Red soi, Red city: A brief commentary from the streets

Most commentators appear to be trying to figure out the end game of the next few day’s red shirt rally in Bangkok and speculating about the possibility that violence will break out, but there are few who pay much attention to ordinary red shirt supporters. This has been a persistent pattern among both journalists and academics, though it is refreshing to note that some recent Bangkok Post reports include some references to ordinary red shirt people and their motivation in traveling to Bangkok for the demonstration of 14 March 2010, in marked contrast to its reporting a year ago. Nonetheless, the main focus of the [primarily state-run] TV media has been the prospect of violence, as with the local Thai and English-language press. I offer this descriptive cameo account simply to put some flesh on the bones of the leeched accounts of the red shirts and to give readers a sense of immediacy in the current events as they are unfolding. It is made as preliminary to what I’m sure will be a compelling and dynamic portrait of evolving events from the intrepid Nick Nostitz, who is pounding these Bangkok streets as I write, having myself returned from the blazing heat of the rally site to the comfort of my air-conditioned room in Sukhumvit.

My perspective here is from the vantage point of the Bangkok street, where, by accident rather than design, I have turned up during key moments of confrontation – October 2008, March 2009, and again March 2010, from Thailand’s primary red zone, the southern border provinces, my main field of research. When in Bangkok, I usually stay at a small guest house in a soi in Bangkok that has been “red” since October 2008, when local people responded angrily to the yellow shirt confrontation with police in front of parliament house, a prelude to the destruction of the Somchai government two months later. From the restaurant waitresses, the families running the small restaurants, the hairdressers, the travel agents, the dry cleaners, the newsagents, the lottery ticket sellers, the taxi drivers to the ubiquitous motorcycle taxi riders — all oppose the current Democrat-led government as illegitimate. The owner of this guest house (let’s call her Daeng) is a native of Loei Province in the upper northeast.  Daeng has attended every major red shirt gathering since the movement blossomed in early 2009, just like the motorcycle taxi riders at the mouth of the small lane fronting the guest house, and many of the women who work at Daeng’s beer bar further up the soi. Here the yellow shirt ASTV Manager newspaper is not even sold —  news agents canceled their orders two years ago because nobody buys the paper, unlike the red shirt publications.

Over the past few days the atmosphere in the soi has become much as it was during the turbulent Songkhran period last year. The taxi drivers and motorcycle taxi riders have once more unfurled their red flags and streamers and donned their red shirts.  Since the evening of 11 March the soi has been remarkably quiet, with little traffic, as the taxi drivers go elsewhere to assist red shirt groups at the key assembly points surrounding the metropolis. Most from this soi went to Bang Na, the eastern assembly point for groups entering Bangkok from Pattaya and Chonburi. The occasional pickup truck or taxi roars down the soi flaunting a large red Truth Today banner.

I don’t have the time here to reproduce in detail the various commentaries of red shirt supporters in this soi. Suffice it to say that their views can be condensed briefly here as a preface to the photos which highlight some scenes from the morning and early afternoon of 14 March. These people, whether they are card carrying UDD members (a system introduced as part of the restructuring of the UDD following the March 2009 debacle) or supporters, reiterate a number of key convictions:

  • They agree that the parliament should be dissolved and new elections held so as to “return power to the people.”
  • They argue that the Thai press and media cannot be trusted to portray the red shirt cause accurately, in contrast to the foreign media, which they believe “knows what’s really going on” in the country viz-a-viz political power.
  • They utterly reject the reports that people are paid to attend major red shirt rallies, as related in the press and among their opponents.

It’s notable that red shirt supporters in this soi have not mentioned the recent court case against Thaksin and the seizure of over fifty per cent of his assets as an explanation for the current rally timetable or its objectives.

The photos here show scenes encountered from the late morning of today, 14 March, from the time I left the soi in a small group of motorcycles with Daeng and her friends, heading towards the UDD rally site at the Phan Fa bridge at Rajdamnoen Avenue. As soon as we left the mouth of the soi we entered Sukhumvit road, and found ourselves in the midst of a convoy of trucks and motorcycles carrying red shirt supporters towards the rally site. What was remarkable about this were the numerous enthusiastic bystanders along Sukhumvit, Ploenchit and Rama I roads who shouted greetings to the cavalcade. I particularly recall a woman flower vendor outside the Erawan Brahman shrine, who smilingly threw red roses into the pick up trucks as they passed. At the rally sight, despite the intense heat of the day, the atmosphere was festive. At the end of Lan Luang road, red shirt guards, donning black, manned barricades, handing water to those arriving.  Each new arriving group was cheered enthusiastically as they entered this and other points, like an assembling army. In a soi beyond the crowded Phan Fa bridge where the central stage was erected, a small unit of troops clad in riot gear stood in a line looking like extras from a Star Wars movie. They were trying hard to look stern in the face of red shirts who were offering them drinks and kind words.

Exhausted by the blazing heat, I left the rally site at about 1.30 pm. Just what the increasing host of red shirt supporters expect to happen during the course of the gathering over the next few days remains to be seen. Certainly the ostensible, though impossible, goal of forcing the Abhisit government to collapse or dissolve itself is the explicit rationale for the gathering. Wira Musikaphong solemnly intoned this aim from the podium, and Chatuphon Phromphan emphasized the importance of maintaining peace and discipline to guard against inciters of violence. The demand “dissolve parliament” was printed on paper and placed under car windscreen wipers in the streets leading into the area. Every political gathering such as this requires a galvanising purpose. As we arrived, Wira was proclaiming that the government had been given a 24-hour deadline to respond to the demand to dissolve parliament. Chatuphon hinted that in the following days a major government venue might be surrounded. This could lead to clashes, but on this Sunday the gathering was marked overwhelmingly by an atmosphere of festive solidarity more than one of impending confrontation.

Marc Askew is Senior Fellow in the Anthropology Program at the University of Melbourne.  He is currently based in Pattani province and visits Bangkok regularly.