Monday, 17 May 2010

Privates and prostitutes- April 19th

As announced the army has moved into the Silom area, securing it from the expansion of the red shirts’ protest. I wake up and try to get a sense of the news of the day, struggling to find independent websites and blogs not blocked by the state censorship. Frustrated I head to Ratchaprasong, hoping to fill with my eyes the blank created by repression. I enter from Pratunam. Nobody checks me so I drive to the half empty intersection, almost to reach the stage. On my left, where the carton box wall used to stand a mime seats in the sun, white painted face and red clothes, immobile.

The reds have stretched a long plastic cloth to cover the area between the stage and first over pass. Across the protest are the same cloth is unrolled by soldiers’ hands on the overpass at Silom subway station to cover their movements and control the red shirts standing across the street. The long dark green cloth in Ratchaprasong makes the passage from the road to the shaded area refreshing. In few steps the temperature drops significantly and a small crowd stands or sits on motorbikes listening to the speaker talking about the motorcycle taxi drivers, the taxi drivers, and the street vendors who have been at the protest, renouncing to their income to be here. I sit here for a while, enjoying the coolness, and then drive through the crowd. An old woman, chubby and short loses her big smile when I pass, annoyed by the motorists. I keep driving down Ratchadamri road, reduced to a small stretch of street surrounded by twenty meters long white tends: pharmacy, dormitory of the people from Pattaya, Surin, Saraburi, another pharmacy, speakers, video station, monks’ tends, kitchen. On my right I pass a fifty-sixty meters long queue of people waiting to get their red shirt card. I drive to the head of the protest, in front of Lumpini Park, where the red shirts and the army officers face each other in the heat, divided by Rama IV road, crowded as usual by the traffic flow.

On the red side a barricade made of big flower boxes has been erected. Behind the barricades, from a set of loud speakers on the back of a truck, a young woman voice invites the protesters to be calm and let the army do their job calling them “brothers military”. Around the truck a small crowd of red shirts, mostly tough looking men, walks around carrying sharpened bamboo sticks, dawdles, emanating a pungent smell of rice whisky. I sit there for a while, staring at them shouting at the army on the other side of the street, through the chaotic traffic that passes through Rama IV indifferently. I start talking with a younger man who has been here since yesterday afternoon, sleeplessly waiting for the army to attack. His red eyes glimmer in the sun as many around him move piles of bamboo sticks and motorcycle helmets, available and almost grotesque defense tools against the army rifles, pointed at them from the subway overpass. Behind this movement, a number of motor-taxis, ready to bring updates from that front to the leaders in case anything happens, sit there enjoying the show. On the other side of the barricades, talking through the holes in between the flowers pot, six motortaxi drivers, sitting on their bikes, report to the protesters numbers, equipment, and location of the army personnel.

I grab my bike and cross into Silom road, passing through the small gate still open on a side of Lumpini Park . The street is very quiet. Small crowds of citizens on both sides of the street are waiting to see what is going to happen or just taking pictures of this military disposal. The financial district is peppered with a multitude of small groups of soldier in full war gear, protections, mimetic, and heavy weapons, syncopated by wire mesh blocking the side-walks. Many more soldier hide in the small alleys: lounging, sitting, waiting. A multitude of young men, barely bearded, sit in between buildings carrying heavy weaponry. Here and there fifteen or twenty rifles lean against the wall, in groups. Around the army, police officers in anti-riot gear control the situation. I drove to the Narattiwat intersection and park my bike to get back on feet and take pictures. One after the other small groups of military sit or hide in the sois with rifles, m-16 and other automatic guns on them, or just left in a pile somewhere, as the troops naps in the midday heat. Kids. Confused kids for the most part, dressed as puppets with rifles too big and too deadly to put in their hands.

Inside Patpong road, the main sex street of the city, a big contingent of soldiers is stationary, commanded as the other by an older man, sitting on a military jeep with big speakers on top. Another group sits on the opposite side, underneath the entrance of a strip club called Safari. Judging from the weapons they carry compared to their enemy it could well be some sort of safari. The yellow placard, on black background, glimmers in sun as the young privates’ mimetic uniforms. Safari. The weapons distractedly attached to their shoulder confirm: Safari.

Private and prostitutes go way back in Thailand, since the Vietnam War happy to sustain each other’s business, I think, as an older woman gets out of the half-closed door and bring some water to a soldier and another one in front, seated on a higher stools, displays his weapons, excited by the attention of my camera. As I keep walking down Silom. I notice the myriad of roses and plastic bags full of goods lying close to the soldiers. A group of women, in their 30s probably wearing office clothes, an oxford shirt and short skirt or long paints, black or grey, goes around distributing bags from 7/11 filled with snacks and drinks for the soldiers who thank them with a wai and an extra look, as the group walks away. These women are not alone. Other groups, always composed younger woman, for the visual and voiced joy of the young military, distribute bags of drinks or coffee. As in the morning helms to the monks, donations are made along gender lines, this time the donors moving, not the receivers.

Facing each other from afar though the sound of traffic, the unbearable heat underneath their protections, and the smell of street food, with the same red eyes of who hasn’t slept, eyes into eyes, are not just the soldiers and the red shirts but two faces of Thailand, two different ways of conceiving their role as citizens, and social beings. On a side a “social responsibility” and idea of citizenship that stresses orders, respect for a chain of command and citizenship as being compassionate and generous toward the state and its leaders, who are there for everybody’s good. A citizen that wai to the soldiers, bring them food and drinks “pua chart”, for the nation, to celebrate and support its brave defenders. On the other side and idea of citizenship based on participation, watching closely the state and its governors, of being Thai and working for the good of the nation, “pua chart”, by revolting against a system perceived as unjust and to be changed “for the future of the country”, as an older man said today, almost spitting it out his frontal teeth. This two Thailand are today silently facing each other across Rama IV, both armed with conviction, certainty of being in the right, but carrying different weapons, sticks and slingshots against iron molded war tools. In this gaze there is much of recent Thai history, a history of class and regional conflict, of obedience and “moderation”, of burning ideals and fearless protests, all these parallel histories reflected through the same red eyes of youths from lower income families. The same exact eyes on both sides, the country looking itself.

I walk my way back on the overpass. Here the number of soldiers is overwhelming, battery after battery of soldier napping on the pavement with overflowing piles of goods and plastic bags donated by people, this is a ‘yellow area’ after all. At the entrance of the Sala Daeng skytrain station a small group of soldier sits chatting as an endless line of soldiers sleep on the pavement, beside them. On the background Zen music is blessing this absurd vision. I get off and in vane try to talk to some of the soldier who gave me the expected answer that they could not talk or that they are just following orders, an old and ineffective excuse. I walk to the end of Silom road where a half destroyed building has become some sort of head quarters for the operations. Inside a large table with two or three older officers, a street vendor selling food and many bags disposed on the ground very carefully, too carefully to not contain something dangerous. For the first time I was asked not to take pictures by one of the officers. The building, or the skeleton of the building at the corner between Silom and Naratiwat road, is surrounded by wire mesh. Soldiers stand at each entry, in couples. Inside three motor-taxi drivers talk to military officers. I guess everybody has their motor-taxi informants, as a driver told me they are the “owner of the territory” after all.

After resting at home, I go back to Ratchaprasong in the evening to meet a young Thai documentary maker at the McDonald at Amarin Plaza, hoping to be there at the protest to see the reactions to Aphisit public interview on channel 9 and 11 pm. The film maker is sitting inside McDonald with three other friends, a small packet of French fries on the middle of the table and the four sitting there for at least two hours, usual way to use a/c space in Bangkok. We sit there for a moment and then get out looking for a tv.

Many TVs in the area but none turned on the Prime Minister speech. We enter the backstage area but the TV broadcasts only images, as the sound is covered by songs and political speeches on stage. Around us a myriad of Thai journalists sat at their laptop, fastly writing. Beneath the stage the table of the leaders is lighted by the reflection of the spotlights of the stage, a Caravaggio’s beam on them. The film maker uses the bathroom in the backstage, one of the privilege of being well connected in the mob. We then walk down to Ratchadamri passing again the line, crowded even at this time, of people getting red shirt id. Along the way various tends broadcast videos of the violence on April 10th. Small crowds witness images that have been repeated and repeated over and over again. We pass at least 4 small stalls selling CDs of the protest for 50 bath each. On our right a long tend opened on the side of the street attracts protesters with some amusement park attractions with a political undertone. On a yellow and pink backdrop the tent is divided in two sections, each with a game. In the first one, some metal bowl lay on the table, each with three bright yellow tennis balls inside. Behind the older woman who distributed the balls, pyramids of cans with the black and white photocopy of Aphisit’s face.

Twenty bath for a bucket, three throws and chances to win a cushion, quite useful around the protest. Printed on the cushions Hello Kitty, Darumon, or written in white on red “dissolution of the parliament”, apparently not the most popular. In the second section a younger woman is tiding together darts, three in three, as a boy puts away the balloons. Lines and lines of balloons, yellow on pink backdrop and pink on yellow backdrop. Behind them, as the hands of the boy reveal as he takes away the balloons, pictures of Aphisit and Suthep, or copies of newspaper clips. An older man is still playing. Under his hits two yellow balloons explode, exposing the face of the prime minister. Satisfied he walks away with a Darumon light blue cushion, mildly limping.

We arrive to the barricades at the end of Ratchadamri road. The wire mesh that appeared during the day over the flower boxes has been covered by a huge green plastic cloth, the copy of what the army has done on the other side, covering completely the sky-walk all the way to Sala Daeng station to make their movements invisible. Behind the wire mesh sharpen bamboo sticks function as a protection from possible invasion. It looks like a medieval barricade, was not for the big trucks’ tires laying here in there and that later they will move in front of the barricade to light up with petrol in case of army’s attack.

We cross to the other side and walk into Silom road. The military completely fill the streets. Thousands of them sleeping in parking lot, hidden in buildings, and lounging in halls. Few are visible from the street but many more appear when you get into the sois or look into the buildings. Military hammocks hang inside elevated parking lots. We walk around and get into Patpong. The scene is absurd, uncanning remembrance to pictures of Bangkok during the Vietnam War but all in silence and without the mass of people in the street. The place is practically empty, few stalls, almost no tourist or clients, some places are closed and in the others hoards of whore dresses in tied clothes or nurse apparels, chitchat with the young militaries. Two guys in full military gear walk down Patpong, proudly displaying themselves as an empty lap-dance bar throws in the street at full volume an up-beat hip-hop piece, perfect soundtrack for their advance. They pass us as my friend’s camera is rolling, amazed as I am of the absurdity of the situation. We walk another bit down the alley. Behind a wire mesh a group of ten soldiers sit. Beside them a jeep is lightened by the pink reflection of a neon sign “Super Pussy”. We keep walking into the deserted Silom road. The vision of this mass of military gives a eerie feeling to the city, accentuated by lonely prostitutes and a couple of older man completely dressed in red, walking through with a smurf on their faces.

We get back to Rathadamri road, exhausted by the heat and the walk. Here people are sleeping on the barricades, ready for something to change. About forty men with bamboo sticks waiting for a full attack by thousands of heavily armed soldier. A small group of motor-taxis stands on a side. I start talking with an older man, bright white hair. He starts telling me, as he lower the voice, that both sides are just “crazy with power” and that despite what the government say not all the motor-taxis are red shirts, not even the one that come here, some people do but some other, as him, come just to make money as drivers or vendors. Other two younger motortaxi come closer and we start talking. In few minutes clients arrive and they all leave, with somebody on the backseat. The younger one, in a purple vest, tells me to wait for him as he will be back soon. When he gets back a man arrives, all dressed in black with a vest with written Beretta everywhere, and call people around. He diffuses self-confidence and testosterone. Soon a crowd of young men, probably the same age of the majority of the soldiers, come around listening to the guy. He is explaining the situation to them and distributing money for petrol to pour on the tires from a stuffed wallet. “Take your motorcycle, two bikes one after the other” he instructs them. The young motorcycle taxi volunteers to go, gets given a hundred baht and drives away in the night.

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