Thinned-down demo site still has a flavour all its own

After its announcement last week of an upcoming major rally, the People's Alliance for Democracy campaign will never be the same again. Our reporter Pravit Rojanaphruk earlier visited the PAD's protest site and got first-hand information what it looked like before a new round of 'offensive.'

The anti-government, anti-Thaksin Shinawatra People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) may have been making front-page news for much of the past six months, and its five co-leaders are household names, but visiting their headquarters at the illegally occupied Government House can shed more light on who these people are and what psychological state they are in.

Instead of 50,000 people as in its heyday, there are about 5,000, and the site from a distance looks desolate. At least six big buses with graffiti painted on them have had their wheels removed and are used as a barricade against any crackdown by police or political enemies.

Car tyres and barbed wire can be seen, along with lots and lots of bottled water used as a barricade, though perhaps the water is there as a solvent to wash tear gas away should any be deployed against PAD protesters.

Many small open-air stalls selling PAD paraphernalia attract visitors. T-shirts, mostly in yellow with various messages including "Every drop of blood ... to protect the throne" are on sale. The famous plastic hand-clappers, variously priced and sized, also abound.

Those deeply into the PAD leaders' personality cult can treat themselves to a plastic quartz watch, a la Swatch, with faces of the five co-leaders on the dial at Bt199 a pop. Swankier |versions in metal, some gold-plated, go for as much as Bt2,000.

One of the big sellers is a "fake" doctoral certificate with "authentic" signatures by the five PAD leaders issued for having completed the "save the country" political rally-cum-education course.

A donation of Bt100 is requested in order to secure one such "diploma" with your name on it, and the money will, supposedly, go to PAD co-leader Sondhi Limthongkul and his anti-government ASTV satellite television station.

Those who can't get enough PAD anti-government "education" can treat themselves to one of many dozen titles. One is devoted to PAD coordinator Suriyasai Katasila, who looks like a superstar or superhero on the large promotional banner with his real signature affixed near his larger-than-life face. ASTV also sells party CDs and DVDs.

Goods aside, there's a shrine to King Taksin the Great (not to be confused with Thaksin), who freed the Thai state from the Burmese yoke more than two centuries ago, and an exhibition-cum-shrine to two protesters who have died in recent days.

Then there's a painting of the PAD versus Thaksin and his "nominees", depicted in a clear good-versus-evil fashion, so there's no mistaking which side the PAD believes it's on.

Satirical posters and cartoons of all sorts can be found at a few booths. One mocked Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat for a recently leaked video clip of him on the Internet with a much younger lady. It portrays him as a womaniser who, while going about "his business", warns viewers not to forget to use a condom.

On stage are the usual rousing speeches predicting inevitable victory when the so-called New Politics restores morality and democracy. It is done in messianic fashion. One speaker after another, male and female, hurls abuse at the enemy, whom they called "dogs", "scum", "lackeys", "evil" and much more as the dwindling band of followers, many sporting royal-yellow T-shirts, continue to wield hand-clappers in apparent ecstasy.

"We will not step out [of Government House] until New Politics has materialised," declared one male speaker.

With fewer people and the coming of the cool, dry season, the stench of the place, which has been occupied for nearly three months, has subsided somewhat.

Donations of blankets were received and a raffle announced for them. One speaker said an elderly woman at the site had told her she had been sleeping well for the past two nights because she had heard no explosions in the area. She was referring to a recent minor blast which injured some protesters in the wee hours.

To some, the occupied site represents a beacon of "democratic hope" that will eliminate corrupt politicians like Thaksin; detractors see it as a place where self-righteous political conservatives are trying to turn back the clock of electoral democracy with a "New Politics" where voters will have fewer political rights and a handful of "self-righteous and benign" non-elected politicians will rule.

Any curious Thai or foreigner, PAD supporter or not, would be well advised to pay a visit to the site, for words and pictures cannot fully capture the cultish atmosphere.

Sondhi was recently questioned by the media when he dressed himself in white, splashing what appeared to be holy water on prostrated followers, something normally done by Buddhist monks. This writer's visit started to make it clear how such a thing could happen.

The Nation