Everybody takes a place on board, leaving bags and bottles of water on the benches to save their place. Outside on the train platform, a small group of younger protesters sit on the ground, as one of them walk around, bear torso covered in tattoos.
The night falls on the city and given the curfew the streets around the station sound empty. It is like this small group is isolated for the world today, connected by an extreme sense of solidarity and feeling threatened from the outside. The few bills that people still have in their pockets are shared to buy cigarettes and whishy, indispensable for what it look like a long night. Food and drinks are provided and stored in the first car. All the way at almost every station a refill will be delivered by someone and then distributed among the protesters.
As I wait outside, talking to some of them who try some words in English and then, relieved, jump in long political tirades against the government as soon as I tell them I can speak Thai. The young group sitting on the ground is loud, seemingly the only ones enjoying the moment. Above me many heads and hands hang out of the squared windows, waiting to leave. “Enough already with Bangkok” a middle aged woman says. In the meanwhile two friends,a reporter and a videographer from the New York Times, arrive at the station after I call them, hoping this moment will be covered by international media, and not just a random blog.
As they arrive Mariko sets up her camera and a middle aged guy throw himself in front of it, inebriated by the alcohol that is running and will run all night long in his veins. “We are not terrorists, we are not terrorists, we are not terrorists” he shouts. “We just want democracy, why Abisith kills us?” He speaks English quite well but the words come out as in a machine gun, short mechanic single shoots. He is overexcited, jumping around like a kangaroo, mixing moment of euphoria with fall into thoughtful silence. He is wearing a worn white shirt and a black hat, with a big blue towel tuck under it. Big amulets come out of the shirt. He switches to Japanese and has a long conversation with Mariko. Surprises are always dressed in unexpected clothes.
From the train more people are tucking their heads out of the window, watching amused the guy drawing big circles with his hands as he speaks. Mariko noticed them and ask me to translate as she asks some questions. She walks to two women and tuck her camera underneath the window. “When did you arrive in Bangkok?” “How do you feel now?” “What do you think you will do next?” “How are you feeling about going home?” Who is waiting for you there?” “What will be the first thing you do when at home?” With some variations these kinds of questions will be asked to the people around. This two middle aged woman are around since about a month and a half, stably at the protest site instead of going back and forth from home. They voice their dissatisfaction with the leadership who has abandoned them in the most difficult moment and the sorrow of leaving Bangkok, with many dead bodies left in the streets and an unchanged situation.
It is interesting that the more peaceful (santi) sections of the protest in this day have voices their disappointment with the leaders while the more “harco” –the thai version of hardcore- instead seem to be less prone to critique the leaders and understand the necessity of their move at this time, often part of a “lose a battle, win the war” logic. “What did you like the most about staying at the protest?” Mariko asks. “Sleeping in front of Erawan” the answer together and smile. “Fighting for Democracy” the drunken man puts in their mouths. “The weather also” they say, “it wasn’t too hot in Bangkok” maybe thinking about the dry landscape of the Korat plateau this time of the year. “Who was the best person you met?” “We love Thaksin” they answer coyly. “But he wasn’t there” I add. They laugh. “Yes, it was good to meet people from all around the country who are fighting for democracy”. “What will you do now?” “We will go back rest a little and then keep going with our fight, we still don’t know where or how, maybe we will need new leaders but there are already younger leaders.” We thank them and get on the train, where the people have reserved two benches for us.
The long rows of hard chairs are half filled with people, mostly sitting eating something and preparing for the night. It is already 10pm, accumulating delay. Right before the departure the MP from Khon Khaen gets on board and walks through the cars, followed by three guards saluting everyone and wishing good luck. “It is not finished” he reassures them as he rapidly passes through. Seth, the other journalist, asks me to get his card so I get off the train and reach him on the next car. “What do you think will happen next?” “It is really hard to say. People are angry. It is hard to know what they will do.” He says in spotless English. “But I can reassure you that this people are not defeated.” He walks away.
We get back at our seats as the people around are stocking us with water bottles and food. A man, who was sitting close to the young man I talked to at the train station, tells me to be careful with water. “Always turn the bottle around and see if it drips. If so do not drink it, it may be poisoned.” He tells me mindful of the incident with coffee at Sarasin a week ago.
Sadness and dissatisfaction mixes with fear and paranoia on this train, fuelled by inability to trust a government that in the last two days first offered them a safe area inside a temple and then attacked it, leaving people dead. In some occasions extreme paranoia is what keeps you alive. This feeling will accompany us for the whole trip, with rumors of possible attacks and army blocks, spreading inside the four cars.
Besides us the old woman I met before sits with the two women we interviewed. Mariko almost cries when she sees her, touched by the coincidence of finding her again after the craziness of last days.
We have a short interview with her as she imperceptibly moves her toothless mouth and the words are amplified to us by the other two women and another man who sits close to me. “I am a fighter” she says “and we will fight again for democracy.” The train is now starting to move into the darkness of the empty city.
As we move the young man comes to me and tells me to close the windows until we get out of Bangkok and be careful on what we see outside. Somebody could throw stones or worst, to the train. “When we live Bangkok you can pull the window down.” Many times in these few days in Isaan Bangkok has been described to me as the dangerous area, the head of the nation who pretend to think as the others do, the city of privileges, an ungrateful product of the work of Isaan people, or just a place where life is hard, everything is business, and people do not care about each other. The body of this macrocefalic nation is now kicking, asking for some form of autonomy.
Seen from Isaan this conflict, often described as a class struggle, seems to be more organize about regional identity and forms of social inequalities that are economic, legal, and cultural but that divide along territorial access to resources more than class lines. Many of the protesters I met in Ratchaprasong in the previous days, whom I visited while in Udon are small shop owners, tourist guides, small business people, farmers with a relatively productive land and concrete houses. This regional growing lower middle class mixes with the poorest portion of the population, sharing its demands and requests for social equality.
The demands, even if voice under the word democracy, when broken down and unpacked revolve around what we would call a “social equality” agenda, much larger than a quest for new political structure. As one man in the train put it in along and fascinating interview with me and Seth “what we mean by democracy is fairness (kwaam yút-dtì tam). We want fairness in three ways: legal, political, and educational.”
We pass Bangkok and nothing happens so we take a walk around the train, safely leaving out stuff with our friends from Udon.
Mariko meets another woman whom she has met before. She wears a oversized blue shirt and long worn out jeans. They greet each other. She looks a bit slow with her head but her heart is overflowing with emotions. She immediately starts talking about the night before at the temple, of the fear, the darkness, the shoots and explosions all around, the dead bodies. “I have cried so much that I have no tears left” she says with profound eyes. They stare at mine, completely dry.
Seth tells me to ask her what she has ever taken the skytrain. Why a question about the skytrain now? I think but I do my role as a translator and I go ahead. The answer is fascinating and condenses all the perception of Bangkok as a dangerous foreign space. This is why he is a world famous journalist and I am not. “I have never taken the skytrain and I have never gone up to take a look at it. It means nothing to me, it is just something build to make the life of rich people easier, as if it was not already easy.” Place of inequality, transformed into a source of death. This theme will run among many of the conversation on the train.
As we walk back to our seats an old man stops us. He is bear torso, with a grey t-shirt on his shoulder “See you again next year” he tells us in English. Back to Thai. “This is not finished yet, is not even half of it. We will come back over and over again. We are not satisfied and we cannot lose.” He looks up with a confrontational face. “Red shirts cannot lose.” “How are you feeling now?”. “Normal. He answers with an angry face. “It is like the last year, I was here as well on a train going back but we will come again. The fight doesn’t stop here.”
We walk back to our seats. A drunken police man walks passed us shouting “We just get killed, this is what we get. Let’s go home now.” He stops. Tears in his eyes. “Look I am crying” he shouts before covering with his hand Mariko’s camera. Soon after he is back asking our tickets and asking to see our IDs. A man of the Udon group comes around. “Don’t worry” he says “I will look after you along the trip. I have already accepted to die, I can very well die protecting you.” He walks away with the officer. The train ride proceed smoothly but slowly.
The young man comes to me and asks me to walk with him. “There are news that there maybe some attack to the train. Newin’s people will be waiting for us, maybe shooting at the train.” Again the red shirts worst nightmare, Newim. He tells me to stay calm because people around will be vigilant. The tension is palpable, at least among the young guys who sits in between cars looking out for strange movements. Guards are perceived as needed at every step. ‘Where do the news come from?” I ask. “There are military on this train, red shirts, who are dresses as civilians and they have told us. We have to be careful until we reach Korat, after that we are home.” Korat, also called the gate of Isaan, for them is also the gate of the safe zone.
Nothing happens and slowly people fall asleep around in the car we are in and everywhere they find a place.
The next car, mostly with younger people and more hardcore reds is sleepless. “I can’t sleep” an older man tells me “just to many images in my head”. The sleepless night is helped by whisky that flows around changing the smell of people’s breaths.
I remained there for a while and walk up and down the train chatting to people awake. An man in his forties pulls out of his pockets picture from the time he was a soldier.
“I am a black shirt, I was a mercenary before.” He says staring at me. I go back to my seat and fall asleep, cradled by the train.