This month in Bangkok

revision: as I finished the entry below, on Saturday morning April 10th, troops were beginning the early stages of a crackdown on the redshirts. All this took place in the neighborhood i walked daily for the past 6 months. Tear gas blew back on soldiers throughout the afternoon and by nightfall an hour-long staring contest turned violent as petrol bombs, grenades, bottles and machine gun fire mixed to traditional thai percussion blaring through military loudspeakers. 21 died and 858 were injured.

The first things that come to mind is that the longer the violence is averted, the better the tactics of the UDD-led protests in Bangkok appear. Clearly, the governement’s declaration of the State of Emergency, and subsequent quest to ban and block a host of virtual transmissions, despite a largely non-violent protest, signals the government’s insecurity and gradual decline. Attempting to clear the areas with water cannon trucks began yesterday, and has failed to do little but cool protestors in the extremely hot weather. From the window of the skytrain gliding above the protest site at 5 p.m., scores of red shirts appeared like bees forming Candyman. I recall this from Wednesday’s edition of The Nation (15A, Pravit Rojanaphruk): “Since we are poor, we are stepped upon. We wouldn’t suffer this if we were rich. So come what may, with one death a new birth shall arise.” As the sky turned dark, reinforcements arrived in the city via Eastern routes along Sukhumvit Road (Bangkok’s primary “expatriate” and cosmopolitan district) during rush hour sounding horns and festive music as if demanding an acknowledgement of their arrival. After Pap’s birthday party karaoke I exited 7-11 around 1 a.m., where red shirts were gathering on a Thong Lor street corner. Three men snuggled closely on a single motorbike, geared up their handhorns and footclappers, and set off for a long Saturday ahead.

Now it’s Saturday, and it’s a chilling thought that 15,000 soldiers are rumored to be on the way to carry out a crackdown to clear the streets for this coming Tuesday’s Songkran Water Festival activities. But this has not yet happened and maybe people power may prevail because for the first time, the rank and file are the movement. They have moved all over the city redefining “affinity group” bringing back the radical nature of politics as a class war beyond class—about poor people who are equal in their ability to think through political situations, rather than publicity stunt flash mobs that the West now uses to model Abolut vodka advertising campaigns.

I find myself reflecting on the chronology of the UDD red shirts. Below is my remembered film.

Part I: The Future of the Image

1. The Coming Red Menace: Between Monday the 8th of April and Thursday the 11th the government propagates the “forest surrounds the town” narrative, disseminating maps of all entry locations to the city. On the eve of the protests, the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) appears on television to discuss added security measures under the ISA. Candle light vigils are held in the shopping district of Siam Square by people wearing white shirts who indirectly oppose the red shirt’s right to protests through a de-politicized mask of “non-violence”.
2. Arrival: Between the 12th and 13th of March (Friday and Saturday) red shirt protestors of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) appeared in the city by boat, buses, and pick-up trucks. These first few days, reaching a crescendo at Phan Fa Bridge on Sunday evening, were largely an attempt to win the hearts and minds of urban Bangkok residents. Images of the crowd on Sunday night on the frontpages of Monday morning newspapers spawned the words “sea of red”.
3. Blood Ritual: The following Monday (14th) the UDD wage a battle on aesthetics by announcing they will splash red paint on key government sites that week. However, this red paint will be made of blood drawn from the protestors on the following day, Tuesday.
4. Red March: Having announced a travel route the previous day, on Saturday the 20th of March, the UDD orchestrate likely the largest human procession in Thai history through the heart of the “new” city. The tens of thousands protestors involved are cheered by tens of thousands spectators along the roadside.
5. Red Aesthetics: On Sunday, the 21st of March, in the background of the UDD’s main stage, on old 19th century fortress guarding the entrance to the city under absolute monarchy become the gallery walls for displaying the art work of the UDD’s art wing. It is made with 45,000 cc of blood drawn for the previous blood ritual. On stage, Jatuporn says “we have our own aesthetics”. [silapawathannatham]
6. Sticker bombing Bangkok: I’m not certain of this, but the 20th of March was likely the day when the UDD went on another city-wide voyage to hand out and attach “dissolve parliament” stickers at numerous areas throughout the city.
7. Rajdamneon Installation: Between the 22nd and 26th the red shirts draped the democracy monument in a banner (red, white, and blue) protesting the 2050 constitution as set up by the military. Along the edges of the monument a museum-like photography exhibition is set-up for the protestors to view images of themselves involved in the previous events of the past two weeks.
8. Military fortifications: On Tuesday March 23rd, as if to avert a possible coup and or lack of military support, the Defence Ministry announces a 10-year plan to revitalize, strengthen and modernize the military.
9. The Dialogue: On the 28th of March, 3 red shirt UDD leaders sit across the table from 3 blue shirted representatives of the government including Prime Minister Abhisit Wechachiwa. The three hour dialogue, continuing into a second round the following day, is broadcasted on all primary channels throughout the country. While the first day seems cordial, the second round becomes deadlocked by a refusal to agree on dates for the dissolving of parliament. Jatuporn produces a picture, zoomed upon by television cameras, which he cites of evidence of military abuse during the previous year’s protest.

Part II: The New Theater
Today Thaksin twitters this: “Tomorrow I will travel to Saudi Arabia at the prince’s invitation. The prince has invited me to join him in constructing a new city near Mecca.” Politics now is about the landscape of the city, about an old city where the Reds are allowed to do what they do, and a new city where their activities become more problematic. Bangkok’s Old City is perfectly built for political control under Hausmann’s blueprints brought back from Paris during the late 19th century reign of Rama V. And while the New City is meant to be depoliticized to operate as a site of consumption and capital mobility of the middle class, the UDD has turned it into their theater and in doing so have defied the proper determinations of where politics is assumed to unfold. The city exists against the concrete coldness of streets and amid the etheriel dreamscapes of satellites.

10. Turning to the “new” theater: while processions and visits to the business or shopping districts of Siam had occurred briefly by the red shirts, the non-violent white shirts were the first to symbolically claim the area as their home base—just as middle class yellow shirts had used Lumphini park in Silom’s business district to launch anti-Thaksin protests in early 2006. And furthermore, Lumphini Park had been a significant rally point for the 2006 PAD protests because of its middle class contingent. The pink shirt loyalists (comprised of conservative academics, tourism officials and hotel industry executives, probably the same who wore yellow shirts two years ago) re-opened this “new” theater at the Rama VI statue in Lumphini Park where they called on the UDD to end their protests. On their way to present a letter to the U.S. embassy right down the street, the UDD passed the pink shirts and scuffled briefly.
11. Shutting down the Shopping Malls: (April 3) With the “new theater” being opened the day before, the red shirts take over the area alongside Bangkok’s largest shopping mall (Central World), its most exclusive hotel (4 Seasons), and offend shoppers by using the restrooms there. Central World and Siam Paragon, and area hotels, close for 4 days and prompt a variety of meetings between business executives and government officials. A popular sign is designed and forwarded via email stating: “Give us back Paragon. –signed, the expensive shirts.”
12. 11 Forbidden Roads: (April 6) Five announcements made by the government through a newly organized Centre for the Administration of Peace and Order. As the government had planned to contain the Rajprasong area of protests, they issued a map of “11 forbidden roads” which were represented as the main veins of traffic circulation, but in actuality an attempt to block the reds from the Silom financial district—as perhaps the “new theater” is simply neoliberalism’s sweetspot. Embarassing the government, the red shirts broke all riot police lines through these roads. Meanwhile, a pro-government rally is unfolding at Chatuchak Park, the primary corridor for rural-urban migration and the final stop for the two dominant mass transit systems.
13. New Government: (April 6) One of the ugliest examples of modernist architecture can be found in the new “Satellite” City Hall in the Chaeng Wattana suburb of Bangkok, where numerous government organs operate in a massive panoptic and sterile complex. Here, the red shirts power through a police blockade to demand a meeting about ongoing court casings regarding corruption of the ruling Democrat party.
14. Storming Parliament: (April 7) Led by former singer, celebrity heartthrob and Black May hothead Arisman Pongruangrong, the red shirts storm parliament demanding a meeting with the government on why weapons and various “crackdown” supplies were discovered near Lumphini park.
15. State of Emergency: On Thursday, the 7th of April around 7 p.m., the government interrupts all television broadcasts with an extreme long shot, an establishing shot of Abhisit surrounded by members of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) and significant cabinet officials. After around 20 seconds Abhisit states that the protest has turned increasingly militant and that a State of Emergency will ensue to “restore normality to Bangkok”. After this declaration, the screen cuts to black followed by the words “state of emergency” filling the screen, after which the official “state of emergency” white text document appears scrolling upward on the television screen while being read repeatedly. An hour later, the ISOC appears for another announcement to clarify the State of Emergency, but without the Prime Minister’s presence. It is a signal that the military has assumed command of the country.
16. The Virtual War: (9 April) 6 thousand soldiers are stationed in front of Bangkok’s main uplink sight for its primary satellite broadcast transmissions (ThaiCom), where the Red Shirt’s Peoples Channel has just been cut from the air. It is ThaiCom’s earth station, or Teleport and DTH Center, in Pathum Thani’s Lat Lum Kaeo district. A stand-off between a heavily armed military, using tear gas and water canons mostly, leaves 15 casualties. The reds break into the station and reconnect the satellite feed. Prachatai, the most popular political news site of the left in Thailand is blocked by the ICT. The following day’s front page of The Nation glosses an atmospheric landscape shot of wandering military retreating from the red shirts in a battle that seems to have returned to a rural terrain. The urban riot gear clad soldiers appear lost and scattered amid red shirts lining the trees. In the shot, the forest has again surrounded the town. A Thai newspaper places the image of stockpiled ammunition procured by the red shirts near Thai Com. Yet this stand-off is about uplinks, satellite feeds, technology, and digital reassignments. On April 7th The Nation (Kwanchai Rungfpaisarn, p.4A) reported that 90% of television viewers get their politics from ASTV (a yellow shirt station) or PTV (the Peoples Channel of the UDD), which requires satellite transmission.

The last radical move to oust military dictatorship in Thailand in May 1992 is known as Black May. One of the UDD’s main leaders Jatuporn Promphanwas was a 26-year old university student turned political leader at Bangkok’s open Ramkhamhaeng University. Abhisit peeked out after the smoke had cleared as a young and shining 28 year old, fresh back from Oxford. Like his dad, a Health Minister appointed by the previous military junta of 1991, he entered politics but this time as an MP for the Democrats, a party that capitalized on death, manipulating mourning families to win elections and then turning their backs on them once in power (see Alan Klima 1992). By the way, for some reason I’m really enthusiastic about Space Age Love Song by Flock of Seagulls and, specifically, the ray gun sound that begins each transition.

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