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Day 36 – Welcome, We Just Want Democracy (A Red Shirt Encounter)

April 8, 2010

Dateline: Bangkok, Thailand – Thursday, April 8, 2010

I like big crowds for the same reason I like the ocean; they make you feel small and insignificant, like you’re in the middle of something powerful that you can’t control. In doses, it’s a humbling feeling and gently reminds you of your mortality. That’s why I went for a stroll through the center of the Red Shirt demonstrations. I ignored supposed dangers of the masses and joined the crowd to see what was what.

What was up was a rally. I’d already seen a baby one of these. Today, I saw the mama bear. I’d read a lot about how the Reds were mobilizing for a dramatic move before next week’s Songkran holiday. I’d heard about the violence committed by some of their supporters. Things like car bombs, rocket propelled grenades, burning buses, and, the staple of any dissident uprising: rock throwing. I’d also heard from Anne that the Reds were peaceful and any violence was done by people trying to discredit the movement (i.e. the government).

I didn’t know what to believe. The news organizations here are mostly government owned, so listening to them is like wholeheartedly believing your mother when she says you’re smart and good looking. She may be right, but then again she thought you were beautiful when you were born two weeks late and emerged looking like a seven pound rotten prune dipped in corn syrup. It’s a take you don’t leave unquestioned.

The English papers here are, to be generous, poorly written and spotty in their coverage. I read one piece that said the Reds had stormed parliament and later withdrew, righteously parading around a gun they’d seized from a government bodyguard. The paper suggested that the Reds believed the gun showed the government was up to no good. The two paragraph article did not, however, offer any further explanation. Aren’t bodyguards supposed to pack heat? Why do the Reds think this is a big deal? You’re not going to explain this to your English reading audience; instead you’re going to commit five grammatical and spelling errors in the lead sentence? Shit, I can do that. Sign me up. Pay me!

The best thing I’ve read on the crisis was an NPR article e-mailed by a friend. That was about a week ago. American media wasn’t going to start paying attention until a brown person kills an attractive blond American. Bottom line is, if I was going to get a semi-unbiased, up to date idea of what the hell was going on, I’d have to see it for myself.

Given the constraint that I don’t speak Thai and therefore had no idea what the speakers were saying (did he just say “rise up” or “thanks for all the cheese”?), here’s what I saw.

I’d guess there were 15,000 people. More than some estimates, less than others. The crowd was packed near the stage and thinned out as I moved further away. It stretched out 500 meters from the stage, but not much further. There were also people seated under the skyway for the BTS Skytrain just to the left and right of the stage.

The Red Shirts had centered the demonstrations on Bangkok’s central shopping district, specifically the Ratchadamri/Ratchaprarop intersection. The thoroughfare is maybe eight lanes wide and home to Gaysorn, Thailand’s most exclusive shopping center. It’s the kind of place that offers the services of a life coach who will help revamp your sense of style and your sense of entitlement.

In the shadow of Gucci, Ferragamo, and Hermione hocking Burberry, the mostly poor and rural Reds held their rally. Yes, you read that right. Hermione from Harry Potter is shilling for Burberry; in her 30-foot high poster she’s holding a preposterous number of bags. It’s excess looking down upon the oppressed.

Gaysorn was closed as were nearby Siam Paragon, Siam Center, and Central World. First world commerce had ground to a halt for fear the Reds might turn to looting and violence.

Capitalism stops for no one, though. In place of the large shopping centers there were impromptu food stalls and Red Shirt paraphernalia stores. Enterprising Thais sold red colored apparel. Some items were emblazoned with the logos and slogans of the revolution (e.g. “Truth Today” and “Love Taksin”). Some items, like the red pimp hats I saw, were unadorned and probably just pulled out to take advantage of the red circumstances. Even in the midst of chants to dissolve the government, some savvy masseuses had set up a massage parlor. How can you not have a soft spot for a movement that takes the time to get its feet rubbed?

That’s when it struck me. This felt more like a street fair or concert than a revolution. Supporters were out with their families camped out on the asphalt on picnic blankets. On the fringes of the event were food stalls and t-shirt vendors. As you moved closer to the main stage, the number of vendors increased, some seated on mats selling plastic clapping devices, bandanas, and Taksin trinkets. It was like the political version of Lollapalooza ’98.

When I looked at some of the pictures I’d taken, I thought the camera lens was smudged until I realized that the smudges were just smoke rising from the barbeque food carts. Overall, it was a festive atmosphere with the occasional group chants.

The Red Shirts even took the time to stop, stand, and play the daily 6 p.m. national anthem. A Yellow Shirt might argue the Red’s sincerity, but it’s inarguable that the crowd at least went through the motions of remaining loyal to the crown.

It was a sophisticated operation. Speakers were scattered throughout the surrounding streets, all properly timed and calibrated so that there was no reverb or echo. There were video cameras everywhere and even one on a boom that swept back and forth in front of the stage. Screens were scattered to the left, right, and front of the stage projecting images of the speaker and the crowd. The Red supporters might mostly be poor, but someone had spent a small fortune producing this spectacle.

The event even faced the most fundamental concert problem: the “where shall we piss” dilemma. To deal with this, someone had erected makeshift stalls where one could do one’s business. When I saw this, I tried not to think about the puddles I’d been stepping through as I walked through the crowds. (I didn’t see where anyone could poop, but that’s probably for the better.)

As I walked through the venue, one man held up a picture of a government official and what looked like his bodyguard hiding a shotgun under a jacket. People gathered round to take pictures of the picture. I still don’t know why this was a big deal, but it was.

Heading home, I still didn’t know what to think. To me, it seems like this is a disparate movement. Most people seem peaceful, thrilling in taking over a major intersection and drawing attention to their concerns. At the same time, there appears to be a significant portion that are more radical and willing to throw down. You could tell that just by the look on some of the speaker’s faces.

The whole situation makes me a bit sad. There’s a lot of blame to go on both sides. It’s clear that the government has one of two problems: either one of perception or one of reality. They’ve either failed to give the poor and the rural Thais something the Thaksin administration did or they’ve failed to adequately explain what they plan to do or have done.

The Red Shirts clearly do not trust this government and that, by my reckoning, is the government’s failure. To the Red Shirts, the current government’s legitimacy was questionable from the beginning. That’s because, if I read the situation correctly, this government displaced a government elected by the rural and the poor by going through the courts and via a (crown supported) military coup. Those circumstances are at the heart of the Red’s pleas for democracy. An effective government would have immediately found a way to gain the trust of people like the Reds. That hasn’t happened.

On the flip side, the Red Shirts seem to put way too much faith in one man: Thaksin. Disregard the fact that this guy’s been convicted of conflict of interest charges (i.e. he made a lot of money while in office through dubious business transactions). Disregard the fact that he seems to have tried to drag down the middle class to curry favor with the poor. Disregard that he’s in exile abroad and only countries like Saudi Arabia and Dubai will give him safe harbor. The fact is, the Red Shirts see him as a savior. They seem to think that if he comes back, everything will be better.

That’s a bridge that I couldn’t buy with Obama and I sure can’t do it here. The fact is, there are no saviors. At least not any that I trust. One man cannot right a ship as big as an entire country. If he does, then guaranteed his hands are dirtier than the soles of my slippers after walking through the rally. That man has thrown dissidents in jail, suspended civil rights, utilized death squads, robbed Peter to pay Paul, terrorized academics and priests, and, for fun, stabbed baby kittens in the face. That’s just the way the world works.

Now, some Red Shirts don’t seem so naïve. One Red’s reported to have said, “All governments are corrupt. At least Thaksin was corrupt for us.” I’ve cut my teeth on Rage Against the Machine, the Governator, and Paris Hilton and that’s more cynicism than even I can muster. It makes “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” sound like a Christmas lyric.


Programming Note: I didn’t feel threatened the whole evening. People did look at me a bit strangely, though. I figured it was because I looked Thai and wasn’t wearing any red to a Red Shirt rally. Turns out ignorance is bliss. I’d chosen to wear a San Diego Charger blue t-shirt. In a country where color matters, I’d inadvertently picked the color of a group of people who’d violently fought against the Reds in their uprising last year. We’re talking people who went to battle and put down a Red rebellion.

It probably explains why people were looking at me funny and why I only saw four people with blue shirts, all of whom were wearing red sashes tied around their necks. Becca thinks I was spared by the presence of my camera. I think she’s being a bit paranoid. Regardless, this once again proves that whatever skill I might possess, I am 20 times as lucky.

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