I’m no expert at Thai politics. But I do know a good protest when I see one.
Let me be more clear on how little I knew about what’s going on in Thailand before this week: My best friend, Ariel Vegosen, and I, having spent the past two months studying Gandhian nonviolence and working with the anti-GMO movement in India, decided we wanted a little vacation to just chill out, so we booked a flight to Thailand. A flight to Bangkok, that is, which would arrive, unbeknownst to us at the time of booking, on Chinese New Year’s Day, one day before the highly controversial national election, on a weekend when the US State Dept. was warning Americans not to enter the country, the BBC was reporting violence in the streets, and protesters were threatening to shut down the entire city. Oh! I thought we were just headed to “Amazing Thailand,” land of tropical beachy paradise, cheap, delicious pad Thai, lush jungles and some elephants. But try as I might to play American tourist while on a short sabbatical from activism, here I was flying directly into the eye of the revolutionary storm. God must be laughing. Real hard.
The political divide between the current government and the ‘whistle group’ or People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) led by a former Deputy Prime Minister, Suthep Thaugsuban, is far from black and white. Focus on the Global South features a good overview of the situation in Thailand here as well as this UN Dispatch article which summarizes:
The battle in Thailand, then, is a rather old one indeed when viewed on a macro level: between the interests of an urban, wealthier minority who feel better-qualified to hold power (and in some sense, entitled to do so due to their connection to the powerful monarchy), and those of a rural, poorer majority who desire to show that their vote matters, too.
The former Prime Minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinnawatra, was indicted for corruption and overthrown in a military coup in 2006, whereupon this self-made billionaire fled to Dubai, living overseas in exile to this day. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was installed as Prime Minister, winning the last election in 2011. A political stalemate between the current government and the PDRC erupted in recent months into all-out protests coordinated by the PDRC, who called for “Reform before Election” and boycotted the national election this past Sunday, February 2. It’s a color war of sorts: the red shirts, loyalists of the government, are depicted as belonging to the poorer, rural sectors of the country that stand to benefit from the government’s populist policies, versus the yellow shirts, PDRC, who are depicted as being from the urban, aristocratic elite. Ten people have died and at least 577 have been wounded in politically related violence since late November, according to the Erawan Medical Centre, which monitors Bangkok hospitals. While the PDRC’s Bangkok encampments might look reminiscent of Zuccotti Park, the protests are said to cost USD$2-4 million dollars a day, have the protection of the national army, and threaten to topple the current democratically-elected government. Those are some key differences between this encampment and the Occupy Movement! Plus, public opinion is currently in favor of the populist-leaning government and if this protest movement were to be successful it stands to harm the constitutional underpinnings of democracy in favor of political self-interest and power brokerage.
As James Petras points out in his piece Oligarchs, Demagogues and Mass Revolts … Against Democracy, we know from history that protest can be a tool against democracy as much as for it.
Politics aside, it was pretty astounding to see so many people in the streets on Election Day, this past Sunday. And I think it’s important to learn from how people organize, even those with goals we may not fully understand, have no role in participating in actualizing, or certainly don’t implicitly support.
Strictly tactically speaking, here are some interesting aspects of the Election Day protests in Bangkok:
Occupy. Occupy. Occupy.
For months activists have been coordinating tent cities in the heart of Bangkok’s Siam Square. Organizers have fundraised and outreached to supply protesters with tents, three meals a day, showers and toilets. What stood out here was the clean, cheerful, coordinated orderliness of the camps. Neat rows of tents each marked with the occupant’s name and ID number, big canopies containing large utilitarian kitchens, latrine vehicles, and even power strips connecting satellite dishes and flat screen TVs so protesters could watch the news.
Protest? How about Picnic instead.
In thinking through how to organize massive resistance on Election Day, and how to ensure nonviolent participation, organizers decided to create National Picnic Day. Rather than asking people to sit at home alone or join a march for a couple of hours, they created a massive picnic, certainly the largest I’ve ever seen. The heart of Bangkok’s Siam Square was closed to traffic and lined with street vendors and the protest encampments were serving up delicious cooked meals and fruit juices… all for free. People spread their picnic blankets (most of which are often surplus sheets of packaging materials from American products like M&Ms and Lay’s potato chips), lined up and got their free meals, and then chilled out to live music and protest rally calls. The air was festive, family-friendly, and fun. Ariel and I got our sticky rice, jello, and pad Thai and sat down with the protesters to hear their stories.
Make Artistic Trouble
We’ve all been to long rallies with even longer speeches that drag on and on. This was not one of those. Musicians cluttered the big stage and played background notes while poets spoke passionate words (which we mostly couldn’t understand except when the very friendly people around us were translating). Singers belted out tunes. And in between acts, loud pop music (or, at one point, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) blared on the big speakers. Were we at a protest or a festival?!
Choose your symbols wisely, and patriotically
If I didn’t know I was in Thailand, I might have thought I was at an American 4th of July celebration. That’s because the protesters have taken on their national flag colors – red, white and blue – as their protest colors. Covered in people donning red white and blue streamers, t-shirts, face paint, and plastic hand clappers, the streets looked like the set from a D-Day parade. Everywhere we saw signs and shirts saying “I <3 Thailand” and “We love the King” and of course the central protest slogan: “Shutdown Bangkok. Restart Thailand.” Tremendous national pride shone through this encampment. This was the kind of country pride that I rarely observe at American demos. I usually encounter a pretty unpatriotic vibe; I mean, who is proud of the American empire’s far reaches into militaristic, economic, and cultural control? Can you imagine a large street protest in the US where everyone was waving American flags and singing the national anthem? I recall a May Day protest for immigration reform years ago in San Francisco that looked something like that, and it was powerful.
How to feed the masses
The rule of organizing in college was: If you feed them, they will come. That rule certainly hasn’t changed much as I’ve gotten older as an organizer, and it appears to be no different here, where the camps supply hot food around the clock. The kitchen operation at the camps deserves a shout out. I’ve never seen such a hygienic, healthy mass kitchen erected in the streets. I asked the cooks how they get so much food (and by so much I mean boxes and boxes stacked under a tent, enough to feed a cruise ship!). They told me they are using social media: when they are running out of produce they post on their facebook page and are almost immediately flooded with more donations. One man said, “We never know what we’re going to receive so every morning the kitchen volunteers make up the menu for the day.” I thought that was a pretty good insight into life: who knows what tomorrow will bring? We’ve got to cook up our own recipes for living one day at a time.
Okay on a less sappy and more practical note, the kitchen volunteers, conscious of not wanting to waste thousands of Styrofoam trays, implemented a practically free innovative way to make origami bowls from old magazine pages. Ariel and I sat down and learned how to do the bowl folding, thinking about how useful these little biodegradable bowls would be at protests and events at home.
On the other “side” of the protesters were those in favor of the election, and they also employed the food tactic. ActLab (Activist Laboratory Thailand) documents how activists are “building democracy, one bite of sticky rice at a time. A group of Chiang Mai artists and students [got] together at Tha Pae Gate for a participatory cooking session ahead of the February election. This community and solidarity-building tactic uses food to bring people together and talk about the political future. This seemingly small action becomes more radical in view of the elitist rhetoric that some people understand democracy more than others.”
And after our scrumptious fresh cooked meals in the camps, we couldn’t pass up a street vendor selling fried bugs, aka Thai potato chips, who really, really wanted us to try his delicacies. I did it for the little crowd of dedicated patriots gathered around to see if the American could handle eating it. Yes, I ate a cricket. And it actually tasted kinda good.
Show me what democracy looks like?!
Young and old, all ages out for reform. The protesters ranged in age from college students to elderly retired folks. The main two colleges, normally rivals, joined together to create a lot of the infrastructure of the tent city, including engineering professors designing the camp lighting, and PhD students turning into chefs in the camp kitchens. It was refreshing to be at a protest where so many generations of people were present. We did meet people from a variety of economic backgrounds, but there are deep class dynamics at play here that are dividing the country. And a note on gender at this protest: we witnessed many women in attendance, perhaps even more than men. However reports cite misogynist language repeatedly being used in attacks against the current female Prime Minister, including defacing her picture on posters and making derogatory comments about her looks.
Young people opposed to the protests are employing creative tactics in favor of the democratic process as well. On Children’s Day, January 11th, youth activist staged an action giving flowers to soldiers “to send the message, ‘Thankyou for not staging a coup d’etat!’; they also held a children’s meditation session in support of upcoming elections. As an aside, apparently, the military was out in full force in Bangkok parading tanks and artillery on Children’s Day, which reminded me of the large-scale military faire that is displayed on the national Mall in Washington, D.C. every year on Mother’s Day, showing off war weapons and promoting violence to the next generation. Obviously children and weapons go together, right? Say what?
Never ever have a mass rally without having a massage station
Even Thai massage parlors took to the streets on Election Day. It was neat to witness the activists taking breaks for a foot rub right there in the middle of the busy street intersection! I recalled so many mass marches where I showed up sleepless after pulling an all-nighter writing press releases or lettering giant banners, armed with a bullhorn and my cell phone, to march for hours in the hot sun, sans snacks or water. There’s a trend in activism to sometimes forget about ourselves in sacrificial homage to the struggle. The older I get the more I believe in sustainable activism that literally embodies the change we want to see by nourishing our bodies with healthy food, needed rest, energizing exercise, stimulating learning, and, yes, every now and again, a good body rub. Here’s to the Thai masseuses for adding a soothing balm to the sore heels of the weary troops!
Media vs. Reality. Oh, and the Green Zone
The little coverage I read in the mainstream news in the hours before arriving in Bangkok painted a picture of a city made dangerous by dissidents and held hostage by angry protesters with guns. Well, Ariel and I reasoned, let’s find a halfway decent hotel with a good rooftop restaurant so just in case we can hole up for Election Day and be safe. (Not that we could have been deterred from joining a street protest, but we reasoned that it would at least make our worrisome Jewish parents happy to know we were somewhere safe and well fed.) We did find a lovely spot to call home during our short stay in Bangkok, and from it’s hip rooftop café overlooking the river, neighboring temples and towering apartment buildings, and full of European travelers gushing over their Lonely Planet Thailand books, one wouldn’t know there was any unrest in this city at all. At first we thought this was strange, but then I thought about what it would have been like to be a tourist in New York City at the height of OWS. Most of the time in Times Square or on the Upper East Side near the Metropolitan Museum of Art there was no sign of the mass movement that was making front-page news in the New York Times. Ah, we had arrived in Bangkok’s very own Green Zone.
Another note on the media coverage: Despite that there are hundreds of channels here, protesters told us that there is only one Thai TV station covering the protests. And the US media seems relatively disinterested as well, while storms in New York City continue to make front page news throughout Asia. I guess winter weather and the Seahawks victory at the Super Bowl snowed out coverage of this political standoff. TIME did cover the election, as well as Al Jazeera and others highlighting the deep rift that is dividing this country and can hopefully be healed peacefully for the benefit of all. In more satirical news coverage likened to John Stewart’s ‘The Daily Show’, the hosts of Thai YouTube-based show “‘Shallow News in Depth’ invited three dancers dressed in the style of the ancient Thai royal court to offer a musical tribute to the head of Thailand’s army: a gesture of appreciation for his apparent refusal to launch a coup.” The Bangkok Post is of course covering the developments, and the day after the election released a story titled “Voting in Thailand is a real picnic.” Sometimes the best way to take a stand is to sit down, put on a smile, and have a good lunch.
Author’s Note: I’ve shared here some of the interesting aspects of the tactical organizing of the Feb 2 street protest. But I want to reiterate again that I do not stand with these protesters nor feel it’s appropriate to join in a struggle that as an American outsider I am not very knowledgeable about. I look forward to meeting with more groups and activists, particularly in Northern Thailand where the pro-government support is stronger. And on the other side of this conflict there are many creative tactics being employed as well, including a beer boycott! ActLab is sharing more of these tactics and training tools for social change and democracy. This is for sure a complex political conflict and while we can learn from the ways each side is organizing, it would be foolish to celebrate protest for the sake of protest, as it can be very detrimental to justice in the long run. Again, refer to Oligarchs, Demagogues and Mass Revolts … Against Democracy.