On any normal day, hundreds of thousands of cars would have driven over the spot where I’d stood to take the above photo, and the realization of this as I’d walked along that same highway, now devoid of traffic, had created a surreal feeling straight out of a dystopian movie. It was just one of the many essential roadways in Bangkok that has been blocked off and barricaded into desertion by “Yellow Shirt” protestors, and it led directly into one of their largest encampments. Sparked by the alleged corruption within Thailand’s royal family and those that have helped to enable it, this developing uprising has already brought large portions of the city to a standstill, as people continue to arrive from all over the country and claim the streets in an Occupy fashion. Major intersections and parks within these occupied areas, commonly referred to as Shutdown Zones, have been transformed into rebel outposts of various sizes, and the growing infrastructures of food and medical supplies at each have made it very clear that the Yellow Shirts are preparing to entrench themselves for as long as it could take to force the current regime to step down.
To get onto the highway, I’d needed to pass through a makeshift checkpoint made out of several mountains of tires and piled-up wooden debris, navigating the sections of road that had been ripped apart to prevent anything larger than a motorcycle from driving further. Members of the renegade militia stood at attention within, searching through the belongings of anybody who attempted to enter. In addition to the pat-downs and frisking, Thai nationals were also forced to present their government issued IDs, which I’m assuming was in an effort to screen for anyone who might’ve come with ill-intentions. Most of the guards had been wearing what looked to be bullet proof vests with batons strapped at their sides, and every single one of them had covered their face with either a shirt or a scarf. As powerful of a photo as this would’ve been, if they hadn’t wanted to show their faces, I highly doubt they would’ve taken kindly to being photographed either; these guys looked way too ominous to risk getting my iPhone confiscated, or worse.
There were Military Emergency Stations directly outside of the entry checkpoints, manned by soldiers who anxiously bided their time while sitting on munitions crates, and once inside the Shutdown Zone, the vacant streets were patrolled by pickup trucks with half a dozen or so masked men in each, most of whom were sitting attentively in the back looking outwards. Inside the occupied areas as well as outside of them in everyday Bangkok, what I can only describe as propaganda trucks were also making their rounds, carrying masses of chanting yellow shirts throughout the city to distribute informative pamphlets and spread their message. Each truck had been adorned with Thai flags and anti-establishment banners, affixed with huge speakers that were blaring protest rhetoric and the National Anthem of Thailand loud enough to be heard from several blocks away, as well as potentially split your ear drums if the truck drove directly past you. In the center of this particular Shutdown Zone was debatably the largest protest camp of the movement, and as I made my way inward towards it, the morale became practically tangible.
I’d arrived at one of the hearts of the protest, where the once major intersection in front of the popular Asoke Market had been transformed into a massive rally, complete with an improvised stage, loudspeakers, and big screen televisions that the Yellow-Shirt leaders were using to broadcast their message. All across the area and further than you could see in any one direction, Thai protestors had set up campsites and created small communal living areas in-between their tents, entertaining themselves with portable TVs, radios, card games, alcohol, and BBQ. Medical stations and cantinas selling essential supplies were randomly interspersed throughout the area, and the major pathways that ran from one end of the Shutdown Zone to the other were lined with vendors on either side, funding their occupation of Bangkok’s roads and highways by selling street food, souvenirs, protest paraphernalia, and counterfeit goods. As I passed by a group of foreigners with yellow armbands on, each labeled ‘Journalist’ in bold black letters along with its Thai meaning underneath, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Occupy Wall Street movement that we’d had back in the States. That same optimism was here in Bangkok, and while anger and injustice were what had caused this movement to begin, it instead seemed to be fueling itself off of hope and grassroots communalism. As I’d walked through the Shutdown Zone’s community and witnessed how the rally had brought all of these strangers together in a common goal, regardless of how completely ignorant I’d been about the conflict’s origins and who’d done what to whom, I could feel the electrical passion and nationalism flowing through the air, and I realized that I really wanted these people to win.
Even though Bangkok’s Shutdown Movement has come off as positive and progressive so far, it had been obvious while walking through the protest rally that the hopeful tension in the air could also easily snap with the right provocation, devolving from peaceful demonstration into violence and rioting at just a moment’s notice. The Shutdown Zone checkpoints and the immediate areas around them had been noticeably militarized, and it was quite clear that both sides had not only acknowledged this outcome, but begun preparing for its contingency as well. How this standoff plays out will largely hinge on an important upcoming election, which just so happens to take place only several days from now, as well as conveniently and safely after I’ll have left Bangkok! Depending on its results, the protests in Bangkok could either peacefully dissipate, or erupt into turmoil, as working class protestors and guerrilla-esque rebels take action against Bangkok’s upper-class-backed police force via the very same deserted highway that I’d just photographed.
For further information about Bangkok’s ongoing protests, not just the perspective a travel wandering through the chanting crowds, here’s where I would suggest looking first:
“Bring your clothes, food and necessities for our victory may take months. Bangkok residents should clear their work before the New Year. We will shut down and occupy Bangkok a few days after the New Year. We won’t leave even a single inch to let people in the Thaksin regime to abuse us. Bangkok people who feel uncomfortable will have time to maneuver, leaving those with the hearts to fight to join hands in wiping out the Thaksin regime.” – Suthep Thaugsuban, the leader of the Yellow Shirt resistance