“Red shirt” festival proceeds under threat of crackdown

April 8, 2010

By Martin Petty

Garbage heaps were piled up in front of plush shopping centres. Weary protesters sipped on coffee and tip-toed through a sleeping crowd. Pick-up trucks unloaded crates of water, food and energy drinks as demonstrators directed traffic around a makeshift stage. Police were nowhere to be seen.

Bangkok’s burning sun was starting to rise.

Mornings seldom make news in Thailand’s nearly month-long anti-government street protests. Rallies typically heat up in the evening when tens of thousands gather in Bangkok’s main shopping district to hear fiery speeches by protest leaders demanding elections. But the mornings offer a rare glimpse into the heart of a protest movement that has triggered a state of emergency in the Thai capital.

After embattled Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva announced an emergency decree in a televised statement in an attempt to restore order after the red-shirted protesters stormed parliament, hours later a defiant anti-government rally drew a crowd of about 50,000 people in the shopping district, ignoring repeated demands to leave.

Their rallies have been jovial, festival-like gatherings, with thousands of smiling, flag-waving supporters ranging from red-clad babies and frail old women to taxi drivers and toothless rural farmers – a far cry from the anarchic scenes a year ago when “red shirts” faced off with troops, hurling petrol bombs and setting dozens of buses ablaze.

By morning, the crowd had dwindled dramatically to about 4,000 die-hard demonstrators who sweated out another humid Bangkok night, camped on straw mats and flattened cardboard boxes, listening to country music and political speeches.  The heart of Bangkok’s lavish hotel and shopping district looked like the aftermath of an all night rock concert when the sun rose on Thursday,

The protesters had waved off the threat of an imminent crackdown by police and soldiers and stayed up all night, cheering and clapping to the defiant rhetoric of a motley crew of speakers, among them banned politicians, motorcycle taxi drivers and folk singers dressed like cowboys.

They want the urbane, Oxford-and-Eton-educated Abhisit to dissolve parliament and call a new election, arguing he is an illegitimate puppet of power-hungry military, aristocrats and establishment elites.

A year ago, the “red shirts” were feared, hated and vilified by many among Bangkok’s middle classes, dismissed as violent rabble-rousers hired or duped into becoming slaves of the wily former telecoms tycoon, a self-proclaimed champion of the poor.  But despite a good deal of scaremongering by the government, the “mob” as many in the city call it, has been largely peaceful.

The “red shirts” say they are going nowhere until they get their election.

“He’s a prime minister who wasn’t chosen by his people,” said Mit Konthan, a driver who has lived in Bangkok for 15 years and hails from the exiled Thaksin’s political stronghold in the neglected northeast.

“That’s not democracy. We are here to fight for real democracy and we’ll keep on going,” he said.

But the mostly rural movement seems to have won the support of Bangkok’s working classes, who its leaders say have kept the movement alive, taking the baton from impoverished rural masses who have returned to their farms after weeks sleeping rough in the unfamiliar surroundings of one of Asia’s most imposing cities.

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