(14 March 2010) It is hard to know what is going on in a town like Bangkok. Like everyone else, I was curious what was really going on with the Red Shirt rally. The tourism authority is saying everything is fine, but you should stay away from Sanam Luang, Khao San Road, and even Victory Monument. If you don’t mind knowing the news a day after it happens, then the Bangkok Post and Nation are great.
After a hardy Shakshuka breakfast, a Moroccan dish of poached eggs in a red tomato sauce, I figured I should go bake outside in a sea of red shirts. I hopped on a cab and headed towards Democracy Monument to check out the action first hand.
Along the roads leading onto Ratchadamnoen, I noticed that the BMA recently planted red flowers on the sides of the road. Whether it was a seasonal choice, an aesthetic one, or even a political one, the flowers blended well into the scenery. While my cab was waiting at a light behind a military Hummer, the cabbie commented on the battle-dressed soldiers on the corner. “They look like Robo-Cop” he laughed. I kept thinking that they must be cooking in all that Kevlar. As we got closer to Ratchadamnoen, I saw more and more Red Shirts converging. In songthaews, crammed into taxis, on motorbikes, or just walking with red flags in hand they were all around.
I met a local journalist, my guide and translator for the day, at the McDonalds near Democracy Monument. An odd launching ground for a class struggle, but nonetheless a good place to grab a McChicken sandwich before the long day ahead. Inside, red shirt supports were enjoying their food while debating whether or not martial law had been imposed – a discussion not often heard in McDonalds.
Walking towards the main stage, we saw groups of people walking while others sought shade from the mid-day sun. There were signs in English (“Democracy Now”) and signs in Thai (“We will die for Democracy”). There were stalls selling red shirts, anti-government literature and CDs, and of course Pad Thai.
At a booth handing out “No Violence” stickers I met Tok, a local Bangkokian who came out to show his support. “I don’t read the papers, they distort everything” he said. Tok gets most of his news online, including from Prachatai, which he finds more reliable. “They say [the elites] that these people [the Red Shirts] are violent” Tok said, “but they don’t understand and they don’t want to.” Tok came to see for himself and was surprised to see how peaceful the event was. With no visible police or military presence around, it did feel more like a carnival then an uprising.
I met a group of nurses and doctors volunteering at one of the many first aid stations along the protest route. They asked not to be identified since their hospitals told them not to help the Red Shirts. Nevertheless, they came anyways “to help the people, and because our hearts are Red.”
People around me were eager to talk to a foreigner, and explain why they came out to protest. Red Shirt frustration with being misrepresented and vilified by the mainstream media was a reoccurring motif throughout the day. Nut, a Thai business-woman told me she came from the UK, where she lives, just to take part in the rally. Frustrated with the continued injustice in the Kingdom, she could stay away from her home no longer.
We made it to the main stage, and with a little Farang magic made it into the backstage area. The journalist I was with pointed out that the Reds need media support much more than the Yellows did, and as a journalist it’s easier to cover the Red’s events. This proved true, and after signing up at the media desk, I had my “Press” tag and was on the main stage.
Definitely shy of a million protesters, there were several thousands cheering on Veera Musikapong, a protest leader. "We're demanding the government give up the administrative power by dissolving the Parliament and returning power to the people. We're giving the government 24 hours from now [to respond to our demand]" Veera told the roaring crowd. “There is no need for Martial law” Veera explained, “Just dissolve parliament.”
In the VIP section behind the main stage, I was able to have a conversation with Dr. Suda Rangkupan, an Assistant Professor from the Department of Linguistics, Chulakorn University. She came out today because she is bothered by the power-politics in her country. Dr. Suda views this event and the growing popularity of the Red Shirt movement as a continuation of the anti-Coup movement that began (this time around) in 2006. Back then it was only a handful of academics and social activists who saw the danger Thai democracy faced from the military and other “meddling elites”. Today, Dr. Suda noted, more people from wider segments of society realize the dangerous path Thai politics has taken since the 2006 Coup. She feels that the government has silenced many of these voices, using different laws to squash free speech and avoid a candid debate.
Dr. Suda explained that the core demand from this Red Shirt rally was the restoration of Democracy, specifically the dissolution of Parliament and the holding of new, free, and fair elections. She said that many people feel that the military, the courts, and the Yellow shirts have overturned the democratic choices made by the people in Thailand. When I asked about Thaksin’s future role of in Thai politics, Dr. Suda said it was not about Thaksin, it is about the people’s choice. She is tired of being told who the “good people” are – those worthy of leadership - and who are the “bad”. For Dr. Suda, it is about Thai people being able to choose for themselves. Who they choose doesn’t matter to her. What does matter is that the people are allowed to choose for themselves.
While personally I am not a fan of Thaksin, or of the violence and corruption committed under his watch, I can’t help but agree with Dr. Suda. I didn’t like G.W. Bush either, and thought those who elected him to office (the second time at least) were wrong, but that’s democracy. After 18 military coups and one airport take-over, popular elections seem to be the reasonable mechanism to choose who governs.