April 10, 2010

Some observations on Red Rally at Rachaprasong district 9 & 10 April.

Friday Afternoon

High drama is provided when police amass inside the Police Hospital opposite Zen and Erawan Hotel. Several times it appears they are going to exit and move towards arrest of several red leaders for whom warrants have been issued. Dr Weng for example is often on stage and is a likely target. Small numbers of reds (in the hundreds) block the entraces. No arrests are made. Inside the Royal Thai Police HQ, hundreds of police also assemble, with red shirts standing outside peering in. Near one gate a television is showing the battle at ThaiCom. Everyone watches in silence.

Some of the red guards are thaharn praan or rangers. I meet a group that stands guard outside the police hospital. They are from Pakthonchai, Ratchasima. One tells me that while the government has paid for some rangers to come to Bangkok to guard various sites he and his men are not for hire and have come voluntarily to protect the red-shirts. Asked how this would all end he says, "There must be blood, history is like that.". I've heard this straightfaced comment so many times over the last four years from both sides of the political divide.

Near the medical team a small sign flaps in the wind: "Democracy under construction: sorry for the inconvenience".

On the stage a speaker berates Aphisit for playing 'the back door again' - a reference to his alleged reliance on General Prem, and I assume General Prem's sexual orientation.

Some way from the central stage an empty tent sits in the late afternoon sun. A placard announces it is the meeting place of the Nakrop phra-ong Tam Phitsunalok. Inside a mini-shrine is dedicated to several members of the Chakri dynasty.

As the late afternoon sun fades more people join the rally - probably around 20,000 or so. At around six thirty an ecstatic reception meets returnees from the Thaicom occupation. After seven, the speaker, Jatuporn, tells the crowd, 'there is something sacred, we were protected. When teargas was fired the wind blew back at them.' The crowd cheered. He tells the crowd that he can see in the eyes of the soldiers that they are together with the people. Weng takes the stage soon after and tells the crowd that he gets so many phone calls from the police, saying there will be no suppression of the reds, "The police love democracy and love the reds" he announces

I start to walk up Ploenchit road, and see how far the reds exert control of the streets. At Chitlom intersection the red road block stops traffic. Reds direct traffic right, left or into the rally site. Inside the police box sit three cops. "Oh. we've spoken to the Red-shirts, and they are looking after the traffic."

Saturday Afternoon

Reports of battles at Pan Fa increase tension at the Rachaprasong rally. There is an expectation that troops will arrive.

When the Sky Train is pulled from service, a speaker on a truck at the Henry Dunant rally site announces that there are two trains full of soldiers arriving (they do not). However, riot police are assembled at most intersections and there is an expectation that things will heat up. Down the road the folly of consumerism, in this heated political atmosphere, seems almost pointless. A sign at Zen reads "IT'S MY LIFE: ZEN. SUMMER CRAZY 2010" The relatively deserted shopping strip looks like a used bag from a high end shop.

I speak to a Mr Nuay at the Henry Dunant intersection, near Paragon. Thirty years in Bangkok, he is still registered in Roi-Et. He works as a casual labourer and has joined the rally nearly everyday after work. He has arrived having received an SMS from the watthai network. He shows it to me. "Soldiers are assembling at...." and a list of places I can't recall. He shows me his written out membership form for the Red Shirts. He is here for democracy and justice (words I have heard on both sides of the political divide). His friend, Ms Noi already has a card which proudly hangs around her neck. She paid 30 baht for it; many await their membership cards as there is a long waiting list. Mr Nuay's membership form requires that he outline previous political experience. He has written on it: " Collected Names for Redshirts in Phatum Thani".

It looks like more people are arriving having got the SMS. Some arrive without red clothes, as if caught off guard. Out of bags come scarfs and various other red accessories. I ask Ms Noi about her time at the rally, she says she was involved last year during Sonkgran and hopes that it doesn't degenerate into the same chaos. A street hawker, she tells me that business has been bad ever since Thaksin was kicked out by the military. I ask if Thaksin returns and he has double standards will she rally against him; Mr Nuay jumps in and says: "If Thaksin has double standards then we don't want him".

Speakers on a rally truck are blaring out Nattuwut's speech, he is accusing the military of using live rounds against the people - "You are the soldiers of the king, how can you attack the people?" he asks.

I look up and realise not only is this protest instantly televised, twittered, blogged and digitised, but it is also in front of a live audience. On the walk over bridges, across all the roads, assemble tourists and pedestrians, watching curiously.

Several monks gather near Henry Dunant rally site. They are reluctant to speak. One simply replies to my query, as to why he had come, with: 'Double Standards, Democracy, Justice'. It appears these are reasons so self evident as not to require explanation. And that perhaps is how the reds are winning this, as the confidence of their cause is carried by many people for whom the issues are so elegantly simple.

The expected stand-off at Henry Dunant, doesn't seem to happen. I wander back to the the main stage. Pick up trucks parked along the main road blare out some as yet unblocked red radio stations - a speaker says " we do not have to fight the police, they are family'. On the central rally stage Jaran, the former Human Rights Commissioner, is speaking. He tells the growing crowd that victory has already been achieved just by sticking it out this long.

I keep walking up to Chitlom intersection. It has been reinforced with taxis and cars acting as a blockade. There are around 500 red-shirts applauding one of their members putting plastic bags over police cameras that hang from walkovers. He walks from one to the next, climbing over the rails and leaving the cameras recording the inside of plastic bag. One person tells me they don't want the police to see how few people are here yet, otherwise they will come and disperse them. I figure that is not the likely reason and go and ask the people's censor directly. His response: "they cut our news, we cut theirs". He says the decision was collective, but doesn't want to speak too much to me, eying me with reasonable suspicion.

At around 3.30 further up Ploenjit Road and under Ploenjit station there are around a thousand red-shirts surrounding hundreds of riot police and border police. The maroon scarfs of the border police indicate they are from Khonkaen. The riot police are the "Riot and Control Suppression Unit, Division Two."

For the next two hours or so, I watch a rarity in ones life. Fruitful fraternisation with the police. Exhausted and perspiring they are told to sit and stand alternately. Several of the police are chatting with red shirts, off to the side in intimate conversation. A young man calls out repeatedly for the red-shirt women to flirt with the police to 'make their hearts more red'. A woman in her fifties turns round and says, "I am already married, but if I have to..." The police giggle along.

It has been commonly reported that the police are quite warm towards the red-shirts. This is obvious, although I observed from this rally that the border police were much friendlier than the riot police.

At around 4.30-5 Pm a Red-shirt leader called Nisit Sinsuphai arrives at the Ploenjit rally to great applause. He moves to the front of the riot police, wa-ing and warmly hugging a number of the frontline police. For the next thrity minutes he is involved in negotiations; when he announces everything that the police will retreat, the red shirts open a channel for the police to depart. But it doesn't happen. Some people are getting impatient. One man starts to call for the police to take off their riot gear and join the people, he is asked to calm down by a red-shirt steward. Someone over a microphone announces. "We don't use emotion, be calm. The police are not our enemy. If they were not here, we would be attacked by the soldiers". A young man yells at the police "You should all be sent to the South for a tour of duty." He is immediately surrounded by ten to twenty people who push him away. He is body searched for weapons and his bag opened and his ID checked by red-shirts. It appears rally stewards are very cautious about secret agents out to stir trouble. After five minutes his identity is cleared up; he appears to be an agitated red member. The once hostile crowd pat him on the shoulder, telling him to calm down and he is left alone.

Light relief comes in the form of a small group of students dressed in white shirts and blouses who walk down the channel made for the police to depart. They are wearing red accessories. The crowd cheers them. It looks like they are a delegation. They speak to the police, asking them to be non-violent and to remember that "we are all Thai". I learn later that they are law students from Thammasat and Chula. They explained to me that they accidentally walked into the channel and when they were cheered on they kept walking right up to the police. Afterwards, red-shirts surrounded the students taking photos, calling to them "Wonderful, superb".

Negotiation continues, until finally Nisit puts his hands in the air again, gesturing the peace symbol. The crowd cheers. Once again a channel is made for the police to depart. This time it looks like it will really happen. He hugs several police, and is all smiles.

And they do depart. So many are there it takes some time, but until the last one is gone, the crowd cheers, reaching out to shake hands. Police enthusiatically return the gesture, all smiles and relief. Some people are crying with joy. I ask Ms Daow, a middle-aged woman from Suphan Buri why she is crying. "I feel such generosity, that we did not fight with each other, that we are Thai together. The police are good."

I ask several police how they feel about leaving. One says he is glad because it means there was no violent incident. I ask if he is supportive of the reds, and he says he is 'in the middle', his colleague calls out, 'we are red', he replies, 'no we are neutral', the verbal tussle ending in laughter.

When I came to write this up, I learn from the news that things were not so peaceful elsewhere. Soldiers and Redshirts have clashed at several sites, and rubber bullets have been shot and there are many injured.