Life inside “red” Bangkok
Bangkok’s retail and commercial heart has been under occupation for 7 weeks. Anti-government “red shirt” protesters have occupied the Rajprasong intersection, which is bound by glitzy high-end shopping malls and five star hotels, many of which have been forced to close. But inside the stronghold of the red shirts, business continues in a strange but usual way.
I’ve been in Bangkok for just on 3 weeks, part of the multimedia team covering everything from anti-government and pro-government rallies to bloody clashes and grenade attacks right in the commercial district. Pictures and video show Bangkok out of control and in chaos. I want to provide an insight into ‘Red Bangkok’, a square mile self-sustained area that the “red shirts” have taken over and promise to stay in indefinitely.
Each morning at 5.30am, I walk towards the reds’ fortified zone to look for pictures in morning light. Surrounding the area is a tribal-looking fence built from tires and bamboo poles, something that belongs more in a post-apocalyptic movie than real-life Bangkok.
The “red shirts” poured fuel on it and have run pipes from gas cylinders to the barricade, so that it can be set alight if troops or police advance on them. To enter the area, you walk along the barricade and enter from a controlled access point manned by their own security. We usually have no problem as they recognize the rights of the media to be inside.
In the early hours, there is music playing and people dancing, drinking krating daeng (the potent version of red bull which originated in Thailand). Yesterday, I thought I’d walked into a rave: there was a DJ playing electronic music, a girl dancing seductively on top of a truck and people gathered on the ground below dancing as the sun rose.
After sun rise, the dancing comes to an end and the speakers pump out non-stop political speeches. Next door at Lumphini Park, a morning aerobics class is underway. “Red shirts” wander out of their compound to take a look at middle-aged Bangkokians exercising.
The numbers inside the camp thin out at night, but there are still plenty of people. They sleep anywhere they can.
People armed with makeshift weapons like sharpened bamboo poles and slingshots sleep or rest on the barricade; others lie on the ground nearby, on the grass, under canopies which have been set up all through “red zone”, and closer to the main intersection, people sleep right in front of posters advertising Louis Vuitton and Prada outside malls.
There is a stage with a 24-hour rotation of people talking and singing. People sit and cheer in front of the stage at all times of day, but the numbers are biggest in the evenings. The area in front of the stage is covered with a black canopy, which the “red shirts” say is to prevent sniper attacks on people in the area.
On the edges of the camp, especially near the barricade located at the Silom business district, there are bands of reds armed with sharpened poles, iron bars, slingshots, bags of marbles, golf clubs and all sorts of other makeshift weapons.
Sometimes, Buddhist monks who have joined the “red shirts” wander through the area, holding sharpened bamboo poles themselves.
The camp is fully supplied and every basic need has been taken care of. There are makeshift kitchens, where people cook free food for protesters.
At breakfast, lunch and dinner, people form orderly lines in front of tents dishing out rice, curries and soups.
Water is freely available and never too far away. All across “red” Bangkok, street vendors have come in and set up, selling everything from water to coke to cigarettes to food and mobile phones. There are generators that power strip lighting, speakers, TVs and fans. There are vendors who will charge your phone on a charger run off car batteries for a small fee. There are even “red shirt” barbers offering haircuts on the backs of pickup trucks and under tents. If you’re a “red shirt” you probably never have to leave the area at all.
Is it any wonder the “red shirts” have managed to last so long? The question now is, how much longer can they last? What will happen next as tensions rise and the government and rival groups talk tough?