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Much has been written about the ongoing Bangkok stand-off between troops and anti-government protesters. Some of it has been misinformed and tacky. Other articles have proven insightful and inspiring.
But one of my favorite pieces, by a veteran Associated Press editor, illuminates how upcountry Thais have recreated mini-villages inside the Thai capital's urban center. The protesting Red Shirts -- sworn to topple the ruling party -- now occupy a roughly two-square mile zone covering some of Bangkok's priciest real estate.
Though this encampment is ringed with bamboo staves and cruddy truck tires, there's order inside.
An aunty readies steaming batches of sticky rice and "jungle curry" for dinner. A grandmother walks the grounds with a broom, sweeping spent soda cans into a neat pile. A bespectacled kid adjusts a projector, which beams footage of the most recent military crackdown onto an outdoor screen. Outside, a man fitted with leather gloves and a motorcycle helmet plays traffic cop. (Yes, he has a whistle.)
But there's one job that young males (and some females) are especially desperate to take on: security guard/street warrior/defender of the camp.
After an afternoon in which clashes between protesters and police injured 18, and led to the suspected friendly-fire death of a young soldier, I visited the Red Shirts' urban encampment around midnight.
Rumors of an armed military crackdown against the protestors' fortified camp circulate almost every night -- and tonight was no different. But I was less interested in seeing skull-cracking action than meeting the Red Shirts charged with stopping a battalion of incoming soldiers. Now that this stand-off has killed 27 people, you might expect that only scar-knuckled diehards would be willing to pit themselves against troops gripping assault rifles.
I spent about an hour with this group, assigned to guard the Red Shirts' encampment against incoming police or soldiers. Several of them possessed riot gear snatched from security forces in recent skirmishes: plexiglass riot shields and billy clubs.
After hanging out with these kids, I understood that for shiftless 19-year-old Thais, the Red Shirt movement has much more to offer than rhetoric about toppling elites and seizing power from aristocrats.
You get to grip a wooden club and patrol the perimeter. You get to crack open bits of pavement stone to amass slingshot-ready projectiles. With a few connections and some natural leadership, you might even get a walkie-talkie and a few subordinates.
That's a pretty intoxicating dose of authority for a 20-something who typically stitches T-shirts for export to America, tends a plot of family farmland or runs a McDonald's delivery route.
In fact, it's way more exhilarating than anything I ever pulled off at 19. (Which was exactly one decade ago.) I remember feeling fearless. I remember craving ideology. All I needed was someone to hand me a stolen police baton, a Radio Shack walkie talkie and a do-or-die cause.
And if I can screw around with my friends and flirt with girls while I'm defending my people against the elites? Dream come true.
None of this should be taken as analysis of the Red Shirt movement's substance. Two years ago, when a pro-establishment faction (the Yellow Shirts) seized Bangkok's airports to overturn the current protesters' favored party, I encountered the same phenomenon: guys with iron bars and ski masks who'd fallen for the romance of a different cause.
Bangkok is currently wincing in anticipation of an armed raid on the Red Shirts' urban fort. Soldiers are expected to crash through that bamboo fort any day now.
Now you know who's on the other side.
I'll leave you with a few other photos from inside the protesters' camp.
Here's a family's makeshift home, complete with electric fans, television and several rice cookers. This tent is a stone's throw from one of Bangkok's chief commercial avenues, Silom Road.
Here's a woman cooking a late-night pot of sticky rice cooked over a charcoal fire.
And for protesters unsatisfied with thrice-daily free rations of rice and noodles, here's a vendor selling dried squid, crickets and eggs from a display case fixed to a two-stroke motorcycle.