Getting down with the protesters. 30 03 2104
After two days of being a recipient (not a victim) of the protesters highly successful ‘Shut Down Bangkok’ campaign, i decided to take my battered bike and equally battered body round Lumpini Park, the lung of the city where i habitually ride and now serving as the HQ of the Peoples Party. I was allowed through the barricade of tyres and sandbags to be waved into a wonder world. This park is normally populated only by older folk passing the day with Tai Chi or dominos while lamenting the state of the world, mixed with yuppies on high end bikes and the occasional tourists who have somehow escaped the Tourist Board’s version of a temple-based Disney world of floating markets and dancing elephants.
Presided over of course with the noble permission of the conspicuous monitor lizards who long ago declared the park to be their kingdom. Replacing this usual tableau I discover instead a world of colour, vibrant sound, and lemon grass scents quite different in kind from those ever witnessed here before. Every patch of grass has a mosquito-net tent on it, every river terrace lined with sitting people, eyes alive, quietly satisfied with their day of Shut Down. They eye me cautiously at first, as i am the only white face in this ‘country comes to the city scene.’
Cycling around my usual circular route I find that third time around i am shown recognition and smiles which i reciprocate though i mainly keep my camera in my pocket. A band plays Thai pop music which i have grown to find a soft spot for, this wall of sound reaching every part of the park and beyond via giant mobile speakers, parked alongside the meticulous mobile toilet blocks. All feels serene and as the music picks up, the mood is quite joyous.
I soon i find myself dancing along with the irresistible beat and the swaying crowd, thinking there are other ways to express democracy rather than the ballot box. An old lady wearing a bandana saying ‘We love the King’ smiles in beneficent union at me. Yet i see no press, no police, no army. Outside the park yes their presence is felt but inside nothing, not one sign of the normal forces of social shaping, The sense of ‘organising’ and quietly building a society that works here is unignorable. In fact I am rather surprised it has been allowed.
Part of me wants ‘my’ park back, another part celebrates that maybe it has gone forever. it reminds me of Cape Town post Mandela dispensation in 1994 when suddenly the once all white beaches became black, or mixed. to witness privilege being appropriated overnight is symbolically breathtaking, not least as we more usually witness appropriation occurring in quite the reverse direction. The monitor lizards are nowhere to be seen, though i expect before too long some alternative surveillance, of social monitoring will be in operation.
Why are the press not in this camp? This morning’s editorial in the English language newspaper ‘The Nation’ was dedicated to speculation about the impact of loss of Alex Ferguson’s leadership on the demise of Manchester United. the gaze seems to be anywhere, anything other than the lived experience of these protestors, focussing if it recognises them at all only on their leaders and their rhetoric. I return to the sandbagged gates, threshold to the normal cacophony of traffic and fume. I think I was safer in there than I am out here. And i wish them no harm at all, but fear reform might be a long time coming.
Breaking camp at the Peoples Park: 31 03 2014
Returned on the trusty rusty bicycle yesterday to witness the next evolutionary stage of this democratic temporary organisation. I find the camp in a liminal state between the weekend’s total occupation and the the re-introduction of the forces of normalisation in the form of the regular park workers. The music continued to play for a while, sadly to be replaced by interminable political speech-ifying. Despite the monotony of this – which most in the camp seemed to ignore – some of the deep groove from the day before persisted.
It seemed that while some were reluctantly breaking camp, gathering their few belongings around then for the journey home, some seemed to be embedding themselves more deeply than ever. One man had set up a highly enterprising barbers shop beside the primitive shower block, attracting a long queue of customers. Many stalls were now popping up selling drinks, hats and for some reason denim shirts. One woman’s entrepreneurial triumph was a push-up bra pop-up shop, though her market research team may have been a little misguided in targeting this particular market which needed little uplift. A few stall owners improvised arches of recycled drinks bottles that magically refracted the midday sun.
The crows large as ravens that had disappeared over the weekend were now returned in full malignancy, reclaiming their ground by the river while feasting on the few scraps left behind. The clean up was total, the park being restored to pristine condition as the tents were raised, not a plant left out of place. The fountains sprayed once more, while the pressure sprinklers in their high arc paid their normal disregard to passers by. One welcome but intrusive innovation was the presence of men dressed in ghost-buster outfits spraying pungent disinfectant down every drain, leaving a cloud of toxic fume behind that made it impossible to walk or cycle through without choking for those of us not blessed with decontamination suits.
The water bowsers and other park vehicles were made to check in by the provisional guards at the still sandbagged gate, though the searches of these trucks seemed congenial enough. One aspect of contemporary life still absent from the camp was the sight of people poking at smart phone screens, oblivious to immediate appreciation of those around them. I guess this absence may have been due to lack of power but it was nonetheless noticeable that this country which has recently surrendered to the smartphone was rediscovering an immediate ease and communion with each other.
At the exit a group of happy protestors asked me if i could take their group photo, many phones appearing from pockets to be thrust in my direction. I gently inquired if i may have a picture of their ensemble too as their beaming faces spoke volumes, but they declined. I restricted my photos of the camp once more to inanimate views. By the gate one of the guards stepped out not to admonish me for photographing – as i had thought – but to reward me with a most welcome bottle of chilled water.
In the middle of the adjoining highway the army had set up their own sandbagged post for the protection of the citizens. I boldly asked if i may take their picture, prepared to cycle off at speed if it all kicked off. They were more than happy to pose though. Perhaps they have nothing to fear from anyone. Next weekend the Red Shirts march, perhaps with designs on the park also. Today the English language newspaper says that the Army are considering options to bring peace to this demonstration torn land. It will be interesting to see if this report proves to be true. Meanwhile the monitor lizards remain in their sceptical deep-dive.