BANGKOK — Above the ice rink, just beyond the cinema, a political resurgence is taking place on this shopping mall’s sixth floor.
It’s primetime at Democracy Station, a fledgling, all-talk satellite channel run from a rented corner of Imperial LadPrao mall. Studio lights cast a blinding sheen on anchor Jakrapob Penkair’s onyx-black hair, parted perfectly down the center.
His program, “Eye on the World,” is a one-man, stripped-down hour of anti-government politics. Like every show on Democracy Station, which went live in January, it is ruthlessly partisan. That’s how many in Thailand like it.
“The station is a political tool. I’ll say it, that’s no slip up,” said Penkair, who typically dresses in the fire-engine red emblematic of the opposition movement. “This is our channel to communicate with our people.”
While American TV political programming takes pains to at least appear balanced, many Thais have shown an appetite for outlets that speak — unabashedly — to their beliefs. Thai newspapers have long profited from tilting coverage to please their target readership’s tastes, which differ along class and regional lines.
But Thailand’s rival political factions are now opting to skip traditional media altogether. Through their own donor-financed satellite stations, political parties and their respective street movements can speak directly to their faithful.
This offers more than precision message control. Stations can also summon viewers to don the movement’s signature color — red or yellow, depending on their political disposition — and gather en masse for protests. In a culture far less squeamish about groupthink, political figureheads easily play pied piper on air.
Democracy Station is essentially a new media arm of Thailand’s “red shirts,” a political movement backed largely by upcountry Thais who feel neglected by Bangkok’s elite power circles.
“This station speaks for the have-nots,” Jakrapob said. “The Thai middle class still fools itself … that red shirts are low-class people who don’t know anything. This is why we have to keep marching on.”
With a staff of 30-odd people — and just a few basic, bright red backdrops — Democracy Station has already proven it can gather the faithful. Roughly 30,000 Thais, many bussed down from the kingdom’s poor Isaan region, answered a January call to rally in Bangkok.
“This will be our way to communicate,” said Popyaroon Thaworn, 49, standing with thousands of red-clad gatherers in a tree-lined clearing. He favors a new show co-hosted by “Isaan Rambo,” a rural red shirt politician who survived an assassination attempt several years back.
Democracy Station launched in the wake of ASTV, a rival channel that first tapped into the raw power of satellite politics.
The “yellow shirts” — a largely upper-middle-class faction devoted to eliminating Thailand’s one-person, one-vote system — placed their ASTV satellite channel at the movement’s core. (The group’s formal name, in English, is the People’s Alliance for Democracy.)
Under the station’s guidance, thousands donned canary yellow headbands and polo shirts before storming the prime minister’s compound and both of Bangkok’s airports last year.
Once each location was flooded with protesters, technicians would rush to erect lights and stages for the alliance’s leaders. ASTV’s audience could then tune into speakers’ shrieking rants against rival political figures — in particular exiled ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, the godfather of the red shirt movement.
Deposed in a 2006 coup, Thaksin is derided by yellow shirts as the ringleader of a corruption network guilty of buying votes and manipulating the uneducated poor.
The yellow shirt uprising cooled only after two Thaksin-allied prime ministers were ousted and his proxy political party was dissolved on fraud charges in December. In the vacuum, Thailand’s parliament appointed the Democrats, a party connected to protest leaders, to run the kingdom.
“They rose to power unlawfully!” said Sirichai Kongponbhan, a 46-year-old from northeastern Surin who came to Bangkok for a recent red shirt protest.
Democracy Station is being hailed as the red shirt movement’s big comeback. Most of Sirichai’s neighborhood, he said, had ordered the $55 satellite dish needed to watch Democracy Station’s feed. “Mine is backed up three weeks,” he said. “The queue is really long. Lots of people are eager to see it.”
The station is operated on the cheap, having solicited $114,000 in start-up funds to pair with roughly $286,000 worth of previously owned equipment and supplies. The station, Jakrapob admits, will be partially funded by Thaksin. Though currently living in self-imposed exile to escape a prison sentence, Thaksin still stirs followers with televised call-ins — sometimes from “undisclosed locations” in a jet above international waters.
But Jakrapob said he and other red shirt leaders will limit Thaksin’s presence on Democracy Station. “We don’t want him to become boring,” Jakrapob said. “And we risk reducing the whole movement to one person.”
Other funding, Jakrapob said, has trickled in from Thai donors living in America and Europe. “You wouldn’t believe how many people wanted to donate after the yellow shirts seized the airport,” he said.
The station has also launched its own energy drink that is, of course, wrapped in a bright-red label.
But what both of Thailand’s hard-line political channels find elusive is a steady stream of advertisers. Sponsoring either movement risks alienating the other side. Both camps have threatened to expose their rivals’ corporate donors and stage boycotts.
ASTV has already proved difficult to sustain. Now in bankruptcy proceedings, the network has limped on with the help of undisclosed donors, and profits from its in-house text messaging service.
Jakrapob has no illusions that sponsors will find Democracy Station any more palatable.
“You know, it’s really hard to find sponsors for a station that goes against the government,” Jakrapob said. “We’re looking for a few bravehearts.”
Other GlobalPost dispatches from Thailand:
Bangkok is sinking
The scavengers of Bangkok