Inside the surreal world of the Red Shirts

Outside the violence rages, but within the protesters' Bangkok camp there are rubbish collections, DIY temples – and an Elvis impersonator

A leisurely cup of coffee and a complimentary hard-boiled egg were not what I expected to have pressed upon me in Red Shirt City. But then, as I quickly learned, the surreal is the norm inside this vast encampment of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UFDD), which has occupied much of Bangkok's commercial district for more than two months.

I hadn't expected, either, to see a well-established infrastructure and full civic amenities within this spontaneous society – regular rubbish collections, tented shower blocks, mobile toilets, DIY temples and the splendid efforts of a meticulous street sweeper. Makeshift pavement cafes abound. At lunch I was overwhelmed by menu options. And on the market stalls below a flyover everything is available – from fresh fruit and vegetables to Thaksin Shinawatra baby grows – to sustain this popular protest for as long as the will of the Red Shirts holds out. In the doorways of the surrounding office blocks, hotels, shopping malls and cinemas, security guards maintain their regular watch, seemingly oblivious to the buildings being long evacuated and closed.

Amid all this, it came as no surprise to have a brush with an Elvis impersonator: on a stage at the heart of the camp, under a banner declaring "Peaceful protesters, not terrorists", and between political polemics, a balladeer – scoring full marks for enthusiasm – paid his full-volume tribute to The King before an audience of beaming elderly ladies, while a man did his best to rent me a deck chair. A drum kit was already in place for the next entertainer. Earlier, I survived a Thai interpretation of John Lennon's Imagine.

Backstage, in a leaking marquee, I found the Red Shirt media centre. Its operation appears prone to swinging, in a trice, between hard-bitten professionalism and delightful, chaotic amateurism. I must have looked hot and tired. Or utterly bewildered. Or all three. Spotting this, a lady press officer forced her way through the world's news media – comparing this year's body armour – and handed me a bottle of water and a pink towel, deliciously moist and chilled, along with a ticking-off for my evident intensity: "You have to be happy when you're working," she said with a smile. Soon this was followed by the coffee. And the hard-boiled egg.

I sat down with Dr Tojirakarn Weng, one of the Red Shirt leaders. Why, I asked, had the Red Shirts rejected the government's offer of new elections in November?

"We say 'yes' to the proposal," he told me. "But first the rule of law must be upheld. The deputy prime minister must be arrested over what happened on 10 April. (The deaths of several Red Shirts.) And the soldiers must draw back to their camps."

And if that doesn't happen?

"Well, this government can have war or peace. If it is war, we will wait here until they come and kill us."

The possibility of imminent slaughter did not appear to be troubling those beyond the marquee. In all directions, under shelters fashioned from plastic sacking on scaffolding or bamboo poles, families stretched out on raffia mats, reading the newspapers, dozing, cooking, washing their clothes, chatting and playing draughts with bottle caps.

In most areas it has the atmosphere of a rock festival. Think urban, oriental Woodstock – without the nuisance of Crosby Stills & Nash. Given the routine absurdity of Red Shirt City, the least surprising aspect of my forays inside was to come under fire. The area certainly is not, as we have been told repeatedly this week, sealed off. On my first trip to the barricades, by motorcycle taxi, I did not realise – until we pulled up on a broad, empty, dual carriageway, after twisting through side roads, and hurtling along deserted boulevards, past indifferent police and army positions, gun shots cracking the evening torpor – that we had entered the Red Shirt zone.

A burnt-out bus nearby suggested we were no longer in the Bangkok of my arrival, only an hour before.

At our next stop, where a side street met a main thoroughfare, locals urged us to scamper to join them in the shelter of an empty market stall. Many, although not motorcyclists, were wearing crash helmets.

On the corner, just thirty yards away, black-clad men were leaping out to fire small rockets along the road. The response came – between menacing pauses – as sharp, measured, rifle cracks, rattling among the office blocks. An army or police sniper was firing from behind us.

With one shot, I saw a chip of asphalt leap from the road just 10 feet away. Pressed back into our shelter, I had no way of knowing who or what was responsible for a series of explosions. But they were detonating close enough to be felt as well as heard. Advice to evacuate, and to escape by another insane motorcycle dash, came from a youth swathed in a black headscarf and carrying a night-stick. At no time did I see a Red Shirt, even these apparent UFDD militia men, carrying a gun.

Outside the camp, anti-Red Shirt Thais are eager to tell foreign journalists that the protesters – mainly the rural poor from the north-east – are all on the payroll of the deposed prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Mr Thaksin is undoubtedly a man of deep pockets and, in buying and selling, whimsically, during exile, an English Premier League Football Club, is an atypical champion of a downtrodden and disenfranchised peasantry. But that doesn't adequately explain the presence, in Red Shirt City, of Jindar Intarahutti, 64, and Pimtong Pattarakomol, 52.

Both are from central Thailand. They met and became friends at the protest two months ago. They have been living here ever since, sharing a straw mat close to the stage.

It would, one feels, take more than a small bribe from Mr Thaksin to persuade two middle-aged ladies – and Mrs Intarahutti is also infirm – to leave their homes and families, go to the capital, sleep under the stars and endure self-evident discomfort and danger. And be prepared to do so indefinitely. They are here because they are angry. It is an anger that arises from a sense of deep injustice; a tenacity and bravery built on a conviction and driven by a motivation more elevated than cash.

"My prime minister (Abhisit Vejjajiva) is corrupt," croaks Mrs Intarahutti. "He does not try to work for everyone. He is selfish.

"I used to sell clothes. I made 100 baht (£2) a day. But I got sick with thrombosis. Now I can't work. I can't afford an apartment any longer. I will have to go into a home for the poor. So I am staying here. Life got very hard after Thaksin."

Mrs Pattarakomol chips in: "Thaksin provided people with jobs and he provided the poor people with access to funds. We will stay here until Abhisit resigns."

Neither lady is frightened of what might happen next. Enduring gunfire and explosions (and occasional cabaret crooners), they sit on their mat, serene and cross-legged.

"We are not afraid," says Mrs Pattarakomol, "because there is a shrine here with a Brahma (Hindu god) guard." She motions towards a miniature plastic temple, adorned with a mug of burnt-out joss-sticks.

Mrs Intarahutti may be less spiritual than her companion, but she is no less resolute. "We will not run away," she says. "I will give my life for democracy."

News
people
Sport
FootballGerman sparks three goals in four minutes at favourite No 10 role
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Sport
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
athletics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
music
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam