Witness the death of deference

22 March 2010

For many reasons, Red March has been very, very disturbing. It hasn't conformed to expectations. It hasn't confirmed prejudices. It has been new and different.

For a start it has been unsettling for many people because it was simply so big. The crowd did not approach the dreamy promise of a million people, but as the sun-baked BBC correspondent breathlessly exclaimed, it was the biggest political gathering in Thailand for over three decades. This was no small feat given the obstructions. It's not so difficult to stage a rally when attendees only have to change their shirt and take a short taxi hop from the office. The logistics are a lot more difficult and expensive when the rally site is hundreds of kilometres away. Provincial governors were ordered to obstruct the movement of people. Police set up countless checkpoints. Pro-Newin elements in the northeast laid on entertainment and issued threats to deter people from leaving for the capital. The media carried reports about money distributed to protesters to move. None carried reports about the money spent to prevent them moving. Despite all these efforts, downtown Bangkok was a sea of red. The 10-kilometre column from Rajdamnoen to Phaholyothin broke records.

Red March was unsettling also because (so far) it has truly been non-violent. The laborious police searches of buses and trucks turned up next to nothing. The TV news was reduced to showing the shock discovery of a handful of rounds of ammunition. A massive number of people roamed all around the capital for a week with no more than a few scuffles. Bangkok motorists looked on grumpily, but the sheer carnival atmosphere of the protests tended to keep tempers in check. Partly this orderliness is due to the police who invested enormous efforts in keeping the traffic moving. This effort betrays considerable sympathy within the force for the red-shirt cause — another thing that is unsettling. The lack of violence is all the more remarkable given the disorganised state of the redshirt leadership. These were supposed to be the rural hordes, the barbarians at the gates, the great unwashed, red in tooth and claw. But there was no sign of ploughs beaten into swords, let alone barbed wire, gun-toting "guards", or piles of used golf clubs.

Red March was worrying also because of the number of pick-up trucks. The protesters were supposed to be the downtrodden. And the thing about the downtrodden is that they really are trodden down into resignation, passivity, deference. They can usually be ignored or easily managed. But these were the aggrieved with assets. Of course many foot soldiers of the movement do count among the least well off. But the social range of the protesters is much wider than the simple analysis of the poor against the privileged. In the far north and the northeast, it is not just the poor who support the red shirts but just about everybody.

Most of all, Red March was disturbing because of the enormous show of local support in Bangkok. From the moment the columns of pick-ups began arriving in the city, people gathered on the pavement to clap and cheer and wave in welcome. Some of these fans were taxi drivers and motorcycle taxi riders, the movement's staunch allies. But others were true-blue Bangkokians. All along the route to Phaholyothin people came out of shops and offices to line the street and cheer. Chang Noi happened on the column after it had left Abhisit's house in Sukumvit. It was like being at carnival. Jolly luk thung music was blaring from loudspeakers, augmented with a lot of extra ching-chap, chanting, and cheering. On the trucks, people were waving, singing, and giving the thumbs-up. Not one unsmiling face. Alongside, people had come to windows, or onto office balconies, or out from shops onto the pavement. Most had snatched up anything red to wave along — a tie, a towel, a hat, a piece of paper. The press and the pundits have played the conflict as the provinces against the city. But how does that analysis fit with these pavement scenes?

In Chang Noi's neighbourhood, there's a worker community. They used to be pro-Democrat because the local Democrat politicians helped them to get residence rights and basic services. They served as Democrat canvassers in several elections. They are now deep red. In the evenings, the kids come out to play on the street. For a year now, one of their favourite games has been "street protest." They march up and down and wave flags. They shout "No more double standards," "Down with amat ," and "Abhisit out." They are not in any hurry to move off the road to allow a car to pass. Their average age is around ten.

A decade ago, Chang Noi predicted that the city folk would have to build a wall around Bangkok, or float the city away into the Gulf of Thailand, a bit like Singapore. Of course, that has not happened. Instead they have tended to brick up their own eyes and their ears. While this extraordinary event was unfolding in the city, the mainstream media made heroic efforts to ignore it. No vox pops. No atmospheric scene painting. Few pictures. Only when the blood campaign caught the eye of the foreign media (and had an implied element of violence) did the coverage get more enthusiastic.

Instead of reportage we got endless predictions of a bad ending. The numbers are increasing, so it will turn violent. The numbers are dropping, so it will turn violent. The temperature is high, so tempers will snap.

Red March has been disturbing because it has messages so striking that they slip through the walls. Despite government efforts using taxpayers' money, it was huge. Despite the chaotic state of the red movement's leadership, it held together through fellow feeling. Despite the conventional analyses, the support spreads far beyond the rural poor. Hard to ignore despite those bricks.