Water Fights and Civil Strife: Bangkok’s Peculiar Protests

In Thailand, as in Iran, people are beginning to think they’re in control.

Red Shirt protesters in Bangkok, Thailand

BANGKOK, Thailand—I arrived in Thailand a week ago, brought here on a curious mission. As tourism from Iran to Thailand has increased exponentially in recent years—mostly due to loose visa restrictions and low-cost tours—Thailand has become pigeonholed as a destination most suitable for men traveling alone, an image that Thailand has worked for years to combat. Tehran travel agencies that send tours to Thailand asked me to help rebrand Thailand back in Iran.

My job wouldn’t be easy, but I had a plan: I would begin by highlighting the many ways in which Thailand and Iran are similar, a theme I first pondered after reading Robert Kaplan’s The Ends of the Earth, a prophetic look at early 21st-century struggles written in the mid-1990s. Both countries exercise a strong cultural influence in their respective regions, perhaps because they were never subjected to colonial rule. Both are renowned for their strong traditions of hospitality, an asset the Thai tourism sector has used to its advantage in ways Iran can’t even begin to comprehend.

The timing of my trip, which had been in the works for months, was fortuitous, since it gave me a chance to watch these two nations in the throes of civil conflict. I was struck by how different protest looks in each place.

Iranians and Thais tend to repeat a certain phrase: “This is Iran” or “This is Thailand.” I didn’t know that about Thailand until I read a Bangkok Post editorial after April 10’s bloody street protests. In both countries, the term can be loosely interpreted to mean, “What do you expect me to do about it?” Decades of corruption, authoritarian rule, and ancient belief systems that say life and its many circumstances are beyond one’s control make the saying commonplace, but it can be maddening, especially for someone raised in a democratic society.

Perhaps this is why the movements in Iran and Thailand, as played out on the streets of Tehran and Bangkok, have been so gripping: In both places, people are beginning to believe they have some control.

I arrived in Bangkok late Saturday afternoon as part of the city experienced Thailand’s deadliest civil unrest in decades. The ongoing struggle between the military and anti-government forces, who believe the current prime minister came to power illegitimately with the support of the Thai elite, came to a head. The state continues to refuse the opposition’s calls to dissolve parliament and hold a general election.

The streets of always-buzzing Bangkok were eerily empty. Shops were closed and shuttered. It was hard to say whether Thais were worried about potential property damage, had joined the protests, or had decided to leave town ahead of the country’s biggest holiday, Songkran, which ended on April 15.

As we approached my hotel, we were stopped by a Red Shirt, the common name for members of the National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (known as UDD), who had taken it upon themselves to direct traffic and create a lane for the exclusive use of a massive caravan of their brethren. My driver would need to find a suitable detour.

We came on every type of obstacle imaginable: roadblocks fashioned from tree branches and metal siding, official police blockades, Red Shirt tents blaring music. In some areas, the Red Shirts had erected massive encampments, including one in front of the Thai tourism ministry, where members shaded themselves under tents. Street vendors were feeding people free of charge.

When I finally arrived at my hotel at sundown, I could see a long procession of red leading to one of Bangkok’s most important tourist attractions: a series of giant shopping malls connected by above-ground walkways. The stores had all been forced to close because of the protests.

My schedule had me in Bangkok for just one night, so early the next morning I was whisked to Suvarnabhumi Airport to catch a flight to a northern corner of the country. We were stopped at several military roadblocks as we approached the airport—no one wanted to risk a repeat of the airport takeover pulled off in November 2008 by the Red Shirts’ main rivals, the People’s Alliance for Democracy, widely known as the Yellow Shirts.

When I arrived in the northern city of Chiang Mai, the scene was completely different. Although most of the Red Shirts hail from the north, the atmosphere couldn’t have been more jubilant. Perhaps they were celebrating a turning point in their struggle against Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s rule, but it’s more likely they were excited about Songkran, the Thai lunar-new-year celebration.

The protests paused to celebrate Songkran, which is marked by three days of massive water fights throughout the country. Originally, splashing small amounts of holy water was part of a respectful ritual of offering good luck to one’s elders, but since the holiday coincides with the hottest time of year in Thailand, Songkran has evolved into a way for Thais to cool off and have some fun. The festivities in Chiang Mai are Thailand’s most famous, and although I spotted a few pickup trucks filled with Red Shirts around town, they, too, were splashing around with their countrymen.

Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second city. It also happens to be the home town of ousted prime minister  Thaksin Shiniwatra, who is supported by most Red Shirts and in turn supports them, allegedly paying a daily wage to some of them. Thaksin was the only Thai prime minister to serve out a full term. He was re-elected for a second term, but he was removed from office by a military coup. The former policeman-turned-telecom-billionaire fled the country in 2008 and has been on the run ever since.

Throughout Thailand, I’ve encountered a wide range of sentiment about Thaksin, and Red Shirts’ and Yellow Shirts’ allegiances varied widely—some opposed the current government, and others favored it. The perception that the Red Shirts are uneducated peasants was not borne out in my admittedly small sample.

“I don’t tell anyone I work with, but after my shift ends, I join the protestors,” Bui, who worked in a luxury Bangkok hotel, told me. “People say that Thaksin pays the Red Shirts. That’s not true. I go because I want to. I don’t like Thaksin, but he was much better than this government. He was a businessman, and he ran our country that way. Other educated people agree with me. I see them at the protests.”

Still, lots of people in Chiang Mai spoke against the Red Shirts. Ploy, a sales manager, told me, “There is no point. These people don’t know what they’re fighting for at all. It’s fine when things are peaceful, but now people are dying for nothing, and that makes me upset. ”

Even more prevalent, though, were those who are opposed to both sides and just hope things will return to normal soon. In a country where more than 6 percent of the GDP comes from tourism, an industry that employs 1.8 million Thais, the image of tourists running for cover as bullets fly will be a hard one to shake. The country has worked hard to clean up its image as a haven for sex tourists, and Thailand deserves its position as a premier destination. The perception of instability can only tarnish that image. Ton, a tour guide in northern Thailand, told me, “I really don’t like to talk about it, because my business is to show foreigners the great aspects of my country. I personally can’t feel any pride about this, so I just keep my opinions to myself.”

When I returned to Bangkok, my hotel was sandwiched between Bangkok’s favorite spot for celebrating Songkran and a park that has become one of the Red Shirts’ largest encampments. The intersection between the two was completely flooded with a cloudy mix of rainwater, spilled beer, and powder that revelers throw on each other. Traffic was at a halt.

In the Red Shirt camp, a jumbo screen showed speeches several of its leaders were making in another part of the city. The combination of the protests and the holiday gave vendors an opportunity to sell everything from grilled meat and cold beer to water guns. The never-ending party had turned the streets a milky colored mud.

In the park, people of all ages watched the speeches, chatted, and slept in the grass. Even at midnight, the temperature was well above 90 degrees. I stopped at a booth that was producing photo ID cards for the UDD, the Red Shirts’ party, and spoke with several female UDD supporters, all residents of Bangkok, a blow to the stereotype that the Red Shirts all hail from rural provinces.

I marveled at the ease with which the Thai opposition was able to take over parts of the city and disseminate its message. Eat your heart out, Mir Hossein Mousavi!

The protests movements in Iran and Thailand are both still in their nascent stages, and in both cases, the Western version of democracy is a long way off. After years of constant contact with foreigners, I’d guess Thailand is closer to getting what they think they want.

Across the intersection on Silom Road, large trucks filled with men and women crept down the street spraying and being sprayed with massive amounts of water. With sound systems booming a mix of Top 40 and Thai hits, a transsexual did a seductive striptease atop one of the trucks, never fully revealing her improbably large bosom. The crowds cheered.

Motorbike-riding Red Shirts drove through the crowd shooting their water guns indiscriminately; others were passed out in alleys near the action. As I approached my hotel, a Red Shirt stopped next to me and sprayed me with his water gun, soaking me even further. Laughing, he said, “So sorry. You’re dead.”

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