Night at the political opera

The Democrat Party's protest base in Samsen offers free food, drink and even entertainment for thousands, plus shelter for the die-hard contingent as the anti-amnesty drive pulses into the small hours.

When the sun was going down on Saturday evening, the entertainers and the speakers were just about ready to rev up. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

As the activities on stage wind down, hundreds of die-hard anti-amnesty protesters tuck in for the night on makeshift beds, trying to make themselves comfortable on the hard ground littered with plastic and broken glass.

Some choose to sleep directly in front of the rally stage, while others seek more darkened and isolated areas: on footpaths, in tin shacks, or along nearby railway tracks.

The protest, led by the opposition Democrat Party, kicked off on Thursday near Samsen railway station to decry the revised version of the amnesty bill.

Despite the bill clearing the House of Representatives early on Friday, the demonstration is continuing almost around the clock.

With food and drink available for free, as well as toilet facilities and easy access to public transport, many hardcore protesters have little reason to leave the protest site.

Ali Lisae, 26, from Min Buri, is camped out along the train tracks behind Samsen station along with 16 of his friends and family.

His camp is decidedly makeshift, but luxury apparently isn't a priority - Mr Ali's bed is little more than a crumpled mat made from discarded potato chip packaging.

He camps behind the rally stage, with the canteen and toilet block just a few steps away.

"We have free food, free drink, toilets to use, music to listen to, and most importantly we get the opportunity to listen to how the government has betrayed us," he tells Bangkok Post Sunday.

Mr Ali and his family attend the rally every evening, waking up early each day to go to work.

Early evening is the peak time for the rally, with thousands of people converging on the area in front of the stage to listen to their favourite Democrat Party MPs and anti-government speakers.

In between the fiery speeches, music and dance performances are staged to keep the crowd entertained and help them relax.

When Bangkok Post Sunday visited the rally site on Friday night, the activities on stage ran continuously until after midnight, at which point many of the 10,000-odd demonstrators made their way home. But as the crowds thinned, many found patches of empty land to set up camp for the night.

At 1am, some speakers are still taking turns to make their way to the stage. Many of the protesters, however, are tired and take the opportunity to rest. Some lay down and listen to the speech; some cover their face with a towel in order to sleep; others remain focused on keeping their social media pages updated.

Suthia Namwong, a 58-year-old businesswoman, has been to several anti-government rallies before, but says this one is the best organised.

"It is well-planned, well organised, and they take very good care of us," she says.

At 2am, the activities on stage begin to fizzle out. There are no new speakers, but the entertainment continues and some people enjoy a spot of dancing in front of the stage area.

Along the train tracks, many protesters have already drifted off to sleep. Some form a circle and belt out some songs on guitar. Those still awake can enjoy a late-night meal from the canteen. But most choose to sleep, exhausted by the day's activities.

Supattra Sammannab, 45, and Wanwisa Anosa, 60, from Min Buri, both came to the rally against their families' wishes. They set up a mosquito net and sit under it to rest for the night.

Ms Supattra is far from a newcomer to protesting. Like many others at the Samsen demonstration, she joined several previous protests led by the yellow-shirt People's Alliance for Democracy since 2008.

"As soon as my son grew up, I told him that I have to serve the nation," she said.

"I went to many rallies before; some are dangerous, some are not. But I am not scared. Bombs or bullets can't scare me. What scares me is not having a nation to live in and be proud of."

By 3am, all activities have stopped. The stage that was earlier filled with colour and movement is now dark and silent.

Some protesters remain awake, sitting in small groups to discuss politics and the events of the past day.

The area is lit by a large spotlight to ensure security. But away from the stage it is darker and quieter, and many have set up tents and mats in the middle of the street to sleep.

At 4am, complete silence falls over the whole area. All of the protesters are asleep.

One group of men, however, remain wide awake - security guards.

Mhen, 45, is in charge of security operations at the protest site. He tells Bangkok Post Sunday that guards take turns to secure the area 24 hours a day.

"There are 100 of us in uniform patrolling all night in different areas," he says. "We have also set up fences at all main entrances to make sure no undesirable people can come in."

The sun slowly peeks over the horizon about 6am, and already many of the protesters are awake. Some, like Mr Ali and his family, are on their way to work. They will return again in the evening.

Those who stay can help themselves to breakfast at the canteen. Activities begin with the national anthem at 8am, and three large-screen LED TVs are tuned in to the morning news to keep the protesters up to date with current affairs. As the day progresses, the crowd slowly begins to swell once again.

Swiss man Peter Jucker, donning a red, white and blue bandana, cuts a conspicuous figure in the predominantly Thai crowd. Accompanied by his Thai girlfriend and toddler son, Mr Jucker - in his fifties - has lived in Thailand for 20 years.

While he speaks only broken English and some Thai, he tells Bangkok Post Sunday he has been to every day of the rally and will continue to attend it.

"The amnesty bill is no good," he says. "Amnesty for Thaksin is not good. It's not good for anyone if he comes back to the country."

But he is pessimistic about the chances of a positive outcome from the demonstration. "I've been to rallies before in Thailand and I don't know where this one is going," he says.

But while the rally's end point is uncertain, with many protesters vowing to dig in for the long haul, this daily routine for the Samsen protesters is likely to carry on for some time yet.

(Additional reporting by Justin Heifetz)

About the author

Writer: Chaiyot Yongcharoenchai