Bangkok Shutdown 2014

Michael Vatikiotis
Jan 20th, 2014

Tomorrow brings another day of protest. A phalanx of colour-coded citizens wends its way along avenues named after Kings and congeals around a marble monument to democracy.

 

 

Red lights blinking in the still night suggest a chorus of restless spirits, marking their territory.  A horn toots down below on the dry street, which snakes around the neighbourhood like the discarded skin of some giant serpent.  On a street corner, the motorcycle boys huddle over steaming bowls of pigs’ innards and fill their glasses to the brim with amber whiskey, arguing over what makes this city the damnable soul of a broken nation.

 

Tomorrow brings another day of protest. A phalanx of colour-coded citizens wends its way along avenues named after Kings and congeals around a marble monument to democracy.  Overhead the clouds part and the sun scorches the massed foot soldiers waiting for the battle to begin.

 

Piled on top of trucks, wielding flags like spears, small raiding-parties head off to occupy government offices, noodle carts following like camp kitchens for some medieval army.  They meet no resistance, for in this battle the enemy has retreated to the outskirts of the city.   The police have long disappeared from the streets, which are guarded instead by toughs bussed in from the South, eyes rimmed red, guns concealed in their fake Oakley backpacks.

 

They have come to overthrow the government.   They say they are standing up against a tyranny that has brought corruption and ruin to the country. 

 

‘The Prime Minister is no good,’ says a middle aged matron with a gaggle of plastic whistles around her neck hung with ribbons of red white and blue, the national colours.  The national flag is stencilled in glitter paint on both cheeks, and she wears a red white and blue bandana. ‘Why? Because the government hates the King,’ she says. ‘We will stay as long as it takes. You see, we have no weapons, only people,’ she says, gesturing to her two teenage daughters who are also draped and painted in the national colours.  As if dressed up for a birthday party.

 

As night falls, the crowd swells: time for the city folk to join the throng.  They come after work in their cars and on bicycles, all washed and sheathed in designer chiffon and chinos.  Bikers swish by on expensive Bromptoms and Slyders; drivers carefully park their mini-Beemers and Benzes.  They surge in polite orderly bursts towards the stage, greeting friends, neighbours, colleagues, with delicate “wais” along the way.  Who knew Bangkok, a city of 12 million, was so well connected?

 

But this is a Facebook event of gigantic dimensions; and smartphone screens glow in the twilight, many held high to catch the crowd, which by now has engulfed the broad-lane intersection like a giant swarm of red white and blue hornets.  Gigabytes of data fly through the air, much of it adding to the bottom line of the political dynasty they are ostensibly trying to bring down.

 

‘Leave now!’ the crowd chants as the warm up rabble-rouser recites the nightly litany of evils perpetrated by the government.  Does anyone care that the government has already dissolved parliament and called for elections?  No. ‘It’s now or never,’ they cry.

 

This is Bangkok’s “next gen” revolution. These are kids from good homes, comfortable livelihoods.  Between acts on the stage, they browse stalls selling smartphone power banks and iPhone covers with slogans like: “CTRL ALT DELETE THAILAND.”   A man dressed as the Batman sells sequined “Restart Thailand” t-shirts.  Two young girls giggle and take “selfies” with an iPad. Large red white and blue bows ride on their heads and they sport beribboned spectacles with no lenses.  The next act on stage is a transvestite band belting out the old cabaret standby, “I Will Survive”.

 

The atmosphere recalls the friendly bustle of a traditional Thai temple fair, tinged with the bizarre fashions of a modern Japanese costume cult. 

 

As the night wears on, violence lurks in the violet shadows.  Once the music is over and the crowd thins, the rough-faced Southerners bunk down for the night on the hard street, many in tents provided by a company called ‘Great Adventure.’  Sporadic shots are fired.  A camera phone catches a youth brandishing a pistol and firing wildly towards the stage.  Panic spreads through the throng. There are explosions too, small flash-bangs they call “ping pong” bombs.  The injured are ferried to hospital by army medics.  Hang on – the army? Where do they stand in all this?

 

The early morning sun splashes a city of tents in the city’s central Lumpini Park, driving out the bleary imported Southerners, who line up in orderly queues for polystyrene bowls of rice and instant noodles.  For an army needs feeding.

 

‘It doesn’t matter how long we stay,’ says another matron over a free bowl of rice on day three of what is grandly dubbed “Bangkok Shutdown”. ‘We are certain of victory.’

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Michael Vatikiotis
Singapore
Last blog date: Oct 18th, 2016

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