Last year, a swarm of yellow-clad demonstrators massed in Bangkok, taking over the international airport and virtually paralyzing the Thai capital for a week. Today, the color of protest is red. As bigwigs from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) began gathering at a seaside resort near Bangkok on Feb. 26 for an annual summit, thousands of anti-government protesters wearing crimson shirts congregated at the Thai Prime Minister's office, demanding that Abhisit Vejjajiva hold elections soon. Thursday marked their third day of protest, and the red-hued demonstrators vowed not to cease until their demands for fresh polls were met. (See pictures of last year's protests.)
This week's new spate of color-coded dissent underlines not only the political instability that has marked Thai politics for several years now but also the tricky task of what to wear in Bangkok. Thailand is a country obsessed by color scheme. In Bangkok, the hues people wear can indicate everything from their political leanings to the days on which they were born. According to Thai tradition, each day of the week is assigned a color. Born on a Monday? Your lucky color is yellow, as is the case for the country's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest-serving monarch who is so beloved that many Thais wear yellow shirts every Monday to honor him. Wednesday babies are green. Saturday children are ruled by the color purple. Thailand's Queen Sirikit was born on a Friday, which claims blue as its auspicious shade, so Mother's Day in Bangkok is celebrated with all things aqua and indigo.
The habit naturally extends to politics. In the U.S., where Republicans are associated with red and the Democrats are linked with blue, politicians drift from those affiliations Barack Obama, for instance, wore a red tie when he was sworn in as President, and outgoing President George W. Bush chose a blue tie for the occasion. But in Thailand, you literally wear your politics on your sleeve. When the protesters from the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) stormed Bangkok's international airport last year, the air terminal turned bright yellow. The demonstrators chose shirts of that color because they wanted to show their support for the King, whom they alleged was being disrespected by the then government. (Those PAD rallies forced ASEAN to delay the original date of its summit in December, and reschedule to this week.)
After a new administration aligned with the yellow-wearing royalists came to power in December, the new opposition began staging its crimson protests. Local pundits kid that P.M. Abhisit is being deluged by a Red Sea. The joke among journalists who try to maintain their reportorial objectivity is that orange, a mix of yellow and red, may be the best color to wear when reporting on Thai politics.
The hijacking of red and yellow by political groups has forced some Thais to give up wearing both colors, lest they be erroneously placed in one of the two political camps. The number of people who would normally wear yellow on Mondays to honor the King has dropped considerably, not because they respect the monarch any less, but because they don't want to be associated with the PAD. Likewise, soccer-mad Thais who would usually wear red Arsenal or Manchester United jerseys have been forced to think twice about supporting their favorite sports team.
So what's a safe fashion choice in Bangkok these days? Black may be appropriate for ASEAN members mourning the regional casualties of the global financial crisis. For everyone else, it's pink a hue that gets to the heart of a color conundrum. The Thai King was born on a Monday, but he was born in Massachusetts, which is half a day behind Thailand's time zone. Technically, that means he was actually born on Tuesday Bangkok time, which could mean he should be honored by pink. In late 2007, when the King left the hospital after a three-week stay, he was pictured wearing a carnation-pink blazer and shirt, apparently because astrologers predicted that the tint would hasten his good health. The monarch's fashion statement provoked a run on all things rose-colored, with tens of thousands of pink shirts selling in a matter of weeks. Now that red and yellow are out, Thailand may again be turning pink.