Thailand seems to be plagued by protest after protest nowadays. We wanted to understand the logistical aspects of one such protest at one particular moment: how do people get there? How can they stay, sometimes for days on end? In search of answers, we got on a bus in Khon Kaen and headed to Bangkok with 22 Red Shirt protesters to find out.
A protest in Bangkok has beckoned Red Shirt activists to join their comrades. Buses, we understand, are to be provided. Almost upon a whim we got a translator and assembled our team of three student journalists. Equipped with three nights worth of clothes, our notebooks, and only the faintest idea of the endeavor before us, we set out for the Khon Kaen Red Shirt radio station.
The Red Shirts, also referred to as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), supports the current parliamentary majority Pheu Thai party. Opposing them is a group headed by former Democrat Party leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, who is calling for the government to be replaced by an appointed council.
The anti-government protests, attracting hundreds of thousands, began when the government attempted to pass a controversial blanket amnesty bill early in November. This bill would have exonerated any politically related crimes. What enraged the anti-government protesters is that it would have allowed controversial former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted by a coup in 2006 and later convicted of corruption, to return to Thailand with no jail time. The focus of the anti-government protests shifted from anti-amnesty to anti-“Thaksin System”, which includes current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister.
The Red Shirt leadership wanted Red Shirt activists to come together as a “show of force” and support for the government.
We board a stuffy bus with a lively group of Red Shirts on their way to do just that. The air is thick with heat and anticipation. The red leather interior not only compliments the clothes of the passengers, but also matches the blaze of excitement in each row. Most on the bus come from a village next to the Ubonrat Dam District in Khon Kaen. They quickly adopt us into their clan.
The man sitting next to us, with eyes crossed and a face creased with wrinkles, attempts to teach us how to read and write in Thai. Meanwhile, another woman draped entirely in red, shows off a hat she designed for the last protest in 2010. She explains, amid constant streams of chatter, that she is excited to wear it again.
As the bus rolls away from the radio station at noon, they divulge their ambitions for their government, their uncertainties about the future, and their determination to keep Thailand from falling back into a dictatorship.
The ride to Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok is an experience. We stop nearly every hour, on the hour. At first we don’t understand the frequent interruptions, as they slow our progress. But acknowledging that members of the group are over the age of 60, perhaps frequent stops are to be expected. Most are past their prime, yet there is a youthful spirit on the bus and the energy is infectious. Sticky rice gets passed around. Our clan is taking its own food to the protest and is certainly well provisioned.
One of the older women on the bus, nicknamed Tonglor, explains “We can’t tell how long we’ll be there. I didn’t bring many clothes; only two shirts. But lots of food.”
Our merry seniors sing Red Shirt-inspired folk songs, prompting everyone to join in. We don’t know the song, but we clap along.
The singing goes on and on. There is an excess of exuberance, but a decided disorderliness to the trip. The plans are constantly changing but people seem unconcerned with the lack of a clear consensus on logistics.
After eight hours of driving, our bus finally reaches Bangkok. Jubilance turns into puzzlement. Villagers start making phone calls, unsure of how to get to the stadium. Hums of voices overlap in a haze of confusion. We are lost.
Their mission seemed so clear with Red Shirt media outlets calling villagers to gather, with the radio station as the designated departure point. But now, without actual instructions on how to get to the protest venue, the driver does not know how to proceed.
After an hour and a half of wandering, at around nine p.m., we finally make it to a crowded market stationed outside the stadium. We are told by our group to get off of the bus so protesters can be counted. Organizers want to have a rough idea of how many Red Shirt protesters there are.
We are first met with a growing rumble emanating from speakers posted along the walkways. Police are scattered throughout the masses, prepared to protect protesters and the grounds from outside groups, anti-riot gear at the ready. As we continue toward the vendor area we see a group of them calmly taking a snack break amidst the surrounding bustle.
Getting closer to the stadium, there are dozens of white tarp tents tucked snugly against each other on either side of a cement-paved walkway. Teams of people from different provinces are set up underneath. They offer whatever services they can volunteer to the masses. Smaller individual tents line the ground behind the vendor booths. Mesh ceilings provide makeshift shelter, making the area appear rooted and lived in. Many of the families and provincial teams have been here for ten days, showing support and offering aid.
Surprised by the sheer amount of food sold, we ask a passionate, middle-aged vendor, Ms. Bet, how she manages to feed so many mouths. She responds simply, “We share. The people help [each other] and we share everything we have.”
The protesters’ communal tendencies are an integral piece of sustaining the rally. One volunteer security guard, talkative and jolly, Ot Bangabit, explains that the protesters are like a family. In his eyes, they have to be or their pro-democracy values will be taken advantage of by the opposition.
By this time we have lost our clan. Luckily, a member of our Khon Kaen group emerges from the hoards of people, and urges us to join the group on the field in the stadium. After giving us a vague location, she disappears back into the fray.
Despite our bulging overnight bags, our group is waved right through the metal detectors at the stadium security check without question.
Entering the stadium, we are lost again. We are overwhelmed by the size of the place. It is no wonder that it costs over one million baht per day to rent out. Luckily, our confusion, or possibly our foreign appearances, attracts the attention of a protester who offers to show us the way.
We snake through the hallways of the stadium. On the way to the field, we walk through an air-conditioned room where people with mats and blankets sleep. The coolness of the room is quickly cut by bursts of hot air and booming noise as our guide pushes open the door to the field.
Suddenly engulfed in a sea of people, we become increasingly skeptical that we will ever find our clan. Cheering, shouts, and horns emanate from the crowd. The stadium is filled with speakers and jumbotrons. We are bombarded with blinding lights and deafening noise. Speeches from Red Shirt leaders, politicians and other figures reverberate around the stands. The people shout, waving their noisemakers and banners in the air. The atmosphere is celebratory; communicating “We are RedShirts!”.
Feeling barraged, we step out onto the field. We weave our way past sleeping villagers, careful to dodge the flailing arms of dancing protesters. By some miracle, after searching through the maze of people we find our clan. Relieved, we set down our bags on their mats.
Looking around, families of all sizes gather around wicker mats, the elderly members of the groups resting on their sides, or sleeping through the ruckus. A few children sit on their fathers’ shoulders taking in the scene around them. People in costume stand out in the crowds, dotting the infinite blanket of red; they wear golden vests, light up hats, wigs of all designs and colors, anything that will draw attention.
Anxious to learn more about these people, we go back into the madness in search of answers. Our foreignness affords us the privilege to meander backstage. We are offered snacks while we wait to interview the current speaker, Sutin Klangsaeng, chairman of Mahasarakam Province United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship. As an organizer of the protests and a Red Shirt leader himself, Mr. Sutin can give us information about the inner workings of the protest. He explains that the costs are covered by donations from UDD leaders, members of parliament (MPs), businesspersons, and protesters themselves.
There are many organizers from each province, district, sub-district, and village, respectively. People communicate through social media sites, and other mediums such as radio, TV etc.
The process of getting people there is structured, but the schedule of the rest of night is chaotic. Yet and still, there is some kind of rhythm to it all. After the backstage interview we are taken to the VIP bathroom. Met with fans and air conditioners, western toilets, and enclosed showers, this is a luxury in relation to the public facilities. Adjoining, a locker room where monks sleep on physical therapy tables.
Distancing ourselves from the sleepy lull of the locker room, we re-enter into the thick of all of the noise and excitement. At this point, the speeches subside and are replaced with the calamity of a concert, provided by volunteered musicians. The loudness of the speakers pounds up through the earth, nothing but a thin layer of blanket or newspaper to separate bodies from the ground.
The next few hours are a jumbled mess as we slip in and out of consciousness. We often wake up to protesters’ dancing erratically around their slumbering counterparts. There is very little sleep to be had for us in the center of it all, but our clan seems perfectly comfortable.
As one member, Ms. Pan, told us earlier that afternoon “We are easy living people, we can sleep and eat anywhere.”
Seemingly five minutes later we are awoken by blaring horns in close proximity, and the voices of our clan members yelling “go home”. Bolting upright in fear of turmoil in Bangkok, we anxiously look around for signs of panic. To our surprise, we are met, instead, with monks calmly walking group to group, collecting money. We slowly gather our belongings and roll up our mats in preparation for the journey back home.
We walk to the buses, reflecting. All of the enthusiasm for democracy that was so prevalent the night before is now met with a strange stillness. It turns out that the night before, the Red Shirt leaders had decided to push for one huge protest the following Saturday. Our clan was ready to go home for a few nights and then return. So the duration of our trip went from perhaps many nights to a single one.
Boarding the bus, we are all exhausted. As we roll down the seemingly infinite road back to Khon Kaen, we ask Ms. Pan whether the trip was worth it.
Without pause she responds, “I know it [might not seem] worth it, but I still have to try. It is better than not doing anything. I don’t want our next generation to have to fight for democracy.”
Two days after our departure, the protest intensified. Anti-government protesters began to attack buses carrying Red Shirts, injuring some passengers. They also surrounded the stadium and street violence eventually broke out. Four were killed and dozens were injured. The Red Shirts were quickly advised by leaders to evacuate the stadium and abandon the protest.