The Red Shirts have lately turned quite inventive, and their latest stunt at Khao Yai Thieng forest reserve was maybe their most outrageous protest so far, exposing a soft spot that may have nationwide effects, and the potential to embarrass many rich and powerful people. Several thousand of them have gathered in front of the holiday home of Privy Council member, ex-Prime Minister, ex-Army Chief, General Surayud Chulanont. Red Shirt leader Dr. Weng Tojirakan said when I interviewed him: “This is the most important forest reserve for water supply around Khorat. But Surayud has built his house here against the law, and nobody does anything. This shows the double standards – normal people go to jail for the same thing. The legal structure in Thailand has been destroyed. We protest here to demand the land taken back to the state, and that Surayud will be punished the same way normal people are.”
Khao Yai Thieng indeed is a very beautiful mountain. It is dotted with illegally built resorts and villas of obviously quite wealthy people. The evening before the rally the Red Shirts occupied a space directly across from the gate of Surayud’s large compound, just separated by a road. There was a large police presence at all roads on the mountain. By the morning many Red Shirts had already arrived .
There were many food stalls, and stalls selling Red Shirts paraphernalia and tents. I photographed some of the Pak Thong Chai Rangers who worked as guards.
Red Shirts mingled at the compound gate.
There was some brief tension when several Red Shirts tried to get too close and were asked by police and Red Shirt guards to keep their distance.
The Red Shirts shouted, but the guards built a line in front of the police line, and managed to calm their fellow protesters down. The two lines remained there for the entire day.
For the hot hours I took a rest in a shady forest next to Surayud’s land, just at the wall of his compound. The noise from the loudspeakers was a bit more bearable there. Police officers guarding the compound on the other side of the wall rested in their hammocks.
Soon many other Red Shirt protesters had a similar idea, and took a rest there as well. Other Red Shirts walked along the wall, chatting with the police officers over the fence.
Many jokes about Surayud and sufficiency economy were told. Double standards and “Amaart” was constantly mentioned as well. Red Shirt leader Arisaman Pongruangrong, a formerly very popular singer who has entered politics, walked by, accompanied by a group of guards and followed by many Red Shirts.
I talked for a while with an elderly lady who has lived in Germany for 14 years, and worked there assembling fridges in a factory. Her German was broken, but perfectly understandable. She talked about the holidays she had in other European countries, and of the difficulties between German/Thai marriages. She said that friends there wanted to find a German husband, but she preferred to stay single. Now she waits until her German pension comes through, and is a Red Shirt.
Later I went to the steep descent at the end of the plots of land. There was a stunning view over a large lake and mountains in the distance. Many Red Shirts were there, peeking over the fence into Surayud’s compound, and enjoying the view, taking photos. People Channel interviewed a group of Red Shirts there as well.
Later, at sunset, Red Shirts began building a “double standard village” – two wooden village style shacks, for, as they described, a contrast to Surayud’s large villa. Arisaman was quite engaged there, directing workers and taking up a hammer himself. He said that in his childhood, when he was poor, he had built such houses himself with his family.
Suddenly the smaller of the two structures collapsed with several Red Shirts. One man was caught in the rubble. After carefully lifting the poles away, he was found conscious, but with what was most likely a broken leg. Soon medics arrived and took him to the nearest hospital.
I managed to speak with a local. Throughout the day I had tried to find one among the many vendors. Most though were from nearby towns. The local woman waited there with her motorcycle to transport Red Shirts further down the road for 20 baht, where they could get transport down the hill. I asked her what the locals think about the Red Shirt protest. She said that she doesn’t exactly like the protest, because nobody could get to work that day. She said that villagers have sold the land legally to the present occupiers. I asked her if in her village there were Red Shirts as well, and she said that there were, that there were a few discussions, but no serious arguments. She then saud that on the other hand she was quite glad that she had the chance to make quite a bit of money that day as a motorcycle taxi driver.
I decided to leave, as everything was calm, and I was getting very tired. On the way down I snapped a few pictures of “Sae Daeng” signing shirts and headbands of Red Shirt protesters.
UPDATE (14 January): For those who prefer their coverage in Thai there is now a translation of this post available here.