I must admit that 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 internationally 25 years ago. Terrorism, political crises, weather disruptions, economic woes, high oil prices and war threaten to prevent or impede safe and convenient travel.

The United States and a great many countries have made tremendous strides in educating their people about the world through travel. Millions of people have cultivated a broader global perspective by visiting different places and meeting others through study abroad programs, tour groups, sister-city relationships, school and organizational exchange programs, business, citizen summitry efforts and even space walks. Travel is a peace-building mechanism that opens us to the new and unfamiliar and to appreciate other cultures and societies. It is a means of reaching out to others and forming friendships. We must protect our ability to travel.

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