Nights with the Bangkok protesters

February 12, 2014

Bangkok, Thailand

By Athit Perawongmetha

Thai anti-government protests have been going on for some three months and during weeks of political unrest my attention has been focused on the action of the daily news.

The protesters’ takeover of major intersections in the city harks back to a tumultuous April and May of 2010, when supporters of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra took to the streets. I now find myself in the same location near Bangkok’s central Lumphini Park where violent street battles between protesters and government security forces took place.

Today’s protesters are opponents, rather than supporters, of Thaksin and they are against his sister, the current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. They mostly hail from the south of Thailand and from Bangkok, whereas Thaksin and Yingluck’s supporters are mostly poor, rural voters from the north and northeast. But despite that, the scene does not look dissimilar to 2010: tents and barricades abound, and I am shooting pictures in the same spot.

During these protests, I have increasingly begun to ask myself whether I am missing something with this new set of demonstrators. Who really are these people who support the protest? Where do they live? What do they believe in? And why have they come to Bangkok to camp out in the extreme heat under the city’s flyovers and near its imposing skyscrapers?

With all these questions swimming in my head, my boss gave me the green light to cover the lives of the demonstrators. I was one hundred percent ready and started preparing to spend several nights with them.

In a divided country like Thailand, every side believes firmly in its cause. Some are strongly for Yingluck and her brother Thaksin, who won the support of many poorer voters with policies like cheap healthcare. Some are passionately against, accusing Thaksin of corruption and calling Yingluck a puppet.

Sacrificing time to drive to the capital and camp out in the streets is no small effort. So I put my questions to the anti-government protesters who had made this journey, and with whom I now slept and ate. They were once in front of my lens, but now I was getting a chance to see a fuller picture of their lives.

Mostly, their answers were the same: “We came here for the right cause.” “This government is bad.” “We are here for change.”

One group of people that I spoke to came from Lopburi, part of Thailand’s central, rice-growing region. Dedicated protesters, they said they left their hometown a month ago before a January 13 “shut down” of the capital by protesters. Critics of the protests have accused the movement’s backers of paying people to camp out in the city. Not so, said this group. They left a comfortable set-up to fight for the reforms they want to see take place.

“We have air-conditioning and a good bed,” some of them told me. “Still, we came here to sleep three people in one small tent. It’s very hot during the day and there are a lot of mosquitoes at night. If we don’t come, we can’t change Thailand,” they added.

Some of these protesters had never experienced the bright lights of the big capital at such close range before. For some, it was as much an opportunity for sight-seeing as a chance to take part in political change.

“Bangkok is so beautiful,” one protester from the south of Thailand told me. “I thought that if I don’t come to this protest I’ll never have the chance to see Bangkok in my lifetime.”

While most demonstrators camping out in Bangkok’s business district were asleep, others were busy at work. I spent a night with a group of protest security guards who man checkpoints at Saladaeng intersection in Bangkok’s central business district. The protest site has seen sporadic violence.

“We do this because we want everybody to be safe,” the head of the security guards, who hails from Nakhon Si Thammarat province in the south of Thailand, told me. They work through the night from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. The most dangerous time is between the hours of 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. As part of their security checks, the guards check people’s bags, something that has not gone down well with some office workers working nearby.

“Our actions might seem rude, searching and asking questions, but we have to do it because we want to protect people,” one security guard said, adding that they are sometimes afraid, but that they do their job out of love for the protesters.

Now my nights with protesters are over and I think this assignment has answered some of my questions. But the protests themselves are not over yet, and I still have one last question: How will it all end?

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