Michael Batson

Travel Writer

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Travelogue

Anti-Government Protests in Bangkok - Taking It To The Streets

On Sunday, 22 December 2013, Thailand’s opposition parties staged major demonstrations in the country’s capital designed to disrupt traffic and tell the government they wanted major reform of government processes. The crowds promised to be among the largest ever assembled in the history of the Kingdom.

They had already announced they would be boycotting the elections promised by caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Sinawatra, scheduled for February 2014 following the dissolution of Thailand’s parliament on 9 December The message is a whole new system, though how such change is to be undertaken is unclear, as the country would still need to be run in the meantime.

The crowds began gathering early in the morning at major junctions all over Bangkok. At Democracy Monument the major boulevards were closed to traffic. Instead of being impassable to traffic they were now blocked by pedestrians. Giant marquees were set up and public address system too. The police were entirely absent.

The demonstrators were well organised and good-humoured. They had appointed traffic controllers at major intersections to divert traffic. Many buses on Bangkok streets weren’t running or operating truncated services.

The banners asked ‘Why are you afraid of reform?” and asking for free and fair elections, declaring ‘our votes are not for sale’. There were caricatures of the former Thai prime minster, Thaksin Sinawatra, deposed by a military coup in 2006. Hand held signs referred to him as a ‘crocodile’ and depicted one of Thailand’s richest men as a vampire. His sister is now prime minister, who many accuse of being a lackey for her older brother and his brand of “Thaksinomics”. Signs were written in English and in Thai.

People greeted me warmly. I had my hand shaken, my back slapped and one or two women patted me on the backside. Others were keen to pose for photographs. At least half those in attendance were women, of all ages, and families with their children.

The whole scene had the feel of a rock concert. There were stages and large monitors distributed along the roads for viewing. Messages from the main speakers were accompanied by chords on electric guitars amplified through the massive speaker systems. In between speakers there were rock songs from bands.

The cacophony of sound was added to by those great accessories to modern protest, plastic hand clappers and the whistle, the latter costing 60 cents from street vendors.

Drinking water in plastic bottles was handed out by the tray load. Supplies of these were stacked under a plastic covering for distribution. Empties were collected and bundled up into huge plastic bags for recycling.

Food from vendors sprung up for sale on the roadsides. When not blowing whistles, clapping plastic hands, talking or laughing, the protesters observed a great Thai pastime – eating. They were well feed and supplied. People sought shelter under trees and in building entranceways taking a siesta.

Thailand, famous for its tourist industry, replicated accessories for foreign visitors by producing t-shirts marking the day, some sporting images of the Democracy monument, others features of the day like the date and opposition personalities. The national flag all accompanied of course by images of Thailand’s king.

Many of the day’s activities occurred, as they do in the self-proclaimed Kingdom of Smiles, under the inevitable giant portraits of the Thai regent. Everywhere were the colours of the Thai national flag, red, blue and white – for Buddhism and for peace; and the colour of the King, a royal yellow. Whatever the political persuasion of protests in this country, whether they are yellow or red shirts, the king is always revered.

Mobile facilities were moved into the vicinity; toilets mounted in buses and child care facilities. Street barricades for traffic were positioned strategically at intersections. Motorcycles riders offering rides for pillion passengers massed at traffic lights which counted down for roads now devoid of vehicles. One stall sold business shirts!

Those that did come, buses were already re-routed or cancelled, were diverted by marshals, who seemed to word in shifts. When moving between sites, protesters climbed aboard pick-ups and flat-deck trucks ushered through by the marshals. People ran along passing out bottled water.

The whole protests were broadcast live on the Blue Sky Channel, Thailand’s public broadcasters largely ignoring events.

The protesters split into more than a dozen groups. The secretary-general of the opposition People’s Democratic Reform Committee Suthep Thaugsuban led tens of thousands of protesters in a vibrant and lively tour through five major sites in Bangkok, blocking traffic and turning parts of the city into crowded and noisy pedestrian zones. All the while he carried a black bag to collect donations for the cause.

Another group made their way to the prime minister’s residence. There women and transsexuals – many of them members of Miss Tiffany’s dance troupe – joined the protest, dubbed the “flower protest”.

While Bangkok was overrun by a massive anti-government protest, the caretaker prime minister was greeting admirers on a tour of the country’s northeast, the ruling party’s major support base. Thailand’s vast urban/rural divide was never more obvious than the contrasting images from these two major events.

Taksin Sinawatra used his fortune to build a political party and, in 2001, to run for prime minister. He had also offered policy proposals—inexpensive health care, loans to villages to start businesses—that genuinely appealed to Thailand’s poor, who still make up the majority of the country. No Thai politician had tried to court the poor with such comprehensive policies.

In the early 1990s street protests in Thailand had brought down a military government and the country seemed a good prospect among democratising nations. Thailand boasted a large, educated middle class, one of the best-performing economies in the world, and a relatively robust civil society. By the late 1990s, Thailand had held several free elections and passed a reformist constitution that enshrined greater protections for civil liberties and created a wealth of new institutions designed to root out graft and ensure civil rights. In its 1999 report on freedom in the world, monitoring organization Freedom House ranked Thailand a “free” nation.

Today, however, Thailand looks less like a success story and more like an example of how democracy can fail. According to a recent article from the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, since a 2006 military coup, Thailand has reverted to a kind of soft authoritarianism: the military plays an enormous role in determining politics; the Thai middle class has become increasingly antidemocratic; and security forces have used threats, online filtering, arrests, and killings to intimidate opponents of a government sanctioned by the armed forces and Thailand’s monarchy. Freedom House recently ranked Thailand as only “partly free,” and the country has sunk near the bottom of all developing nations in rankings of press freedom

Suthep Thaugsuban rejects the prime minister’s proposals and wants the government t step down from the caretaker role to pave the way for his proposed people’s council to reform rules and regulations before any election can take place. The prime minster has agreed with the call for widespread reforms except that the government believed the elections and national reforms could proceed together.

The Democrat Party leader and former prime minister the Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva, a Thai born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, announced the party’s resolution to boycott elections. He said that Thailand’s political system has failed for more than a decade. The prime minister said that the government would take reforms seriously and after making them a national agenda item and set up a ‘reform council’ in part to be modelled on the ‘Sanam Ma Council’ – a people’s assembly formed after the October 1973 student uprising.
The formation of the council followed street protests involving up half-a-million Thais and resulted in the end of a period of military rule and altered the Thai political system.

The latest reform council would comprise people from all professional groups, organisations and entities such as the council of university presidents, all political parties, senior state officials and local organisations. The reform council would have a two-year term and its main task would be to propose mechanisms for reforming the country. The Defence Ministry said Ms Sinawatra’s proposed reform council had received the nod from military leaders after she floated the idea at the Defence Council meeting on Friday, 20 December.

The anti-government protesters by contrast draw their support largely from Thailand’s old money and urban elites including police and members of Thailand’s military. These represent the older forms of Thai “democracy,” in which a small oligarchy essentially have controlled politics through unelected positions in parliament, the bureaucracy, and the army. Some were staying in the area where I was indicating a level of disposable income in excess of that available to pro-Taksin Red Shirts, drawn as they are from the poorer regions of Thailand. Quite where the financial backing for the protests is coming from is the subject of some conjecture. So is the impetus behind them. Are they the result of a up swell of popular sentiment or the result of more sinister forces at work?

In a potentially ominous move, the Thai army chief Genreal Prayuth Chanocha, has not ruled out a coup. Thailand has had 18 military coups or attempted coups in the 81 years since the end of absolute monarchy and democratic rule.

If no government is formed within one year, Thailand could face problems with its budgetary spending as a caretaker government would have no authority over the budget for fiscal 2015, as the budget for 2014 ends next September. The dissolution of the House also leaves education reform – an overhaul of the curriculum and reduction of school hours for primary students – hanging.

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