Over the last week, Bangkok has been rocked by major anti-government protests, with tens of thousands of people occupying ministries and bringing parts of the city to a standstill. SIMON ALLISON was in Thailand to see what all the fuss is about (and he wasn’t expecting the music festival atmosphere).
I approached Democracy Monument on motorcycle, clinging on for dear life as the driver cut off buses and weaved through oncoming traffic (he had a helmet, I didn’t. Nor do I share his belief in reincarnation). It’s a place I’ve been to many times before; it’s on the Bangkok tourist trail, near the Grand Palace, and just a stone’s throw away from Khao San Road, that fluorescent beacon of gap-year hedonism. But I’d never seen it quite like this before.
The boulevard leading to the monument was closed to traffic. Thai flags were everywhere. Two massive gazebos, each 100-plus metres long, had been erected on both sides of the road. Under them sheltered thousands of people, all grateful for the protection from the midday sun. Some were sitting on picnic blankets, eating and drinking and making merry. Others were fast asleep – as we all know, politics can be an exhausting business. Still others had made their way to the ranks of plastic chairs at the front, where they were being entertained by some grizzled rocker who was doing his thing on the Democracy Monument itself, the stage flanked by its enormous ceremonial wings.
On either side of the gazebos, a line of enterprising businessmen and women had set up their stalls, selling food, sweets, ‘I love Thailand’ t-shirts and DVD highlight packages of Thai government brutality (alongside, incongruously, recordings of famous Muay Thai fights and soft porn). They were doing a roaring trade – as one protestor noted, the people benefiting most from the week-long demonstrations are the food and souvenir sellers, as well as those fleets of motorcycle taxis.
I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting, but it wasn’t this – which, if I didn’t know otherwise, I would have assumed was some kind of music festival, especially as nearly everyone was clutching a whistle, which has become something of a resistance symbol.
This round of anti-government protests began on Saturday, with a huge demonstration spreading from Democracy Monument to Parliament nearby (organisers say turnout was 100,000; government puts the figure at just 10,000. The real number is probably somewhere in between). Since then, protestors have occupied the monument, as well as several government ministries; and pledge to keep the occupation going until either the Prime Minister steps down, or King Bhumibol celebrates his birthday on December 5 (it would be unthinkable to mar the King’s birthday with any kind of political squabble).
Their criticisms of the government are myriad and complex, but boil down to just one name: Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin (more familiar to foreign audiences for his brief stint as the billionaire owner of Manchester City) was Prime Minister from 2001-2006, before being overthrown in a military coup. Since then, he’s been in exile – out of sight but not out of action, pulling strings and pouring money into regaining his lost influence. Control of government has changed hands several times as his supporters and opponents do battle in the halls of power, and occasionally in the streets (in 2010, 35 people were killed in a violent crackdown on pro-Thaksin supporters who had occupied important buildings in the capital, including the airport).
Right now, Thaksin’s sister Yingluck is in charge. Although she denies it, it’s hard to think of her as anything other than a placeholder for her brother, paving the way for his return and rehabilitation. And that’s exactly what caused the public action last week: she tried to ram through a new bill which would have allowed Thaksin to claim amnesty for his crimes (he’s been convicted of corruption) and come home.
“This was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Nuitanna Visanvit, a Bangkok tour guide who has stopped working for the duration of the protests. “She is a puppet and they use democracy as an excuse. What is democracy when you can just buy the election?”
Visanvit’s comments touch on a sore point for the protestors: like it or not, Yingluck’s party won the election fair and square, and they have a commanding majority in parliament (on Thursday, she easily survived a parliamentary vote of no confidence). And were there to be fresh elections, she’d win again, which is why no one wants a new poll. Her critics say this is because the party makes outrageous promises it can’t keep, and is forcing the country into debt to pay for popular, vote-grabbing initiatives like lowering the cost of rice.
“Do we want to be like Greece? That is our future. If we don’t stop it now, our generation and the next will be paying for this madness for the rest of their lives,” said Visanvit.
Instead of new elections, then, the protestors, who are led by politicians affiliated with the opposition People’s Alliance for Democracy, want Yingluck to step down, and a new, technocratic government appointed in its place. It’s a vague, seemingly futile demand, which the ruling party is simply choosing to ignore. There were no police or security forces in evidence around Democracy Monument, and ministries that have been targeted for occupation were ordered to let the occupiers in. Without further provocation, the government knows that the protestors – unless they grow exponentially in number, or turn to violence – are ultimately powerless, and their protest will fizzle out.
The protest movement is handicapped in this regard by its composition – it’s mainly an urban, middle-class movement, as one protestor (who wouldn’t mention her name) told me enthusiastically. She was trying to explain that rival pro-government demonstrations were made up of poor people who had been paid to be there, whereas the Democracy Monument crowd were all well-educated and participating of their own volition. She only succeeded, however, in coming across as uncomfortably superior and classist: “Look around, do you see all the light skin? These are office workers. They don’t work in the sun like the farmers. If you go to the Thaksin supporters, they will all be dark-skinned. They are only there for the money.”
And this, ultimately, is why Yingluck, Thaksin and the ruling party should comfortably ride out the latest storm. Thailand is a developing country where poor people greatly outnumber everybody else. Failing to meaningfully address their needs, or recruit them to the cause, means that the cause is lost before it’s even started. DM
Photo: An anti-government protester uses binoculars to look at the national police headquarters where thousands are protesting at in Bangkok November 28, 2013. Thailand’s embattled Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra breezed through a no-confidence vote in parliament on Thursday as confusion emerged over the goals of an anti-government protest movement massing at government offices. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
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