The Sounds and Music of the Red Shirt Movement in Thailand

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A review of Bangkok is Ringing, by Benjamin Tausig.

Sound matters. Anyone who had a chance to attend the rallies of red-shirted demonstrators in downtown Bangkok in April and May 2010 will have sensed this simple fact. To express their opposition to the Thai government at that time and their support for the exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the red shirts made some noise. Music, handheld clappers, speeches, chants, laughter, booing, chit chats, streetside vending, and quiet mourning – they all created an acoustic experience that gave expression to an entire political movement, to the excitement, the demands and the emotions of its individual members.

Although sound opened a sensory door to the world of the demonstrators, most observers treated it merely as a by-product of the protests. Ben Tausig did not. Instead he produced a well-written and smartly constructed ethnographic analysis of the sound and music at the red shirt rallies. Divided into 16 chapters (not counting the introduction and the afterword), each one representing a different unit of analysis and a recurrent sonic phenomenon at the rallies, Tausig’s contribution represents one of the best, most detailed and complete works on the red shirts. It draws attention to the fragmented nature of a movement that is often simplistically discussed as a monolithic bloc with a single cause and ideology. In distinguishing themselves through music and sound, in producing their own “sonic niches” (p. 15), various factions positioned themselves in relation to the movement at large. It is Tausig’s masterful analysis of these niches and of the people who occupied them that makes his work not only an enriching addition to the academic literature on recent Thai politics, but also a very good read.

Tausig sets out to improve on the existing scholarship on protest music by paying attention to cultural context and the influence of neoliberalism. To account for the specific conditions the world finds itself in today, he defines four imperatives for the study of protest music, i.e. sensitivity for 1) cultural and geopolitical factors, 2) the potential for music to delineate and consolidate ideology, 3) the relations between music and capital, and 4) analytical tools other than lyrical analysis. In this context he also makes clear that his work is about more than protest music. Although the movement needed a soundtrack, Tausig expands the boundaries of his inquiry to include sound in a more general sense, or “the sonic writ large” (p. 12).

By drawing attention to the different sonic niches produced by various red shirt factions, particularly in the months after the military crackdown of 19 May 2010, he also adds to recent scholarship on the political relevance of space as a reflection of social differentiation, thereby linking sound studies and critical geography. In fact, Tausig’s work can be read as a work on a fractured protest space indexed by a plethora of sounds. He considers this fracturing both liberating due to its capacity to suit the needs of different groups of listeners, and a detriment to the linking -up of the various factions and hence as a source of alienation.

One of the strengths of Tausig’s writing, the rich and enriching narration of his encounters during field work, becomes apparent already in the introduction in a sub-chapter on unity and ideological divisions in Thailand. The tale of a married couple that almost breaks up over the wife’s critical stance towards the monarchy but eventually reconciles and unites around this issue – a tale told to Tausig in a rainy night on a pick-up truck – is one of the vivid episodes that make his work accessible even to readers whose knowledge of, and interest in, sound studies may be limited. His strong writing is evident throughout the work.

A summary of every chapter is made difficult by their sheer number, 16, arranged in a way that evokes the fracture that marked the red shirt movement. They can be touched on here only briefly. But this briefness should serve as an invitation to potential audiences to read them for themselves. They will certainly not regret it.

Written in beautiful, poetic language, Chapter 1, not more than a paragraph in length, evokes the allure of the sounds emanating from the protest sites, moving towards the distant observer, inviting him and the reader to come closer. Chapter 2 deals with the “politics of volume,” including culturally specific quiet protest as opposed to the archetype of noisy protest sounds that are privileged in most other studies. It follows a motionless protester in the guise of a killed foreign reporter, orphaned girls begging for donations, and a female singer. Next, Tausig presents an analysis of the alternative economy the red shirts established in the shadow of the shopping malls around their protest site, e.g. an informal musical economy, shining a light on the entrepreneurial spirit so prevalent in the movement. That spirit, according to Tausig, did not run counter to the authentic motivation of the protesters – an important qualification, given accusations from critics that the red shirts were merely moved by money. The next chapter is again very short and refers to the mobility – or immobility – of protests. It describes a red shirt caravan stuck in a traffic jam, with each truck becoming a self-contained niche of protest and sound. In Chapter 5, Tausig looks at the roles played by street musicians in the movement, here represented by Mii, a virtuoso on the three-stringed phin instrument. According to Tausig, their improvised performances were motivated by – and perceived to be invested with – a sense of morality and political mission that eluded pure financial logics. This is an important chapter about the links between music, protest and local manifestations and modifications of neoliberalism voiced in various sonic niches.

By now, Tausig has established these niches as a recurring and fascinating theme of his work. In another brief chapter, again well observed and portrayed, the reader’s attention is drawn to the sounds produced by the vehicles of the red shirts via their audio installations. Chapter 7, short but illuminating, concerns the airing of atrocity videos, moving pictures of the killing of red shirts, and their sonic interplay with the upbeat luk thung music at the rallies, an interplay of memory and promise. Tausig goes on to discuss the role of CD vendors at greater length whose businesses formed part of the engine of the protests – an expression of economic self-organization and of an alternative economy that served protesters from different classes and regions and that runs counter to perceptions of non-elite actors as incapable of long-term strategic action.

Chapter 9 explores the links between protesters with megaphones, the aural niches they produced, and the question of hierarchy, authority and a desire for autonomy in Thai society. In contrast to these single speakers, Chapter 10 deals with collective and spontaneous chants challenging the power of the state, a state that could barely do anything to stop them.

Following these brief sections, Tausig turns to trucks of regional radio stations at the rallies in Bangkok. Far from being mouthpieces, they represented local identities, memories and motivations that stood in opposition to leadership, hierarchy and centralization. The same holds true for the Red Sunday group, which deliberately dissociated itself spatially and through divisions of sound from the main stage at the red shirt rallies. Its story, an important story, is told in chapters 12 and 13 at great length. In creating intimate and creative sonic niches that seemed spontaneous and unmediated, Red Sunday invited much attention, leading this relatively small subgroup within the red shirt movement to punch above its weight in spite of its own meagre voice. It represented an inspiring alternative of artful protest.

Chapter 14 turns away from the red shirts to its adversaries in the military, particularly the musical activities of the psychological operations unit. Tausig reminds his readers that the battle between the state and the protesters was also waged as a battle of sound. Predictably, the soldiers confronted the red shirts with nationalist songs, but also with luk thung music and performances in local dialect as many protesters would not listen to Central Thai or to appeals to their love of the nation. Ironically, the unity-worshipping men in green had to cater to local identities in order to gain the protesters’ attention, implicitly acknowledging the fractured nature of the state. A short chapter 15 that adds the voices of researchers and journalists to the cacophony of sounds at the protest by way of various quotes is followed by the final section on whistles. These symbols of authority were captured by the red shirts who used them to make claims to space and sovereignty.

Instead of a broad-brush analysis, instead of making a grand political argument about the role of the movement as such in relation to Thailand’s crisis, Tausig has fine-tuned our understanding of the red shirts by literally giving their protests a multidimensional voice. In doing so, he demonstrates that the protesters were not simply beholden to Thaksin, especially not in the period after the May 2010 crackdown Tausig focusses on, but that they were also self-organized and driven by an authentic motivation that was expressed in music, chants and other sounds. But an entrepreneurial spirit was also prevalent at the protests. Dedication to a cause and entrepreneurship, he reminds us, were by no means mutually exclusive.

Tausig’s knowledge of Thai music, his eye and ear for details are a blessing for the study of a movement whose complexity he helps us to grasp.

Serhat Ünaldi
Project Manager
Program „Germany and Asia“
Bertelsmann Stiftung
serhat.uenaldi@bertelsmann-stiftung.de

Primary Sources
Ethnography
Sound recordings
Interviews

Dissertation Information
New York University. 2013. 335 pp. Primary Advisor: Jason Stanyek.

Image: Photograph by Author.

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