Bangkok or bust, Part 1

After several delays, and months of hype, the big Red Shirt protest was finally announced for mid-March 2010. In the run up, the rumor mill ran wild again, especially stirred by the government which gave out conflicting statements by the hour, about violence, and possible intelligence of bomb and grenade attacks, which were then denied by other quarters of the same government. Red Shirts talked about the need for nonviolence in their protests, yet some leaders stirred the journalistic community by mentioning the possibility of a civil war. I stocked up on petrol following the rumours that the government might order petrol stations in Bangkok to be closed. There were rumors of vehicles with provincial licenses being barred from Bangkok, and that taxis were not allowed on the streets during the duration of the protests. The use of the Internal Security Act (ISA) was first discounted, but then enacted from midnight of 11 March 2010 onwards.

As I got news of Army re-enforcements sent to Bangkok the night the ISA began, I went out to Pahon Yothin Road near Laksi, a main military area of Bangkok with many barracks of the armed forces lining the street. Soon after I left home I got another call that the re-enforcements had already trickled in to Bangkok throughout the day in a very low key way, in vans and private cars, not to stir the population through larger scale troop movements. Instead I spent some time at a combined police-army roadblock. Motorcycles and cars were randomly pulled out and searched. No weapons were found. Only one car with a fake license plate was stopped.

[Please click on the images for larger versions]

The following morning rumours were rife that the government planned to close down the Red Shirt’s TV station: “People Channel”.  About 1000 agitated Red Shirts gathered at the station on the 5th floor of Big C Lad Prao – the headquarters of the Red Shirt movement. Staff began to move equipment to another location. The government deliberated whether they could get a court order for a closure of the TV station, but soon news came that Satit Wongnongtoey announced in Parliament that the station will definitely not be closed. The Red Shirts calmed down. Upstairs, on the 6th floor, long lines of people waited to be registered as Red Shirts. A concert in a convention hall began at 2 pm.

Officially the protest began on 12 March, at 12 minutes past 12, at 5 locations simultaneously – the main event at the Democracy Monument at Laksi, at Din Daeng, at Bang Na, at Wong Wien Yai in Thonburi and at Lumphini Park. I went to Laksi, where Veera Musikapong and Dr. Weng Tojirakan took part in a Brahmanistic opening ceremony. About 2000 to 3000 protesters turned up. Soon they moved to protest in front of the nearby 11th Infantry Regiment. I left, and went to the Din Daeng event. It was equally lackluster – a few hundred Red Shirts sat mostly in the shadows of some trees escaping the mind numbing heat. I decided to follow the “UDD 99” – the Bangsue district Red Shirt sub-organisation, who planned to distribute flyers in some Sois of their district to encourage people to join the protest.

Three pick-up trucks, a loudspeaker and several Red Shirts walked and handed out flyers through the Sois. I somehow expected animosity directed against them, but most people knew the Red Shirts well, took the flyers, and cheered them on. It was only from two houses that people shouted at them to go away and to stop creating trouble. Nothing happened. The Red Shirts ignored the shouts. It was explained by people in the Soi that these two houses were known People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) supporters.

The first point of danger was thought to be at the large roadblock at Wang Noi in Ayutthaya, where most central and northeastern Red Shirts had to come through on their trek to Bangkok on 13 March. The day before Red Shirts from all over the country gathered in several meeting points near Bangkok – Isaarn Red Shirts in Khorat, northerners in Nakhorn Sawan. I went to Wang Noi on my motorcycle to follow the Red Shirt caravan to Bangkok. An endless column of Red Shirts was on the road – pick-up trucks, lorries, songtaeows, vans, busses, even some on motorcycle. The checkpoint itself was very calm, both police officers and soldiers were relaxed, Red Shirts in the cars held their Thai IDs up, and were waved through.

Many local Red Shirts gathered in support, handing out water and food. I went to the next check point in Bang Pa-In, where the northern group joined the caravan to Bangkok. Also there hundreds of Red Shirts cheered the caravan. Every single pedestrian bridge over the multilane highway up to Bangkok had Red Shirt supporters cheering the passing Red Shirts. All along the side of the highway Red Shirts were lined up in support. There were huge traffic jams where larger groups of Red Shirts greeted the caravan, but generally there were fewer jams than I expected. The closer to Bangkok the more ecstatic the atmosphere became. From Rangsit onwards the crowd greeting the Red Shirts became quite enormous. From Samliem Din Daeng up to Victory Monument one single mass of people lined the street.

In the evening a huge crowd gathered at the main rally site, from Sanam Luang up Rajadamnern, at the main stage at Pan Fa Bridge, and up to Royal Plaza. Most cars parked at Sanam Luang and at Royal Plaza. On my way home I went through the adjacent district of Nang Loern, a yellow bastion, and possible conflict point. Everything was quite though – troops of soldiers were placed at Sois and intersections, and one local Red Shirt said that the PAD supporters of Nang Loern will stay quite as long as the situation does not disintegrate like in April 2009.

The following day, 14 March, the day of the big gathering, more Red Shirts arrived. In a media stunt a few boats of Red Shirts arrived from Ayutthaya. At Sanam Luang maybe 500 Red Shirt monks camped out, and went on a short march to the main stage. Several of the monks blessed protesters with sacred water, sprinkled and splashed the protesters with short grass brooms, attendants holding the bowls with the sacred water.

My wife had difficulties buying food – most vendors of our local fresh market closed their shops and went to the rally. That stayed the same for the following days. Only a few shops in the market were open – the shops owned by vendors known to be supporting the PAD.

In the evening hours the rally began to fill up. The taxi community radio station built a huge transmitting pole in the area behind the stage. When I saw a man working on top of the pole I felt nauseous. At sunset I climbed a loudspeaker tower to take photos of the crowd. Dangling at a height of about ten meters the sight was incredible – Red Shirts as far as one could see.

Already the sickening numbers game was already in full swing. Widely differing numbers were cited – some cited 50,000, some 80,000, Red Shirt leaders differed from 300,000 to 600,000. I believe that the most realistic number was around 150,000. Whatever the final number may have been – this was the biggest gathering of protesters I have seen in the past 5 years of political turmoil in Bangkok. The crowd dwarfed any previous protest. And furthermore – this was the biggest upcountry group of protesters ever in Bangkok, and it was mixed together with urban Thais as well. Whatever argument may be cited – that the Red Shirts may have failed to move their announced one million people, and have therefore not been successful, it should be considered that no protest group of the last 5 years managed to bring such a crowd on to the streets.

Also later speculation that dwindling numbers may have indicated protest fatigue ignored the usual mechanics of these protests in Thailand.

As a comparison – the numbers during the PAD Government House occupation were most of the time only around 2000 protesters, and only bigger events drew larger crowds. However, truly large numbers never attended their protests, as they did in pre coup days, topping a few times at 80,000. At the clashes on October 7, 2008, only about 8000 PAD protesters were present. The day time number of the Red Shirt protests circled around 15,000 people, more in the evening, with about 20,000 to 40,000.

On my way home I went through Nang Loern again. Soldiers from the 11th Infantry Regiment stationed there said that so far no incident happened. I again talked with another Nang Loern resident who was a Red Shirt. He talked about the unease in the district, and how people avoided political topics so they won’t argue with their neighbors.

On 15 March 2010 the Red Shirts announced a march to the 11th Infantry Regiment, where Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva was holed up, and from where the government operated. In the early morning hours the parking site at Royal Plaza already resembled a large rural village – protesters prepared sticky rice and somtam. Wafts of fermented fish odor passed through the air, mixed with the smoke from fires. The protest caravan began forming.

When the caravan started on their way, there were no displays of weaponry by guards. The atmosphere was festive. Again, the sides of the streets and the pedestrian bridges were lined with wildly cheering supporters. On Rama VI Road at the Ramathibodi Hospital several doctors, staff and nurses came out and screamed support for the protesters.

All along Victory Monument and Pahol Yothin Road the same spectacle happened. Under sky train stations the sounds of “Abhisit – Awk Pai!” (Abhisit – Get Out!) echoed into a huge sound. The beating of the large drum on the back of the car of the “Naclop Pra Ong Dam” (Warriors of the Black Prince) – a guard unit based in Pitsanulok – and their rousing music made hairs stand up. Many thousands of Red Shirts awaited the main caravan already in front of the 11th Infantry Regiment.

But when the main caravan arrived the air went suddenly out of the protest. Was it the heat, or the lack of water and food, or the comedown after the great march when nothing much happened, or was it the clever responses through loudspeakers by the psychological warfare team of the military? Boredom took over. A few Red Shirt guards got agitated when they mistook the cameras from journalists on the upper floors of a government building for snipers, and demanded entry, scaring many female journalists stationed there. The situation was soon defused though. Not long after, at 2 pm the Red Shirts went back to their main site at Pan Fa Bridge.

During the time of the protest, at 1 pm the 1st Infantry Regiment was attacked with 6 M79 Grenades, two of which failed to explode. Two soldiers were reported injured. This was a highly unusual attack as it happened in the daytime.

After a rest at home I went back to the rally site at night, just in time to take photos of Thanpuying Viraya Chavakul, a palace insider, who had entered the Red Shirt stage and held a speech there. Behind the stage, she sat with Arisaman Pongruangrong,  Pongthep Thepkanjana, who is Thaksin’s spokesman, and Prateep Ungsongtham Hata, who has since the Songkran clashes in April 2009 kept a low profile. Later also came Jatuporn Prompan, Nattawut Saikua and Veera Musikapong. The Thanpuying handed tasty sandwiches to protest leaders and journalists.

That night, at 4 am, another grenade was launched, and landed at a house near the residence of the Chairman of the Supreme Court.

The next day, 16 March, the Red Shirts upped the level of the protest as the Abhisit government made no signs of dissolving parliament and calling new elections. Their plan was to organize a blood donation drive, and to spill the donated blood in front of Government House, the Democrat Party headquarters, and in front of Prime Minster Abhisit Vejajiva’s House. Dr. Weng Tojirakan explained that the blood is a symbol for the willingness of the people to give their blood for democracy, and for the blood already spilled by the people. Over the day, long queues of protesters lined up in front of the three tents in which nurses and doctors took their blood in sterile injection needles. The blood was collected in gallons and canisters, which quickly filled up.

At 3 pm the Red Shirts held a combined press conference with the National Human Rights Commission in the Royal Princess Hotel – close to the protest site – following their meeting with Veera Musikapong and other Red Shirt leaders. The Red Shirts asked the NHRC to observe the protests and act as an intermediary with the government as the government side was not willing to listen, and that communications with the government has been insufficient. The Red Shirts promised not to block entrance to government buildings, and allow access by all.

Soon the Red Shirts proceeded to Government House, to splash the collected blood there. A large mass of protesters gathered, and hundreds of assorted journalists were fighting over pictures. Red Shirt protesters with the gallons of blood on their heads fought their way through.

Some journalists got in through the small gate of the erected fence in front of Government House, but when the pressure from journalists became too much, the authorities closed the gate. I could not get in. It was altogether a rather ugly scene, mostly the fault of us journalists.

The next stop was the nearby Democrat Party headquarters. I went straightaway, so I could get pictures this time. The Red Shirts arrived by sunset. And with them the pack of journalists. Originally a space on the street in front of the building had been reserved for the Red Shirts, which was agreed upon by Red Shirt leaders and Police. I positioned myself. The Red Shirt leaders and the protesters carrying the blood, the Brahmin priest performing the curse, and other journalists arrived. Initially it was all in order, but suddenly there was a huge surge of pressure by journalists. This initiated a situation that made me extremely angry, disgusted and utterly embarrassed to be a journalist. The pack of journalists, many of them “fly by night” chancers and other never seen characters without any proper press credentials, did not listen to the pleading police officers and protest leaders to step back, but pressed even more. I escaped over a fence separating the street and the building, helped by a few police officers. But it didn’t stop – journalists kept pushing, managing to push the police lines away and forced the Red Shirts directly in front of the entrance of the building. When some sort of resemblance of order was restored, the Brahmin priest commenced with his cursing ritual, of which I managed to take images, before the journalists began pushing again. Of the following I didn’t take images any more – all these images showing heavy tensions and emotions were created by journalists, and not a natural scene that we photographed. I took a few images again of the blood spillage, and waited until Red Shirts and the pack of my colleagues went their way.

Two distraught officials of the Democrat Party, who had pleaded with the protesters not to spill the blood at their entrance during the melee, stood with a bowl of sacred water and waited until the scene was clear. When I asked them if that is “Naam Mon” (sacred water), they answered evadingly that this were just normal water to clean the mess. They were quite embarrassed when I pointed out that bits of wax from candles usually do not float in normal water. I apologised though for the mess created by us journalists. Soon they proceeded to spill the bowl of sacred water at the edge of the blood. The blood was then professionally cleaned, and I found a hose to wash my feet which were covered in blood.

Over the following days I spoke several times with Sakrapee Promchart — the Brahmin priest who performed the cursing ceremony, and who has been with the Red Shirt movement since its beginning. It was quite difficult as this was a topic which soon reached the limits of my language abilities.

The “saab cheng”(curse) he used is the strongest possible curse and will last for more than 100 years. There is no possible counter ceremony, and could only be lifted by the one performing the curse. Also the spilling of sacred water by the Democrat Party officials was of no use, he said, but shows that they were aware of the power of this curse. Neither was the more elaborate ceremony led by Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban the following day of any use. The curse itself is of Thai Brahmanistic origin, not of Indian origin. Also during the reign of King Naresuan in the Ayutthaya period blood ceremonies to clean Chao Mae Toranee (the goddess of the earth) were performed. It is a highly unusual “Khun Sai” (Black Magic) ceremony, and only rarely performed by Brahmins. The last time this particular curse was performed was during the foundation of a prison in the district of Ban Pranang, Nakhorn Sri Thammarat province, about 100 hundred years ago. Even though such a curse has bad effects on the one performing it he still accepted those as he felt this curse was for the good of the land, as it was against those he considered bad people – the government. He also mentioned that a further reason for this particular curse was that the Democrat Party used Chao Mae Toranee in their party symbol, the goddess he prays to as well. He also said that spilling blood in this way would help prevent bloodshed. This point was also mentioned by a Red Shirt villager from Isaarn I talked with.

The day after the ceremony the priest was behind the stage, and very angry over media reports of Phra Ratchakru Wamadhepmuni, head of the royal Brahmin priests, who denounced his Brahmin heritage by stating that his father was removed from his position due to misbehavior. Sakrapee Promchart countered that his father, still alive and 100 years old, retired due to old age, and that Phra Ratchakru Wamadhepmuni was too young at the time. He also said that due to his ancestry and education he is a Brahmin priest.

The following day, 17 March, a large rally of Red Shirts went to Prime Minister Abhsisit Vejjajiva’s residence in Sukhumvit Soi 33, to spill blood there as well. A welcome rain shower broke the almost unbearable heat of the previous days. I decided not to take any photos as the disgusting scene of photographers and cameramen pushing each other, protesters and police officers out of the way repeated itself again. As the Brahmin priest did not come along, I thought it was rather pointless for me to photograph what amounted to a tense scene created mostly by journalists. A few Red Shirts threw bags of blood into Abhisit’s house, but were stopped by Red Shirt Guards. Also Nattawut Saikua asked them to stop through the loudspeakers of the mobile stage.

On their way out a group of street sweepers cleaned up after the Red Shirts, at the same time cheering them on. One of them said: “It’s in my heart!”.

The Red Shirt caravan then went along Sukhumvit Road, and made a stop at the US embassy, where they handed a letter over asking for clarification over the issue of claims by Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban that the government was warned by US intelligence that there were actions of sabotage planned. The apparent source of this information was from tapping the phone conversations of Thaksin Shinawatra.

Again, all along the protest route there were supporters on the streets, sky train stations and pedestrian overpasses.

In the evening Red Shirt leaders on the stage denounced Sae Daeng, and also the Daeng Sayam group (Red Siam), and announced that those two factions are not part of their “Daeng Tang Pandin” (Red in the Land) movement. One of the Red Shirt leaders said that they had to make the separation official as Sae Daeng was an uncontrollable factor, and that Siam Daeng’s more radical ideological background was not compatible  with the Red in the Land movement. A leader of one of Daeng Sayam’s allied groups was calm about it when I asked him, he said that they were anyhow separate groups, and things are just clearer now. Also Sae Daeng was the same evening present at the tent of his small political party, signing T-Shirts of protesters as usual. He said that “Pi Thaksin” had asked him to take care of the security of the Red Shirt protesters, and that the three leaders Veera, Nattawut and Jatuporn had no authority over him anyhow. He said they would not know anything about tactics and strategy, and that he, as a soldier, knows how to defend the Red Shirts.

There were many rumors of supposed splits in the Red in the Land leadership floating around. On the one side the “Politicians’ Group”, comprised of Veera, Nattawut and Jatuporn, and on the other the “Hardcore Group” led by Arisaman, Rambo Isaarn and Kwanchai Paipanna, who preferred a more radical course of action. When I asked about this, I was told that there are different views on strategy, that this is only natural and nothing new, but that they all discuss issues and obey the results of the votes in their central leadership council.

On 18 March I finally had the time to visit some villagers at Royal Plaza and chat with them. There were not as many cars parked there as before, some of the villagers went home to take a rest. The Red Shirts have begun to work out a rotation system so that protesters could go home for a while. I found the atmosphere still very upbeat, the protesters built something resembling a little village with kitchens and hammocks stretched out. There were showers on the sides of the plaza. Some villagers from Chiangmai and Mukdahan camped together, and shared a kitchen. They just met at the rally, and decided that they enjoy each other’s company. Bangkok based Red Shirt supporters donated fresh food and toiletries, and rice they have brought with them from home.

I asked a few Udon villagers about yesterday’s announcements from the stages about the split from Sae Daeng and Daeng Sayam. They said that they understood the separation from Sae Daeng because they do not like violence. About Daeng Sayam they said that many people may not be yet ready to accept their more radical philosophies, but they themselves liked Surachai Sae Dan and Jakrapop Penkair very much. They said that they do not just follow what is said on the main stage, they listen to all, discuss, and make up their own minds. We talked about how they felt about protesting in Bangkok they said that they were surprised how well they were received by Bangkokians: “Before we thought Bangkok people are all Yellow, and only us upcountry folks are Red. Now we can see that we are just the same.”

19 March was another quiet day. I went briefly to the protest area. Just when I arrived, a Military Police corporal was interrogated by Nattawut Saikua behind the stage in front of the media. A gun and three magazines of ammo he was caught with were displayed. The officer walked into the protest area, was pointed out by protesters, ran away, was caught by guards, and brought behind the stage. He said that his girlfriend is a Red Shirt, and he just wanted to give her an amulet chain. He was led away by police.

It was a regular feature that people with arms were caught by guards; the previous day a drunken man with a metal pick hidden in a bamboo pole was caught at the stage area, he said that he doesn’t like both Red and Yellow Shirts. A conscripted soldier, who went AWOL from his command, was arrested with an air gun. All were handed over to police.

20 March was the big day of the Red Shirt mobile rally throughout Bangkok. According to my sources (who stood on a bridge and counted) 7,000 cars and almost 30,000 motorcycles took part, per car a medium count of ten people, and most of the motorcycles were carrying two passengers. Altogether about 120,000 people took part in the caravan. In addition to this there were the masses of residents cheering the caravan on the street. The protest was gigantic. The lead car was the car of the “Naclop Pra Ong Dam”, blasting wild music, followed by their pickup truck carrying the huge drum. When the head of the column was already at Lard Prao Road the tail was still at Pan Fa Bridge. I followed with my motorcycle. Soon I did not know anymore if I was closer to the head or the tail. The streets were lined with supporters, many wearing red, others grabbing anything red and waving at the Red Shirts, some even put red plastic bags up.

First the route went along Petchaburi Road, large crowds of supporters were at Pantip Plaza and towards the Pratunam intersection.

Then the route went left into Ratchada, with, once again, large groups of supporters. At Lard Prao Road at almost every Soi there were large groups of supporters, between 100 and 500 people, who gave water and food to the Red Shirts. At Bangkapi huge groups assembled, and also all along Ram Intra and Klong Tan. Going into Rama IV Road there were fewer people, but still a presence of supporters. At Klong Toey Market about 500 supporters cheered the Red Shirts. From there I took a short cut to Silom over Rama III and Narathiwat Road. A few hundred Red Shirt motorcycles took the same route. Even though this was not part of the official route – people stood on the sides and cheered the Red Shirts. At Silom – Rama IV intersection I awaited at the head of the Red Shirt column, amongst many supporters and journalists. The columns then went along Rama IV Road, and passed the Puah Thai Party headquarters. Former Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat and several other Puah Thai luminaries stood on a lorry and waved to the passing protesters. Then, on the last stretch the route went through the yellow bastion of Chinatown. But even there very large crowds awaited the Red Shirts, many waitresses and cooks of the restaurants there, but also more than a few obviously better off ethnic Chinese. I photographed a group of waitresses in yellow uniforms – they laughed and said that inside they are Red.

Back home I went through the online editions of The Nation and the Bangkok Post. I wondered if I was at a different protest than they were. What I read there must have been a rather boring affair – a few people and not much support. The protest I went to was quite different – even though there was incredible heat it was a festive and at times even almost ecstatic event. Only the next day the sole dissenting voice of Pravit Rojanaphruk from The Nation wrote an article that described what I have seen, followed the day after by another good article by Chang Noi.

This of course leads us to ask whether most of the mainstream media, apart from a few individual journalists, is just sloppy in its reporting, or if there was a blatant suppression of news. The event was covered by on-the-ground journalists. I saw them filming and taking photos. What though happened in the editorial offices then escapes my knowledge.

Just when I wanted to go to sleep I was called out again at 11 pm because of another M79 grenade attack behind the Ministry of Defense. At the entrance of a small Soi off Atsadang Road the grenade went off, separating electricity cables and shattering a few windows. Two soldiers were reported to have been injured. A few hundred meters further, in a small Soi just behind a Hotel serving the Red Light district there, the attackers left their pickup truck. Some Red Shirt paraphernalia was in the car, and weaponry. The number plate was fake, and the car stolen.

The same night, at 10 pm, a grenade hit the new offices of the NACC (National Anti-Corruption Commission) in Nonthaburi.

Sunday, 21 March, was quiet. I was still hurting all over from the long tour through Bangkok on my motorcycle the previous day. Red Shirt artists painted with the leftover blood on large canvasses at the small citadel behind their stage at Pan Fa Bridge. Most media focused on noted artist Visa Kantap who wrote a poem with blood on the canvas. An elderly artist and village teacher, Ajarn Vichak, made an impressive Tie-Dye work, where he dunked a piece of canvas into a bowl of blood. When the cloth dried a meditating Buddha appeared.

During the rallies several new catch phrases were coined. One amusing one is “melon soldiers” – green on the outside, red on the inside.  The conflict has been elevated by the Red Shirts to a “class war”. The government very much resists this term, saying that by constitution all Thais are equal, and that with Thaksin’s riches he can hardly be a representative of the lower classes. The government also worries about the way Red Shirts now term themselves as “Phrai” – commoners under the old system, as opposed to “Amart” – the elite. And while Thaksin may be rich, the vast majority of Red Shirts from rural and urban lower and lower middle classes are economically, politically and socially disadvantaged, and therefore the present conflict does have clear elements of a class struggle. Regardless of lofty constitutions, one does not need to look far to find that class and economically based injustices are more than evident in Thai society.

So far, apart from the white noise of almost daily M79 grenade attacks (fortunately no dead and only a few injuries), whose culprits are yet unknown, the protests went very peacefully. The modus operandi of the grenade attacks though has changed compared to previous attacks, there are now even daytime attacks, and at times multiple grenades are fired into the targets. No violent incidents involving Red Shirts, Military, Police or PAD has yet been reported. There is no display of weaponry by Red Shirt guards, and the Red Shirts have not erected any barricades. Their efforts at the UDD cadre schools (Rong Rien Padipadngan Nor Por Chor) seem to have paid off well compared to April 2009. This is a much better controlled protest. The military presence in the surroundings is low-key but obvious – small groups of soldiers armed with batons and shields are positioned at strategic street corners. Military Humvees are patrolling the area.

Presently we have reached a standstill, while the positioning of the Red Shirt leaders and government resembles a high stakes chess game. It is quite interesting though that the Red Shirt’s main target became Abhisit, the government and demands for dissolution of the parliament, even though already in early 2009 the Red Shirts declared that Abhisit is a minor target and that their main struggle is against the system of “Amartayathipathai” – the system of the rule of the traditional elites of which Abhisit is just a small part. Even though General Prem and fellow Privy Council member General Surayudh have been heavily attacked and embarrassed in the run up to the big protest, they now seem to have been moved to the position of secondary targets.