Monday, 17 May 2010

dismantling protest

I woke up to the news that red shirt were dismantling the protest at Democracy Monument and moving it completely to the Ratchaprasong area. I got in a cab and arrived to Saphan Phanfa, which is now reachable even by car. The intersection is empty, just the stage left. The few people left are collecting garbage and taking down tends, as a man stands alone on the decomposing stage, singing. Traffic is back, but very light. In front of Wat Ratchanatdaram, overlooked by the Golden Mountain, small shelters made of plastic sheets and sticks wave to the morning wind, emptied to go camp in the central business district. Few people walk around, mixed with slow moving trucks. Some people are taking apart the white stands that occupied the sides of Ratchadamnoen and storing the material onto large trucks, ready to be rebuilt again down Ratchadamri road. In the sleepy atmosphere of the morning, small groups of people are taking apart everything that the red shirts have built in the area.

As I arrive to Democracy Monument the three artists who built the carton box wall few days ago are also dismantling, carefully folding the boxes. The man who directed the work greets me. I sit there for a moment as the temperature raise. I take some picture and find myself helping them to store the boxes. The guy is wearing a light blue t-shirt, darkened by spots of sweat. He gives me a pair of pliers to cut the iron mesh that connects the boxes and he starts telling me that the older man, the only artist among them, has been doing public art since 1976. Him and the other man helping them out were student activists during that time. They both studied for some years - one in his case- at Thammasat University and went to the jungle after the October 6th massacre of students. Three year for him in Isaan, three for his friend in Phitsanulok. As we keep working in the reckless sun everybody around is taking things apart, packing up objects, moving away in cars. Two motorcycle taxi drivers give the last tours of the occupied monument, pointing of pictures still standing followed by small group of people walking through the red coffins, now stripped of flowers and flags. Just four pieces of wood in red on the pavement in an empty square. It is stunning how fast things can change. On our left a huge burial structure was built during the morning to burn the coffins if and when the government would resign. A trolley is parked there as a dozen of people are taking down the structure, maybe to be rebuilt somewhere else.

The older artist, Pii Leek, who has been collecting his other paintings printed on plastic sheet from around the monument, comes back and indifferently greets me. He has the slim face and dried body of old people that have always been active. He has soft hands, few white strings of beard come out of his chin and white hair emerge from the side of a once white, now yellowish, hat. He wears large white shirt and beige paints. Flip-flop. I ask him about “Thai Artist for Freedom”, the group who signed all the works of art filling the monument. “It is just me” he tells me half-smiling, “I have been doing this for a long time, on a side, with other forms of art as well, more or less political. I collect money from friends and use them to put up art at political protest.” He speaks with a soft voice as if the words slip away from his missing teeth. I ask him if I can call him and talk more and he tells me that I have better go to his house as he come to protests only if he has something to do otherwise he stays home.

We go back to work as some of the people who are helping sit in the shadow, taking a break. I get close to Nit, the man I talked to before. He points at a single woman shoe left in the street and suggests me to put it underneath my ass as the street pavement is burning. I sit with him, balancing on a shoe. Soon he starts talking about 1976 and his experience as a student then. “Students at that time”, he says, “we were the people talking, the people on stage, but at the end it was the normal people, the workers that really made up the movement.” He looks around to the street that saw many of his friends killed and that forced him to leave university and live in the forest for three years. He tells me that in 1976 the government recruited people from the country-side to fight against the students and the people protesting, the infamous “village scout”. “Now those villagers are part of the red shirts” He pauses for a moment. “The same people who killed us are now protesting here, on our sides.” In his silence before standing up and going back to work I think that history has a weird way of repeating itself, common enemy and conflict creates odd friendship, especially if the past is painfully carved in your mind.

We finally manage to organize the empty boxes and drive to Ratchaprasong in his wide jeep, full with folded carton boxes from the wall that was build there. Other folded boxes are on top of the car, extending it in height. We drive through Siam Square were people have fully occupied the sidewalks in front of Siam Paragon, lay down their mats and started rebuilding shelters for the next nights. At the corner with Siam Square the vendors of grilled chicken that two nights before was filling with smoke the roundabout of democracy monument, is setting up shop in his new, again carefully chosen location.

We drive through a flow of people walking, sitting, frenetically setting shops, rising covers, building stalls. At the corner with Henry Dunant road we get stopped by the red shirt traffic controller, one of the hundreds of guards that manage access and security at the entrances of the protest areas. Nit explains to them we are coming to put up an art piece in front of Siam Paragon. The guard, a man in his forties with a grey t-shirt and bushy eyebrows tells him that we needs to turn back if he is looking for Siam Paragon. “Central World” I tell him. He looks at us confused and mutters something into the black walkie-talkie. Nit pulls out his camera to show the pictures of the boxes. The guard takes a look at the picture and tells us we can’t pass there. There are too many people in the street now. I ask if Pratunam could be better and he nods, “go ask there”: deflecting responsibility. Guards are the same, no matter what color they wear.

We drive into Henry Dunant road, u-turn and with the power of the driver’s red shirt we pass another block and drive back into Rama I. The street is swarming with people, pick-ups, tuk-tuk, individual cars, taxis and dominated by the ubiquitous motorcycle taxis, soon to be the only mean of transportation available in the area with the capacity of crossing the crowd, allowing mobility to people on and off the protest, but also in its belly. It feels like a hoard of people and vehicles is coming against us, maybe the guard were blocking the street for I reason, I think. We somehow manage to move solitary against the current inside this giant jeep. Nit is talking to me about his job as an editor for D-magazine, one of the myriad of journals, newspaper and red publication that are circulating. “Too much competition” he said smiling “we have finished the money and we are risking running out of business”. He switches from a subject to the other and asks me about the communist party in Italy as he criticizes the Maoist direction of the CPT and other institutional forces in Thailand. He speaks calmly as he also talks to the phone tuck by his shoulder with Nick, the other guy who was at Democracy Monument and he reaches for some round small dark brown candies that he hands to me. They taste awful but I am too ashamed to throw them away.

We drive back to Ratchthewi road, where a motortaxi with a whistle directs the traffic. At the intersection with Petchaburi road I tell him “you should turn right but you have to go straight and take a u-tur… “we are red” he interrupts me with a smile, “we can turn right here” as he cut three lines and turn shouting politely to the police man inside the booth, “wehavetodropsomethingthankyou” with no pause. The traffic is now unbearable so he drops me off and goes straight into the flyover, directed at home in OnNut, renouncing to deposit the boxes for today. I get off and walk toward Pratunam. The street here is packed as a flow of people makes its way into the protest site. On the small bridge at Pratunam, vendors sell from plastic tables buckets full of the white powder and water guns, cashing on the on-going Songkran celebrations. Besides them, functioning as the border of the protest, a group of young Thais listen to hard rock music, pounding at full volume from black speakers on the back of a pickup. Completely covered with white powder their young bodies dance to the rhythm of the music, in an ecstatic mix of water, heat, music, and white powder. I pass them careful not to get my camera wet and walk into the protest.

The crowd has grown significantly since the vacation of Saphan Phanfa but the extension of the protest area remained the same. As a consequence the density of people is much higher, and growing. I walk down and get on an overpass to take pictures of the red sea from above. In the direction of Central World the face of a popular Thai movie star emerges from the crowd on a advertisement board. He is carrying a camera that flashes every 15 seconds or so. On the other side, three young models look at the crowd dancing from huge advertisement boards. The three sisters carry three names Gucci, Luis Vitton, Versace. I walk down the overpass and bump into another book-vendor of classic leftist books.

I have met him many times already, at protests and at conferences at the local university. He greets me warmly and asks me how often I come to protest. “Everyday since I got back”. I answer. “Every day for me too” he replies, “since two weeks.” He is sitting on a motorbike, a light purple Fino that looks like a modern Vespa. He is wearing a green, mao-like hat, with a red star on his forehead, red shirt, and jeans. In front of him lay, on a plastic table covered by blue cloth, his books. We start talking about the protest and the clearing of the other site. I ask him why they decided to move here. “The owners of these shopping malls” he tells me “are the people behind this government and the aristocracy. They don’t want the army to engage in fight here. They will damage their property.” We look around for a second. “We are safer here, protected by Luis Vitton’s bags” he laughs. This place of exclusion, material symbol of unequal access to resources, has been transformed into a shelter for the red shirt movement, precariously tied to their lives by a string of jewels and luxury goods. “They have no problem in destroying lives but they don’t want to destroy goods” he says out loud. Around red shirts protesters keep buying from the many street vendors around: food, t-shirts, wristbands, clappers, flip-flop, pictures, videos, beverages.

We start talking about politics and I ask him why the students are not present in this protest. “They are” he replies.” “Not too many” I say. He stops for a second “After 76” he says” students have not been too involved in politics” “you know, students now are interested in good life, in party. This is not a protest of the student, is a protest of the people, which is much better” he goes on “the people now don’t need students to teach them, before the student thought they knew and understood but at the end they had their own ideas and dreams. Now the people can speak for themselves, this is the main change”. I ask him about the yellow shirt “What do you think they think? Why do they support what you call a dictatorship? Not all of them take advantages from this situation, right?” He looks at me and makes me feel it was a stupid question. “TV, the media, they all create an idea, yellow shirt believe Thaksin is bad and so anything that comes with him is bad. You know I don’t like Thaksin too” he says, lowering his tone, voicing a position that is slowly spreading around, “but now it is clear Thaksin was a tool, this is not anymore about him. I didn’t like him, but he had also good policies.” He starts telling me about his first born, of his young pregnant wife being able to give birth for only 30 bath, against the 50000 bath that a friend of them spent in a private hospital. “They paid” he continues “but they are rich so they can, if you are not it’s only 30 bath.” As we talk my eyes fell on the books. I ask him “what books do you sell more? What are people buying?” “Fa diao gan, another journal called An, and the book of Jit Pumisak.” “Are people reading Marx or Lenin?” I ask pointing to Marx’s beard, towering on two covers. “Some, the people who are interested in political thoughts”. I tell him I never understood the relation between Red shirt and the communist symbolism. The question makes him uncomfortable and he starts on the defensive, maybe as a reaction to years of propaganda equating communists with enemies of the state. “Red shirts are not communist” he starts out. The Maoist hat on his head seems to disagree. There are some former communist, Maoist, who are in the red shirt but they understood that both communism and this movement are both about democracy first.” He seems to lean for a more socialist position, looking at Pridi Banomyong as an example. “I am a red Pridi, not a red Thaksin” he concludes. “So what next if the government is dissolved?” “The red shirts should create a new party and maybe also the yellow shirt should create a new party so to have a real bipartisan system.” We talk for another while about this and the welfare state in Europe, not everyone in the crowd wants to talk for hours about politics. I greet him and walk away as the lights of the day are almost out, covered by the imposing buildings around us.

The large plaza in front of Central World swarms with people, each finding their own space for the night and for the next days. People are moving frenetically, an endless flow that walks with chairs, lays mats, stops their carts, renegotiating space between the protesters who have been here in the last weeks and the new comers. The protest extended now down Ratchadamri road, almost to reach Lumpini Park. Slowly the white stands that were at Ratchadamnoen Avenue are being put back up, along the street. I hop on a motortaxi, too tired to walk more. I get back home talking on the way with the drivers, who comes everyday from Thonburi, on the other side of the rivers, to be part of the movement and make some money on a side. On the way home he asks me how much I would have accepted to pay for this ride, if I did not know the normal price, tasting the water for the next farang who will come to him.

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