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Monday, March 29, 2010

Red in the Land: Sua Si Dang

"Have fun in Bangkok. Be safe and do not go to a red shirt protest. PLEASE," Mike and Miles both warned at some point before Leslie and I headed off on an overnight bus from Khon Kaen to Thailand's capital city. However, upon arriving at my hostel a bus and three- hour taxi ride later, I realized the impossibility of their urges. Niras Bankoc sat behind the gates that closed off the protest area from cars and other unauthorized vehicles. I was living about twenty steps away from the hustle and bustle of the protest at the National Stadium and Democracy Monument, and it was impossible to get a taxi from one side of town to my hostel without getting dropped off on Khao San Road and walking the length of the rally. 

Before moving on, I should probably give you background on the political situation so you have some context for what this rally entails. Firstly, since 1932, Thailand has witnessed 11 successful coups and 18 new constitutions, so political upheaval is not rare and the king actually approves of every coup before it occurs. Come 2000, or 2543 according to the Thai calender, a coup brought in a new Prime Minister, Thaksin Chinnovata, the first PM to ever serve a full term in Thailand. Thaksin concentrated his governance of alleviating rural poverty, by administering a universal health care program and a drug suppression scheme.  However, his government was also highly criticized of corruption, authoritarianism, treason, tax evasion, and many human rights violations. Thaksin's government was overthrown in 2006 in a bloodless coup and consequently accused of conflict of interests. The People's Alliance for Democracy, "Yellow Shirts", mostly composed of the middle class, military representatives, and Thailand's bourgeois, emerged first out of the Thaksin controversy, protesting his rule and attempting to upseat him. However, a group of Thailand's poor, mostly farmers and villagers from Isaan, the Northeast region of Thailand, where our program does all of our work, called The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, "Red Shirts," soon followed. They perceived the yellows as anti- poor and fought for Thaksin's amnesty from the charges against him. These groups have been in continuous conflict with one another, and currently, the "Reds" are conducting a  non-violent protest in Bangkok in hope of gaining a new election. They believe that true democracy was lost after Thaksin's rule and that the middle class bourgeois is not attuned to the demands of the entire country. 


Ajaan Dave taught our CIEE group about these recent political happenings back in February as a part of our background lecture series, and since, we have been reading about Thaksin's latest trial and the current Red Shirt rally in Bangkok through news sources such as the New York Times. However, many of us felt disconnected, as we were reading about the rally as anyone back home would. Even though our program has no emphasis on politics, it was strange that we were watching caravans of people dressed in red pass through Khon Kaen, leaving Isaan to flood the streets of Bangkok, without a mention. Therefore, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't excited when I realized the location of my hostel. 


There was red everywhere. On the streets, on the cars, on the motorcycles, at the temples; everywhere I went, there was someone who made the trek from their home province to Bangkok in order to show their support of Thaksin and demand a truly democratic government. Some street vendors, security guards, and taxi and tuktuk drivers, who had previously moved to Bangkok due to increased urban migration and fled the poverty of Isaan in order to attempt to make more money in the city, had now reunited with friends, family, and the like- minded and displayed their political tendencies through their daily work.

Understanding nothing about the American government except for the fact that we pride ourselves on democracy and recently managed to elect Barack Obama, the "Reds" I met were overly receptive to my presence, nevermind when I threw out a "Sawadika" ("Hello") or even better, "Sawadija," using the polite ending from the Isaan language, as opposed to Thai. Many asked where I came from, and when my response included that I was studying in Khon Kaen, I was immediately considered a friend. I asked what province they came from, and was often able to share stories of people I met and villages I stayed in Surin, Roi Et, Srisaket, and Yasothon.

I, of course, have no Thai political tendencies. I have nowhere near enough personal investment or familiarity with the issues to come close to siding with one extreme or another of this debate.  Had it been a peaceful yellow shirt protest, I probably would have addressed the protesters, asking them about the purpose of their rally, just as I did the reds. However, I could not guarantee that I would have been able to make the connections that I did at this protest, simply due to geographical location of my semester's studies.

Our group of 31 has recently been addressing issues of feeling un-immersed.  Although CIEE as a program is fully invested in the communities that we visit,  our time with our families as individuals is so short and we can't decide which Mae and Paw we feel most connected to or which community we'd like to help through our final projects. Additionally, at KKU, we sometimes spend entire days in a room with each other talking about ourselves as a group, when we could be getting to know local Thai's or exploring Khon Kaen. However, at the rally this weekend, in a completely different region of Thailand, I felt equally immersed in Isaan culture as I had all semester. Although the families I have stayed with may or may not have identified with being a red shirt or benefiting from Thaksin's rule, when I woke up to man's voice over a loudspeaker blasting "Pinong Chao Na" ("Brother and sister farmers") through my hostel window, I felt at home again. Granted, it wasn't exactly the sound of roosters, but all it took was a short trip to Bangkok to gain yet another perspective on life in Thailand's Northeast. 

How have you felt immersed throughout your study abroad program or culture at home? Do you think it's important to immerse yourself in current events of the country in which you are studying (even in the US) despite the focus of your studies or your own political beliefs, even if that requires putting yourself mid- political protest?

Most recent update of Red Shirt protest (30.3.10): http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8594601.stm
Original article on front page of NYT (14.3.10): http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/15/world/asia/15thai.html?hp

 Red shirts rallying at the National Stadium. Despite political tensions, everyone loves the king.

How red can you go?


 Reds and non-reds pray together at the Golden Mount Wat

 An array of red paraphanalia for one to choose from to show their support

 A red security guard at the gates near my hostel


If Thais love nothing else, it's dancing and music. Leslie and I with a Red Shirt woman at a concert at the National Stadium. 

The Democracy Monument. Earlier that day, the middle part was stone, not covered in red cloth. 

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