The clashes of April-May 2010 told from street level
This book begins in the debris after the violence of May 19-20, 2010. The remnant protesters are exhausted by the long campaign, demoralised by the violence turned against them, and utterly defiant. Claudio Sopranzetti accompanies one group on a train back home to Udon.
"This is not finished yet, it is not even half done. We will come back," they repeat time and time again. They slowly unwind by sleeping, venting their anger, clowning around and getting drunk. Not heroes, or terrorists. Sopranzetti notices they are not "the poor" identified by the press headlines, but more like a lower middle-class with jobs, good houses, pick-ups and possessions.
They admit they are better off than before, but that makes them more resentful of the inequalities and hierarchies they have to live with. Sopranzetti gently probes their motives for leaving home to take part in such an event. "What we mean by democracy is fairness. We want fairness in three ways _ legal, political and educational."
Sopranzetti came to Thailand to research an anthropology doctorate. He got interested in the motorcycle-taxi drivers as a unique part of the society, mobility, and politics of Bangkok. He followed his subjects into the 2010 protests and began writing a daily blog. Here the posts have been lightly edited, but not so they lose their rawness and immediacy. Some days begin with the classic banality of a juvenile diary, "I wake up in the morning and..." Sopranzetti adds no slabs of "background", no notes on the few named people and past events, and only a little editorial. He's a verbal camera. As he zips around the protest, we perch on the pillion seat and eavesdrop on his exchanges with red-shirts, soldiers and passers-by.
The second segment begins after the killings at Phan Fa Bridge on April 10. The book omits the early phase of the protest with its atmosphere of carnival and optimism, and starts at the point where it seemed destined to end badly, as these events always do. For three weeks Sopranzetti records the abnormal normality of the protest town suddenly founded in the capital's commercial heart: people standing in line and paying money to get an official ID card as a protester _ a ritual of commitment; the sheer boredom at the endless and predictable speeches which form the theatre of protest; the fragmentation of central Bangkok's streets into hundreds of mini settlements which are each "home" for those from a small corner of Isan; the MPs and rich patrons giving discreet support; the growing complicity of the police in defending the protesters against the aggression of the army; the radical booksellers and street artists who form a link back to 1992, 1973 and the history of protest; the prominent role of women who have travelled to the capital to participate from a sense of duty "on behalf of all our families"; the sense of history being made that finds people collecting spent shell cases as memorabilia, taking endless mobile photos, constructing instant shrines at death sites and wanting "for once to be part of history, to touch it, to make it".
After the shooting of Seh Daeng on May 13, the book enters a third, darker segment. Sopranzetti records fewer conversations. Instead, he is transfixed by the changing landscape of the central city. Barricades and blockages negate the constant movement which is the essence of a city. The protest headquarters at Ratchaprasong is isolated behind a no man's land of empty streets with scrappy fighting. The inequality of the confrontation reflects the politics behind it. Against the steely armour of tanks and razor wire, the protesters erect medieval barriers of wooden stakes. Against the army's sniper rifles and M16s, the protesters deploy fireworks, burning tires and Red Bull Molotovs _ all devices that reproduce the sound and smoke of weaponry without doing any harm. Political confrontation as black humour. The ending is never in doubt, only the timing.
In the finale, Sopranzetti finds a way through the barriers on May 20 to the remains of the abandoned red-shirt stage. At the sight of the debris set against the background of the gutted and dripping carcass of CentralWorld, the verbal camera stutters to a stop _ "It is breathtaking. It defeats language."
This book is not a war story. At the sound of gunfire, photojournalists race towards the action, but Sopranzetti goes home to bed. He misses all the "events" of the story _ Phan Fa, Seh Daeng, the army's final crackdown, and the burnings. Instead he conveys the muddle of hope and fear experienced by those taking part. He offers no thesis on why the demonstration happened or what it achieved. Instead, he captures a sense of very ordinary people swept up into very extraordinary events for reasons that they can barely articulate beyond resentment at the society's deep unfairness and a hint that history is now dealing them in. The book quietly argues that this mass participation was the big story of this event, and those like the Democrats who fixate instead on the violence are condemning themselves to misunderstand the present and probably count themselves out of the future.
This is a brilliant little book _ moving, eye-opening, unsettling. Two years down the road, it serves as a reminder. The scar on CentralWorld has been healed, but little has happened to dowse the resentments burning below this movement.
*Chris Baker is a historian and currently a visiting fellow at Kyoto University.
By Chris Baker*
14 May 2012
RED JOURNEYS: Inside the Thai Red-shirt Movement by Claudio Sopranzetti 137 pp 2012 Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai. Available at Asia Books and other leading bookshops, 395 baht