Friday, April 17, 2009

Dress Codes

In Thailand’s protracted political crisis, it is easy to tell what side people are on and who they are against, even if it is a little bit harder to understand exactly what they stand for. The people now protesting the government wear red and are “red shirts”; those who support the government are “yellow shirts”.

That much is clear, but where did these colors come from and what do that stand for? To understand, one has to back up a little. The significance of yellow goes back a long way. In Thailand it is the royal color, worn to show respect and affection for Thailand’s long-serving King Bhumibol.

In Thailand everybody wears yellow, or at least they did during the two years, 2006 and 2008 that I lived and worked there. They were auspicious royal years since they marked, respectively, the King’s 60th year on the throne in 2006 and his 80th birthday in December 2007.

Go into a restaurant, or a bank or the post office and everybody working there will be wearing yellow. This is especially true on Monday, which is “yellow day”. In Thailand the days of the weeks are accorded colors, and Monday is yellow day. The fact that the King was born on Monday makes yellow the royal color.

(Queen Sirikit was born on a Friday, which is a blue day, and in August, her birth month, you see people wearing blue T-shirts and displaying blue banners out of respect for her, but far fewer than yellow. Lately, there has emerged an ominous third color in Thailand’s crisis – “blue shirts”, apparently worn by pro-government militia.)

Even I bought and often wore a yellow T-shirt while I was there. I considered it my lucky golf shirt. If were visiting Thailand now, I’d be more circumspect, as yellow has morphed into a political statement of support for the current regime.

Foreign embassies, including that of the U.S., have advised their citizens to use caution in choosing their attire so not to be thought of as being sympathetic to one side or the other. The crisis in Thailand has not taken on an anti-foreigner color, but people everywhere get upset when they think foreigners are taking sides in their own domestic disputes.

In any case, when the shoe was on the other foot and crowds of demonstrators were trying to oust the then government of supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, removed from power in a military coup in September, 2006, it was natural that most of the protestors wore yellow shirts. It was their normal attire.

It was probably only incidental that they also tended to be more ardent defenders of the Thai monarchy or that they harbored suspicions that the folks who wear red these days are closet republicans. Nevertheless, any protest group last year looked like a sea of yellow.

Sometime during theyear the pro-Thaksin side decided it need its own color to distinguish its own troops of protestors. But why they chose red is something of a mystery. In the Thai weekly zodiac red is the color of Sunday, but there is no reason to believe that that day has a special meaning for them.

Some of the people started wearing red late last year, but the practice didn’t really take hold until last month as protests built up against the government of “yellow shirts” culminating in last week’s trashing of the East Asia Summit and police crackdown in downtown Bangkok.

It is tempting to suggest that red is historically the color of revolution and communism, an effect underscored by the red banners that some of the demonstrators carried. True, there is an element of a class struggle in Thailand’s political crisis, and the red shirt’s electoral stronghold in the impoverished northeast was, in the 1960s, a breeding ground for a communist insurgency.

During his five years as prime minister Thaksin, it is said, endeared himself to the masses in Thailand through such progressive policies such as extending development aid to rural villages and instituting a health care program affordable to the poor while earning the lasting enmity of the middle and upper classes. But this is hardly radical by international standards.

However, it should be noted up until a few months ago, the red shirts were the government of Thailand, installed after the pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party won a convincing electoral victory to restore civilian government after the 2006 coup. Under different names it had won the two previous elections, including the 2006 poll boycotted by the opposition.

The yellow shirts, at least always had a cheerful kind of individuality. Some people wear yellow T-shirts, while others wear batik. Some have the royal cartouche on it, others images of Mickey Mouse. One detail I’ve noticed from pictures of the most recent disturbances was the uniformity of the red shirts, as if their clothes had been issued from the same depot. It is one small sign that things are getting serious.


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