What I Saw at the Revolution

In the Magazine
Anti-government protesters blow whistles and shout slogans as they blocking a main road during the 'Bangkok Shutdown' campaign rally at Ratchaprasong shopping district in central of Bangkok, Thailand, Jan. 13, 2014. Rungroj Yongrit/EPA

Bangkok's smog is a choking shroud that swallows mornings whole. Depending on weather factors, the grim stuff randomly spreads or recedes. Before the Shutdown - a day the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) vowed to block major intersections throughout the city - its residents woke to gray mornings, as if the city itself was deciding what to do.

Tension had been building since November, when the first PDRC anti-government rally filled the streets with more than 100,000 protesters. Then in December, major government offices were besieged by the PDRC, and a bitterly violent bid to seize police headquarters and the prime minister's office resulted in bloody street chaos. The government dissolved part of parliament, but re-election efforts only resulted in shootings at the registration poll and frantic election commissioners airlifted out by helicopters. This building battle had led to the new PDRC putsch on January 13, when thousands of Thais were to be strategically deployed to major Bangkok intersections in an attempt to shut down the government.

Nobody knew what would happen on day one. Would the police be there to meet them? Would the coup-prone army roll in with tanks? Would the will of the people fail? Worst yet, would there be fires, looting and bloody violence like the protests that left more than 90 people dead in 2010? Bangkok didn't know. The world didn't either, so tourist numbers plunged in the new year. Flights to Bangkok flew half empty or not at all. Many expats, hardened veterans of just about everything Thailand throws at a person, decided to hit the beach while the storm clouds forming over Bangkok either blew by or exploded.

But on the morning of the Shutdown, Bangkok woke up to blue skies and a shining dawn. The haze of uncertainty lifted with the smog, as the warm sun illuminated streets that were free from army tanks or police barbed-wire barricades. Many thousands of Thais left their homes, apartments and condos, or journeyed in from far-flung provinces and seaside isles. They left their fields, office jobs, society lunches, architecture firms, street stands, hospitals, taxis and insurance offices, to stand together in the streets.

Saowaluk, 30-something TV producer, was one of them. She met me that morning in my building's lobby. Dressed in jeans, black T-shirt and running sneakers, she tucked her smartphone into a designer handbag, brushed her long black hair aside, and led me out into the protests. She walked fast, and we were on the underground train in no time, heading downtown. Saowaluk's status as a Thai-Chinese media professional, middle class and Bangkok-born, puts her at the heart of the protesting demographic. Her retired parents were small-business owners; her brothers and sisters are architects or executives; and when she graduated from Chulalongkorn University, the king handed Saowaluk her diploma. Every year, while his health allowed, the king of Thailand passed out diplomas at every graduation ceremony, for the top three universities in Thailand. Many people pouring into the streets of Bangkok today received their diploma directly from their king. The PDRC movement is filled with such educated professionals, whom detractors have spun toward the more derogatory label of "elite."

But stop by stop, as more protesters join us on the train, what I see is middle class. Fashion is sensible; tastes are reasonable; manners are polite. These demonstrators are far from firebrand revolutionaries. Mostly, they seem like a bunch of people headed to work. In a way, they are. But today's job is shutting down a city of 8 million.

"Will it work?" I ask Saowaluk.

"We have to try. We are some light in the darkness."

That darkness has been spreading for more than a decade. Yingluck Shinawatra, the prime minister, is merely the most recent public face of a powerful family dynasty that has a cobra choke on Thailand politics. It began with Yingluck's older brother Thaksin. For many, this former prime minister and multibillionaire is a saint, but he is also a fugitive, exiled in Dubai, with jail time waiting for him should he return to Thailand. He made sure his rule, from 2001 to 2006, was very profitable. Personal assets of more than $1.5 billion were frozen by the Thai government, still leaving Thaksin enough to pick up a Nicaraguan Diplomatic passport, buy England's Manchester City football team, then eventually settle into his Middle Eastern mansion. Now amid sheiks, he is rumored to be running the nation via Skype, through his sister. Opinions of Yingluck are not high in the Land of Smiles. Google the Thai word for stupid and she is in the top five results. The husband of a different Shinawatra sister was prime minister in 2008, and the future promises more of them. In October, a well-placed source within their party told the Bangkok Post that Thaksin's son was being groomed for high political office.

Most of the people on this train feel as Saowaluk does: that the Shinawatras play Thailand like their own personal stock market, reaping huge profits through cronyism and market manipulation. Yingluck Shinawatra is being officially investigated for graft in a government rice-subsidy program, but the move that spurred today's uprising was her attempt to grant Thaksin blanket amnesty. That sent citizens surging into what might be the highest court of the land: the streets. For a country that has witnessed 18 coups in 81 years, this is both business as usual and an extraordinary threat to the Shinawatra machine.

But the PDRC protesters on our train don't look threatening. Patiently waiting in line to pay their exit fare at Sukhumvit Station, the Times Square of Thailand, they are polite and orderly. As we go up the escalators, I hear the first of many voices on the public-address system that will boom through the day, answered by cheers, yells, applause and whistles. We emerge into bright sunlight and a throng. Thai flags ripple from the Skytrain overpass. The avenue is filled with people. Sunlight reflects down from glass skyscrapers. A large stage, stacked high with speakers, dominates the intersection. Shouts exhort a crowd that spreads into each intersection. The only traffic today is pedestrian and political.

There are no cars and no police. For weeks I have been scrolling through news sites, staring at photos of bulldozers and tear gas, rubber bullets and barbed wire, as the jerky start and fitful fights of the protests left fractured limbs and dead bodies throughout November and December. But within minutes on the streets, I realize today is different. People look happy. The Thais shutting down Bangkok today are doing it politely.

1-24-2014_FE0304_Bangkok_02 Anti-government protesters offer donations and greet protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban as he arrives at a major intersection which demonstrators are occupying, in central Bangkok, Jan. 13, 2014. Damir Sagolj/Reuters

They're doing it stylishly, as well: In the midst of the demonstrators I see the first of many political fashion statements. Made by some of Thailand's leading graphic designers, style magazine editors and fashionistas, these T-shirts have given the revolution fashionable PR flair and proceeds that fund the cause. I see one shirt that shows a large computer power button: Shut Down Bangkok, Restart Thailand.

The notion is simple yet complex. People restart laptops every day. Can entire nations be rebooted too? "So you guys are trying to get rid of a computer virus?" I ask Saowaluk.

She switches metaphors as we switch trains, trading the Metropolitan Rapid Transit subway for the elevated Bangkok Mass Transit System, which will take us to another protest site, at Central World mall. "Thaksin is like a toxin that must be removed," she says as we board our next train. "We don't oppose elections, just want to reform them. But Thaksin buys election committees, police and votes. It's not easy to fight someone like him." She pauses for a moment while the city passes in a blur. "Have you seen The Hunger Games? That's like Thailand today."

Reaching our stop, we hear thousands of people blowing whistles as a speech echoes from another stage. The four-lane artery that runs between two of Thailand's largest shopping malls is thick with milling people who recede in the distance. Toddlers with tiny Thai flags painted on their cheeks follow parents blowing whistles. Cheers and chants rise from the stage. I'm with university professors and working people in denim, pretty girls taking "protest selfies," seniors in folding chairs, professionals on pricey mountain bikes, entire families up from the south, sharing lunch on blankets, while someone dressed as Batman poses for photos. "Restart Thailand" signs and anti-Shinawatra slogans are everywhere. T-shirts, whistles and stickers are arrayed on the sidewalk, sold rapidly by grinning vendors.

Like most of the Thais out today, Saowaluk has a whistle hanging from her neck. This toy has become an essential PDRC weapon. Worn on tricolor Thai ribbons, whistles provides a decentralized, people-powered sound system. Worn, it symbolizes protest. When many are blown together, they give the people a voice. And when thousands of Thais blow whistles on cue, that voice is a shrill and piercing blast. (Western reporters on the Bangkok Shutdown beat have learned to pack earplugs or weep.) Whistles cannot be unplugged by authorities. Their strident, defiant blast is both innocent and defiant: one simple note, blown over and over, shrieking at the powers that be. Saowaluk holds her whistle up as an impromptu rally starts, joining the others in a brief burst of strident noise.

When it passes, she laughs. Thais are having fun with their whistles, some of which have Hello Kitties on them, or sparkly plastic. Thais, more than most people on the planet, like to have fun, practically demand fun. Why should overthrowing a government be any different?

We listen to more speeches. Surreal streets, free from roaring (and more often, crawling) cars, lends Bangkok a dreamlike feel. Normal social hierarchies seem suspended. Saowaluk points out a famously rich Thai socialite who is taking a break from volunteering today near the protest stage. She is crouched on the pavement, eating lunch off a Styrofoam plate. I watch her crack her hard-boiled egg on the sidewalk, her rings glistening. Leaving the train earlier, we passed two former prime ministers who were transferring. Imagine bumping into Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton at Occupy Wall Street. Months before, Chitpas Bhirombhakdi, PDRC supporter and heiress to the Singha Beer fortune, made headlines by dodging rubber bullets and teargas to drive a bulldozer through a riot. The Shinawatras reign has dissolved social barriers.

But economic barriers remain; these protests aren't free. As reported in the Jakarta Post on January 9, the spokesman for the PDRC tallied its daily protest costs at between $60,000 and $150,000 per day. Initial funding came from Suthep Thaugsuban, who sold and mortgaged his land holdings to start the movement. Since then, the PDRC claims that the movement has been endowed by the people. Payments are made mostly in cash, after the government froze the personal bank accounts of nearly 40 PDRC leaders as well as a separate protest fund account. That morning, in a volunteer tent, I watch an old, browned and tattooed laborer give about $30, more than a few days' pay, no doubt. His name is written down, to be read on stage with others who contributed today. Saowaluk says much of the money is spent providing for poorer families who have made the long journey in from the country. These people need food and blankets for their nights spent sleeping in the parks. Beyond that, there are soundstages, equipment, hospitals, TV broadcasting and more to pay for. When I ask her about the local businesses that will lose money during the shutdown, she says, "Look around. The malls are open, not like before."

Before means 2010, when Redshirt supporters of the Shinawatra regime rioted through Bangkok in a violent push to have parliament dissolved and a new round of elections scheduled. There was looting and arson. Gunshots peppered the night throughout Cruel April and fired more wildly in Savage May, as grenade attacks increased, piles of tires roared in flames, a Redshirt security advisor was assassinated by sniper while giving a live TV interview, and shopping malls were burned to the ground. The hammering government response left more than 90 people, civilians and soldiers, dead in bloody streets. In peaceful contrast, after today's shutdown, the city's Starbucks and McDonald's would report banner sales.

Sipping iced coffee now in a mall's food court, Saowaluk checks her messages. She tilts her phone toward me. "Thank you, Mark Zuckerberg," she says, tapping the Facebook page on her screen. "Facebook made this protest successful. It has become a powerful medium for us that the government cannot block."

What's more, Facebook helped block the Thai government. Suthep was nearly arrested in a November raid last year, but sympathetic sources in the Thai police tipped off the movement. The leak turned into a Facebook tsunami, launching a last-minute, spontaneous civilian blockade. One of Saowaluk's co-workers was a part of it. Fleeing her office, directed by frantic social media posts, she joined PDRC members who raced their cars to block off a strategic expressway exit. Jamming their brakes, blocking traffic, they boxed out police as Suthep slipped away.

Less dramatic, but just as important, the ubiquitous social messaging platform helps share information. Line, the popular Thai chat app, is another potent tool. Wired revolutionaries share pics and posts that hype the movement, playfully canonizing people like Underwear Hero, a portly man who stripped off his tear gas-stained clothes during December's attempt to take over the police headquarters, then stormed the police barricades in nothing but white briefs, furiously spraying fire extinguishers in their faces. He instantly became a revolutionary meme. Instagram has also been valuable in preserving peace. Police are reluctant to twist stories, or even arms, with an army of cameras pointed at them. And all these posts let people in the provinces know what's happening.

Just then, an elderly man wearing a crisp polo shirt tucked into neat jeans passes our table. "That man, you have to talk to him," Saowaluk says, scooping up her phone and purse and coffee. "He is a very famous Thai politician."

1-24-2014_FE0304_Bangkok_03 Anti-government protesters link their arms outside the Import-Export Bank of Thailand as protesters forced the evacuation of its employees in central Bangkok, Jan. 17, 2014. Nir Elias/Reuters

We catch up to Pongpol Adireksarn in front of a pudding shop. He is a novelist, photographer, documentary producer and noted politician. A member of parliament throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he also held a position in the Thai Department of Central Intelligence and received numerous royal decorations. While Saowaluk's smartphone records, the white-haired former statesman shares his feelings on the shutdown, which he supports.

"It's a friendly mob," he says, as a few young people stop to listen. "This is a different type of demonstration. This is a street fair. This is the nature of Thai people. We always enjoy things."

He laughs, looking around at protesters sharing ice cream, coffee and meals in the food court. Then I ask him how the system can be restarted once it is shut down.

"If you extend the election date, there is a chance for reform. Three months? That's enough: I can write the reform in two hours. "

Whether that will be done is uncertain, and he points out problems endemic to the Thai version of democracy.

"Thai people have their own democracy.... They don't want checks and balances. They want money checks." He laughs warmly. "Thai people try to bring in democracy for 80 years now. But they interpret it wrongly; that is my opinion."

Many smartphones are hovering around us now as young people wait to take a picture with the famous political patriarch. Eyes glinting behind glasses, he offers some final thoughts on the flaws in Thai democracy:

"We have Thai words you don't have: greng jai and mon sai. But there is no English synonym."

Before he can explain more, he turns to those who want photos. I say my thanks as the young people swarm him, then Saowaluk and I descend on the escalator. She asks me if I know the two Thai words I just heard.

"I know the first one."

Greng Jai translates roughly into a character quality that is generous and understanding, respects elders and seniors, and considers other's feelings. At its best, greng jai makes Thailand a beautiful place to visit, because Thais rarely point out your flaws, choosing instead to bear with your shortcomings. But at its worst, greng jai lets Thailand's rich and powerful plunder with Roman emperor-like abandon. Openly disagreeing in Thailand - especially with someone of a higher social class - is shockingly rude. For people steeped in the tradition of greng jai - even someone like Saowaluk - this natural hesitancy to discuss problems lets them build to titanic proportions.

"And is mon sai like jealousy?"

"Mon sai is more than just jealous," Saowaluk tells me as we walk in late afternoon from the air-conditioned mall into the streets. "It's like people who don't want others looking better than them or getting admiration." She continues to describe a type of viciously animated envy, which prowls through Thai society to slander and destroy those who stand out from the collective. A savage mechanism to preserve the social hierarchy, fear of mon sai makes many people in Thai industry and politics downplay personal achievement.

We pass 13 young Thais sitting side by side with their backs to the street. A single letter on each of their matching T-shirts spells out: OCCUPY BANGKOK. I ponder the land they are trying to change. Prime Minister Shinawatra's vision for Thailand probably did not include mobs of 200,000 people blowing Hello Kitty whistles in her face.

With daylight fading, Saowaluk thinks it's time for me to leave. She isn't sure the protests will be safe after dark; armed Shinawatra supporters from the north are rumored to be driving down to Bangkok. It's hard to imagine violence in today's festive atmosphere, but I listen to my guide. Regretfully leaving the hopeful faces all around me, I thank my friend and leave on the Skytrain.

Riding home, I consider what I witnessed in Thailand today. Hardly any media outlets worldwide failed to report the story or the issues involved. With no elected officials, no international lobby, no corporate sponsors and no promise of personal safety, 200,000 disparate people performed a wide-scale, highly coordinated and totally peaceful social protest.

Tragically, this cheerful tune changed. Six days later, on January 19, 28 peaceful PDRC protesters were wounded, seven of them seriously, when two bombs were hurled into a crowd. The assailant escaped on motorcycle. A grenade was thrown at Suthep during a street march, killing one and injuring many more. But despite such violence, the Shutdown continued, forcing more than 160 bank branches to close and Yingluck Shinawatra to shift her office location, and blocking many government workers from entering their buildings. The slow pressure continues to build, the eyes of the world remain watchful, and the Shinawatra government is being forced into an ever-tightening corner.

Already, the Bangkok Post has reported dissension within the ranks of the prime minister's camp, as her advisors spar over how to handle the shutdown. As violence flares, the possibility of a military coup increases. Meanwhile, investigations into Yingluck's role in the rice-subsidy scandal escalate, while formerly loyal rice farmers from her traditional power base in the north turn against her because promised payments have not been made.

In the Bangkok streets, the PDRC's army stands vigilant and - as of this writing - peaceful. This is probably because of the last thing I learned about the committee, when I left Saowaluk on the first day of the Shutdown. While saying good-bye to my guide, two young women passed in matching protest T-shirts. The logo showed a pair of sneakers and a heart. As the sun faded, I asked Saowaluk what the design meant.

"Heart and Sneakers," she told me, while distant whistles blasted faintly. "That is our motto. That is what the protest leaders told us to bring with us today. No weapons, just brave heart and sneakers."

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