Belonging: An offer they can't refuse
There's a sense of belonging and purpose, a feeling of family, a direction in life, causes to stand up for and friends who support you.
There's a reason to love, a reason to hate, a reason to get up in the morning and hopes to dream about at night. This is what the red shirt United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) offers and it's enticing, irresistible.
For the moment, forget whether or not they are paid to protest. For the moment, forget that Pheu Thai politicians and Thaksin Shinawatra's business allies finance the movement. For the moment, forget all the political branding and baggage. At the end of the day, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Thais flock to the UDD banner simply because the movement offers that one thing humans crave most _ the feeling that they matter in a society that has always deemed them of very little importance.
The causes for protest are never-ending as they can be invented and reinvented. Marching to return Thaksin's assets, demanding a general election, or that all red shirts be freed from prison, returning Thaksin to Thailand, demanding the heads of Abhisit Vejjajiva and Suthep Thaugsuban, making a show of force against the Constitution Court _ the list of causes is endless.
While one might think that if the UDD gets everything it wants, even Thaksin coming back, it would dissolve and its members go back to their everyday lives, there is always something else, eternal and unchanged. The 92 deaths during the 2010 uprising won't go away anytime soon, because the dead can't be brought back to life.
But the most important factor is the need to belong, the yearning for something other than the dreary daily routine we call life, the longing to matter, to have a say in society. This sense of worthiness will keep the UDD together. Each time I've been among the UDD I've spent most of the time just being with the people _ and I can tell you, the camaraderie is hard to resist. Sure, there are the stern-faced red guards looking menacing. Of course, there are tools and fools who won't heed any words other than ones in accordance with their own. Certainly, there are angry fanatics full of hate as well as thugs for hire.
But by and large, they are just people, proud and feeling that they belong _ and they always made me feel welcome. They always had their arms wide open for anyone. This is because I did not go to judge them. I went to understand them.
There are two things the ladies of the UDD (a couple of them are now my Facebook friends) said that helped me understand them. The first was, ''We are not like Bangkok people. We treat our neighbours like neighbours. We know each other. We say hello. We always invite each other for food.'' This is the pride of culture in the provinces, as opposed to urban culture.
Understand that these are proud people. Understand that they have a mentality that is judgmental of the culture in Bangkok, just as any typical middle and upper class Bangkokian who is pro-establishment has of them. Understand that there is an ''us versus them'' mentality fostered through a long tradition of social division. It's one that has been awakened and exploited by the Thaksin political machine these past few years.
Understand that the UDD will continue to exist, because when they come together in a sea of red their voices matter. Their voices make an impact. Their voices can change the destiny of a nation. This is a group of people who for the most part have always existed at the bottom rung of Thai society, down-trodden, ignored and deemed irrelevant, stupid even, by their supposed social betters. They have had little say in the goings-on in politics or society. They have just been servants and workers with their heads bowed, their eyes cast down when in the presence of the high and mighty.
However, don't make the mistake that all of them are of the poor working class; many are middle-class provincials. Many of them are Bangkokians.
There's an old joke in Thai politics, referring to its long history of instability. ''The rural folks vote them in [a government]. The Bangkokians take them out.'' The joke tells of how Bangkokians always believe they know better. But it just so happened that on July 3, 2011, the rural folks took the Bangkokians (the Democrats) out and voted in the Pheu Thai Party. When they come together, when they organise, their voices matter, and can move a nation.
These are the people that the Thai elites have always treated as an afterthought. What the UDD gave them is the sense that they matter in this society; that they have power. Who can resist that? When I stood among them, I clapped with the songs. When they passed me a candle, I held it. When they cheered and applauded I felt an adrenaline rush _ and when tears came to their eyes while talking about those who lost their lives, I was touched.
But I was there to understand, empathise even, not to be brainwashed.
We sat and talked about politics and life in general. I told them I believe Thaksin is a highly capable man who unfortunately for Thailand is also a megalomaniac and undemocratic in his deeds. They did not mind. They love Thaksin, but they are not ignorant of his flaws.
Besides, it's not necessarily all about Thaksin. Bringing him back might be the priority for the Pheu Thai Party, for the upper echelon of the UDD who are Thaksinistas and not old communists turned democratic activists. But for those at the ground level, there are more important matters. For them, it's justice, whatever that may be _ and in a world where injustice and justice battle in an eternal struggle, there's always a cause to scream for and someone to scream at.
In fact, many of the red shirts might even be getting bored with Thaksin. Red leader after red leader on the stages incite applause and genuine passion. The reds on the ground scream for Jatuporn Prompan and Nattawut Saikuar. But when a Thaksin video link comes along, the crowd is much more subdued and applauds as if on cue.
Let's face it, the former prime minister _ charming and cunning though he might be _ was never much of a speaker. That's why he ends up making bold and ill-advised statements to bait more passion and applause. This works to some extent, but also becomes comedic fodder when the media report his quotes. Thaksin's speeches are often too much about himself.
But people like Mr Jatuporn and Mr Nattawut get cabinet portfolios because they are the ones that can incite passion. But don't get me wrong; the reds do love Thaksin, even if he's a bit of a bore.
Another thing worth noting is that regardless of what goes on in the upper echelons, where the real power is, on the ground level of this movement many feel they are a separate entity from Pheu Thai. Which brings me to the words of my second Facebook red lady friend: ''They [the traditional establishment] are not afraid of Pheu Thai. They are afraid of us.'' This is the pride of being red.
Opponents of Thaksin might jump the gun and think that the UDD is outgrowing Thaksin. Don't. No matter how many red shirts on the ground may feel that way, no movement can survive without financing and logistics. Those essentials and the decision-making body of the UDD all belong to the Thaksin network. And as long as the other side can only field Mr Abhisit and the Democrats and there is no third option, they will always cast their votes for Thaksin.
But again, strip away all the political branding and baggage. Why are they here? Why do they do the things that they do? It is simply because they are no longer satisfied with being just an afterthought in a society that is too haughty. It is because when they come together they can move a nation. They have that sense of pride, connection and belonging _ a sense of worthiness.
Each and every one of them feels like they actually matter, that there is real equality, that they are a part of a family _ the red family _ in a country of feudal democracy where the landscape is mapped out by rivalling patronage networks and persisting divisions between the superior and the inferior.
The question then becomes how to inspire everyone in Thailand, rich or poor, urban or rural, to feel worthy, to matter, to be a part of a family, the Thai family. Figure that one out and we will have reconciliation.
Contact Voranai Vanijaka via email at email@example.com.
Bangkok Post columnist
Voranai Vanijaka is a columnist, Bangkok Post.