Whilst tomes will no doubt be written analysing the explosive events in Bangkok on Saturday night, it may be useful to provide some commentary on the situation in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s northern capital, particularly in light of media reports on the weekend indicating that Red Shirt-inspired battles have broken out throughout numerous Thai provinces.
Nominally a ‘red town’ — the northern vote for Thaksin in the 2001 elections outstripped even that of the northeast (popularly believed to be his staunchest supporters) and was again overwhelming in 2005 — the color of residents’ politics is becoming somewhat more difficult to discern. The rallies in Bangkok have badly hurt local business, particularly the tourist trade, with hotel occupancy rates reportedly hovering around the 20-30% mark. Combined with the thick haze from seasonal burning (widely blamed on ‘local hill-tribes’, but more probably associated with burning-off in southern China), the tourist caravan has slowed to a trickle. On the occasions I have ventured there of late, the famous Night Bazaar is all but empty, a shadow of its former bustling state. Perhaps despite their deeper sentiments, the cut in trade is taking a toll on local merchants. Increasingly they tell me they are ‘sua khaaw’ (white shirts), indicating that they have joined the still amorphous group of expanding Thais seeking to occupy unaligned political space between the Red and Yellow poles. What’s more, the University crowd, with whom I spend most of my time, are readily apathetic to politics in general, their almost universal refrain to any political enquiry being ‘naa bua’ (boring).
The most obvious sign of the Red presence is the faithful who gather daily outside the Worarot Hotel, the headquarters of Chiang Mai’s Red Shirt movement. And though the numbers have been little more than a few dozen on the occasions I have visited since the rally began, the Red Shirt supporters up here are not to be underestimated. Earlier last week a local newspaper reported that four members of the core Chiang Mai Red Shirt group, ‘Rak Chiang Mai 51’ (Love Chiang Mai ‘08), had been sentenced to 20-years imprisonment for the (bashing) murder of the elderly father of a local Yellow Shirt community-radio operator in 2008. In February 2009, the group forcibly shut down a local gay pride parade, later citing as justification that such activities contravened traditional northern ‘Lanna’ culture. This appeal to an essentialised Lanna identity has become part of the regular discourse of some of the group’s more eloquent spokespeople.
It was with little surprise then that amidst the flurry of blogs, twitters, posts etc that were keeping internet users updated on events in Bangkok last night, reports emerged of Red Shirts storming the Provincial Hall in Chiang Mai. It was against this background that I decided to go along and see for myself what exactly was taking place, frustrated at the lack of coverage either in the Bangkok or local Chiang Mai press. Upon entering the Provincial Hall grounds it became clear that there was no great protest underway. Apparently, Saturday night had seen a minor scuffle between Red Shirts and police take place, though negotiations promptly ended hostilities. As a consequence, an arrangement was made by which the Red Shirts could temporarily set up shop in the Provincial Hall grounds, which they evidently have. A stage has been erected, a photo display of the dead and injured has been mounted, and it seems that local rallies will take place here for the foreseeable future. It was into the first of these rallies that I had stumbled.
There was something slightly surreal about attending this Red Shirt rally. The atmosphere was broadly that of a ‘family friendly’ picnic, with a touch of vaudeville thrown in from time-to-time by the lively ‘performers’ delivering their speeches on stage. Though it was the night after Thailand’s worst political violence since 1992, the turn-out was relatively small, perhaps 200 to begin with and rising to around 300-400 a few hours later. The crowd comprised people of all age groups, and included Border Patrol Policeman wandering around with red ribbons tied around their necks, their political allegiance clearly on show. A group of between 20-30 soldiers held guard outside the Hall itself, with Red Shirts frequently engaging them in amiable conversation.
The stage show began falteringly, technical problems requiring a voice on the loudspeaker to ask if anyone had a spare notebook computer which could be borrowed (I didn’t notice anyone venturing forward!). Local entrepreneurs wandered around selling bamboo mats and red t-shirts emblazoned with the word ‘phray’ (commoner/serf).
Formalities began with people called forward to the stage to pay their respects to those who had died in the fighting the evening before. It was made known that one of the fallen was a female from Chiang Mai; people were encouraged to donate money to her family, which they duly and solemnly did. This act of collective goodwill contrasted sorely with a reference later in the evening to the General who had been killed in the fighting. The night’s loudest cheers accompanied a reference to his death, with the emboldened speaker proceeding to inform the crowd that the General had ‘killed Red Shirts’ in the ‘battle of Din Daeng’ last Songkran and was therefore receiving his karmic reward. Perhaps of greater significance, responsibility for his death was attributed to General Khattiya (Seh Daeng), whose crucial involvement in Saturday night’s events is becoming increasingly clear (and more celebrated). A few other interesting references to the dead were made. Supporters were encouraged to wear Red, rather than the customary black, to the funerals. Furthermore, and I think of quite some significance, people were advised that Thaksin’s image would be placed on coffins in place of images of the Buddha – apparently this has occurred previously. In perhaps the evening’s most poignant moment, a speaker lamented how she was missing those in Bangkok and longed for them to return home.
Indeed, references to Thaksin — ‘Dr Thaksin’ even — peppered the speeches throughout the night. Despite some of the rhetoric that the Red Shirts have moved beyond him, he was clearly at the heart of much of the oratory performed on stage. Though most of the ‘Thaksin-content’ merely rehearsed themes most readers will be familiar with, of particular interest were comparisons with Thai-independence leader Pridi, aligning both as heroes of democracy. In contrast, and again familiar to most readers, were references to Abhisit. Of most interest to me were references to his grandparents as being ‘not Thai’. The speaker went on to say that despite this, they were treated well, and therefore posed the question as to why Abhisit was acting as he was. These oblique references to ‘Thai-ness’ and ‘non-Thainess’ corresponded to an ongoing interplay of supporters and opponents as ‘humans’ and ‘animals’ respectively. ‘Are we humans?’ a speaker cried out to the crowd. ‘Then why do they kill us?’. Further, the government and its affiliates were labelled ‘khwai’ (buffalo) in a crowd-pleasing subversion of the Sonthi-led popular imagining of the Red Shirts as senseless dullards, with these khwaii purportedly senselessly following Prem (or someone else who was frequently referred to as ‘khon nung khon’ [somebody]). Indeed ‘somebody’ was claimed to have paid millions of dollars to the government and military in order for them to persist against the Bangkok Red Shirts. Abhisit was owner of the phrase ‘naa maa’ (dog face) and ‘chaat maa’ (belonging to the species of dogs) which I was advised are particularly base ways of referring to someone.
Other points of interest from the speeches included some fairly lewd references to Deputy PM Suthep. One of the speakers delighted in speaking of Suthep’s apparent appetite for multiple sexual partners, including apparently his current secretary. This reminded me of some of the references on the Bangkok stages to Prem’s sexual inclinations, and is an interesting by-line to fairly common Red Shirt discourse (recall earlier the reference to breaking up the gay parade…). Indeed, lewdness and humour were surprising parts of the performances. The crowd was rather amused when one of the speakers belittled the Bangkok police and soldiers on the basis that ‘they can’t eat sticky rice and we can!’ I was further amused when the decades old (but recently concluded) case of the Thai national who stole a diamond from Saudi Arabia (the ‘Blue Diamond’ affair) was raised as evidence that the current government was incompetent.
Ominously, speakers claimed that more than the reported 20 people were killed. And yet despite this reality, the night’s activities felt oddly detached from the frantic events of 24-hours earlier. Questions might be asked as to why such a small turn-out in a purported ‘Red stronghold’, and why such little urgency amongst the crowd or speakers. There was little talk of the future or of ‘what now?’ There was precious little discussion of Saturday night, and any outrage that was displayed seemed formulaic — a stylized rendering of crowd responses to incitements from the stage. Despite the adequate performances delivered (by both crowd and speakers), it is clear that Chiang Mai is but a sideshow at present, with the serious business remaining to be played out on center stage in Bangkok.