Photos Show 'Mob' for Democracy

Satya Sivaraman

BANGKOK, Dec 20 (IPS) - Bangkok's middle classes derisively call them the 'mob'.
But on closer observation, these weekly protestors outside Government House, where the Thai cabinet has its regular meetings, may well be the heart and soul of Thailand's nascent democracy.

Taking a closer and consistent look at these ordinary folk and the stories they tell is what Manit Sriwanichpoom -- one of Thailand's most well-known photographers -- has done in his new work titled 'Protest'.

A collection of black-and-white photographs, all shot during Manit's visits to the Government House every Tuesday for a year, 'Protest' is sad, funny and provocative in turns.

But above all, it is an extremely moving commentary on both the day-to-day problems faced by Thailand's 'little people' as well as the contempt, hostility and sheer bureaucracy they face in trying to get redress for their grievances.

"The idea for this project came to me as I drove by Government House on a hot afternoon in early 2002 and saw a large group of saffron-robed monks protesting,
" says Manit Sriwanichpoom, whose photo exhibitions have traveled to prestigious galleries around the world.

He is known as an activist and artist with a penchant for ironic, biting humour in his works.

Moved by the sight of even disciples of the Enlightened One rallying in protest, instead of meditating peacefully in their monasteries, Manit then decided to portray the different kind of people who gather here with complaints big and small.

Why do they gather here mostly on Tuesdays? Because that is apparently the day when the Government House is full of news reporters waiting to hear the outcome of the Thai cabinet meetings -- and protestors try to attract attention to get their stories publicised.

While large protests organised outside Government House by farmers and workers groups or monks do get some publicity, those carried out by individuals or small community organisations are often ignored.

'Protest' talks precisely about these 'little people' that nobody wants to deal with or hear about. Among the heart-rending stories that 'Protest' profiles are that of Hai Khanjanta and her family, who for 20 years have struggled to be compensated for the house and farmland that were lost under the waters of a large dam project in one of Thailand's north-east provinces.

"I can't imagine what I would do if the government played such a drag-out game with me. Most probably I would have killed -- myself or somebody," says Manit.
"I wouldn't have had the endurance and the faith to stick it out in peaceful protest in front of Government House. ''

Ignored by government officials and also by mainstream media, some protestors try to make their demonstrations colourful to draw attention to their plight and get publicity.

While burning effigies or releasing a monitor lizard -- a symbol of bad luck in Thailand -- into the Government House are staple stuff for Thai protesters, among the more extreme measures portrayed in 'Protest' include a woman who threatened to take off her dress in full public view and a man who poured a barrel-load of pig shit on himself.

'The Pig Shit Man', as the Thai media finally called him, said that he went through this bizarre ritual only to show that this was exactly how he felt government officials had treated him.

Though Thailand has a progressive new constitution since 1997 and the country has had free and fair elections for over a decade, the concept of the citizen's right to peaceful protest and the importance of dissidence in a democracy are not fully understood or appreciated much in mainstream politics, media and society.

With state officials, politicians and even the Thai public steeped in the authoritarian culture fostered by over six decades of military disciplinarian rule, often the greatest opposition to protesters comes from other members of the ordinary public themselves.

As one protester sitting outside Government House and demanding compensation for being allegedly cheated out of his land told Manit, "
I really don't want to be sitting here like this. I'm embarrassed and ashamed to meet the eyes of people driving in their cars, who look at us with such contempt.
But my wife and I have no choice.''

Many of Bangkok's automobile driving public view these protestors as a nuisance who 'hold up the traffic'.

"Apart from calling them the 'mob', many urban Thais refer to protesters using the Thai pronoun 'It' almost as if they were not human beings at all," says Ing K, a well-known Thai filmmaker and writer who penned the introduction to 'Protest'.

According to Ing, the tradition of petition and protest is an integral part of Thai culture going back over centuries when ordinary Thai citizens went up to the King's palace to have their complaints heard.

The deep antagonism against protestors in urban Thai culture, Ing says, came in only during the quasi-fascist era of Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkram, who ruled Thailand with an iron hand during the mid-thirties and forties.

Pibul and his lieutenant, Lhuang Vichit Vadhagarn, then director of the Thai Fine Arts Department, propagated a version of Thai nationalism and culture that looked down on rural Thais, extolled the virtues of imitating superficial Western customs such as wearing suits and ties and dinned into the Thai public the virtues of maintaining 'law and order' at all costs.

"Our so-called 'Thai-ness' is officially defined and dictated by a so-called nationalist regime that sold us out to the Japanese in the Second World War," says Ing.

Ing was referring to Field Marshal Pibun's capitulation to the invading Japanese army in the early forties and his subsequent induction of Thailand as part of the Axis powers.
This official notion of 'Thai culture' -- under which to protest, to cry out and to have your own opinions is considered 'un-Thai' -- prevails even today, Ing points out.

Such official and public attitudes, according to Ing, force otherwise independent-minded Thais to keep their heads low, their mouths shut and their dissidence secret.
"How long shall we lie here, playing dead, as fear seeps over the land and silence reigns?" Ing asks.

Both Manit and Ing however also point out that, in spite of all the odds against them, there are still a sizable number of Thai citizens out there willing to think for themselves.
The characters portrayed in 'Protest' are certainly among them.

As a blurb on the back cover of this unique collection of photographs puts it: "Protestors, by their marching, speaking out and filing lawsuits, give actuality to the ideals of democracy, dignity and human rights.
Without these people to actually exercise them, such terms would not be worth a damn. They take them from the paper that enshrines them and, by their practical actions, make flesh the dream.''