Monday, 17 May 2010

Fear in red area- April 24th

The medieval looking barricade at the Sala Daeng intersection has been transformed and extended. An intricate puzzle of bamboo sticks blocks the street. On April 22nd a big blast occurred in Silom Road, as grenades fell from the sky killing and injuring a group of citizen who were in the area, protesting against the prolonged red shirts’ presence. As a consequence stakes have risen on both sides of the barricades.
On the red side, the protesters have closed up the whole area, behind a much higher structure, covered on both sides with cars’ and trucks’ tires. On top of the barricade a lonely red cartoon board in English. “Stop Corruption. Dissolve Parliament.” In the heat of the middle of the day the asphalt close to the barricade becomes sticky, filled with the petrol that is sinking the tires, ready to be ignited in case of an attack. From the holes in this amateur barricades red shirt protesters look at the other side of the street, try to read the movements of the military. In the last days similar structures have been erected at each entrance of the protest. Security has also been tightened. Getting in with a bike now means having to stop at the entrances to be controlled, on your body and inside the bike compartment. Failure to stop can sparkle exaggerated reactions. As I walk around a small group of people cluster around the Ratchadamri skytrain stations, as someone has seen a soldier putting his head out of the wall of the huge horse race stadium/golf court at the side of the street. As people move around frenetically a car and a motortaxi pass through a check point without stopping. A scream burst and some twenty very angry guys, both in red and black shirts, started running after the two vehicles. I start running following them. The motortaxi is crashed on the ground, his bike reversed and him being basically assaulted by these people. A couple of women stop me from taking pictures and keep repeating to the guys “There is a journalist, there is a journalist”. He is taken away, not before having taken off his vest, dragged away from indiscrete eyes. Small outburst of violence occur all around the protest, effects of the palpable tension that you can breathe around, covered underneath display of “mai pen glua”, we are not scared.

I get inside the barricades from a highly patrolled entrance on Rama IV, where they now extend all the way pass the entrance of Lumpini Park, and park my bike. The number of people behind the bamboo wall has increased significantly. Crowd of people carrying sticks roam in the space behind a second barricade, some fifteen meters behind the big one, made of tires only. The space in between the two barricades is almost empty, just a few curious looking at Silom from the cracks in the structure. On the ground piece of stones are piled and orderly set in small hills of broken grey stones. A larger pile of red ones is closer to the big barricade. Ammunitions. Everybody in the city was expecting today to be the day of negotiation and maybe solutions but seen from here it really doesn’t feel like it.

I start asking around and protesters tell me that they expect the army to attack in the next 48 hours, number that I keep hearing since about a week. As I stroll around having small conversations with a group of motor-taxis, themselves bored by the uneventful standby, the truck with loudspeakers close to the barricades calls the “pi-nong motorcy” to come closer and put down their names and phone numbers as they need 500 motorcyclists to register, for an unspecified mission. Immediately the people in the motortaxi group stand up and, with many others, taxi and not, get into four half-orderly lines at a side of the truck. I join them, thinking that they will be sent out to check on the situation, talk to police and army, and then report back. The process is complex and confused and people seem not to be sure of the reason they were called. Everybody is asked to write down their name, number of driving license and phone number. Somebody suggests that is in case of damage to their bikes during patrolling so they can be controlled and reimbursed. The process goes on for a while but nothing seems to happen and nobody moves from the area.

One after the other the drivers are registered by a group of women in their forties. As the data flow on many pieces of papers through the hands of volunteers who lean on the barricade tires using them as table the sun goes away. I decide to sit for a while, a bit exhausted. I open my phone and I start reading twitters. News from the stage report the leaders’ call to motorcyclists to join the protest in the next days. Apparently during the early evening the negotiations with the government had been terminated, following the refusal to agree on a 30 days dissolution scheme, effectively putting back the situation into tension and imminent confrontation. Today on stage the speeches are incendiary, talking about the army and police surrounding the red shirt and the need to raise the stakes and change strategy of confrontation. The reiteration that the confrontations should be non-violent seems like a posture more than anything else, and frankly seems less and less credible. In this climate the leaders keep repeating that they are ready to fight, and that they know they will win, trying to keep up the forces and morale of the crowd. Intervention after intervention on stage, the motorcycle taxi drivers are named, as “motorcycle heroes” and just our “pi-nong motorcy rapjarn”. Nattawut gets on stage and starts enumerating the weaponry and numbers of police and army deployed. Soon it is the turn of red shirts defenses. “We have six lines of defense already. 2,000 motorcycle volunteers are needed at each entrance” he says. This is probably the reason why the names were collected at the barricades. One after the other the leaders of the movement step on stage, talking about the ongoing confrontation, always leaving some words about the “motorcycle heroes”.

At Ratchaprasong the crowd has significantly expanded since last time I was here. As I move away from the stage I hear from the loudspeakers the word “motorcycle taxi” I turn around and on stage, refracted by the myriad of screens in the large intersection swarming with people, is a motortaxi driver. Standing on stage with a vest with the insigna of the Pua Thai Party he shortly talks to the crowd about the 200,000 motorcycle taxi in this city who support the movement because Thaksin gave them freedom from local mafia. “We will come out to help the red shirts” he assures as the crowd claps. He speaks very briefly and right after Weeng, a longtime leader of the democracy movement, is again on stage thanking him. I start running toward the stage, trying to meet this guy.

I get into the backstage. Nobody seems to have seen him. I ask Sean, the international spokesman of the red shirts, and Jaran, one of the leaders. Both seem to have no idea. They both sit on plastic chairs in front of two TVs whose sound is impossible to hear, as both of their phones ring endlessly. When I ask Jaran how I can contact him he tells me that it is not a good time. Both he and Sean don’t seem to think they are going to be attacked today but they seem sure they will be. “On Monday morning” Jaran says with certainty “astrologers say that the 26th is going to be a very bad day for Thailand.” His phone rings and he walks away to let a journalist in. I roam around a bit taking a look into the back stage where the leaders and some monks are chatting with well dressed good looking young ladies that seems out of a fashion magazine more than from a “peasant” protest.

Jaran, back to his table, invites me to eat with him at his table. He says that they will have election and then reintroduce the 1997 constitution. I push him a bit. “Your answers have to do with the immediate changes but don’t deal with the more structural problems and issues that the red shirts are talking about such as inequality and double standard”. He tells me that is a longer process and they need to get rid of aristocracy first. I tell him that aristocracy at the end take his power from one source and is difficult to think one without the other, giving the example of England as a country that still having that power is necessarily still dealing with aristocracy. A younger guy close to him smiles, staring at Jaran to read his answer on his face. He lower his head and voice. “I don’t know what the future would look like but definitely we will need something different from this” as he index the crowd at the other side of the stage. I then ask him about the military intervention and the risk of protesters dying. “Soldiers too” he rectify. “They may even win here in Ratchaprasong but not in the nation” he tells with cold eyes that if they attack the whole area will be destroyed, the buildings, everything he keeps repeating. “It will be civil war” and “we win big”. Scary attitude to hear from a man like this. I leave shortly after and drive back, stopping at some places to take pictures of the lines of people still registering for the red shirt card and small crowd watching on the mega screen Jutaporn speaking about the situation.

He opens every sentence with “I learnt from pi-nong here” and concludes saying that if they are attacked it will be Rwanda 2. I pass again through the small opening at the barricades and drive back home, in the silent city. Tomorrow is going to be motorcycle day.

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