Thursday, January 23, 2014

Anti-Government Protest in Bangkok - Who are they?

The anti-government protest, the 'Whistlers' as they called themselves, have been protesting in Bangkok for over two months. They are calling for the government led by Yingluck Shinawatra to resign and end the corruption and the influence of her brother Thaksin in Thailand. They are people from all walks of life and from every regions of the country. They are people of all creed, religion, occupation and social standing in Thai society. They are people of all political spectrum, from the opponents of the government, to former supporters who once voted this very government into office and now suffer the consequence of its empty promises, mismanagement and corruption. The protest started off as a peaceful movement, and continue to remain so till this day. By day, they march around the capital, gathering support and shutting down governmental offices. By night, they stay at the camps, eating and sleeping on the streets.

But now they are under attack. Domestically guns and grenades are weapons of choice, and they are used more and more regularly both day and night. And internationally different kind of weapons are being used against them. These weapons are words, misinformation and lies. They are used by reputable media outlet to lend these words some degree of credibility to undermine everything the anti-government protest have stood for and came to represent. The words like 'anti-democratic', 'violent', and 'militant' are used to falsely describe the protesters.

Out of the many lies disguised as journalism, one by Time magazine stands out the most to me. For the author and the editor to allow this propaganda piece to be published is the final push over the edge that force me to respond in defense of the protesters.

Below is my open letter to Time magazine, expressing my sentiment.

Dear Time magazine,

Having read your article and its poor attempt to explain the situation in Bangkok, I can't just sit still but respond with my own thought and experience on the event unfolding at my doorstep.

The most pressing issue and one that I personally take offense to is your characterization of this protest movement being violent in nature. We (I consider myself part of this protest and support its goal) have been called many things from being rebels (which we happily accept) to militant by your peer the Washington post. Here I would like to directly address your false accusation of our peaceful movement and take apart your idea of 'Violent'.

America, the country where your once esteemed publication is based in, is no stranger to violence in real life and on a regular basis. On the domestic front, police brutality and use of excessive force is becoming a norm, many of which resulted in death of innocent civilians. Your law allowed an armed man to shoot and kill a teenager, and quite literally let him get away with murder. On a global scale, you are currently in a war that you started by have no plan to end it. Your drone strikes commit act of war that border on war crimes in the eyes of the international communities. If I could I would be more specific and detailed, providing proper sources and citations. But, unlike you, I'm not a paid columnist with any training in journalism, so I am not bound by any such obligation. But you and your writer of this particular attack piece must be held to the highest standards of journalism and integrity, both of which you have failed to display in your published article.

The point I'm trying to make here is this: you either have a twisted sense of what peace and violence is, or this article its intentionally biased with ulterior motive of undermining our peaceful movement in exchange of or, for financial or political favor from parties involved. You called the Red Shirt protest peaceful but very conveniently fail to mention that they held the city of Bangkok hostage for two months before setting buildings on fire as ordered by their leaders. It's that your idea of 'peaceful'? At the same time, any act of violence the protest are involved in, we see the one on the receiving end of that violence. So far one has died, close to a hundred injured, many in critical condition. Nothing justify you or any other media calling us 'violent' or 'militant'. Calling us violent is categorically false. It's like you blaming Poland for starting World War 2 when Nazi Germany invaded it.

Besides, you should back up your words and prove to the readers of how much of a violent lawless mob this protest has been so far. From my own experience, I have never felt safer among them. The same cannot be said of the Red Shirt protest, where I was confronted when trying to take a photograph of them carrying weapons and marching the street.

A once reputable publication like yourself have the power to influence public opinion, for better or worse. You clearly have chosen to take side that no longer serve the public interest. And for that I'm calling you out. You calling a peaceful protest 'violent' is no difference than accusing them of a crime they did not commit. Shame on you.

Shown below are some of the photographs I took as I joined in their protest. With their number reaching the peak at around 5 millions, I simply cannot photograph every faces in the crowd. All I can do is to try show some of these faces that hopefully represent the faces of the nation. To see more visit here and here.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Taking a Look Back: Red Shirt Protest in Bangkok 2009 - 2010 (Part 3)

In the third and final part of my retrospective of 2009 - 2010 Red shirt protest in Bangkok, I will show you the aftermath of the military crackdown on May 19, 2010. You can catch up on my first two parts of the account here and here. The photographs shown here were taken on 20 and 21 of May 2010. This time, it's best not to let words get in the way, so I will ask more the photographs tell the story.

May 20, 2010

Right: Thaksin-loving People, left: Abhisit, murderer
Foot Massage

Red shirt leaders, many would take prominent position in Yingluck's government,
including the man who order the mob to burn the city (top-right)

May 21, 2010

Improvised shield

Same place as the day before...
...but the fire's still burning

For scale, notice the men on the left

One of the most popular shopping street in Bangkok...completely empty
So why do I only publish this now, when the biggest anti-government protest recently took place and more protests, including 'Shut down Bangkok', are being planned and about to be carried out in a matter of days?

Recent events generated lots of debate on the legitimacy of the current anti-government protest. While unprecedented number of people publicly support the movement, there are others who are against the protest or are on the fence on the issue. Some of the arguments that are frequently being presented to explain their position are there are no difference between the Red shirt protest and current anti-government protest. Both teams are disruptive to the lives of the people in Bangkok, interrupting work, school, business, traffic and general livelihood for everyone in the city. Some would say it is better for all sides involved to sit down and talk this over to find a peaceful solution and end this massive and prolonged protest altogether.

Here are my response to the detractors and the skeptics. Firstly, I can't help but feel that they are naive and ignorant beyond belief. Given the current situation and the culture of the people of this country, civic discourse is not possible. It is not possible with the on-going protest and it was not possible in time of peace. It never has been. Civic discourse or any political discussions have never been part of the Thai culture. We simply do not engage in important conversation. Reasons? It's rude, impolite or it's an inappropriate topic for discussion. Best not to rattle anybody's cages or ruffle anyone's feathers. So we keep our silence, until we can't stay silent anymore. And the only way for the government to listen and take notice is to protest, make a lot of noise and make ourselves heard. So if you still think talk is the solution, ask yourself when was the last time you really talk about it to someone.
Then there are people who flat-out stated that there is no difference between the Red shirt and the current anti-government movement. But as the protest gains momentum, they accuse the protesters of being forcing their ideas on others and being self-righteous, challenging their motives and legitimacy along the way. This is like saying that during World War II, both the Axis and the Allied forces were wrong because they both fought in the war. Both groups of protesters came to Bangkok and made a lot of fuss (to put it lightly) along the way, but that is where the similarity ends. The anti-government protest are made up of Thai citizens from all walks of lives, the rich and the poor, urban and rural, 'Thai' Thai and ethnic Thai, Buddhists and Muslims, even former Red shirt members who now see and understand the corruption and wrong-doings of the current government. We are peaceful and come unarmed, except for whistles. We are open and honest about the motives and objectives behind our demonstration and would love to have all Thais to join us, from ordinary citizen, Red shirt, Yellow shirt, the private sectors, government officials, even the police and the military. We do this because we believe in hearts of hearts, that it is the right thing to do and the future of the country depends on it.

So far I may sound really harsh and critical of the opposition to the anti-government protest. But I am not here to publicly shame or attack them, but to provide counter argument from my point of view. Who I really want to publicly shame and attack is the member of both local and international press and media for failing to perform their functions to inform the public. The state media intentionally manipulated facts and figures regarding the number of protester turnout at every major demonstrations. The international press, and I'm referring to major, big name news organizations here, consistently over-simplify and misrepresent the nature of the political situation, the conflict and the people involved, failing to provide any context or in-depth analysis to the international audience. For that, it is difficult for the protester to gather any support from the international communities but instead are being viewed as anti-democratic. The free press are supposed to be the greatest tool of democratic process for the people, but here it has utterly failed. The proof of this failure is the some of the opinions that are so misinformed they can contribute nothing of substance to the discussion.

Wow... that turned out to be quite a rant...

The protest is not yet over. And I feel there are still a lot to talk about and discuss over before this comes to an end, whatever that end may be. This is a complex issue that cannot be explained in detailed by one person in an article. But with this series of posts I made here will set the record straight, clarify any misconception of the characters of the two very different protest groups, or at least start a conversation.

Thank you for reading.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Taking a Look Back: Red Shirt Protest in Bangkok 2009 - 2010 (Part 2)

In part two of the series, I will focus on the event on May 19, 2010. After 2 months of occupying Bangkok, the government issued an ultimatum; clear the street or the military will move in to force the Red shirt out. The protesters were given a chance to withdraw from the confrontation as a nearby temple was designated as a 'safe zone'. As long as they moved into the temple ground before the ultimatum deadline, they wouldn't be in the fight.

Here is my account of the day as I personally experienced it.

Since the roads were blocked, I had to move on foot through part of the city to get to the Red shirt camp. The whole experience was surreal. It kind of felt like an ordinary day with tourists enjoying coffee in hotel cafe, very light traffic, a squad of soldiers in full gear taking nap in a gas station while down the road a lone soldier was on sentry duty behind sand bags (looking really bored), foreign press scrambling to get coverage...not the kind of things you normally see on a single street.

The first sign of trouble I saw was a cloud of black smoke rising from the distance. As I followed the smoke I reached the Red shirt camp, a safe zone far away from all the fighting that was happening at the other end of the road. At the camp was members of the Red shirt, some members of the press who were kept away from the fighting, as I will explain below, and lots of banner and signs with Red shirt propaganda. Everyone was relaxed and seemed unconcerned with all the smoke and the sound of gunfire and bomb at the next junction. And that was my next destination.

A few minutes walk away and I entered the area where the fighting were taking place. No member of the press was there, only the Red shirt (who no longer wore their red shirts). The sounds of gunfire and explosion were load and clear, they came from the distance and around the crossroad somewhere. The gun shots were sporadic but the explosions apparently were consisted of 2 different kinds (which I could not tell apart). The reactions from the Red shirt gave me some clues. When one kind of bomb went off, they would duck and cover, hugging close to the walls. But when the other bomb went off, they would cheered. I would like to clarify that I did not see any actual explosion or muzzle flash of gun, I could only hear their sounds.
I was there to photograph the event so I have my camera hanging from my neck. When I joined the Red shirt to get close to the fighting, they spotted my camera. They told me no photograph allowed, which I was not too surprise given my previous experience and seeing members of the press keeping their distance. So I put my camera in my bag, after all I didn't want them to beat the living daylight out of me. What they said to me next just blew my mind.

"We are working."

They were working??? What did they mean, what kind of work were they talking about? Fighting, literally fighting, the government??? I really needed time to let that sink in and understand the mindset of the Red shirt. Why were they doing all this and how far were they willing to take it.

At that point I realized I wouldn't be getting any photographs from them and I didn't want to get myself killed for no good reason. So I decided to head back to the safe zone around the camp. That was when major development happened. People were gathering around a taxi, listening to the radio. The mood around the camp and that taxi were different from moments earlier, more somber, down and gloomy somehow. I listened in with the rest of the Red shirt then I realized the Red shirt leaders had just announced they would be surrendering themselves to the military and announced that the protest was over and the fighting to be stopped.

Clearly many were upset. A woman cried openly, disappointed with the decision of the leadership. An older man was more stoic, trying to explain to others that the decision was to save the lives of the protesters. The best response to the news came from the young man among them. He was furious, an shouted on the top of his lung:

"They betray Thaksin!"

That alone, I believed, summed up everything the Red shirt stood for. It was something many, me included, took for a fact since the beginning of the Red shirt movement. But to hear it with my own ears really confirmed all my suspicion and put everything into perspective. They were not there to fight for democracy or to oppose a corrupted tyrannical government to bring peace, justice or equality to the masses. They just wanted their corrupted criminal leader back in the country and back in power.

As I began to make my way back on foot, I heard a Red shirt woman behind the camp on the phone asking for more car tires to be sent over, a angry young man smashing the glass panel of a public phone booth.

Finally they set fire to the city.