The intellect(ual) of the masses

by Ida Aroonwong
translated to English by May Adadol Ingawanij

Glancing down at her feet, she noticed that the tip of her shoes had fallen exactly into line with the edge of the shadow cast by the apartment building. She hesitated, lingered over the sight of her feet, then stepped across that stark black line into the blinding sunlight as if there was nothing to it. In truth, she had to steady herself, pressing the button on her umbrella so that its metal frame sprang open as her legs began to move.

After the taxi dropped her off, she jumped on the back of a hired motorbike and told the driver to make his way down the road that was now blocked. As with the previous days, the heat was punishing. She wasn’t yet sure where she would ask the motorbike driver to drop her off. An announcement on the stage rang out through the air, asking “our brothers and sisters” to mobilise to Khok Wua intersection, as the soldiers were marching up that way. She asked the driver to take her to that intersection, then got off, fumbling in her bag for the face towel that she had brought with her, to soak with water and wipe her face, in case they started using teargas. Then she walked up to the spot where the confrontation between the red shirts and the soldiers was taking place, all the while feeling as if she was half awake, half dreaming.

In the “battleground,” a small road just off the intersection, she saw that the soldiers were lined up ready with their shields and batons. They stood face-to-face with the loose group of red shirts. She went over to them. Without needing to hear anybody’s command, this group of red shirts immediately surged forward as the soldiers made their advance, so intent were they on pushing back those men in green. The small number of red shirts pressing against the soldiers left her with no excuse for dithering. She had no choice but to join them, exerting whatever strength she still had in her flaccid body. Red shirt people in the frontline pressed against the soldiers’ combat shields with all their might. When one person got tired, somebody else would slot into their place, then somebody else.

And then it was her turn. When she saw that there was a gap in front of her, she filled it with her body. The noise of each side hurling abuses at each other was deafening. She looked past the shield and saw the wild grimace on the face of the soldier opposite her. Another soldier, whilst shouting abuses, raised his hand above his shield as if aiming for the woman next to her, the one who was pushing and screaming back. She shouted, “Don’t do that!” He looked at her, slightly taken aback, like a child who has been caught cheating. What happened after that she didn’t know. She lost the strength to carry on pressing against the combat shields, and someone pulled her back from the frontline.

As she stood there gathering her breath, she felt a sudden lightness. So this is what they call gratification. The thought pierced her habitual delicacy, but she couldn’t deny it. It felt cathartic – the kind of coarse, base gratification that couldn’t be dressed up. How could she resist it? It’s now been weeks of tolerating the bloodthirsty chorus orchestrated by the government and its lapdog media. She’s had to put up with the mindless cat and mouse game of snuffing out opposition media channels. She’s made herself sign all the worthless open letters that came her way. She’s tried escaping into webboards and Facebook, but found herself irritated by the lofty opinions of liberal intellectuals obsessed with maintaining their impartial façade – God forbid that they should lean just a little towards the left. Pressing against the combat shields, with both her arms outstretched, had the effect of releasing all the pent-up resentment inside her. The pleasure was tangible, even in its indignity. Do please excuse her, ladies and gentlemen, the gratification was sweet.

And then she saw stones hurtling through the air from the soldiers’ side, stones of all sizes. Swearing and shouting, the red shirts retaliated by throwing back bricks, stones, bottles, and flagpoles. But they had to flee when big lumps of stone came flying back from the soldiers’ side. Soon, though, those same red shirts were back, heaving in the frontline. She decided to walk back up to join them, sandwiching herself between two people. She pushed the person in front of her, and was pushed in turn by the person behind. She caught sight of a combat shield that the man nearby was holding, which he must have seized from the soldiers. The next thing she knew was that she was caught between his shield and that of the soldier opposite him. The pressure exerted from both sides held her immobilised, squeezing her until she could no longer breath. She would probably have died there had someone not pulled her out. Almost immediately her nose caught a sharp, burning scent. A red shirt man hurriedly picked up a canister of teargas off the ground, and threw it back to the soldiers’ side. During this commotion, all that the red shirt guards could do was to rush up to people who were hurling sticks and stones back at the soldiers, to warn them against doing so. A level playing field this wasn’t. The other side can play as dirty as it wants, but as far as the red shirts are concerned they had better be on their best behaviour the whole time. Esteemed spectators nationwide are ready to pounce at the merest hint of a “foul.”

Once the wind changed direction, blowing the white cloud of teargas in the direction of the soldiers, the uniformed men had to step back. Seeing that they had done so, the red shirts rushed in to seize the military vehicles. Their cries filled the air. The ground was strewn with debris, bits of torn shoes, bottles, broken sunglasses, bamboo sticks. A little later the negotiation started up again between the two sides. Both had calmed down but were still wary of each other. Western tourists on Khao Saan Road stood with their mouths agape, watching, accompanied by a frenzy of snapping cameras. A few tough-looking tourists tied a red band around their head, then marched right up to the frontline as if to lend a hand for the next round of confrontation. Welcome to Thailand!

She dragged herself some ten metres away from the spot where the clash was taking place and sank down on the footpath. All around her were groups of people in their red shirts, some milling about, others seated. It wasn’t only that she had gone there on her own; she just looked out of place. In terms of appearance, there was nothing she had in common with these people. They wore primary red shirts of the shade that her respected elders would classify as “cheap.” It’s not to her taste. She would have chosen more “subtle” shades, maroon, burgundy, scarlet, brick, never the “cheap” variety. Many of the protestors wore sunglasses, and more comically still, Stetson hats. Some of the dark-skinned teenagers at the protest site had dyed their hair blonde. Some had clumsily tied scarves made of coarse, cheap fabric around their head. Which educated Thai – those of discriminating taste and fine breeding – would wish to align themselves with people who looked like this? Of course these people are chao baan, but they’re not the kind of chao baan you see on the Thai Public Broadcasting Service Channel – the innocent countryside folks beloved of the TV channel of, for, and by the middle class. She was reminded of that famous art installation constructed out of garish buckets and other cheap knick-knacks reflecting “vernacular” Thainess. The installation was enthusiastically received by the Western art world, and Thai art lovers found its nostalgia amusing. Perhaps we will have to wait for such artists to re-appropriate the image of the red shirts in a similar manner, to give them a touch of “class,” before the spectators can then benignly smile and exclaim, “OMG, this is it, Very Thai!”

She stretched out her legs and gazed down at her shoes, filthy now from the imprint of lowly feet that had accidentally stamped on hers during the face-off with the soldiers. The sole of her right shoe had come unstuck. And she had been so sure that she “knew well enough” to pick the right pair of shoes for mob protest. She thought of her own recent past: not so long ago she was part of the army of good people working “for chao baan.” She had survived many confrontations, even the ones with the fully armed Border Patrol Police. The only difference was that those confrontations took place far away, in remote areas. She shook off lingering romantic memories of her own past. Here, now, when no one was going to come out to help these red shirted chao baan, she had better learn to think of herself in less exalted terms. She had better get used to being a chao baan herself, learn how to look after herself as one of the chao baan.

A man whose appearance also stood out in this crowd paused in front of her, looking lost. He had the appearance of a Sino-Thai, and was pale-skinned, tall and slim. He wore glasses and a clean, pale-coloured shirt, but on his head was a baseball cap with a sash tied round it. On the sash were the words Truth Today, the title of the most popular current affairs programme on the red shirts’ cable channel. He caught sight of her and smiled. She smiled back. He politely asked to sit down next to her. Then began the inevitable conversation.

He told her he has been regularly coming to the red shirts’ so-called mob. He wasn’t a Thaksin fan, but couldn’t tolerate what has been happening since the coup. He couldn’t stand idly by when people’s democratic rights were being violated. Of course this wasn’t the first demonstration he has been taking part in. Glancing at the red shirts standing on alert opposite the soldiers, accompanied by their thunderously cheerful music, he said, “It was much more intense in my time.” He turned his head to ask her how old she was. She replied, knowing full well the script they were playing to, “I wasn’t born in time for your period of struggle.” “I was in my second year in ’76,” he began, then started telling her about his past. The noises in her head drowned out his voice. She couldn’t take in his story anymore. The red shirts she could see right there were not intellectuals; they were only politician-led masses. They were so far from the purity of “student power” that hails back to a past she was born just in time for.

How ironic that one of the red leaders was a student activist like her, back in the time of “bloody May.” She can still vividly remember one meeting, back when she was a freshman from a university with a virginal image. Whiter than white was the purity of that place – so pure that liberty was an issue of whether or not freshies should be permitted to bypass the regulation white socks. With shaking legs she had gathered up the courage to argue with him, the student from an open university in which nothing was sacred any longer. He had proposed that the student council be free to accept donations from political parties, so long as it openly declared that this was the case, and that it did not allow the donors to intervene in the council’s affairs. She still remembers how shocked she was by his proposal. Immediately disputing him, she had asserted that if the council started doing so, the “purity” of student power would be tainted, and its legitimacy would be lost. She can still remember to this day how angry he was; in his eyes she was accusing him of being money hungry. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know about the hierarchy that existed then, even among the universities in the students’ movement – the unequal status that also reflected each activist’s different economic background. While the student leaders from “selective” universities – those universities that somehow always managed to get their people “elected” to leadership positions in the student movement – had their own cars to drive to facilitate their contribution to the cause, many other poorer students under their leadership had to scrimp and pinch to take part in the same luxury of democracy “activism.”

She’s no longer certain whether she is now cynical enough to accept his proposal, if she had to respond to the same question today. But one thing has changed in her: she doesn’t know any longer whether student power, with its “purity,” is any better than that of politicians. Unlike the intellectuals, the masses that have come out to protest in their red shirts didn’t begin their journey of politicisation with “ideological purity.” They are fighting because they know their “interests” are being threatened – the interests that boil down to the hope that one day their livelihood will improve. Their interests bind them to electoral politics, that form of democracy which at least gives them the right to choose which politician to do the work on their behalf. They know full well that to choose means to enter into a pact with the politicians; each side has its own interests to defend in this process. They have few other opportunities to make their voices heard. “Do this for me and I’ll elect you.” Even, “Do this for me and I’ll fight for you.”

All this seems profane when compared to the intellectuals’ commitment to “working on behalf of the people,” so seemingly selfless in their disregard of personal interests. The truth is that many ex-student leaders and intellectuals had been hoisted up on that pedestal by the ideological struggles they took part in long ago. Now, from that pedestal, they look down on the struggle of the masses, and use weasel words to destroy the latter’s claim to legitimacy – as if further proofs were needed of their hypocrisy. These intellectuals have been busy soul-searching, wondering why the people have changed from the innocent type that they used to know. She too has come to realise for herself how much the people have changed: they no longer want the leadership of the intellectuals who “worked on their behalf.”

Both on and off the stage the red shirts spoke crudely to each other, their language so un-PC that a number of supporters had to warn them to tone it down. Their most popular leaders aren’t the gentleman-intellectual type, and neither are they the romantic-rebellious-intellectual. They represent the resurrection of the earthy heroes of mid-twentieth century Thai novels, in particular those written by “Mai Meungderm.” His heroes were traditionally masculine to the core: fearless in the defence of the people in his care, combined with the charismatic charm of natural promiscuity. The most popular leader on the stage has a warm, teasing rapport with his large female following. Everything from their rhythm of speech, their rhetoric, the content of their speeches, even the myths and legends woven into their speeches, came out of the culture and taste of their followers. One could almost say that, for the intellectuals, the red leaders are an exotic specie. The music-for-life genre so beloved of the middle class demonstrators, who had already chosen to adopt the other colour code, seemed out of place, artificial even, compared to the luk thoong country rock blasting out round the clock on this stage. The orchestral arrangement of the big band music they sometimes played reminded her of the Chinese-influenced propaganda songs at the height of Thailand’s “October revolutions.” They weren’t too bad in fact. At least they were rousing enough to pass for the grand marches that all political movements of the institutionalised kind have versions of.

She thought back to that day when she had gone to queue up in front of the toilet in the Police Hospital by the protest ground at Ratchaprasong. A man whose face she recognised as one of the politicians in the inner circle of red leadership staggered up along the small corridor passing the crowded ladies’ room. He sank down on the floor, exhausted, his dishevelled top soaked through with sweat. The sight of him made the red shirt women in the queue laugh, pointing among themselves in his direction. One of them, a large woman, went over to sit by his side with her back turned to him, then got her friends to prop up his limp body against her strong back. Another woman walked over to wave her fan and give him some air. For all of one minute he managed to sit upright, leaning against the large woman, then slumped down again flat out on the floor. The women sat around him to keep an eye on him, laughing and pointing at him with affectionate humour. In return he lifted up his head, gave them a victory sign, grinned, then fell back to sleep again.

It’s hardly surprising that the red shirt masses would trust with all their hearts those politicians who were now fighting with them. After all, the good folks who seem to rank higher than them in terms of status and moral purity have averted their eyes, have refused to get their hands dirty fighting on behalf of these “oppressed people” – these people who don’t act like the grateful dependents that elite activists used to know and love. At least this time the red masses won’t have the luxury of disillusionment, unlike those intellectual elites who still fancy themselves as morally untainted. What’s at stake this time is the mutual defence of selfish interests among the people and their politicians. This much is clear, its articulation plain. There’s no hiding behind an honourable exterior or rhetorical grandeur. If the red shirts are going to meet the same fate as that which had befallen the masses before them, that is, abandonment or betrayal; at least they will be fully entitled to express their condemnations. They’ll also have their trump card ready to throw down: their fundamental right to vote for a new government. If the politicians representing them don’t serve their interests well, then there’s no point expecting to be re-elected. They are the kind of masses that say they haven’t invested very much at all in this struggle: only to fight to the death. People who’ve come this far are hardly going to stand passively by whilst letting future Tom, Dick and Harry politicians steal their rights.

The swirling stream of consciousness in her head, which was taking on a life of its own as if she were some character in literature-for-life, was interrupted by a telephone call from a friend informing her that the government was threatening to disperse the protestors at 6pm. She looked at her watch and saw that 6pm was still a long while off, so decided to go home to charge up her phone and return in time for the deadline. It would be yet another critical deadline in the history of this country; the hour when the people rose up to “die for democracy.”

“Miss, please get away from there. It’s dangerous,” the red shirt guard called out to her in a polite yet firm tone of voice. She smiled sheepishly and stepped back. She had to obey him, do her bit as part of a disciplined mass. Now that night had fallen the intersection was becoming a far more dangerous warzone than the afternoon episode she was caught in. The bang of gunfires and bomb explosions were erupting constantly. Puddles had formed on the ground separating the soldiers from the frontline of the red shirts, a no man’s land strewn with litter. Only men were in the frontline now. Nearby she saw a group of foreigners, some of them were carrying cameras and looked like reporters from international news agencies. She didn’t see any TV cameras belonging to the cowardly Thai media. She walked back up to the turnoff from the main road. People were gathered there in groups, some pointing towards the upper storeys of the buildings in the area as a signal for others to watch out, there may be gunmen up there firing at ordinary citizens. Suddenly she saw a man limping out of the soi where the clash had just erupted. His boots were the type that soldiers wore, and he carried a shield. He kept on limping, determinedly removing himself from the battleground. Those standing around were oblivious to him. Curious, she began to follow him. Who was he? Was he really a soldier? If so, why was he leaving the area? Perhaps he was injured. Although he was limping she couldn’t quite keep pace with him. As she was half-running, struggling for air, she tried to keep her eyes focused in front of her so as not to lose sight of him. Eventually, he came to a halt at the next intersection in front of the Democracy Monument. He sank down on the pavement, then laid down flat with his face turned up. She rushed up to him along with three or four red shirts. He looked as if he had fainted.

The red shirt men peeled off the soldier’s top while she got out her smelling oil. She wiped his face with the dampened towel around her neck. Turning around, she saw that another soldier had come to lie down next to him. The red shirts told her to give the second soldier first aid. Someone gave her a bottle of cold water so she could dampen her towel and wipe his face. A couple of men helped him take off his heavy armour. He looked so young still. Now he asked for water. Somebody handed a bottle to him and told him to sip slowly, but he thirstily gulped the water down with his head tilted back. She held him steady whilst he carried on drinking from the bottle. Then he laid back down to let her carry on wiping his face and head with the damp towel.

Eventually he spoke. “I couldn’t take it, I just couldn’t. They told us to use real bullets, live ones, sister. I didn’t want to come here to do this. I couldn’t take it.” She knew that if she had whipped out the camera in her bag to take a picture, or to record video footage, she would have secured precious evidence that live rounds were being used. But she couldn’t bring herself to do that. Who knows what punishment already awaits him for leaving his post like this. The adolescent was probably from a poor home, or perhaps he was only a conscript. He was only a foot soldier without the right to decide according to his conscience whether or not he wished to obey the orders of his commander. A red shirt woman who came to help give him first aid kept repeating to him that people had come out to demand democracy. Why were the soldiers doing this to us, why were they harming unarmed citizen? The youth muttered in reply, over and over, I didn’t want to do this, with an expression so anguished that she had to gently console him. It’s fine, it’s OK, you did your best, everything’s fine now. Then, as must happen when a mother consoles her child, tears began streaming down the young soldier’s face. She hurriedly used the other face towel that she had brought to wipe away his tears. But the fat round drops refused to dry up. All she could do was wipe his face and stroke his head with her towels.

Suddenly the youth lifted his head, panic-stricken, casting his eyes around for his helmet, shield, and baton. He asked for his helmet. The man who had taken the helmet to wear on his own head gestured to him as if to say don’t worry, it’s still here. Assured, the young soldier slowly laid his head back on the ground. But it was not long before the rattle of gunfire broke out at that very intersection leading to the Democracy Monument. Everyone sprang up in fright, including the young soldier. He called out for his helmet, but the man who had borrowed it had already rushed up to the spot where the firing broke out. Dejectedly, the youth cried out to her, sister please get my helmet for me. She ran after that man, all the way almost to the front of the confrontation line. She tapped him on the shoulder. Can I take the helmet back to the soldier? As soon as the words left her mouth she realised how inappropriate they sounded. He turned round, looked at her, and told her to step back. I’m a guard. Let me deal with the situation here first. All she could do was to turn back. The two young soldiers had disappeared in any case.

She stood hesitantly there, in the middle of it all, her hands still clutching the two damp towels. Rounds of gunshot rang out in a rhythmic patter, accompanied by the whirl of sirens. One after another, the injured were carried out on stretchers. A voice shouted for everyone to crouch down, “They’re using live rounds.” Slowly she bent down, her legs refusing to budge from the spot where she was standing. She saw one bullet spark off as it hit the Democracy Monument. The sound of gunfire refused to die down, and she herself refused to move. She had no good reason to be there – she couldn’t help anyone around her – but she couldn’t run away either. After all, this is what the masses do. The masses stay put like this, holding the ground past the moment of everybody else’s exit.

She thought back to Bloody May, when she was still a student. During an especially tense meeting a senior student had passed on a message from an ex-student leader, telling them all to disband the demonstration, since we were not in a position to take responsibility for people’s lives, the leader had said. Guilelessly she had protested against the senior students’ stance. The people are capable of deciding for themselves. We don’t make decisions for them, we don’t have such authority. If we claim to be responsible for their decisions, it implies that we don’t trust them to make decisions for themselves. But then, after the killings, she couldn’t explain herself. The masses had made the decision for themselves, as she had done, but why were they the only ones who had been killed?

Now, on this night, she was no longer an activist in the group at the head of the demonstration. She was one of the masses. She was one of those people who had been led to join the other masses here; she had decided to come here by herself. Whatever may happen, let it happen, she didn’t need anyone to take responsibility for her decision on her behalf. She stood motionless, on this spot, amidst the din of bullets, bombs, and ambulance sirens around Khok Wua intersection. She had deliberately turned her back on the nearby October 14 Memorial building, and now she stood face-to-face with the Democracy Monument. She stood exposed here as one of the masses, whose chances of living and dying were all equal at that moment. She knew that this time she would not have to live with the nightmare that had kept haunting her after Bloody May. She would no longer dream of anyone chasing her from the behind – because she had refused to run. She would face up to whatever came her way with all the readiness she could muster. She didn’t come here to “die for democracy.” Intellectuals “knew better” than to partake in such a redundant act. She had come here to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the kind of people who still believed in such a sentiment, even if they were branded stupid (and repeatedly stupid) as a result. She and they would face the same risk, share an equal prospect of death on this night. Whether it be the kind of death that lends itself martyrdom, or an altogether more embarrassing kind of death from letting herself be asphyxiated between two shields, at least she will have managed to elevate herself from the prisonhouse of intellectual purity. She will be one among the masses. These masses had nothing in common with her – neither taste nor ideology – they were the kind of citizens who made no distinction between the lofty, abstract ideal of democracy, and selfish interests in the defence of personal betterment. They hadn’t come here to struggle for a system of government leading to revolutionary social change. They were too humble for that task. All they wanted was for the system of government to serve their interests for a change. It may be that their assertion of their needs and interests will, one day, shake up the real powers behind the nation’s bloodstained episodes – the powers that will no doubt exploit the outcome of this recent history to their own ends. And if that were to happen, these masses would nevertheless remain oblivious as to precisely how their flesh and blood have come to carry the historical burden that lofty agents of “pure” student power seem to have abandoned or forgotten.

The red leaders on the stage kept announcing their urgent call for a ceasefire, and their plea for their supporters to withdraw from the confrontation area. But the sound of gunfire still kept blasting. She didn’t dare count the number of people who were being brought out on stretchers. A long while passed before the friend who had been frantically looking for her finally found her, after the firing had died down. They went to rest at a spot near the stage, which was still filled with people; and they waited to hear what would come next. On the stage, people began reciting the name of the dead. She laid the damp towels that she was still clutching on the ground, and covered her face with her hands. What a vile country this is, a country whose leadership elected to prove the “sacredness” of its sovereignty by gorging on the flesh, blood, and human dignity of citizens and soldiers. Make no mistake, this leadership will continue to harvest the support and sympathy of the educated elites and middle class. As the inventory of the dead steadily rose, she suddenly felt a painful stinging in her eyes, and tears flowed down before she could stop herself. It must have been the damp towels that she had used to wipe the faces of those soldiers, she thought. The towels had absorbed the traces of teargas from their faces and hair, and had deposited those traces on her hands in turn. When she lifted her hands to her face, she too was stung.

Next morning she woke up, weighed down by the usual feeling of fatigue and anxiety. The same old routine these days of navigating the blocks and the bans on the internet, to get to the website that still provided live broadcast of the demonstration – just to check that the people there were still all right. She felt ashamed that she couldn’t live up to the standard set by the red shirts, with their round the clock vigil of the demonstration ground. She was someone who was always able to make her way back to her place of safety. She glanced at the small pile of things on the floor, her bag and other souvenir from last night, then walked over to fish out the two towels. What should she do with them now? Her “bourgeois” instinct, the full force of her upbringing, told her she couldn’t possibly reuse these sodden rags, even though another voice inside her protested that all she had to do was wash them clean first. She decided to throw them out, but took them over to the wash basin in any case. Turning on the tap, she ran the towels under water to wash out any remaining traces of the teargas, resolving to give them a good scrubbing and airing before she threw them in the bin. Who knows, these rags may catch the attention of a binman or destitute forager at some point. They may want to use them next.

And she didn’t want that person to shed tears because of the discarded tatters of the intellectuals.

First published as an editorial of Aan Issue 2 Vol.3 January-March 2010