Monday, April 13, 2009

Red Shirts, Songkran, and how politics miss every day life

The train stopped at the Bang Seu Station, a handful of kilometers north of Bangkok and about twenty or thirty kilometers from Hualompong the main railway station. I sat on my seat daydreaming, listening to music on my ipod and staring out the window. I was returning from a day long sight seeing trip in the old capital of Thailand, Ayuttyah. Three young men boarded the train. One of them shut the bathroom door located next to our seats.

“Dom mai dee (Smells no good),” I said.
“Chai, (yes) You come from where,” he asked.
“Brated America, Muang San Francisco (Country America, City San Francisco), I replied.
I looked at the three young men. They were about my age, shy a couple years and were prepared for some festivities. The Thai New Year had begun, a weeklong celebration known as Songkran. Held in the hottest part of the year Songkran is a celebration of water (no matter how dirty) and fun. While originally a time to pay respect to elders, family and tradition the holiday of Songkran is now more of a period of play. Gone are the days of pouring small bits of lustral water as an act of cleansing and renewal. There are still some traditional aspects to the holiday. Most Thais go home and oft a house cleaning is engaged in during the days off of work. The shift away from tradition means that the holiday is more fun loving .The more playful (majority of people) douse each other with water from squirt guns, hoses, and dump powder on each other at the end of Thailand’s hot season.

The three men were prepared to go to Pattaya to celebrate in Songkran there, they informed me. We sat on the train for a few minutes until the overhead speaker came on. The speaker announced that the train would be going nowhere. I didn’t gather this until all the passengers disembarked. I was one of the last riders out of the railed vehicle. I stood about with the young men attempting to decide what exactly to do. Eventually I was able to gather that the train had stopped due to the protests by the red shirts.

The political situation in Thailand is confusing. It’s as difficult to understand as seeing a single drop of water in a stream. I have a general idea of where the drop of water is going but don’t understand why it moves to and fro, from bank to bank, or what pushes it along.
The major political figure backing the red shirts, an anti-government group, is Thaksin Shinawatra, a name to be noted in recent Thai history. Thaksin bought his way into power establishing his Thai Rak Thai (Thai love Thai) party based on his fortune from telecommunications (from the Shinawatra corporation). Thaksin came into office with a landslide victory in 2001. He engaged in populist programs such as a universal health care program, which would provide service for a mere 30 baht (less than $1). Thaksin gained a large rural (Isaan) following through his political actions and the support remains present even after his coup.

In 2006 while Thaksin was visiting NYC, the military staged a coup, usurping the Prime Minister from his seat and establishing a military rule that would last until elections were held in December of 2007. Thaksin would be banished from his homeland until February of 2008. The insurgents proclaimed that Thaksin’s administration had been riddled with corruption and tax evasion.

After the reelections, in which the People’s Power Party (PPP) won a majority of the seats in the government, an anti-government group rose up to protest. The yellow shirts of early 2008 blockaded the major airports of Thailand shutting down travel and trade. They caused billions of dollars in economic damage due to their disagreements with the current government. They charged that the PPP was a puppet party for the exiled Thaksin and demanded new elections. A new coalition government was composed of the Democrat party and a new Prime Minister put into office, replacing Thaksin’s replacement.

The red shirts are Thaksin supporters. They want to see him come back into the country and back into power. They had blockaded several major highways and been involved in small scale rioting within the capital of Thailand. The red shirts had even attacked the Prime Minister’s car (while he was in the vehicle) causing the Prime Minister to declare the protesters to be violent and unlawful.

I hailed a cab with my other stranded peers and rode down the expressway to Ekkamai where they took a bus to Pattaya and I walked home. As I walked down the street I felt somewhat confused. The state of the nation was in turmoil, a state of emergency had been called by the Prime Minister in which the Red shirts were demonstrating, but here in Ekkamai life was going on as usual. Perhaps nothing was going to change, after all every day life was going on as is, I thought to myself.

The next day was the first day of Songkran. The official festivities were called off but revelers still took part in the celebration. As I walked down the empty streets of Bangkok I was occasionally treated to Isaan country music set to a techno beat. Small children played in garbage cans full of water dumping water on pedestrians. The pockets of people engaging in Songkran were spread out and the city seemed eerily quiet. While many people had gone home for Songkran for the holidays I assume that many stayed at home due to the state of emergency.
My housemates and I, eager to see “history in the making,” went up to the Victory Monument. The monument is an ode to Thailand’s participation in a brief Indo china war with the French. The monument was a site of contention between the red shirts and the army that morning. Many bus terminals used the area to transport the workers of the capital about town, by blocking the area with taxis and buses the red shirts had shut down some of the commerce of the city. Major news channels and sources reported that the red shirts had been throwing petrol bombs at the army. When we got there we were treated to the usual spectacular scene.
We walked on the street and walked towards a cloud of billowing smoke. The noxious black smoke arose from a series of tires on fire. The tires had been lit long before our arrival and burned in the empty street. Photojournalists took pictures of the small flames and of the rows of soldiers that idled nearby. The red shirts had long dispersed by the time that we got to the Monument in early afternoon. They had decided to draw back towards the government houses in south west Bangkok (the monument is located in the northwest). The soldiers looked bored as they touted their guns, eventually they sat down and had lunch.

Their desire for food called our stomachs to attention and we took a cab down to Khao Saan. While Khao Saan raod proper was closed down, again due official declarations, the side streets were alive with activity. People, both falang and Thai, dumped small buckets of water on each other. They aimed and fired with military precision on each other with high powered water guns. The merrymakers smeared chalk on each other’s faces laughing playfully at the muddy appearance of the crowd. It was a war of all against all with the victory going to the ones who had the most fun.

As the night wore on we decided to go home. Little had changed in the political situation. It was rumored that the red shirts would march onto the Democracy Monument. We decided to go to a dance pub near the Monument despite the pervasive talk of protest. We danced to old rock n' roll, including "Fruity Tooty."

The political engagements of the last few days have caused inconveniences, and some damage but have still revolved for the most part on the political stage, a stage separate from everyday life. Buses for the most part still run, taxis will still take you around, people still have to work and people still go out to clubs and go dancing. Some angry residents of Bangkok have begun to retiliate against the red shirts. Several attempts by the red shirts to incinerate vehicles have been stopped.

In a few days my bet is that things will go back to the banality.

Class divide?

Deep Divisions?

Back to the Banalities already?

No comments: