From Bangkok to Cannes, Thai Political Tensions Remain

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Barbara Walton / EPA

A Thai volunteer rubs away graffiti that reads "Red Army" in Bangkok, Thailand, on May 23 2010.

As the curtain came down on the most dramatic and deadly political upheaval in Thailand's recent history, the country awoke Monday to learn that one of its own filmmakers had won the coveted Palme d'Or at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival for a drama about a man who talks to ghosts. Apichatpong Weerasethakul became the first Thai director to clinch the prestigious prize for his film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, about a dying man meditating on the meaning of existence through conversations with the spirits of his deceased wife and son. Apichatpong explained that the movie is a parable of a Thai film industry that is being strangled by censorship.

Before he captured the award for best film, Apichatpong had blasted Thailand's censorship rules, saying they prevented filmmakers from producing movies about the country's political conflict. "Thailand is a violent country. It is controlled by a group of mafia. Our governments, present and past, have been such a mess," Apichatpong told the Bangkok Post a day before winning the Palme d'Or. He claims Thai cinema is in terminal decline. "We cannot make a movie on the current situation due to laws that ban threats to national security."

Thailand has been under a State of Emergency since April 7 because of aggressive protests by the Red Shirts, a mix of rural and urban poor, and supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 coup. Last week, the army dispersed the Red Shirts from their six-week occupation of central Bangkok. During the violence of the past two months, 70 people were killed and more than a thousand wounded. Parts of the city, including the Stock Exchange, were burned to the ground by protesters after their leaders surrendered to police.

Apichatpong said this is an important moment in Thai history that would force Thais to re-examine their society and beliefs, citing the gap between rich and poor as a source of the conflict. "It reminds me of the film by Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing. We now have to ask ourselves what the right thing is," he said.

But Thaksin, considered the driving force and chief funder of the protests, was urging Thais through his Twitter messages on Monday to study another film — Avatar — so they could learn how people using makeshift weapons could defeat a modern army with advanced weaponry. His comments came as analysts and Red Shirts said the conflict could devolve into a guerrilla war, with some fearing the country could become engulfed in the kind of insurgent violence plaguing Thailand's deep south. More than 4,000 people have been killed there in recent years as shadowy groups of Islamic fighters have attacked government offices, schools and innocent villagers.

While militant factions of his Red Shirt followers did use makeshift weapons, such as slingshots and homemade rockets against soldiers, they also used grenades, pistols and assault rifles. Red Shirt radio urged protesters to commit "all-out arson." Earlier, Red Shirt leader Nattawut Saikua had told followers to "burn it all down. I will take responsibility." Another Red Shirt leader, Arisman Pongrongrueang, called on each protester to bring a liter of gasoline to the capital and "turn Bangkok into a sea of flames."

"This was no accident, it was all planned," says Nopporn Chinvipas, a retired engineer who came to take photos of the burned out Siam Theater on Sunday. One of the first modern cinemas in Thailand, it was where he met his wife decades ago. As he spoke, thousands of volunteers, common people from around the city, were cleaning up the dirt and debris left over from the Red Shirt rampage. They scrubbed streets, scooped up charred waste and washed the soot off of the pillars of the Skytrain commuter rail line.

Pingjai, Nopporn's wife, says that she took part in pro-democracy demonstrations in October 1973 that successfully overthrew a military government. "The government must listen to the poor. Many don't have enough opportunity. But all governments have been the same. These problems existed under Thaksin too," she says. She claims the root of the problem is poor education. Corrupt local leaders, community radio stations and the Red television station were feeding people disinformation. "It has been burned into their brains," says Pingjai, surveying the burned out remains of Bangkok.

Not far away, in the slum district of Klong Toey, hundreds were on the streets sweeping up the mess. One participant told TIME that about 20% of the volunteers were poor people from the slum, while most of the rest were middle class people and a few wealthy Bangkokians who had come out to help. "I think some of the Reds are poor and need help. Not all of them did this. I'm not even sure the ones who did this were poor," said Patchanike Makaew, a travel agent who mopped up the road with her eight-year-old daughter. "Seeing all these people help gives me hope for my city and my country." It's a hope worth clinging to as specters far from the screens of Cannes continue to loom over Thailand.