Parsing the Color Codes of Thailand

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Red army
Thaksin's supporters mass by the Democracy Monument in Bangkok on March 14

My 2-year-old son was demanding to wear his T-shirt from our vacation on Bali. Getting him to focus on anything in the mornings, let alone sartorial choices, can be an ordeal. So Bali it was. It was only after we walked outside into the tropical heat of Thailand's capital, Bangkok, that we realized just how monumental a mistake we had made. Thais in the parking lot stared. The whispering began. Could it be that a blond American toddler had knowingly dressed himself in a red shirt?

In Thailand, people literally wear their politics on their sleeves. The nation has been locked for years in a paralyzing political showdown between two camps. There are the red shirts, who support former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and later convicted in absentia of abuse of power. And there are the establishment yellow shirts, who back current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. On March 12, around 100,000 red shirts, whose numbers are drawn largely from Thailand's poor rural regions, began descending on Bangkok by bus, truck, boat and tractor for what they deemed their final stand: a massive march to force the yellow-backed government to hold elections, which the reds believe will favor them. "Relinquish power and return it to the people," went the rally cry from protest leader Veera Musikapong.

The protests are the latest in a years-running to-and-fro between the groups. In 2008, the yellows occupied Government House, the nation's seat of power, for three months. Later they hijacked Bangkok's two airports for a week, a disaster for a tourism-dependent economy. Last year, after a yellow-supported government took office, the reds swarmed an international summit at a seaside resort, forcing the emergency airlift of foreign leaders. That was followed by a scarlet siege of Government House, a takeover that culminated in Thailand's worst political violence in nearly two decades.

Of course, the color revolutions — orange in Ukraine or rose in Georgia — prove that Thailand is not the only country that mixes politics and pigments. But no other nation is quite as rigid about color schemes. In the U.S., Democrats may be associated with blue, but that didn't stop Barack Obama from wearing a red tie on Inauguration Day. (Outgoing President George W. Bush chose a blue tie for the occasion.)

Thailand's color obsession extends beyond politics. Every day of the week has a shade. Born on a Wednesday? Your lucky color is green. Saturday is ruled by the color purple. Thailand's beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej entered the world on mellow-yellow Monday, which is why for years millions of his loyal subjects have voluntarily worn that hue to begin their week. But since the yellow shirts, who made support for the monarch a cornerstone of their activism, have chosen that color for political purposes, the number of Thais donning it on Mondays has declined dramatically.

So what's safe to wear in Thailand these days? Pink — and the hue gets to the heart of a color conundrum. The Thai King may have been born on a Monday, but he was born in Massachusetts, which is half a day behind Thailand's time zone. Technically, he was born on Tuesday, Bangkok time, which means he should be honored by the color pink. In late 2007, King Bhumibol wore a carnation-pink blazer and shirt following a hospital stay, apparently because an astrologer had judged the shade as auspicious for his health. The monarch's fashion statement galvanized a run on all things pink, with tens of thousands of shirts selling in a matter of days. Last September, the 82-year old King, the world's longest-reigning monarch, was readmitted to hospital. In late February, during a rare public appearance, he was again pictured wearing a pink shirt, prompting millions of Thais to pull similarly hued clothes out of their closets. Now, with Thailand again turning rosy, I have to convince my son that pink really is cool for boys to wear.

with reporting by Robert Horn / Bangkok