The current demonstrators in Bangkok tried several symbolic strategies before landing on the rubber (or vinyl plastic) yellow duck. There was initially the lusty song from Les Miserables “Do you hear the people sing?” proclaiming the end of the Bourbon dynasty, then three-finger salute and dinosaur costumes before the large inflatable pool ducks were deployed to combat the water cannon used in defence of police stations and army barracks. Student protest leaders have claimed that the sheer number of ducks on display in the streets is an anti-coup strategy in case the tanks start to rumble.
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Ducks have a long history in human affairs. The ancient historian Livy writes that the Romans persuaded cities to surrender by catapulting diseased dead ducks by the hundred onto the unfortunate population cowering behind the walls. The movie advent of Donald Duck in 1933 led to millions of latex and squeaking ducks floating in bath tubs which presumably had the effect of soothing toddlers’ fear of water whilst sharpening their senses and wits.
In 2001 the British tabloid The Sun reported that the Queen had a rubber duck in her bathroom which wore an inflatable crown, spotted adroitly by a workman who was repainting Her Majesty’s private quarters. This led to a huge surge in the sale of water toys throughout the land, especially if wearing a tiara or similar. In 2007 the world’s largest duck, weighing in at 600 kilos, was created by the Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman who has since made several attempts to sue duck-makers for breach of copyright. No luck so far.
The yellow duck as a symbol of protest dates from 2013 when a huge one appeared in Hong Kong’s Victoria harbor. The Chinese government reacted by using The Great Firewall to block searches for “yellow duck” after photoshopped ducks were shown representing the “tank man” of Tiananmen Square fame. In 2016 yellow ducks were used as mascots by demonstrators wanting the impeachment of Brazil’s then-president Dilma Ronsseff. The squeaking variety of ducks also made an appearance in the anti-corruption protests in Russia in 2017-18.
Toy ducks have also made an important contribution to science. In 1992, a cargo ship tipped over in a Pacific storm and thousands of rubber ducks took weeks, months and years to reach landfall in the USA, thus providing crucial information about waves, currents and seasonal changes in the weather. With such a colourful history, don’t expect inflatable yellow ducks to disappear from Thailand’s political horizons anytime soon. After all, Donald Duck was the original angry bird.