The closest I had ever come to a protest was in 2003, in Bangkok, when I tried and failed to join the Stop the War demonstration against the Iraq War. I had arrived in Bangkok’s central most park, Lumpini Park, just as people were dismantling their signs and banners. Seven years on, Lumpini Park was to be the site for a different kind of protest, and this time around, I was to have some experience of it.
The ‘Red Shirts’ had arrived en masse in Bangkok in March, six months after I had moved to the city to live. Made redundant and with no job on the horizon, I had moved here to teach English and had been enjoying the peaceful lifestyle, hot weather and delicious food. There had been some warning signs before the protest began. The Red Shirts had taken responsibility for a rocket launcher attack on a market in January 2010, and I asked my Thai friends a lot of questions about the attack. They seemed concerned about the situation, but assured me Bangkok was quite safe and they would not target the areas frequented by foreigners.
I first heard that there would be a protest a few weeks before it began. It got everyone at my school talking, and the Red Shirts’ imminent presence seemed to catapult the ex-pat community into a frenzy of speculation and intrigue. Numerous rumours were bandied around about their intentions, motivations and strengths and weaknesses. A colleague of mine remarked, not long before the protests began: ‘I don’t want to sound alarmist, but from what I can make out we should be expecting civil war quite soon.’ He nodded this in such a grave and knowing fashion that others around him momentarily forgot not to get carried away. Thai friends I spoke to seemed more measured, but already there was a feeling that they were unappreciated and unwanted by most Bangkok residents, who cited the protesters’ poor education to discredit their motives.
In the early days of the protest, the Red Shirts camped out across the river from my work and my apartment. They would sit all day in the soaring heat, listening to rousing speeches, but looking fairly nonplussed. They were represented by all genders and ages. Taxi drivers would point them out to me, almost apologetically motioning that the protesters were crazy and an inconvenience. Army personnel were positioned all around Bangkok and you often saw them standing around on overpasses or outside hospitals and shopping malls looking bored and uncomfortable in the heat. Up until 10 April this situation remained, and the only thing that seemed to be affected was Bangkok’s already chaotic traffic system. Bangkok’s lack of affection for the protesters became increasingly pronounced, with regular news segments featuring small business owners berating anyone and everyone for being unable to open for business. My colleague’s prediction of civil war was turning out to be a tad misguided, and even the government weren’t taking the protests particularly seriously, as epitomised by Prime Minister Abhisit’s patronising praise for their embrace of democracy, offering to put them on buses so they could return to the countryside when they were finished.
For the protest to succeed the red shirt leadership needed followers, and they had them by the bucketload. They were mostly drawn from the North and North Eastern parts of Thailand, traditionally poor farmers who had been brought in to Thai politics when Thaksin had courted their vote in order secure power back in 2001. In return for their loyalty to Thaksin he had funded projects to increase the quality of life in the rural village during his time in office, most notably by offering a million baht (£20,000) for every village scheme – a well-meaning but poorly executed plan to give villagers money to spend on items that their villages needed, notably better agricultural equipment and improved infrastructure. A Thai friend told me that this project had ‘every mark of a Thaksin project – populist and eye-catching, but without actual impact. A lot of the villages just spent their money on mopeds and whiskey, because they are too uneducated to know what to do with a large sum of money.’ Still, schemes like these drew the rural areas to Thaksin and the Red Shirt movement and by 2010, he had very loyal and unflinching support. His leadership expressed their concerns. They were unhappy with the 2006 coup, the government’s illegal occupation of the seat of power, and they felt their freedom of speech and democratic rights to be under threat.
It was a pretty torrid time, Bangkok felt constipated and its residents were gloomy and riled.
Everyone was baffled in Bangkok when the protesters poured blood on government buildings in protest. Thai friends who were becoming increasingly agitated by the damage being done to Thailand’s international reputation assured me they had never heard of such a practice. Despite such extreme statements, and a fluctuating amount of protesters, the situation remained largely without drama. However, on 10 April 2010 everything changed. Information about this evening remains vague, but violence erupted when the Thai Army tried to clear out a Red Shirt camp. This incident sparked clashes in the streets – my neighbour saw a soldier being chased by Red Shirts along an overpass littered with burnt out vehicles. On the street parallel to Ko Sarn Road, the famous backpacker haunt, a soldier was shot dead in front of aghast tourists. Just a few days later the Songkran Festival (Thai New Year) began. Lasting for four days, and the most important date in the Thai calendar, Bangkok residents took to the street to take part in a citywide water fight, celebrating the start of a new year in the Buddhist calendar. The festival passed peacefully. Red Shirts passed through my spot on Ko Sarn road where I was waterfighting with a few friends, happy to be sprayed with water and joining in the merriment. The protesters had not lost their zeal, but they sought to enter into dialogue with the government. However this temporary ceasefire was soon abandoned when the government forces sought to move into Silom – Bangkok’s business district – to protect it from Red Shirt encampment. The Red Shirts responded with zeal, swiftly moving in and pushing the army out, and to maintain their position they built makeshift fortifications of bamboo. Then they took on more alarming tactics – storming a nearby hospital, incorporating guards to defend their protest who were armed in navy blue instead of red, and regularly throwing molotov cocktails or rocks at the nearby army.
From the beginning of the protests, gossip about the Red Shirts and their intentions had flourished. Once the Red Shirts converged on Silom, the content of these rumours became more alarming. I began to receive text messages urging me not to go to a certain shopping mall or areas from Thai friends, as they had heard from a friend or family member that it was a Red Shirt target. For the most part I heeded their advice and the closest I came to death was when my office building was evacuated after a bomb threat at a neighbouring shopping mall. I bought all my colleagues a bottle of water in a show of solidarity, which seems a little silly now, but I can easily recall the pronounced sense of panic and unease. In the final two weeks, when the protests were at their height, moving around Bangkok was foolhardy, and I made some plans to leave in case things got too heavy. The news coming out of the protest sites was pretty shocking – the assassination of a pro-Red Shirt Army General by a sniper really stands out. The rumours persisted. I heard that the Red Shirts had begun to target foreigners, especially Brits because of their condemnation of the protests and Thaksin Shinawatra (although I was unaware my government had condemned either). Then I heard that the foreign media were being targeted as they were showing the protesters in a bad light. There were stories that the Thai Police had let some Red Shirt leaders go immediately after arresting them because many high-ranking police officers were Red Shirts, and that certain divisions of the army had turned against the rest because they were led by Red Shirt generals. Other people suggested that Thaksin no longer held as much power in the Red Shirt movement, which had split between the extremists and the consolidators. All plausible, but it was difficult to know what to believe. The text messages kept coming, and I read Facebook updates such as ‘my local 7-11 has been destroyed’ or ‘can’t leave my apartment, no food in the fridge’. It was a pretty torrid time, Bangkok felt constipated and its residents were gloomy and riled.
The protests were roundly and regularly condemned in the Thai media, and the Red Shirts didn’t help their media image when footage of one Red Shirt surfaced criticizing the king (who is treated like a deity here). The foreign media came under attack for their coverage of the protest. Many Thais were angry that outlets like CNN and the BBC were perceived to be painting the Red Shirts as freedom fighters, or victims of oppression, and the anger this coverage generated has yet to dissipate. Many Thais, already ashamed by the impact of the affair on Thailand’s image, believed that these foreign media outlets weren’t doing their job properly by only showing one side of the argument. CNN journalist Dan Rivers came under particular criticism, and groups like ‘Dan Rivers: True face of failed journalism’ have popped up on facebook to allow Thais to vent their anger against perceived bias.
On the day the army rolled in and (depending on who’s account you believe) evicted/massacred the Red Shirts, the prominent feeling among my friends and colleagues was one of relief. That last statement might sound a little glib considering the bloodshed and the destruction, but the Red Shirts’ presence was becoming counterproductive to their cause, and the possibility of reconciliation had been exhausted. In short they couldn’t stay any longer – nothing more could be achieved apart from further misery. The next day Bangkok’s residents took to the streets to clean up the mess the day before had left, and reading conservative daily The Nation the next day made it seem like the equivalent of a housewife harrumphing after chasing out the next door neighbour’s cat with a rolling pin. It was a cathartic gesture for many but there was genuine sorrow so much had been destroyed.
Since the protests ended nothing has been resolved between the two sides. Most disappointingly of all, the recent events have not brought a debate about inequality between urban and rural Thailand into the mainstream. I have been invited to talks about the BBC and CNN coverage, but have found little discussion or action taken to offer the rural poor an alternative means of expressing their obvious discontent. Although I have been told that Prime Minister Abhsit has been furiously developing programs to ease the burden of crop failure (Thailand faced a severe drought in 2010), the Thais refuse to address the amount of wealth and power the urban elites and other institutions like the army possess. The status quo is maintained. The protests seemed to have further polarised the urban elite and the rural poor, and both sides are determined to blame the other for the protest’s descent into violence. ‘The early signs aren’t good. There’s vindictiveness in the air,’ Thitinan Phongsudhirak, a political analyst from Chulalangkorn University, commented when asked about the possibility of reconciliation. I have done my best to stay away from the politics of the protest throughout this article, and there are those far more qualified than I to tell you about Thailand’s political situation, but this government or the next has to wrestle the rural poor away from the Red Shirt leadership if it wants to restore order and stability to Thailand. The rural poor have, in the forlorn words of Orwell, already ‘risen up and shook themselves like a horse shaking off flies’ and, although this didn’t ‘blow away the party’, it might help to alert Thailand’s increasingly numerous and prosperous upper classes that there are others in the kingdom with a share in the democratic process. If Thailand is to mature as a nation, those members of the alienated rural poor must believe that they too can gain from a political system, and a new prosperity, from which they are currently excluded.