THAILAND LETTER: Letting the genie out of the bottle


26 April 2010
THAILAND LETTER: Letting the genie out of the bottle

by Rey Lopez


[Note: CPT-Philippines authorized CPTer Rey Lopez to travel to Thailand as a peace observer and document how the Red Shirts nonviolent movement is playing out in Bangkok.  The letters have been edited for length and clarity.]

April 11, 2010
Bangkok, Thailand

A typical day in a Red Shirt camp in Bangkok starts when a few of the Red Shirts—mostly peasants, day workers, and members of hill tribes—wake up for kitchen detail.  They start the stove burning and heat water to brew coffee for everyone.

After staying, living, and working with the Red Shirts for almost a month, I realized that there is no truth in the Thai government propaganda or the Thai and western media’s description of the Red Shirts as “red mob” descending on Bangkok to cause chaos in the streets.  In the Red Shirts camp around the Fan Fa bridge near the democracy monument, I saw the beginning of a new Thai society breaking out from the old shell of a society controlled by the Thai unholy trinity: the military establishment, privy council loyalists that manipulate the monarchy, and the business elite composed of the Thai nobility and Chinese moneyed interests.

I also learned that the Red Shirts are not all [former Prime Minister] Thaksin supporters but ordinary Thai people (prachachons) who want real democracy, like what they experienced for several years under the democratically elected government of Thaksin.  Under Thaksin, they had universal health care, (thirty baht for any kind of medical procedure); an increase in real wages; micro loans for Thais starting their own businesses; extension of all outstanding loans and the lowering of interest rate to 1 percent; a million baht budget for every village in Thailand—distribution to be managed by the village council; a first class school for every district; a scholarship to attend a foreign university for one outstanding student in every district; government marketing of one product for every village through its TOT economic program, and many other  pro-people government programs.  The government of Thaksin called this period “edible democracy” to set it apart from “network democracy” run by the military officers, monarchists and Thai elites.

The one thing that former Prime Minister Thaksin should be blamed for is letting the Thai genie—the prachochons (people)—out of the bottle formed from Thailand's stratified society.  Now there is no way the Thai prachacons will go back inside the narrow limits of that bottle.  They have come to Bangkok with high expectations: grandparents, parents and children, fisherfolks from Thai peninsula, hill tribes from wet rice regions and from Chiangmai, Chiangrai, and Ubon Thani.  In the evening, they joke, laugh, sing, and show their bruises from struggles with the Thai army.  Some have broken ribs, missing ears, and small holes in their legs and arms caused by iron balls fired by the Thai army.  But they refused to be cowed, for they are fighting for a brighter future of the next Thai generations.

The non-violent battle for the hearts of soul of the Thai nation has just begun.  In the morning after the national anthem where all stand up, the whole day is a marathon of political speeches where the ordinary people are allowed to speak to share their life experiences.  Then they listen to a talk on the national situation and news about how the campaigns in all provincial capitals are progressing.  Then there is a time of singing for everyone, and poetry reading and street drama on the stage, which is televised on 150 giant screens throughout the camp.  Occasionally leaders from the Thai community abroad are allowed on the main stage to greet and share what they are doing in the U.S., Europe, and other parts of the world in support of social change in Thailand.

Deprived of their TV stations, radio stations, and newspapers, the Red Shirts wired the whole camp in Fan Fa Bridge with one screen installed for every fifty meters of road.  Everyday, the Red Shirts’ papers are distributed, featuring what happened on the previous day.  The camp members brought their own kitchens, and everyday fresh vegetables, meat, fruits, and sacks of rice arrive from the provinces.

Every day, teams of Red Shirts riding in an open back wagon with several speakers go to every quarter of Bangkok to explain the political programs of the Red Shirts.  Cooking teams at 8:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m., and 6:00 p.m. start to feed everyone for free, which turns the Red camp into a combined Taste of Thailand, musical festival, dance festival, and a giant flea market where Red Shirts flags, shirts and reading materials are available.  Plastic bottles of cold water are given away courtesy of the Bangkokian Red Shirts supporters.  I could not understand Thai but I heard the words “prachachons” a million times, and I can understand the passion for real democracy of the Thai prachachons (people) through their body language, gestures, and the way they spoke.

In general, the Red crowd is armed with only plastic clappers in a shape of a hand or a heart, and plastic horns, which they blow whenever they agree with the speakers.  There are isolated instances where I saw some Red Shirts arming themselves with bamboo poles and branches from the tamarind trees that abound in the wide avenues of Bangkok after the army attacked them last bloody Saturday of April 10, 2010.  But in general, they are maintaining the philosophy of non-violence.

Let us continue praying for the Thai people so they can have real, "edible democracy.”  The victory of the Thai people will have a far-reaching effect on non-violent movements in the rest of the world. 
Reynaldo C. Lopez
Christian Peacemaker Team Philippines