Monday, 17 May 2010

going home to the village in the core of the city

A mixture of tension, fear, excitement, and boredom is conquering the protesters in the last days. Day after the other a usual pattern of oscillation in presence, predictable discourses, and sleepless nights is taking over the rhythm of the protest and the daily lives of many of its people, mixing in their normal schedules. A large group of the people in protest leaves every morning, at the first sun up, directed to work or to some other activity in the city, only to be back in the evening to the Ratchaprasong area. Behind these fluctuations and daily diasporas stand a myriad of stories, lives, and motivations. Regional migrants back to service the city that is slowly eating their lives and their home towns, visits to relatives, small businesses taking advantage of the presence in the city, necessity to support the family beyond political convictions or just curiosity toward the wonders of the metropolis brings people out of the protest area and then back. Some come back for political ideals, democracy, equality, some come back to get a free dish of food, some for wanting for once to be part of history, to touch it, to make it, some other to go to somewhere different on a date with the girl from the shop next door, some other to “go home”, as they put it, to win the nostalgia of their lives in the village by going to the village, or its tent, in the middle of the bustling metropolis.

Every night, after a long day of works in the streets, waiting for clients sitting on his old bike, my friends Adun stretch his back, makes down his vest, greets its colleagues motorcycle drivers and goes “home” to see friends from his village, eat with them and sit in the village tent, chain smoking cigarettes, with a background of political speeches he barely care for. “I have heard them before” he tells me smiling “They always say the same thing, I agree with them but I’d rather talk to people from home, hear news of what is going back there and have nice food. I am here anyway and I am ready to help if something happens.” Many like Adun have supported the red shirts since a long time, in the private space of their homes and ideas, but never came to smaller protests before. Now the gravitational force of acquaintances brings them to the protest, distractedly politicizing them. After all political participation is not taking place in the world of old German philosophers who starve their family to death as they receive money from a rich friend to write ideological pamphlets, but in the world of people who struggle everyday just to meet ends, that work and save money to send them back to their families, to get a piece of modernity through unnecessary objects, to send their children to a decent school, and to have some extra money at the end of the week to drink with some friends, bet on sports, or waste it on something else.

It is these people silent torments, daily struggles, growing dissatisfactions that, when vocalized, create political movements and take their chances of changing history. At times all is needed for making this step is a friend they haven’t seen for a while, a distant aunty who is sleeping at the protest, the longing for a home-made papaya salad from their village. Tonight Adun called me, “come with me home” he tells me, his voice struggling to beat the noise of traffic around him.

We enter the protest area with the bikes, him, me and three other motorcycle taxi drivers, none of them wearing their vest. “It is too dangerous” they tell me. We drive through the protest, enjoying the feeling of being in a small caravan, getting close to each other to talk as we drive. On the wall at the northern side of Lumpini Park a painted stencil saying “Red Land”. We park and walk back to the stand from Bangdung, Adun’s district in the Udon province, stopping shortly to the stand of another driver. On one corner of the tent, a small crowd gathered around a large TV screen, showing still pictures of bullets and bullets wounds. A man in his fifties, well dressed and with a charming look, describes, talking in a microphone, each bullet type, its range, deadly potential, and shows pictures of the damage that it causes to a small attentive crowd. As a vocal market seller at a village fair, he senses the feeling of the crowd emphatically alternating information, pictures, and passing around the real bullets, sealed in two hermetic plastic bags. On the stand in front a small projector broadcast images from April 10th , but with no sound. Warfare education, when I have seen this before things ended up turning ugly.

We walk away and sit down with some people in the stand. Immediately food and hot sticky rice is brought to us and we sit, eating as a man from the village who worked in Phuket for many years talks to me in a mixture of English and Italian. Cosmopolitan villages, someone would say. Adun goes around greeting people, leaving me to my conversation. Around us sit a group of men in their forties whom I have never seen before at the tent, as a small older crowd sits few meters away, pondering if to get closer.

As we eat the conversation turns to a young man, dresses in black who speaks about the imminent violence. “We are ready to fight” he tells all of us with deep eyes. “We are organized and we have no fear to die.” As he say this another guy of the same age arrives with some cans of beer, hidden in small plastic bags. “Drink” he tells me “but keep it in the bags, the guards don’t want us to get drunk.” Adun looks at him with a mixture of respect and derision. “I have known him since he was a kid.” He tells me as a half-smile bend his lips on the side. I walk away and sit with the older crowd. I have seen two of the women before, but the older men look unfamiliar. I ask them. “We just arrived yesterday” they say sitting cross legged and battling over the noise from the speakers on stage. “Somebody came around at the village and told around that they needed people at the protest as our tent was getting emptier so we decided to come to Bangkok. They organized a car from the village and brought us here.” “Did you also get some money” I ask. “No, no money but we had a free ride and here we don’t have to pay for food or sleeping.” “I have been back and forth already three times” an older woman tells me, as she tucks in her sarong. “The first one at Saphan Phanfa, and the other two here. I stay for some time and then go back home when I miss it or I get bored. There is not much to do here.”

A constant refill of people is organized from the countryside, where the grassroots movement permeated capillary the territory. A phone call from the referent at the protest and some organizer spread the word that new people are needed in Bangkok, some volunteer steps forward and the crowd is kept constant at the protest. “We came for the many others who cannot, who have a job, or have to look after children. We are old so we can come but we are here for our children and nephews too.” Points out at me an older woman “It’s this your first time in Bangkok?” “I ask. “No I have been here before, my daughter works here, but I don’t like the city. I came to support the red shirts.” I turn to the larger group. “So do you like being here?” A moment of silence. “It is boring” breaks from her silence another woman, as they all laugh embarrassed. Behind them Veera, one of the leaders, is on screen, his words resounding from lines of loudspeakers down Ratchadamri road. The two men of the group look up for a second. “Look at this. He is a good speaker but also boring. He sounds like a monk. When Nattawut is on stage it is more fun.”

I go back to the other group of people and chat for a while sitting on mats as slowly the stands gets quite, around sleeping bodies fill the space. Adun hits the mat and I greet him and drive back home passing the small groups of sleepy people, still carrying bamboo sticks, behind the barricade facing Silom road.

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