Monday, 17 May 2010

On the making of history- April 14th

As the first days after the violence go by, histories are being created, told, and retold in the two streets around Democracy Monument from which the army attack came from: one is Dinso road, a big street arriving directly on the northern side of the monument; the other one, Tanao road at the end of Khao San road, the backpackers Mecca of Bangkok. Both streets are slowly entering the mythology of this protest, his conceptual and photographic memories.

Tanao road, where I spent most of my time in the last days, was one of the first streets built in Bangkok, when most of the citizens moved on water. It now crosses, under its new name, Ratchadamnoen Avenue few hundred meters west from democracy monument. The street, much bigger on the other side of the avenue, becomes smaller on this side, providing the perfect bottleneck for a military crackdown. I came here the day after the violence and wrote a bit. The street gives away an eerie feeling. Small shrines for the dead have been set up on the street, overflowing with objects, pieces of clothes, candles, coins and other donations. Few steps away rubbish covers the streets corners, pieces of the stone coming from who know where, and basis of the streetlamps from the nearby streets. Overlooking this scene, behind iron barriers, a hoard of farang tourists, throwing water to each other. People walked around bending, searching through the rubbish for bullet or other portable memorabilia of the violence. Slowly by slowly people and curious grew in number, looking around in almost religious silence. Most of them are well-dressed, not in red shirt but with a red foulard or a wristband, easy to take off once they leave the area, clear signs of less strong affiliation and class belonging. These are not the people who were here during the confrontation. In the silence, broken by the harsh notes coming from Khao San, cameras everywhere capture histories.

As the flow of people searching for a piece of history grew a big board was put up, in the middle of the street, hanging from red ropes attached to the street lamps. On this carton board, glued, a series of 16 photos, the same fast printed photos that are slowly appear everywhere in the protest areas, here and in Ratchaprasong. At corners, inside shops, on the monument, on cars’ windows, on the walls these gruesome images are proliferating, being printed and sold around the city for few bath in stands equipped with small printers.

People start gathering in front of the board when Seh Daeng, the popularly acclaimed army general turned red shirt leader, appears from the end of the street. He walks with a small entourage of guards in mimetic outfit. He checks the photos first, stands there visibly touched, salutes with a wai the two “shrines” on the street, walks back. He stops to stare at a shattered shop-window, behind a closed metal cover. His hands run fast and frenetically on the walls around the shop deciphering bullets holes for the crowd around. M-16 he says and the small crowd around him mutter it: “M-sip ook”. All of this small procession/inspection is done with the uttermost calm, almost with grace, as the crowd cheers and try to get a picture with him. Even now I have to force my ears to remember the noise and the clapping of plastic feet. Staring at him my brain somehow stored the moment as a silent one, maybe in an imaginative stretch with a valzer playing in background , even if few meters away techno music was playing full volume.

As he moves away to the middle of the street to allow the crowd to bring back his photos and words, a middle aged man, dressed in a rather odd skateboarded-like style pulls out a red marker from his black backpack and starts circling the bullets holes beneath Burger King, different from the ones Seh Daeng checked and way too big and deep to be from an M-16. A circle, an arrow, few words, repetead at every bullet hole. “Gun Lifle M-16 by Soiler” I stare at him for a while and then I tell him “Brother it’s with the letter R not L.” He looks at me confused, I don’t know if for my weird Thai accent or for my comment. I repeat “Rifle is written with R not with L” he seems to understand but he does nothing, I show with my hand what I mean. He understands, smiles at me, and thanks me as he carefully goes back to every hole and changes the L for the R.

The sun goes down and the dark seize the small road. A larger crowd arrives, attracted by the spreading news about the presence of Seh Daeng, who has already left. The skeletons of cars and taxis parked on the street on the 10th to block the advance of the army lay in the dim light, drilled by bullets. Some people emerge from the crowd, and stand in front of the shrines or the pictures, retelling the events of the last days. Two men take the central stage, between the board and the shrines: a young man who looks like he has been sleeping around here for a while in a torn red shirt and an older man, toothless and without shoes. They recounts confused and often inconsequential stories, as they try keep on them the eyes of the crowd. They both say they were here and they saw people falling down. The younger guy, the one I follow more closely, speaks about the events in a detached tone “The army came from there” as he point to the road behind the cars. “But they were also over the buildings, we pushed back and forth, back and forth and then they start shooting and they had weapons, they were using weapons against people with bear hands.“ Somebody from the crowd asks if the people died there, pointing with her eyes at the small shrine, right beside the man. The guy honestly says “I don’t know if they died here or there, everybody was pushing back and forth, it could have been there” he tells as his eyes rove for a second. Another farang asks in English if the Japanese reporter was killed here, somebody translates and the story-tellers says again that is not easy to tell, there was a big confusion, it may even had been the other street. No personal pictures are on the blood stains, just some food donation, some coins and two almost torn apart red shirts with the sad face of Thaksin, in white.

Around us, as the flow of water from Khao San road slowly inundate the red shrines. History is in the making, cold enough for the curious, the well-dresses red shirt, the “military leaders”, for the pictures, the collections and the close but undisturbed Songkram celebration but still too warm to take a defined form. Histories on the dark street were still fluid and open to interpretations, solidifying before my eyes by narrators, actors, and bystanders. The guy with the marker, the comments from Seh Daeng, the objects that people were putting on the shrines, everything is participating to the imploding and converging into a more fixed version of history, a history of violence and sacrifice, of state repression and personal heroism. A history that will be challenged and sometime even completely denied by state propaganda and mass media but will be retold, in personal conversation and VCDs’ screenings around the protest and in a myriad of houses throughout the country.
Two days after, on April 14th, I went back again in the late afternoon.

The mood was quite different. Many more people, mostly young wearing water rifles, were on the street, attracted by the “traditional” wet dance party of Songkran in Khao San road more than by the call of history. Most of them, however, stopped to check out the pictures board towering in the middle of the street. Using the board as a teacher would with a blackboard a man in red shirt has become the official story teller in the area. One after the other people come and leave, stare at the macabre pictures, take some pictures of pictures, often with their cell phones, and walk on, toward or away from the water. The story tellers keeps going, restarting again and again, going through the pictures showing the photo of the guy who was killed precisely where we stand, solidifies version to what two day before was still uncertain. As soon as I stop there to listen another guys grabs my arm. “You don’t have to pay for this” he tells me and he starts retelling the events cutting straight to the part that he thinks foreigner are interested in: the Japanese reporter’s death. He tells me that the second stain, the one more inside Tanao road, is where the Japanese reporter died. “Look there is also a Japanese flag there” as he points with his finger to the small flag that appeared there since yesterday in a bamboo vase full of rotting roses. I turn around and I ask him “Was it scary?” ready to receive the classic boastful response. “I don’t know” he answers almost surprise of my question “I wasn’t here the night of the 10th”. I keep walking down the road passing the cars that block the street, every window smashed into glass spider nets by bullet holes. I stand in front of them, trying to get a picture.

On my left, as the sun light is completely gone, a mildly over-weight man in his forties, black ruffled hair, white oxford shirt with blue strips, a black backpack, tick eyeglasses, and a very big red foulard around his neck stands with a motortaxi driver, an old man with a carved face with two thick brush strokes of the white talcum powder used during Songkran on his chicks. As the motor-taxi starts telling the story of what happened, an older woman comes out of one of the ally and joins the group followed right after by another younger woman and an even younger boy. Three generations listening. I get closer. They are speaking about the provenience of the shots and the motor-taxi driver is telling of twenty snipers, on top of a white big building, shooting into the crowd. He pulls out of his pocket a picture of the guy left brainless, by this time towering on every board in the protest areas, as a proof that the bullets arrived from above. The man with the foulard asks if the red had weapons. The motortaxi driver poses for a second, shrink his shoulder and says “yeah, sure some had weapons, but I have not seen anyone using them”. Then he points with his head to the direction of the shrines and asks the man if he wants to go see there “We have already seen it” answer the younger woman, in a conversation that resemble the one you have with tourist guides. He turns to me and he tells me to go see. Almost unconsciously I follow his advice, returning on my steps as I leave the small group behind me. When I realize that I am going back and I get back is too late, they are already gone.

Only 24 hours after the history has been crystallizing into a less fluid form, blood stains are given names, faces, and paraphernalia added to give strength to the new narration. A small Japanese flag, a picture of the brainless body, a hole in the wall. A version of the story solidify with them, a way of telling it, landmarks to point to, ballistic evaluation to be drawn, and a more and less stable group of story-tellers who were not present during the events and are making a job out of it. At the same time, a transport operator who carries people on and off the protest, one of the ubiquitous motorcycle taxis, gives to his clients tours of the area, from its fringes. History is in its making, a history of events and people, a small localized history that works as a compendium to the big history that particular events can and, as the red shirt now hope, will change.

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