The stench of political corruption in Bangkok smells almost as bad as the piss-stained back alleys replenished nightly by gap year pleasure seekers. For weeks, anti-government protesters have been trying to oust prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra in mass demonstrations that have been getting increasingly violent. The protests were triggered by a failed amnesty bill which could have seen Thaksin Shinawatra - the exiled former prime minister, brother of Yingluck and one-time Man City owner - return to his homeland without facing incarceration.
Last Wednesday, the government declared a 60-day state of emergency, a decree which gives the authorities the power to ban public gatherings of more than five people, censor local news and detain suspects for 30 days without charge.
Writer and part-time punk Tom Vater has been living in Bangkok for ten years. He's clearly retained some of his Englishness because when I ask him to describe the current mood in the capital, his first response is to mention the “wonderful” weather they've been having of late.
But he goes on to sum up the political climate for me. “Essentially you have two elites – the old royals and the Shinawatra clan - fighting each other for the economic and cultural cake. Many young people are frustrated because they have no economic or educational opportunities and are stuck in low-paying, menial jobs, but Thai politics is a basically a feudal medieval game with little input from young people or the cultural arms of civil society. There’s a real risk that it will become a political basket case like the Philippines, as both the political elites and the various groups and people supporting them are extremely polarised and apparently incapable of reform or compromise.”
Police corruption remains a staggering problem in Thailand, with INGO Transparency International – the world's primary corruption index – placing it alongside Argentina, Bolivia and Panama as one of the most corrupt major economies in the world. The Human Rights Watch World Report 2014, which was published on Tuesday, explains that freedom of expression in Thailand is still heinously limited.
Following a military coup in 2006, it's a prisonable offence to criticise the monarchy. In 2011, activist Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul was sentenced to 15 years for insulting Thailand's king at a rally. In 2012, 61-year-old grandfather Amphon Tangnoppaku died in custody whilst serving a 20-year sentence. His crime was sending four text messages criticising the queen to a government official. Basically you can’t say shit about anyone richer than you in Thailand.
Yet despite this government lockdown on free speech, there is a small but thriving punk scene in Bangkok. The city’s only hardcore punk label, Holding On Records, is run by a guy called Gap, who’s also the erstwhile frontman of the county's first ever straight edge band, X on the Hand. He's no stranger to the dirty goings-on of the Royal Thai Police. “I was putting on a show once and the police came down and told us that we had under 18s inside the venue. They said that if we paid them 600 US dollars the show could go on. Absolutely fuckin' bullshit.
In the kingdom, K-pop is huge and most Thai kids favour commercial pop over rock, but Gap tells me that there are currently about 300 kids making up Bangkok's hardcore scene. “It's like one big family. People come to the show, we mosh hard and get on. Sometimes it gets violent but everyone respects each other. There are probably around 30 bands active.”
Although the scene has its beginnings in the late 90s, it has crept along fairly slowly since then. Sano of the band LowFat explains why it was rare to see a true hardcore band. “I guess maybe it's due to the Thai mentality of “no worries”, their tendency to forgive easily. This kind of contradicts the ideas of hardcore and punk, which is all about saying, “Say no!”, “Fight back!”, or “anti-whatever.”
But in 2001 a few harder Thai bands including Born From Pain, Licence To Kill and No Is Not joined forces to form Thailand Hardcore crew (THxHC). Soon after, Licence To Kill released a song called “Fuck The Police” which was written after a friend burned down a small police checkpoint to protest against the restraints they were putting on shows. No Is Not, not to be outdone, released “Fuck Off The Law”. Anger with the police grew intensified as they started to threaten to close down shows and demanding bribes. “They think of us like ATM machines,” says Sano. “Withdrawing when and wherever they please. There are hardly any good cops here.”
Within a few years there was enough hardcore and punk bands for scene linchpin Yos to start work on the Arise zine, documenting the Thai hardcore movement. Initially most of the bands hung out in The Immortal Bar on Din Dang Road but new venues started to emerge including the Rust bar; a small D.I.Y space and self-styled “rockstaurant”.
In November it played host to Ost Fest, which featured some of Bangkok's major-league hardcore players, including Born From Pain, A-Zero and “hard drinking” party boys Ten Baht Per Hour. At the opposite end of the life-choice spectrum, Monument X, another straight edge “youth crew”, who formed in 2012 and who according to Gap, are doing pretty well in spreading their no booze philosophy.With Holding On Records celebrating their fourth anniversary next year, new pretenders are emerging. Six F Productions is a DIY CD-R label whose motto is "fight for fuck, fuck for freedom”. They’ve put out releases by Bangkok's Blood Soaked Street of Social Decay who claim they make "Thai political raw crust punk."
The Overstay in Thonburi is the closest Bangkok has to a squat venue, with several floors of dingy rooms and the type of shows that “attract the local constabulary.” Oi! punk has also been a continuous presence in Bangkok for some time now too, with mohawk wearing bands like Chaos of Society, The All Dirty and newer addition Degurada, ruling the roost.
For the first time, there are also female hardcore bands. Itchy Band are three farang girls (Thai slang for foreigner) and one magenta-haired Thai, tatted up with a cheetah sleeve and a chest piece. They began covering Stooges songs in the current hometown of Chiang Mai but have since turned their hand to thrashing out their very own garage punk. They released their second album Live Fast Die Young last year, and although they say they're not really political, I can't think of many UK garage bands singing about Chairman Mao or Burma's human rights abuses (“Burma Burma hey / what you got to say / when you gonna pay”).
Itchy Band's Nicole Girard, aka Ra Ra, said Chiang Mai's music scene was flooded with men and they were looking to break the mould. I asked her about the kind of response they've had so far. “A lot of the time people tell us they're desperate for original, ballsy music, and depending on how long they've been in Thailand, how much they've missed it. But at first, the local Thais did treat the fact that we're girls as a sort of cute novelty,” she laments. “Since we've carried on playing and stuck it out, they've started to respect us regardless of our gender.”
Punk is becoming more prevalent across the rest of southeast Asia too. In Indonesia it's not unusual for gig-goers to be arrested for how they look and in 2011 it made the headlines after 65 youths were seized by police at a show in a particularly conservative area and forced to have their heads shaved. There are some interesting sounds coming out of Malaysia too, which is also sadly home to the neo-Nazi “Malay Power” gangs, and just recently, Cambodia welcomed its first ever alternative label Yab Moung Records. A hardcore revolution, of sorts, seems to be taking hold.
I ask Gap what being a punk means to him. “Hardcore is my life. It's not just about the music. It lets me connect with thousands of people all over the world, express myself and has brought me to places I've never been before. It's everything to me and I will always live my life by it.”