Monday, 17 May 2010

Caravan meets the army

The sun comes up in a almost silent Central Business District. On a side of the barricades few soldiers keep awake, touching their tired eyes as their comrades’ sleep, hidden in the space between buildings, in the parking lots, or inside empty apartments. Few soldiers come out of a underground parking lot in Sala Daeng soi 1 and orderly take position underneath the skytrain. Around there few people walk down Silom, emptied of office workers and vendors. On the other side, the protest moves its first morning steps. Slowly crowds of people stand up from their mats, quietly walk to the bus transformed in public bathrooms or to hand-made cubicles where, behind a blue plastic sheet, some people are taking a shower. Around a pungent smell of steaming sticky rice fills the air where normally the nose only picks fumes of smog. Some younger protesters, relieved by the sun, hurry up to their village tent, ready to hit the mattress after a long vigilant night. Another day starts its course in the protest, tense calm.

Few hours later motorcycles start converging at the corner between Ratchadamri road and Sarasin. At first just few dozens of bright orange motorcycle taxis’ vests lead by a middle age man sitting on a bike with a two meters high Thai flag attached to it. He looks around from behind his aviator sun glasses, face covered by a white medical mask. His vest brings effigies of the opposition party. On his back three sentences: “We love the King”, “Non-Violence”, and “We are Thai, We think differently but we are not divided.” As the minutes go by lines of bikes forms as more and more motorcyclists join the group that slowly moves at the intersection with Wireless road. Here the caravan, now composed of about 500 bikes often carrying two passengers, stop for a long while to prepare and discuss the direction. Some motorcycle taxis, following the direction of the middle-age man start collecting names and license plates of the drivers, “in case somebody gets arrested” he tells me one of them, bend on his bike seat jotting name after name on a small notebook. I see the orange vests disappear around me, carefully folded away, as people around cover their license plates with boards or plastic bags. “This way they will not know who is whom” he tells me satisfied a man as he take pictures. On my left a monk lights a cigarette, puffing smoke around him. After about an hour the caravan finally starts moving, compact, through the city. I get on my bike and follow them.

The heat is merciless as the caravan keeps stopping to remain in lock step, moving in the direction of Ding Daeng. As the bikes cross the Central Business District the passersby look rather confused, often meeting the moving convoy with scared gazes and perplexed eyes. Few people in the street cheer up the protesters and offer cold drinks meet the moving convoy. The situation in the street changes suddenly as soon as the caravan passes an invisible line that divides the commercial area with the lower income residential apartments in Din Daeng road. From here on hordes of people reversed in the street to cheers, greet, support, or just salute the convoy that grows at every corner as new bikes and pick-ups join in.

“Red areas” and “Yellow areas” are becoming a new way of organizing space in the city, determining levels of comfort or danger, depending on your affiliation. “Sure they bring food to the military” somebody told me yesterday, “is Silom, is a yellow area, but let’s see what would happen in Lad Prao. Military there have to be careful on how they move when they enter red areas.” In these days, all around the city, wrist bands and small flags are taken off or put up depending on the area, as a new geography, often overlapping with the geography of inequality, is reshaping dwellers’ perceptions of their city creating new borders like the one we just passed.
Supported by more and more people coming out of their houses and offices, the caravan cruises into Vibhavadi Rangsit Road, as small trucks with loudspeakers join in, calling the population to join the caravan now directed to a big fresh market on the outskirt of the city. Around the traffic flows smoothly, embraced by a sea of red bikes. Shortly after the Don Muang airport the traffic suddenly comes to a halt, and the caravan stops.

Few bikes zig-zag through the cars, to see what is going on in front. Nervousness shakes the crowd as rumors starts circulating of an imminent army attack. Stuck in the middle of traffic, bikes are sent around by the leaders to check possible exit routes. Few minutes after the bikes come back with bad news. Every exit seems closed by group of soldiers, lined up behind anti-riot shields. I decide to drive to the front to take a look. As soon as I park the bike a few teargas shoots break the standstill, followed by rounds of rubber bullets. It is craziness again.

People run away trying to hide as the bullets bounce off the concrete overpasses, before hitting the ground. Confusion reign for some minutes as the soldier advance covered by shoots coming also from the highway over us, where other soldiers have taken position. I run in a small soi, taking refuse inside a building. Locals tell us that there is no exit from this soi, urging everyone to move away before the army advance. I pick up an older woman and drive back, dodging rubber bullets. The group reconvene few hundred meters back, as people start moving in the middle of the street traffic signs and trees branches to create small barricades. In few minutes people appear with sharpen bamboo sticks and iron bars. A man passes carrying with a table’s leg. Hell breaks lose again as the air gets itchy, filled by tear gas. Some groups of protesters hide behind the barricades pushing them toward the military as people behind scream to not get closer. A monk with a bamboo sticks and goggles walks around, eyes injected of blood. Soon the first injured are carried back from the front lines as the more peaceful protesters look around in fear and confusion, trying to find a way out.

As the tension grows a providential torrential rain hits the battle ground, cooling the spirits. From behind the protesters lines of police officers in anti-riot gear appear, now completely surrounding the group and thousands of local dwellers who joined them in the street. Rain pours heavy, soaking protesters and government forces alike. We remain there for almost an hour, trying to figure out what next. The police line start advancing as few protesters start negotiation with them. I get closer. The police officer in charge is talking to a protester who carries a walkie-talkie with a long antenna. “We are here to protect you” he tells calmly. “We are not going to attack you” reassures the policeman as the protester goes back and tries to calm down his side, fearing that someone may do something stupid. As negotiation go on, overlooked by the soldiers on the highway, more and more police trucks arrive in the area. Suddenly hordes of police officers in normal uniform, not weapons or protections come out of the vans and pass the anti-riot police, cheered by the locals and the protesters. For some time the two sides engage in a strange dance, advancing and retreating as in a collective courting ritual. After about twenty minutes the police officers in uniform tell the protesters to move on a side and pass them, taking positions between the army and the red shirts. As the long line of police forms, they all turn around, giving their back to the soldiers, effectively screening the protesters who finally have an exit route.

The crowd in the street cheers and applauds the police officers as the caravan slowly moved into the flooded back streets, making its way back to the Ratchaprasong area, always headed by a small avant-garde checking the street and directing the convoy. For the second time in few weeks the police took up the mediating position between the protesters and the army, diffusing tension. A new player seems to have entered the chessboard, still unclear with what role.

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