I was living in Bangkok when Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was in power and yellow-shirted citizens took to the streets demanding his removal. I was there again when he was ousted in a coup. But when protesters dumped gallon bottles filled their own blood through the gates of parliament and took over downtown Bangkok, I was living in Washington D.C.
I made the decision to go back to Thailand suddenly. I quit an internship at a prestigious magazine, sublet my apartment, and bought a one-way ticket. I would cover the conflict that was taking place in the city I knew so well.
As I stood in front of the red-shirt’s barricaded camps in downtown Bangkok, a baby-faced man wearing a wide-brim hat made of lashed-together Chang Beer cans appeared at my side.
“I am Bun. You go inside?”
“You Si-Daeng, red-shirt?” I asked.
“Yes, yes,” he gave me two thumbs up and a crooked smile. “OK. I come, you take photo.” I followed him through a small opening in the bamboo and razor wire.
“Thaksin a very rich man,” Bun told me as we passed a man washing fish heads in a plastic bucket. A pretty little girl in dirty, oversized clothes picked at trash among the tires and razor wire. Clothes hung to dry on signs for the shopping malls lining the streets.
Black-and-red shirted men, makeshift camp security forces, lounged against fences and sat in the beds of parked pickups.
“Thaksin very rich. He pay for food. He pay for house.” Bun gestured to the tents, which were open on all sides like at a state fair. Inside each of them, people lay on flat mats sharing air from an oscillating fan.
Bun was dirty and smelled like alcohol. He leaned into me as we walked, his body like a very stinky 12 year old’s. “How old you think I am?” He asked and answered his question before I had time to guess, “Thirty-six!” I asked him to spell his name for me. “Cannot spell,” he said. In Thai, I urged him. He shook his head. “Cannot.”
The protesters were subjected to an endless stream of propaganda. A stage in the center of the encampment, in what was once one of Bangkok’s most chaotic intersections, hosted ideologues and religious figures whose ceremonies and tirades were blasted at all hours of the day from large speakers into far reaches of the camp. (If you were to watch footage from that time it is possible that on the edge of the stage you will see a blonde woman with a camera.) Giant posterboards showed images of red-shirts killed and wounded in prior clashes with the government.
When I first went into the camp I was surprised by the orderliness and industriousness of the people inside who had set up shops selling food and red-themed merchandise, pharmacies and even a massage parlor within the tent city. But now, after weeks of living in squalor under overpasses, the living conditions were less impressive. Short dwellings had been assembled with sheets of plastic and bamboo in the corner of Lumphini Park where I once watched elderly women perform Tai Chi each morning. The ground was strewn with garbage and the whole area was consumed by the smell of dirty hair and rotten tropical fruit.
When I could stomach no more, I left Bun at the bottom of an escalator, feeling guilty and grateful as it propeled me to the sterile environs of the Skytrain. After bomb attacks and reports of armed militiamen roaming the streets, not to mention the paralysis of the Thailand's economic center, it was only a matter of time until the government came in and forcibly removed the campers. Everyone was waiting.
That night I dreamt that I was walking down a city street. It was night, but the sky was bright with stars. I turned a corner and came upon an open square that was carpeted with bodies, flat and waxy-looking. A fork-lift moved silently among them, trying to scoop them up and dump them into a large garbage bin, but they were fragile, crumbling at the edges and folding like warm cookies over its metal prongs.
When I woke up, it was pitch black. I opened the door to my balcony. I thought I heard tanks, but then thought I must be mistaken. How would I know what tanks sound like?
In the morning, I found out I was right. The government had come to clear the camps and the fighting had started. I did rush back to cover the events.
I went as far as the end of the road where I watched the soldiers run past and large military vehicles roll up the street. New barricades of razor wire were erected in the middle of the road. Smoke wafted up from behind them. Some soldiers crouched in the median wearing flak jackets and holding machine guns. Red-clad men on motorcycles wove through this mess, joining their brethren to fight it out in the center of the city.
I thought of the little kids in there. I pictured Bun stumbling around a war-zone among crumpled cardboard cutouts of Thaksin and messages of resistance that he couldn’t even read. Then I ran back to my hotel, grabbed my bag and left the city.