BANGKOK — Last week, rural adherents of the Falun Gong movement in China surreptitiously made their way from provincial towns to stage short-lived protests in the heart of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. At the same time in rural Thailand, thousands of Thai peasants boarded trains for Bangkok to take an anti-dam protest to the heart of the city in front of Thailand’s Government House.
In both cases police roughed up protesters, hundreds of whom were arrested and trucked away to detention centers. In both cases, there were echoes of past student demonstrations, where a desperate “nothing left to lose” mentality reigned, leading to the defiant occupation of a symbolic location near the seat of government.
But the most remarkable thing about this youthful defiance in the two Asian capitals was the lack of student participants. Where were the young people? Falun Gong protesters that have shown themselves to date are typically middle-age or older. Unlike the Tiananmen protests in 1989, China’s latest antigovernment movement is not attracting students or intellectuals. This may in part be understood by the nature of the message; Falun Gong activists are animated by a mystical creed of simplicity and self-healing that appeals to middle-age poor folk.
In the ranks of the hardcore Bangkok protesters camped out on the street, rain or shine, it is hard to find anyone of working age, let alone any youth. It’s fair to say a good percentage of the protesters are grandparents. I suspect it’s not so much that the protesters’ children and children’s children don’t care about the dwindling number of fish in the Moon River, but they’re preoccupied with work and school.
By a curious coincidence, the bulk of the protesters in both Beijing and Bangkok hail from the impoverished northeast region of their respective countries.
The uncanny similarities between the two cases of provincial folk taking their protests to the city do not diminish several important differences. The causes being protested are as different as night and day and the nature of the state in which the protests are taking place must be given due consideration.
Although the heavy-handed arrest of some 250 men, women and children by Thai police at Government House on July 21 provoked cries of “dictatorship” among the Pak Moon sloganeers, Thailand is a democratic society that enjoys press freedom and freedom of assembly.
The Thai protesters were not arrested for protesting, but for scaling a fence and occupying the lawn of Government House; like their counterparts in Seattle or Washington, they were arrested for deliberate civil disobedience.
The Falun Gong protesters on the other hand, have to do nothing more than speak a few words about their faith or unfurl a banner on the public and legal thoroughfare known as Tiananmen Square and they get whisked away and locked up. The cult protesters in Beijing, once detected, disappear faster than a drop of water on a hot pan. China’s autocratic state tolerates virtually no political dissent and cracks down quickly on unauthorized gatherings. Falun Gong demonstrations have a half-life of about a minute.
In democratic Thailand, the Pak Moon demonstrations have been going at it for eight years, mostly in the deep countryside along the banks of the Moon River where two unpopular dams were commissioned without heeding the input of the people most affected. Prolonged occupations of the dams and state facilities adjacent to the dams have been tolerated, and although protest leaders have been served arrest warrants, little action has been taken. The protests have been tolerated but they have not been given much attention by Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai’s embattled government.
Last week I took a walk past Bangkok’s Government House, where long police lines block entry. After crossing a bridge over the adjacent canal, the police presence tapered off and it was easy to enter the gated protest zone. Spread out on mats on the pavement were hundreds of dark-skinned elderly men and women from the countryside, huddled under tents and tarps, cooking, chewing betel, washing, chatting, unpretentiously re-creating the slow earthy rhythms of country life on a road in the middle of busy Bangkok. The street was mercifully free of cars and bleating motorbikes; the only smoke was from charcoal stoves broiling fish and heating rice, the only sounds were protest announcements and northeastern folk tunes.
Bangkok Gov. Bhichit Ratakul, working to defuse a potentially volatile situation in his last few weeks on the job, had graciously provided portable toilets and tanks of clean water for the rural visitors.
Thailand’s English-language press has reported regularly on the anti-dam protests, and the Thai language press has done even better, giving day to day installments in compelling detail and with great fervor. Many editorials have voiced sympathy for the beleaguered protesters or at least questioned the government’s apparent indifference. TV trucks and reporters, pen and pad in hand, can be seen daily inside the perimeter of the Pak Moon demonstration zone across the canal from Government House.
China’s press, in contrast, is not free to report on the Falun Gong protests at all. China’s newspapers and TV stations not only cannot voice their own observations or opinions on the matter, but are not free to remain silent either. Press outlets are required to air the government’s official line, which calls for denouncing Falun Gong in the most vitriolic language imaginable, as articulated by Xinhua News Agency.
Foreign reporters in Beijing practically have an exclusive on the elusive Falun Gong story as local Chinese are not permitted to cover it. This is a public relations failure for China as a gentler government crackdown on hocus-pocus superstition would have its merits.
Falun Gong held an underground press conference for Beijing’s foreign correspondents late last year. It was a bold move for a banned organization in a country where journalists are routinely tailed. Not surprisingly, many of the Chinese who participated were later arrested and four foreign reporters were reprimanded.
Foreign reporters in Bangkok, on the other hand, have hardly made note of the Pak Moon protests. I like to think this is partly because the issue has been adequately covered by Thai reporters, but I suspect it also reflects the newsroom reality in New York and London. News from Thailand isn’t considered a priority and doesn’t get as much air time or column space as news from China. Even no news in “unfree” China is covered with more imagination and ink than serious social issues in a free country like Thailand.
Probably the most striking difference between the peasant protests in Bangkok and Beijing are that the aims and goals of the Thai peasant movement are rational and pragmatic, whereas the aims and goals of the Chinese peasant movement are based on superstition and the personality cult of a mystic leader.
In both cases, however, government arrogance and negligence have made followers frustrated to the point at which they are willing to take risky actions. Moreover, both groups were pointedly ignored for years until the day they made the fateful decision to take their cause to the government’s doorstep.
In both China and Thailand, thousands of rural activists have recently taken trains to the capital city to vent their grievances in the most public way possible. They join the ranks of rural migrants, numbering in the millions already, and can blend in and find support in this sea of displaced rural folk.
Overall, both movements are about poor people trying to get a modest measure of control over their lives. The middle-aged and elderly rebels lack the facile charismatic charm of student rebels and idealists, but they represent a far more potent force. In fact, impoverished rural folk are the single biggest constituency in both China and Thailand. Some of them now tentatively seek to have a voice in the capital city, a voice that was not heard when they were still in the wilderness.
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