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"Hey, bro, you're going to the meeting tomorrow, right?"
That's what some teenagers around my neighborhood wanted to know yesterday. My brain flickered for a second. What meeting? Had I joined Kiwanis after a long night out?
Then it clicked into focus.
"You mean the red shirt protest? Of course, I'm going!"
The "meeting" is an expected gathering of up to 30,000 on the third anniversary of Thailand's most recent coup.
There's no attendance taken or minutes recorded at this "meeting." Just droves and droves of Thais in red shirts, the signature color of those who support deposed ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. He was the one ousted in that military coup three years ago and, from his hideaways abroad, he still wields power through a very loyal street movement.
Yes, I'll be there. I don't wade into every street protest in Bangkok. It's a lot of standing around in elbow-to-elbow crowds. A lot of cheering every 15 seconds when the protest leader on stage fires off a rhetorical zinger. A lot of sweating and hoping you don't have to join the port-a-potty line.
So, my neighbors asked, why are you going? Actually, they proceeded to ask a series of questions that most Thais ask when the conversation turns to political protests.
"What are you going to write about?"
Maybe nothing. But I'm curious to see whether how the military and police will respond if protesters attempt to seize the prime minister's compound. In the past year, security forces have put up little resistance when protesters rushed in to set up a stage and tent city. But this time, the current premier says, it's not going down like that. His warning is backed by an emergency decree and heavily patrolled checkpoints already set up in the area.
"Do you wear the same color as the protesters when you go?"
No way! I'm a reporter, not a Thai protester!
"Is it scary?"
No. Not that I think this is particularly wise, but a fair number of protesters bring their kids and elderly parents. More than once, I've seen an old man in a wheelchair. If they can hack it, so can I.
Also, I suspect the color of my skin (a Ron Howardish shade of pale) establishes me as an outsider and a harmless novelty. They probably just think I'm a lost tourist.
"What do you talk to the protesters about?"
Simple details. I want to know what motivates them to rally. If they're bussed in from the far northeast -- and many red shirt, anti-establishment protesters are -- I want to know about their life back home.
If you ask a more complex political question, i.e., about the state of Thai democracy, you tend to get a near word-for-word parroting of what the last speaker on stage said. It's actually quite impressive. (I was once told that this ability to mimic comes from Thai education system's drill-based, repeat-the-teacher style of learning.) But it doesn't feel very organic.
My unorthodox interview method also requires simplicity. For street interviews, I put my camera on video mode, stick it in someone's face and ask 7-10 questions in (choppy) Thai. So I can't get too cerebral. The longer answers, especially when tinged with a provincial accent, often go over my head. My answers are later translated by a native speaker.
OK, I'm now off to the meeting. For the safety of all the cops, soldiers and protesters, I sincerely hope it ends more peacefully than last time.