Saturday, August 30, 2008

Thai-style democracy


MY MISSION on Thursday night was to trespass into the gated compound of Government House, the office of the Thai prime minister, in Bangkok.

Entry, I thought, should be easy as two days earlier thousands of People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) storm troopers invaded it to try and force prime minister Samak Sundaravej to resign for allegedly being Thaksin Shinawatra’s puppet.

After passing through a PAD checkpoint near the main United Nations offices, there was a billboard that read “Most Wanted” above police mugshots of Thaksin and his wife Pojaman and “for crimes against the Kingdom of Thailand.”

A giggling 20-something Thai woman made a victory sign as her male companion photographed her in front of the billboard.

Along the one kilometre walk to Government House there were an impromptu night market (selling anti-Thaksin and pro-PAD paraphernalia and grilled squid), men manipulating paper puppets (PAD core leader Sondhi Limthongkul in a superhero costume hammering a Godzilla whose head resembled Samak) and a roadside massage service for the weary protestor.

After 800m, the road was jam packed with people – 95% donning yellow (the colour of the royal family) T-shirts – who were sitting and listening to the PAD speeches or lining up to enter the compound of the prime minister’s office.

At the gate to Government House, PAD guards ordered the crowd to form poo chai (Thai for male) and poo ying (female) lines as the policy of the very organised protest group was: ladies first.

Once inside the compound, the thuggish-looking Srivichai Warriors (PAD militant guards) – some armed with long stick – checked me for weapons.

Mission accomplished. Like thousands of Thais, I had invaded Thailand’s symbol of power.

The other time I was in Government House – where foreign dignitaries are entertained – I had to wear a black suit and a necktie.

And the police allowed me in as I was part of the Malaysian entourage following Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in February 2007.

This time there was no visible sign of the police in Government House.

Instead there were hundreds of boisterous PAD supporters sitting on the soggy lawn listening to PAD speakers. Some of the speakers ominously warned that riot police planned to storm the compound.

Curious to know the protesters’ motivation, I spoke to Tip, a 49-year-old hardcore supporter of the PAD, which she called “my family”.

“It is easy to understand if you have been following what's happened in the past five years,” explained the interior designer.

“The Thaksin government was corrupt. I’m here to make sure Thaksin stays out of politics.”

Wasn’t she afraid that she could be caught in a bloody clash?

“I’m happy (to be here). Everybody here is very excited as we’re waiting for an end. If the police try to arrest us, they will be sandwiched by my family (PAD). That will be our victory,” said a frenzied Tip.

At about 8.30pm, Chamlong Srimuang, one of the PAD core leaders, was seen walking behind Government House after going to a toilet.

Guarding the 72-year-old former Bangkok Governor, who led the 1991 anti-government demonstrations that ended up in bloodshed and the ouster of an un-elected prime minister, were the black-clad Srivichai Warriors.

The guards led Chamlong back to a group of supporters who formed a human shield in case the police tried to arrest him and other PAD leaders, who have arrest warrant out against them for seizing Government House.

As evident by the foul stench in the compound, toilets were insufficient. And a group of women had commandeered a male toilet, forcing men to make some sort of a personal history when they had to pee on the wall of the Government House.

On my way out of the compound, I bought for 100 baht (about RM10) a Ratchadumnoen University (the site where the PAD held its 24-hour street protest for 90 days was dubbed a university as the protestors “learnt” about democracy there) certificate that conferred me a doctorate on new political revolution.

Observing the PAD seizure of Government House was indeed a learning experience.

(Published in The Star on August 30, 2008)