Thursday, April 09, 2009

Bangkok Sees Red

Only Thailand would have a color-coded civil war. The streets of Bangkok were filled yesterday with more than 100,000 red-clad anti-government forces, but the mood was more festive than militant. It was D Day for the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) which is calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva along with several members of the King's Privy Council accused of initiating the 2006 military coup. The UDD also wants new elections which it feels will return supporters of exiled Thaksin Shinatra to power.

I couldn't not go. So I put on a brown shirt (because I'm a guest here and wanted to be a witness rather than a participant) and headed across the river Wednesday morning to where the action was. At the corner of Samsen and Si Ayuthya I found a large cowd of reds facing off three columns of police with riot shields who were protecting the neighborhood of Privy Counselor Prem Tinsulanonda who is considered to be the closest confidant of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Last week Thaksin accused him of masterminding the military takeover that removed him from office. While this has been an open secret, such political secrets have been respected in Thailand, particular if they come close to the king. Until now. This, as many commentators noted, is a game changer.

I like the red shirts, even though I think Shinawatra was probably an autocratic ruler who had little respect for human rights and a free press. The movment in red now goes far beyond simply calling for a return of the ousted prime minister. There were many signs in English calling for "DEMOCRACY" and "THAILAND NEEDS CHANGE." Others said Prem and Abhisit "MUST GO." Abhisit, the suave Oxford-educated politician, was lifted to power by the military and the elite backstage forces (i.e. Prem), after demonstrations by the yellow-clad People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) ended the careers of two Thaksin-backed prime ministers in a single year. The red shirts charge that the un-elected Abhisit is a figure-head for the hated anti-democratic alliance that has ruled Thailand for decades.

Several Thai friends told me not to go. One said it would be dangerous. Another warned against "turbulence" (Thais consulting their English-Thai dictionaries sometimes come up with understandable but rather odd translations). I didn't know what to expect, but thought I'd be seen as a tourist who had lost his way from Khao San Road not far to the south. What I didn't expect was the overwhelming warmth and friendliness I received. People smiled, they flashed me the thumbs up sign, and they asked where I was from. That it was America seemed to delight many. They shook my hand. Only one indicated the non-red color of my shirt, but he smiled as he pinched the material.

Since the entrance to Prem's street was blocked by a phalanx of police, I walked in the humid heat down an empty Phitsanulok Road, normally a major thoroughfare, to Ratchsima and around the corner. At the next intersection I could see a throng of people, including trucks full of demonstrators, who were pushing against the police guards in front of Prem's mansion. They were singing and cheering and singing and waving those silly clappers that look like little feet and which were initially used by the yellow mob to amplify applause. I was overwhelmed with emotion, moved by the moment to tears I cannot explain. The red shirts are probably dominated by the rural poor, people most hurt by the global economic collapse, and here they were in the streets cheering for democracy and an end to the tyranny of elites. I thought of the tranquilized Americans I left behind, secure in their consumer comforts, who let a cruel Bush regime trample on freedom and democracy for eight years without taking to the streets as these courageous Thais were doing.

Then I saw something truly strange and wonderful. A line of black-clad helmeted police were passing through the crowd. Obviously they had been withdrawn from the street in front of Prem's house to allow the overwhelming number of marchers to pass by. As they came through the crowd the people cheered, and many bowed to them with hands together, the Thai sign of respect. The police were smiling and some even took photographs. There was no antagonism between the demonstrators and the forces hired to control them. I could not imagine a situation in which any violence between the red shirts and the police would take place. I felt completely safe.

I walked towards the center of the demonstration at Government House but as I got closer the crowds got more dense. On either side of the road booths were selling food, hand clappers, medical care, and red-themed clothing. There was a long line in front of the free food booth. Thais eat all day and everywhere I saw people making space to sit down for a meal. I saw posters of Thaksin as John Wayne, Thaksin as Superman, and Abhisit as the devil. I never made it through the masses of people to Government Houses, but speeches from the stage I could not see were broadcast on loudspeakers everywhere. Also there were large screens where Thaksin's evening call-in would be seen. I saw no farang faces; as far as I could determine, I was the only non-Thai in sight, and, as I mentioned, whenever anyone looked at me it was with a surprised and happy smile. I felt completely welcomed.

I don't know what the future will bring. I don't even know how long the big demonstration will last. They are apparently settled in for today. I expect the demonstrators will begin leaving tomorrow as Songkran, Thailand's country-wide water fight, draws close (it's next Monday-Wednesday but I expect the water throwing will commence tomorrow). A friend who is planning to come to Thailand at the end of the month emails me to ask if "the political unrest will affect a tourist's experience or could it become dangerous there?" I simply do not know. The London Telegraph on their web site claimed that the protesters brought "Bangkok to a Halt." Not true. In the evening I went down the river to Silom for a Buddhist talk, and afterward traveled by Skytrain and bus back to my apartment. The bus came near to the demonstration but there was little evidence of it beyond street closures. Away from Government House there is little trace of any "turbulence" stirred up by 100,000 anti-government demonstrators. Only a big city like Bangkok could swallow up trouble like that.

Prime Minister Abhisit is clearly in trouble. You can't ignore so many people in the streets (although George Bush had no problem with millions around the world marching against his Iraq folly). The cabinet was forced to move their meeting this week to Pattaya and afterward less peaceful red shirts attacked his car in the street, breaking windows. An important ASEAN meeting is scheduled for this weekend, also in Pattaya. I can't see him resigning and calling new elections, nor do I see Prem or the other coup plotters named doing anything to acknowledge the charges. It will be hard for the military to stage another coup, and Thaksin has indicated that if that were to happen he would return to lead the fight against them. Much of the news now is full of overheated rhetoric. I find the struggle perversely exciting. Years ago when I was a journalist I dreamt of becoming a foreign correspondent who would cover wars and revolutions in exotic locations. But all I ever wrote about were school board and city council meetings (I did review records, but that's another story). I don't want to see anyone hurt, but I do think real democracy is worth fighting for. And I love that the color red has come back in fashion (will Warren Beatty rerelease his movie, "Reds"?).

For a good overview of the red-yellow struggle, Asia Sentinel's article today on "Thailand's Hearts and Minds" is an informative read.


tamsuan said...

It's terribly misleading to repeat the red shirts slogan that Abhisit is somehow "unelected". The system here bears no resemblance to your American electoral style. The representatives here, including Abhisit are all elected in their districts, then the members elect the leader. There are many parties and, after the elections, the small parties supported Samak so he was able to form a coalition government. Later, a group who had supported the Thaksin/Samak side eventually defected to support the Democrats. Abhisit is now fully entitled to lead the government in Thailand.
Also; I live amongst the "rural poor" in Isaan and I would say that my neighbors will be among the least hurt by the economic downturn. We grow rice, fruit and vegetables in plenty and there is far less need for money here than there is in urban areas where everyone depends on employment and trade.

Anonymous said...

Hello Will,
An very good report from the stance of a foreigner attending the pro-democracy rally.

As you correctly point out, Thailand is divided. Abhisit though has so far outplayed the red shirts by refusing to react. The fact that the army has also refused to act speaks volumes for the amount of control Abhisit has.

In my opinion Thaksin was as much of a thug as the yellow-shirted PAD. I can't help feeling the red shirt movement would have more support if not for the figure of Thaksin looming overhead. Then again, without Thaksin's money there probably wouldn't be a red shirt movement.

My report on the rally can be read here

There is also a photo gallery here:

and an Op-ed/ background article here:

Personally I believe it is good that you went and looked for yourself. Especially after reading some of the biased Thai media reports and some of the ridiculous comments posted by resident expatriates on the forum.