Occupied Streets, Social Clashes: Observations on the Bangkok Protests

When everyday events get turned on their head, interesting possibilities can emerge in the most unexpected places. So with the last winter and spring of unrest in Thailand’s capital. The daily occupation of the city streets by cars goes virtually unnoticed and unchallenged, but when the cars are replaced by people, suddenly virtually the whole world takes note.


Much has been written about the Red Shirt protests – some of it even true and helpful. It is often phrased as a battle between the “haves” (represented by the yellow-shirted supporters of the current prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva) and the red-shirted “have-nots”, rallying under the name and with the sponsorship of ousted billionaire prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The protesters, many from rural areas, apparently adore Thaksin because he gave them inexpensive, even free, medical care. They occupied entire blocks at the Ratchaprasong intersection, closing down exclusive shopping malls and hotels, showing in the process how protest can open new spaces, both mental and physical.

I do not support the red, yellow or pink shirts, nor Thaksin. Neither do I wish to romanticise violence or coups d’état. But beyond the realm of the specific demand of the protesters lie many other issues, the importance of which supersedes the details of the politics.

Any event that closes the streets to cars and fills them with people – a street fair, a protest – can provide a tantalising glimpse of what the future will bring. But in the case of Bangkok during the recent protests, a few factors made it particularly instructive, as I learned in their midst.

Happening to be in Bangkok a few times in April, I felt myself irresistibly drawn to the Red Shirts’ protest site. On the evening of the 10th, I took to the streets. First I found a small number of protesters with some barricades in the streets, waving light traffic through; as I continued walking, and more protesters poured to the site, I was soon enveloped in their masses. Streets I had only ever seen choked with cars were now filled with people eating, sleeping, sitting and talking. Walking amongst them for two hours, I could not help but experience waves of euphoria.

Reflecting on the experience, various issues surfaced. For one, the media consistently misleads us. While wandering into the midst of protesters was perhaps not a very smart idea, especially exactly during the time when violence broke out at another site and about two dozen people died, neither was the entire city in flames or under assault, as one might reasonably believe judging from TV and newspaper reporting. I had read that the Red Shirts have violent tendencies; this may be true, but in my wanderings among them all I got were friendly, warm smiles. And while the media reported on business being hurt and a few shopping malls were closed, vendors were doing a roaring business.

Of course media does not consider the business of street hawkers as important. Economics, it seems, is only important when the rich benefit. Consider this line from the Thai Air in-flight magazine: “In a sign that the global economy could be improving, there are now 1,011 billionaires in the world, up from 793 last year… So with the tide apparently turning, and money beginning to be made once more.” The media normally shows no concern as to whether the rural poor have medical care or whether the middle class can keep their jobs; nor is it likely to support the cause of carfree cities while continuing to run pages of adverts for cars.

Cities often exclude the poor; less often, the poor can fight back. A few months ago in Bangkok I got lost in an enormous shopping mall, Siam Paragon, and could not help but note what a vast amount of space was being dedicated to the very rich: in the majority of shops there was at most a single customer, attentively waited on by a devoted storekeeper. It was all very glitzy and clean and quiet; there were almost no people. This time Siam Paragon was closed and masses of the rural poor occupied the streets; interestingly, a shopping mall only a block away, MBK, always packed due to its simpler shops and masses of informal vendors selling inexpensive products, remained open. Red Shirts camped out in front of a closed Prada shop. At the Ratchadamri sky train stop, Red Shirts occupied the road at one side; on another, a golf course spread out luxuriously, utilised by a very few golfers.

Let’s face it: space is power. In big cities an uneasy balance occurs between according space to the people and setting aside space for the wealthy; the more privatised a city becomes, the more the masses are forced into less and less of the urban space. Either the rich or the poor huddle in the centre while the other economic extreme occupies the suburbs. In the US it is the rich who occupy the suburbs, and they have full access to the city via their private cars; in cities elsewhere, it is the poor who live on the outskirts and poor quality transport grants them access to the city only at high cost. Within the city itself, priority is generally given to the car, which may even be invited to park on the sidewalk while pedestrians struggle along under the worst conditions.

Who is considered worthy of allocations of precious urban space? When the rich are clearly and consistently allotted far more than the poor, both on the streets and in the infrastructure, is violence not in a sense inevitable or in fact already occurring? Which is worse: the protest which at the time this goes to press has killed about two dozen people and injured a few hundred more, or just a few days of the Thai New Year car crashes, which according to one estimate killed 279 people and injured a further 3,185?

Whatever one’s politics, when people occupy the streets it can feel like a big party. It was difficult not to grin with pleasure while drifting among the protesters, surrounded by people and mostly liberated from motorised vehicles. Thousands of people were packed in a small space in the hottest time of the year, yet I saw no sign of aggression. It felt utterly natural that people sat, walked, slept, ate, and sold goods in places usually occupied by cars, including not just the streets but a vast parking lot. Is it not exhilarating, if also troublesome, to see the poor retake the urban space which they are otherwise consistently denied?

Cars are highly effective at blocking streets. Normally in Bangkok they block each other and prevent movement by other means; here the protesters had turned the usual on its head, using cars to block the entrance to roads so that thousands could be in the streets.

Even without speaking Thai, the connections were palpable, people thriving on the human connections of a carfree space. Admittedly there could be other reasons for the excitement, though during the two hours I wandered amidst the Red Shirts their colleagues were being attacked with tear gas and rubber bullets elsewhere. Where I was, people were dancing, clasping my hand, smiling for my camera.

Fear can be crippling as well as helpful. It can protect or stifle us. Learning to overcome what we fear can be supremely powerful. Stepping into the unknown, taking a risk, can bring huge rewards. If only people could see the truth of this in terms of a carfree existence.

And while it is true that taking over the streets for weeks at a time and forcing businesses to close is not particularly democratic, it is likewise true that democracy includes a lot more than just voting, especially when politicians fail to represent the needs and aspirations of the masses. Some form of communication between the people and government is needed beyond polls. Fewer cars and more human interaction would mean more opportunity for people to express themselves.

I visited Bangkok again at the end of April. Articles in the newspapers mostly railed against the protesters and their undemocratic actions; some called them savage, vicious. One writer suggested that given the intricacies of the colour politics, people should protest like a Spencer Tunick art installation, unclothed. Again I walked the streets, passing people queued up for free food, others manning a medical booth, and vendors selling food, drinks and red insignia. Again I was reminded that long before this protest, Bangkok was already taken over by undemocratic forces that form a clash of the classes: cars. And again I was reminded that in this topsy-turvy world where it is normal for steel boxes rather than people to occupy streets, political turmoil can reveal interesting alternatives and possibilities for those willing to open their minds and reject a few standard truths.

Debra Efroymson is based in Dhaka, Bangladesh and works promoting livable cities in various Asian countries. For anyone interested in her various publications on the topic, please contact her at anima1205@yahoo.com

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