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Red Journeys: Inside the Thai Red-Shirt Movement by Claudio Sopranzetti (review)

From: Anthropological Quarterly
Volume 86, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 635-639 | 10.1353/anq.2013.0025

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Claudio Sopranzetti's Red Journeys: Inside the Thai Red-Shirt Movement is an up-close, vivid, and fast-paced ethnographic account of one and a half frenetic months circulating amongst, conversing with, and feverishly documenting the actions of red-shirt protestors in Bangkok from April 10 to May 20, 2010. While media reports often reductively depict the Red Shirts as a singular rural mass of discontented "Thaksin supporters," Sopranzetti's account documents the movement through encounters with heterogeneous characters with multiple, distinct motives and beliefs. A Ph.D. student in anthropology, Sopranzetti originally traveled to Bangkok to conduct dissertation research on motorcycle taxi drivers. However, the Red Shirts occupied Bangkok in mid-April, placing both Sopranzetti and the drivers he was studying at the center of a national event that began making global headlines. As Sopranzetti puts it, "this side interest took my thesis hostage" (xii), and he shifted his attention to the spectacular story his network of motorbike taxi friends inserted him into. The book documents the view from behind the barricades in raw ethnographic detail, reproducing the blog posts Sopranzetti meticulously recorded during the unfolding protests, and bringing readers into close daily contact with the Red Shirts. It is an innovative ethnography that reproduces the way his field-notes and blogs emerged, and the book is styled to read as if events were playing out in real time. In response to such innovation, we have written this review as a collectively authored wiki which we hope will capture the multifarious reactions of a faculty member, a graduate student, and 11 undergraduate students—two of them from Thailand—who read and discussed the book together in a course on Southeast Asia. The advantage of this approach is that it manages to bring out in one text very different individual readings of the book. For example, some readers noted that the book ignored analyzing top-down power dynamics, while others celebrated the way it carefully avoided forcing a simplifying explanatory narrative onto these events. This collectively written document offers space for both readings, without suppressing either.

The immediacy of Sopranzetti's account complicates simplified renderings of the protests as a unified drama with a straightforward plot. This might frustrate readers searching for a full and complete analysis of the convergences and divergences in Thai politics or for the history of the genesis of the Red Shirts. There is, for example, no sustained analysis of the deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra or of the man who replaced him, Abhisit Vejjajiva, nor is there much discussion of the allegiances the various groups claimed with the Thai military or the Bangkok police—although there are hints throughout the book of how important the fault-lines of allegiance might be. Because the book prioritizes description over analysis, it will work best if readers have some background knowledge of the general conflict and the major players, or at least read it in conjunction with media reports from the period. But these basic political details can be found quite readily elsewhere, and Sopranzetti's ethnography exposes something harder to find through an Internet search engine: it highlights the tension between real situations, which took place in Bangkok in late spring of 2010, and how commonly accepted explanations are unable to account for them. Instead of reductionist summaries or explanatory analysis, Red Journeys provides snapshots from the frontlines of the protests.

Reading "uncooked" blog posts forces patient readers to engage with the contradictions and complexities of political conflict, which is so frequently painted in simple black and white—or in this case, Red and Yellow—binaries that all too often offer simplifications that are more seductive than accurate. By basing his accounts on interactions with multidimensional characters, Sopranzetti implicitly challenges one-dimensional descriptions often employed to portray the Red Shirts as an undifferentiated, low-income, rural peasantry by both domestic opponents and foreign media. For example, Sopranzetti captures a moment with a teenager who marvels at the pleasures of Bangkok, claiming that he will come back to enjoy what the city has to offer (17). In this simple exchange, it is possible to understand how a member of the supposedly "anti-urban" red-shirt movement might actually...

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