Thai red shirts defy crackdown with carnival-like protest

April 24, 2010

(“Red shirt” protesters dancing in the main shopping district in Bangkok. Reuters/Eric Gaillard )

THAILAND/ I saw Chewbacca last night at the red shirts barricades in Bangkok.

    The hairy Star Wars character was  standing with a couple of red shirt protesters who were directing traffic in front of their wall of truck tyres, chunks of paving stone and bamboo poles at the entrance to the business district, and the Patpong go-go bars. I was in a taxi and didn’t have a chance to ask the guy in the Wookie suit what he was doing at midnight standing between the red shirts and lines of riot police, shield and batons at ready, under a bank of spotlights shedding garish light on an other-wordly scene. The gentle hairy character doesn’t speak in the movies so maybe no explanation would have been forthcoming.

 Nothing seems surprising these days in Bangkok. Behind the three-metre high barricades, like some dystopian vision of a future world gone awry — Mad Max set in Thailand —  stretches the red shirt encampment, a makeshift village in the middle of Bangkok’s ritzy  shopping and tourism area.  In front of the barricades are the police lines, where a new group called the “multi-coloured shirts ”have gathered to hurl insults and the occasional glass bottle at the barricades. These are folks fed up with the six-week long sit-in in the capital that has decimated the vital tourism industry with the loss of thousands of jobs. On Thursday night, from somewhere behind the red shirt barricades, somebody fired M-79 grenades from a shoulder-mounted launcher. They fell among the “multi-coloured shirts” and tourists coming out of Patpong, killing one person and injuring scores, including four foreigners.

   The red shirt camp was jubilant afterward, sensing the tide of battle had turned in their favour. The army chief on Friday ruled out any attempt to disperse the roughly 15,000-20,000 people in the encampment, including women and children, because it would result in too much bloodshed. A failed attempt to eject protesters from another site killed 25 on April 10.

“There are lots of people here,” said one 23-year-old waitress in the red shirt encampment. ”I don’t think the army can dismiss us.”

 Most of the guys inside the camp are toting sharpened bamboo staves, and have stockpiled rocks and paving stones to throw at any soldier coming after them with an M-16.

But a carnival atmosphere prevails.  Red shirts in cowboy hats try to get the crowd worked up from a stage in the middle of the intersection surrounded by luxury hotels. They demand early elections.  A traffic light with a continuously blinking red arrow stands in the middle of a crowd.  Red stands for stop the government. People laugh and shout at the speakers. Vendors sell food and  drinks, red clothing, and hawk carnival games. Try your hand with a sling shot at knocking over a can with Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s face on it. The prize is a pillow inscribed with “dissolve parliament now”.   Get a pair of sandals with with Abhisit’s face on it — the ultimate insult in Thailand, where feet are regarded as lowly things. Music, some penned for the occasion, blares out from banks of speakers.   

The country village in the upscale shopping district is almost completely self-contained. Portable toilets line a road for a far as the eye can see.  People bathe in outdoor shower stalls. Three kitchens dole out food.  It costs about 1-2 million baht ($31,000-$62,000) a day to take care of the crowd, organisers say, but they deny their de facto leader, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra — whose picture and posters are plastered about the encampment — is footing the bill. The telecoms billionaire, ousted in a 2006 coup, offers only moral support, they say.

People from the northern countryside stream into the capital every day on buses, bringing with them supplies of sticky rice and papaya for their papaya salads. The police are supposed to stop the buses at checkpoints around the capital, but are half-hearted at best about this task, red shirt leaders say.

 The protesters have fortified six entrances to the roughly 3 square km (1.9 mile) protest area their barricades of  tyres and poles.  Red shirts helpfully direct traffic outside their Red Zone, as riot police look on.THAILAND/

(Red shirt climbs up barricade at entrance to business district April 22.  Reuters/Eric Gaillard)

Thailand’s intractable political divide, pitting the rural and working class supporters of Thaksin against an urban middle class, business and military elites is taking the country to the edge of civil war.  

But Thais tend to take a humorous view of the grim situation. The red shirts’ often call their  triumvirate of  leaders ”the three stooges”, which is the moniker the government hung on them. They call soldiers that secretly sympathise with them   ”watermelons” — green on the outside, red at the core.  Some police are “tomatoes” , red through and through. Thaksin is a former policeman.  Then there are pineapple soldiers. They have a yellow interior, and sympathise with the pro-establishment  ”yellow shirts”.  (Thais love their food;  it’s almost impossible to get a bad meal in this country. )  Other colour-coded groups have sprung up as well. The pinks support the monarchy, pink being the king’s favourite colour.  The “multi-colours” support Abhisit, and the  ”no colours” are sick of politics and want everybody to go home.

(A Red shirt suppoter wipes here eyes with a thai flag after tear gas was fired during the clashes of April 10. Reuters/Sukri Suplang) THAILAND/

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