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Thailand's Red-Shirt Protesters Fight Fatigue with Massage, Music

A red shirt protester sets up a grill at a food stall in the protest zone in Bangkok, 06 May 2010

A red shirt protester sets up a grill at a food stall in the protest zone in Bangkok, 06 May 2010

Thai opposition red-shirt protesters say they are not yet ready to end an eight-week occupation of Bangkok's downtown, despite reconciliation talks with the government.

The Thai rainy season is beginning, the air is hot and sticky, and red-shirt protesters lie sprawled on reed mats under canvas awnings. Many have been camped here in the heart of Bangkok for nearly for two months, and they are tired.

Behind their barricades of tires and bamboo, a city-within-a-city has sprung up, much of it with the aim of stopping thousands of poor red-shirt supporters from drifting home.

Wassana Kashita is one protester trying to make a living at the camp. She sells massages in a tent underneath Bangkok's modern Skytrain.

She says she makes between six and nine dollars a day working at the tent. She usually makes more than that at the city's Lumpini Park, next to the camp site, but the protests have killed off business there.

Still, she says she is a firm believer in the cause, even though she feels homesick.

The red shirts, mostly rural residents or poor urban workers, have been protesting in Bangkok since mid-March, demanding new elections. Most support former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006.

The red-shirt leaders have agreed to take part in a government reconciliation plan, which includes holding elections in November. But they have not moved to close the protesters' camp, saying they will do so only after final details of the plan are settled.

The protest zone sprawls over more than four kilometers of road in the commercial heart of Bangkok. They are surrounded by expensive shopping malls, luxury hotels and hundreds of other businesses.

But the malls have been closed in case of violence. In their place, market stalls have sprung up along the length of the camp.

At one stall, a lost and found shows keys and wallets left behind by protesters. At another stall, the display is divided between DVDs of political speeches, and DVDs of Thai kickboxing.

Pet Tangsakultianchai is a logistics manager at the camp. She says organizers have provided free food, water, toilets and medical treatment to protesters.

She says she does not know how much of the facilities are paid for by Thaksin Shinawatra, who is a driving force behind the red shirts. But she insists most comes from small donors.

She says many protesters are bused in and out of the camp site to stop weariness from setting in. Protesters from different provinces have their own tents where they sleep and where communal kitchens cook free food.

The number of protesters has shrunk in the past two weeks. Only a few thousand people are there most days, down from 10,000 or more. Part of the decline is from exhaustion, tired protesters have headed home to their families and jobs. Others left because of fears of a military operation to clear the camp. And public support has shrunk after a series of violent incidents that left at least 27 protesters and security forces dead.

In part of the effort to fight off boredom for the remaining red shirts, organizers pipe Thai pop music through speakers in between marathon speeches by leaders. But no one seems to be dancing.

Boonjua Saendee is a rice farmer from the northeast. He says he is getting tired but the fact that everything is free means he is under no financial pressure to go home. The camp has everything his village has, including electricity and water. The only thing missing is a quiet place to sleep. He says there is no rice farming to do this time of the year. Later on though, it will be a different story.

Government supporters have accused the red shirt leaders of paying cash to protesters. The red shirts deny it.

Even as fatigue sets in, there is enough food, drink, entertainment and anger to keep thousands of protesters on the streets.