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Day 38 – Red and Yellow, Black. . but no Whites (A Dark Night for Thai Protest 2010)

April 10, 2010

Dateline: Bangkok, Thailand – Saturday, April 10, 2010

It was like walking down an unexplored dark tunnel. I had no idea what’s on the other end. I was walking down dimly lit Sukhumvit Road towards the Ratchaprasong intersection, site of the largest Red Shirt rally. According to the spotty news coverage, the army and police had driven the Reds back from a couple of other protest sites including, for a short period, the Ratchaprasong intersection. The protesters, however, had somehow negotiated to keep Ratchaprasong as a meeting place and the army and police had withdrawn. Supposedly. You never know with the Thai English language press.

On my own, I’d discovered that the BTS Skytrain system had been shut down. I’d walked there from my hostel hoping to either go to the MBK shopping center for some serious internet time or to head to Lumpini Stadium to catch the Saturday night Muay Thai fights. No dice. Trains weren’t running at all and the cages were rolled down on the stations.

I had two choices. I could head away from the supposed Red Shirt gathering towards Emporium, grab dinner and internet there, or I could walk towards the Ratchaprasong intersection, the supposed heart of the Red Shirt demonstrations. Becca had just sent me a text that said, “Crackdown in progress; has turned violent; check news and avoid crowds.”

Me being me (mildly adventuresome, sometimes cocky, a decent swimmer), I headed into the supposed fray. What I didn’t know is that the police and army had clashed with the Reds at a different site earlier in the afternoon. Soldiers had fired rubber bullets into the air, helicopters dropped canisters of tear gas, and baton and shield wielding regulars had pushed back a Red advance towards a key bridge. Protesters had supposedly lit an incendiary device of some kind (a large natural gas canister?) and rolled it into police causing a number of casualties. Hundreds had been injured, 11 had been killed, and the Reds were trying to regroup.

Walking down Sukhumvit that evening, all I knew was that it was dark and unusually quiet for such a busy thoroughfare. Piles of trash lined the gutters. I passed abandoned cars parked in the middle of the typically busy street. I couldn’t be bothered to take a picture and actually put a little skip into my step, visions of car bombs running through my head. My active imagination puts a damper on my healthy bravado.

I was simultaneously comforted and discomforted by the fact that a farang or two walked nonchalantly from where I was headed. It was a good sign that they weren’t running; it was a bad sign that none seemed headed in my direction.

I finally hit an intersection with some activity. It was a welcome relief from the dark, ominous streets. At least there were lots of people. Some of were even White. It wasn’t clear to me what was going on, though. Red Shirts were directing traffic, chanting, honking horns, and waving flags. Behind them and further on from me, the streets seemed mostly deserted. It was strange. Occasionally the Reds would waive a pickup truck or motor bike loaded with their comrades through a makeshift barrier. In hindsight, I see that they were probably trying to rally supporters to the Ratchaprasong intersection.

I walked towards the barrier, trying to appear as casual and non-threatening as possible. As I walked along the barrier towards a pedestrian opening, I saw two White guys talking to an old Thai guy in English. The man waved in the direction in the direction I was headed and I distinctly heard the words “tear gas.” The White boys turned around and headed elsewhere.

I, on the other hand, proceeded to violate Traveling Rule of Thumb #8 (“When in doubt, follow the White people”) and started to walk through the pedestrian opening. A young man, dressed in all black with a black mask and a red scarf hopped up, raised his hand, and said something in Thai. I assumed he was asking what I was doing. Quick wit that I am I said, “Just walking through?”and pointed down the street and smiled.

He laughed, I laughed, his black clad friends laughed, and he let me through. I guess it could have been worse.

I marched on past scattered groups of demonstrators, more abandoned cars, and a Visa ad that said, “Experience Thailand’s Legendary Hospitality Now.” That seemed optimistic.

I finally hit Gaysorn shopping center where I’d been a couple nights before. Then, it’d felt like a street festival or concert whereas tonight it felt like I’d walked into an Orwell novel. There were still families, kids, and old people, but the big faces on the screen were angrier, more vehement. The crowd seemed to be more expressive and there was a lot more cheering and chanting.

When I rounded the corner and could see the main stage, I finally saw the street vendors, food hawkers, and drink salesmen. The street fair wasn’t completely dead. Commerce was definitely thinner, though. I did see someone selling slippers with the faces of government leaders and guns on them. It’s the Thai equivalent of the George W. Bush novelty toilet paper I’d seen a few years back.

The crowd cheered wildly when a fiery, round-faced, shaved head guy appeared on screen. Round Face brought down the brimstone and hell fire. He was a Red leader I’d seen pictured at a negotiating table with the prime minister a few weeks back. No negotiating here, apparently, just stirring the coals.

Then the crowd tittered with excitement when a man who looked like a cross between Jimmy Buffet, David Cassidy, and Johny Cash took the stage. I took it he was a celebrity of some kind. Judging from the shirt, probably a musician or singer.

I walked to the back of the mass of people and discovered more vendors. I started to relax a bit when I saw that many had nothing to do with Red Shirt paraphernalia. A couple was selling little helicopter things with LEDs on them that they shot repeatedly into the air with rubber bands. They were next to a clothing stand that didn’t seem to be selling anything Red.

Don’t get me wrong. I kept my head on a swivel the whole time. I’d stop, take pictures, watch for a bit, then move quickly, but casually, to another spot. I’d turn around and see if anyone had followed me. I’d also pull out my notepad and scribble notes, hoping that any observer would assume I was a reporter. It’d at least help explain why I wasn’t wearing any red (white button down today, nothing blue). I’m sure it was all the equivalent of waving your mouse pointer at a stalled computer or not drinking red wine after vodka, but it did make me feel better.

I headed back to the main crowd. That’s when I saw the bodies. On the big screens, they were projecting video of two people lying on their backs, draped in Thai flags. The audience murmured. The speaker seemed to ask for a moment of silence, which he mostly got.

Then Round Face got back up, shook his cell phone in the air, and proceeded to read a text message. I’m going to guess that he was reading a tweet from Thaksin, the not so shadowy figure watching over this rising red tide. The exiled former government leader hasn’t called for revolution so far as I can tell, but he’s been ambiguous enough to stoke the flames (Things like “The people must fight for their rights” and “The country needs me if it wants peace and prosperity.”). I say it was a tweet because I know Thaksin is a Twitter user and when Round Face started reading I immediately saw other Reds looking at their cell phones and reading, too. When he finished, the crowd went wild.

Then the long haired entertainer took the stage and the groupthink double plus ungood cult gathering turned into a concert. Really, an honest to God concert. The stacks of speakers blared pop music and the long haired, black hatted, Hawaiian shirt clad man belted out a swinging song. Then another. The camera man on the boom provided sweeping shots of the fans and of the concert stage. The crowd stood and danced and clapped and cheered. When prompted, they sang along. Everyone was smiling and laughing. Moments ago, Round Face had seemed to be crying for an uprising and the crowd matched his defiance. Now, they were singing and dancing to the Thai version of Margaritaville.

At that moment, Franck sent me a text that said, “People dead in streets of Bangkok better go home.” I looked back up at the partying crowd, then back down at my phone. The whole thing was absolutely surreal.

I lingered for a bit, but decided to head to the hostel. I was tired and the thought of the long walk made me more tired. The thought of taking the long walk later, around midnight, made me want to camp out in the streets for the night with the Reds. I left before it got to that.

As I tried to inconspicuously make my way through the dark streets, I passed truck loads of young male Red Shirts headed towards the rally. They were yelling, chanting, blaring their horns, and pumping loud, bass-heavy songs through their cars’ subwoofers. Many seemed to be holding beer cans.

I picked up the pace slightly. I passed back through the pedestrian hole in the street barrier. The black clad men seemed more prominent this time around. I kept looking over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t followed.

In time, I returned to the tourist area. I passed a panoply of hookers worthy of the United Nations and their equally diverse prospective Johns. Well dressed farang and Thais walked to and from the surrounding night clubs. The lights from restaurants and bars burned bright. It was Saturday night, after all. It’s Bangkok business as usual.

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