In Thailand, wherever protests erupt, food is never far. Beyond the crowds of mostly young demonstrators who rallied across the country in recent months to call for democratic reforms, food vendors can be seen lining the streets, grilling rows of fish balls, pork balls, and frying chicken. Strings of plump sausages are draped over mobile carts, ready for hungry demonstrators who join rallies after school or work. Sellers are stocked with everything from crispy rolled pancakes to coconut ice-cream and bags of pickled mango.
Even when gatherings were banned last month, prompting a cat-and-mouse game between protesters and the police, food vendors were first on the scene. Sellers were stationed in prime positions before journalists, the authorities and even many demonstrators arrived.
For food sellers, the escalating protest movement – which has surprised many with calls to reform the monarchy – is a welcome business opportunity. Demonstrations have taken place up and down the country, drawing crowds of tens of thousands in Bangkok.
Toey, 25, who preferred not to give her full name, was among those selling to crowds on Thursday evening in the capital, where thousands gathered for a protest targeting royal spending. Demonstrators held a mock fashion show parodying Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana, one of the king’s daughters, who has launched a new fashion collection.
At Toey’s stall, lines of soft, steamed buns oozed chocolate, bright strawberry filling and green pandan custard. During the coronavirus lockdown earlier in the year, she struggled to find customers, but the footfall at demonstrations has been a significant boost. “Usually I could earn 1,500 baht [£37.20] a day, but during the protest, I earned 4,000-5,000 baht a day. The protests actually help me a lot,” she says.
Wae, 46, who is selling grilled Isan sausage, studies the news and asks her daughter to check Facebook so that she can find the right spot to attract customers. Isan sausage, made from fermented pork and rice, is a bestseller, she says, because it’s easy to eat on the move. It is crunchy, with a sour taste, and can be served with chilli, raw cabbage or a slice of ginger. “Today I prepared a bit more, so hopefully I can sell it all,” she says.
She plans to sell at counter-rallies held by royalists, as well, she says, but is not sure the business will be as good. Protesters there are mostly older people, and fewer in number.
Wae agrees with some of the protesters’ demands, but not calls for reform of the monarchy – which is protected by strict laws and, according to the constitution, is “enthroned in a position of revered worship”.
Other vendors are more supportive. Kaesinee Chanthanontri, 32, says she backs all calls made by the protesters – including for prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to stand down, for a new constitution and for an accountable royal family. “I think to reform something, it will make that thing better. We are all under constitution so if we reform it, it will make our lives better,” she says.
“I think Thai people should have freedom of speech,” agrees Toey.
Pin, 23, a graphic designer who arrived at the protest after work, says most sellers support the demonstrators, and are generous with portions. “When I buy something from the vendor, they always give us a little more,” she says, while motorbike taxis have offered free rides for short distances. Drivers have also acted as lookouts, giving early warning signs when riot police approached to break up a previous demonstration that was held in defiance of a ban on gatherings.
Prayuth, a former army general who first came to power in the 2014 coup, has since dropped the measures banning protests, but he has rejected protesters’ demands that he stand down, and has told them not to discuss the monarchy. On Sunday King Maha Vajiralongkorn was stopped by Channel 4 news and CNN while walking among royalists. “We love them all the same,” he said of the demonstrators, in the rare interview. Asked if there was room to compromise with protesters, the king replied, “Thailand is the land of compromise,” and quickly turned to walk away.
Activists are unconvinced. They point out that dozens of people have been arrested for taking part in recent protests – including on charges such as sedition and under a rarely used law that covers violence against the queen. The latter, used after the queen’s motorcade was heckled, carries a possible death sentence. Water cannon was also recently used on a crowd of demonstrators that included school students.
Even protesters who believe reform is possible say it will be a long journey. Aek, 43, who came straight from work, is demonstrating because he wants Prayuth out. “An army marches on its stomach,” he says, pausing to buy bread with strawberry filling.