Several times on this trip, my parents and close friends have received an email from me letting them know that there might just be a problem in my current travel destination. The email usually goes something like this:
Hi Guys! I just wanted to let you know that there might be a [insert one: fire / earthquake / typhoon /protest /armed insurrection /coup attempt / giant squid that tries to eat me] but DON’T WORRY, I will stay far away and email you often to let you know that I am OK. Remember the media often sensationalizes the situation, so please just write me with any questions and I will reassure you that it’s never as crazy as it seems.
Except sometimes? It really, truly is.
This was no normal week in Bangkok. Having been in Thailand in 2008 when the yellow shirts shut down both of Bangkok’s airports, stranding passengers for weeks, I wanted to experience the other side of the political protest spectrum, and returned here from Chiang Mai in anticipation of the March 12 mass protests. As manifestations go, this one started out peaceful and even celebratory. For me, it was surreal to be smack in the middle of a political movement, yet feel as though I was at an intense, raucous festival.
On the first day, a sea of red thronged Democracy Monument and clotted Ratchadamnoen Avenue from tip to toe. The protesters were divided by province, each with a separate tent to sit in, marked by the name of the province. Free food and drink were on offer, and I was floored by how organized the process was: red guards directed protesters to the appropriate tent, moved people along the streets and cleaned up the garbage from the thousands who had descended upon the city. Later that day, a flotilla of boats crammed with red shirt supporters arrived at Rama VIII bridge, disembarking and streaming through the streets until they merged with the others at the main stage. Soon, a sliver of saffron shimmered in the afternoon sun as a thousand monks joined the protest, flanked on both sides by red shirts. As the monks moved toward the main stage, the reds dropped to their knees to be blessed by the monks as they passed. Yes, there was riot police aplenty, and as with any large gathering it only takes one small gesture of ugliness to snowball into complete disaster. However, the Bangkok police were cheerful and even shaking hands with the red shirt protesters, and the riot police deferentially took off their helmets and waited to to receive the monks’ blessings. Insofar as protests can be serene and even beautiful, this day fit the bill.
Of course, I wanted to go back for Day 2. The reds had begun their inexorable march toward the 11th Regiment and were flowing under Victory Monument’s many skybridges just as I stepped off the BTS. Scrambling down the stairs for a better view, several of the convoy trucks packed with reds invited me to jump in. A free ride to the 11th Regiment and an up-close-and-personal view of the protests? I didn’t think twice, and neither did Rob and his friend Lynn who were standing on the edge of the road with me. As the convoy made its way to the army base, thousands of supporters lined the streets to cheer them on – and to point at our truck in surprise when they saw that we had jumped in.
Since that 2nd day, the mood has darkened considerably. The current PM has steadfastly refused to dissolve parliament, despite the demands of the protesters to do so, and the tide of joyousness is waning. The tactics of protest are also changing: yesterday’s ‘blood protests’ certainly got the world’s attention from a PR perspective, but pouring blood on the PM and Government Houses was of course a far cry from the lightness of the first few days. And everyone here is waiting to see what happens next – will the protesters scatter back to the provinces, or will things take a turn for the worse?
Those unfamiliar with the red and yellow shirts and the intricacies of Thailand’s political scene should read this NYT article for some background, as well as this macro-view piece from the Christian Science Monitor. I do not have sufficient historical knowledge to do justice to the topic, and do not want to reduce the situation to a paragraph or two. However: I do have a camera, and for the first few days of the protests, I made sure to use it.
Definitely my favorite photo of the first day, just next to the main stage around 11am; Red shirts at dusk on Day 2 after a long day of walking.
Security guards greet the convoy of red shirts as they pass by Lat Phrao MRT station; A group of workers cheer on at Victory Monument.
- The New Mandala: a great resource for parsing through the complicated politics of Thailand and the implications of current events in the country.
- Newley.com: run by photojournalist Newley, who I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time on a skybridge overlooking Victory Monument. He has been covering the protests non-stop, including some truly insane pictures of yesterday’s ‘blood protests’, as well as insightful commentary.
- The Bangkok Pundit: though his true identity is unknown, the BP posts often, covering the full spectrum of news sources and pictures. He also adds his own additional commentary after summarizing his stories, which is invaluable.
- Nick Koleszar has posted roundups of the media, blogosphere and Twitter coverage of the red shirt marches on his site Media140 Thailand.
- Thailand Voice also rounds up the Twitter feeds, stories of the day and links to video.
- BBC News has a video of the blood being poured on the Government House.
- Gary from Everything Everywhere was in the heart of the action as well and has a gallery of red shirt protest photos from the last few days, including in the pouring rain.