Phuket: Flying the flag for Thailand
PHUKET: Saroj Dulyakon cuts quite an imposing figure: over 185 centimetres tall, he is rarely seen without his bandanna, sunglasses and denim jacket, complete with three flags attached to the back; the flag of the King, the flag of the Queen and the flag of Thailand.
Friday 25 May 2012, 10:44AM
As he makes his way to sit down at a table in a café in Phuket Town, the flags flap in the wind – the cape of a sort of Thai superhero. And in a way that’s just what he is, at least to his fellow Yellow Shirt supporters.
Mr Saroj is a self-professed local leader of the Yellow Shirts, also known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD); a group comprising royalists, ultra-nationalists and elements of the urban middle classes.
On May 13, Mr Saroj was woken at his Patong home by the ringing of his mobile telephone; it was his friend and fellow Yellow Shirt supporter.
“He told me that Red Shirts had arrived in Nai Yang and were trying to build a village, so I called our group to rally together and got there as soon as I could.”
He arrived at around 2.30pm, and although he said he was surprised to see so few people there (less than a hundred) he nonetheless sprang into action, grabbing a megaphone and organising the troops.
“I told everybody to get a tent and prepare to sleep there overnight because we could not let [the Red Shirts] sleep there.
“I spoke with some of the Red Shirts and asked them to stop. I asked them where their leader was and where their representatives were. We live in a democracy; if an MP came down or a Red Shirt leader then we could listen to them. If not, then why were they there?”
Thankfully the Yellow Shirt Protest against the proposed setting up of a Red Shirt village in Phuket ended peacefully and the Red Shirts, or to give them their official name, the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), withdrew without incident, leaving everyone to return to their respective homes and causes.
Most members of the UDD are from the rural masses of northeast and northern Thailand, along with the urban lower classes who by and large support exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and who claim that his government was dissolved and power seized from him ‘illegitimately’ by the Thai Army and the judiciary.
Mr Saroj was pleased with the outcome of the standoff but believes that he and Phuket have not seen the last of such attempts. He warned that if – when – the UDD members return he will be ready and waiting, and perhaps next time the meeting will not be so amicable.
“The Red Shirts will probably come back again. This is what the leader told me … But if they come back again, we will protest again.
“The first time you must ask softly. I spoke softly. I said ‘Please, we don’t want this here.’ But the next time I must speak hard. It’s like a child, at first you must be gentle but then you have to discipline him.”
Widening the father/son analogy further, Mr Saroj explains his incredulity at what he sees as the disrespectful behaviour of the UDD.
“How can they behave like this when HM the King is sick? Are you going to treat your father like this when he’s paid for your education and taken care of you?
“King Bhumibol Adulyadej is my father. Thaksin is not my father.”
Mr Saroj claims that the majority of the inhabitants of so-called Red Shirt Villages see Thaksin as a father figure and, instead of having photographs of the King and Queen on the walls of their homes, they hang images of Thaksin.
“All they see is red, red, red. Only one colour. [But] we have only one flag – which has three colours [red, white and blue], not just one.”
Mr Saroj has the Thai flag placed in the centre of the back of his jacket, flanked by the yellow flag of the King (the colour of the day of his birth, a Monday) and the blue flag of the Queen (the colour of the day of her birth, a Friday).
For Mr Saroj, almost everything about the PAD and the UDD is different and at odds, even down to the ways that they protest.
Referring to the 2008 PAD street protests in Bangkok, the occupation of Suvarnabhumi Airport and the seizing of Government House, which ultimately led to the resignation and exile of Thaksin, Mr Saroj said, “Yellow shirts didn’t try to burn anything or kill anybody and we didn’t try to beat up any Red Shirt supporters. We just came with ourselves...”.
In comparison, Mr Saroj saw the 100,000 strong UDD protest in 2010 which ended with more than 90 people dead and many more injured as completely different: “When the Red Shirts came they had everything; guns, knives, bombs.”
Mr Saroj believes that the army had little choice but to contain the crowds in any way possible. “They had to shoot. How could they not? They had to stop them … They had to stop it.
“The UDD say they love Thailand, but then they burn it. How can they do that? How does that make sense? If you loved your house would you burn it? How can they say that?”
He adds, “When Yellow Shirts protest, everything is back to normal within a week. We went to Government House and everything was back to normal within a week, but with the Red Shirt protests, some areas have still not yet been fixed.”
In August 2011, Thaksin Shinawatra’s younger sister Yingluck became the country’s first ever woman prime minister, when the Pheu Thai political party, which has many of same ideologies as her brother’s previous political parties, was elected, replacing the much more PAD-friendly Democrat Party of Abhisit Vejjajiva.
At the time, many in Phuket, and certainly many PAD supporters, feared that this would signal the return of instability to the kingdom, with Yingluck Shinawatra being a mere political puppet for her elder brother’s policies.
However, Mr Saroj says he was, initially at least, willing to give PM Yingluck a chance, “I am Yellow Shirt, yes, but I respected her when she started because Thailand is a democracy, so I supported her. I thought, let her try.
“But now,” he says, “she has failed in everything.”
Mr Saroj claims that the government’s inability to act swiftly to deal with the disastrous central Thailand floods in October last year, the current state of the economy and even the high cost of fuel are all PM Yingluck’s fault.
“She said, ‘Thai people think only about themselves and how to make money.’ This is not true. All Yingluck thinks about is her brother and not the Thai people...”
Mr Saroj says that his anti-Red Shirt and anti-Yingluck sentiments are not mere knee-jerk reactions, “I was happy when Thaksin was elected because he said he was rich and therefore had no need to be corrupt.
“But what happened? We found out that he was even more corrupt than the rest.”
The Yellow Shirt leader believes that the future of Thailand, while currently unsure, may very well rest in Phuket’s hands, “I want Phuket to be the model for the rest of Thailand to show that this is the way to resolve this problem. We can stand up against them but in a non-violent and non-confrontational way.”
The burning of a pavilion at a Red-Shirt Village in Songkhla earlier this month, for example, is something that Mr Saroj does not want to see more of. Whether Phuket sees similar scenes is something that Mr Saroj believes will be down to both sides.
His huge boxer’s hands wave a goodbye as I leave the Phuket Town coffee shop and he responds to my observation of their size with a smile and a clenched fist.
“They must be big to protect my country. To protect Thailand and to provide cover for my people.”