Party atmosphere as anti-government protests shut Thai capital

Authorities keep low profile as thousands of protesters occupy Bangkok’s downtown

Anti-government protesters  block traffic at the Silom Road intersection in Bangkok on Monday. Photograph: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

Anti-government protesters block traffic at the Silom Road intersection in Bangkok on Monday. Photograph: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

Tue, Jan 14, 2014, 00:59

There was a party atmosphere in Bangkok yesterday as tens of thousands of Thai anti-government protesters occupied large swathes of the downtown area, with police and soldiers keeping a low profile for “Shutdown Bangkok, Restart Thailand”.

The demonstrators, made up mostly of Bangkok’s middle class and the royalist establishment, waved Thai flags and blew whistles around floats playing music in this city of nearly 12 million people.

In a conflict that has gone on for eight years they are calling for the removal of the government of Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother, the tycoon former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who fled the country to avoid a jail term for corruption.

The Shinawatra family is backed by the poorer, rural “red shirt” supporters, and the demonstrators in Bangkok say Yingluck, whom Thaksin has described as “his clone”, is trying to bring her brother back from exile in Dubai.

“This is how show we are against Thaksin and what he has done to our country,” said 28-year-old piano teacher Noppawan Kosiyanupup, who is on the international faculty at the National Institute of Development Administration.

“I am against violence but there are violent elements in every colour grouping here. I’m showing what I feel. Elections don’t work if there is corruption, so we want to reform the whole election system. I’m not talking about electing the Democrats or other parties, I want to cleanse the whole system,” she said.

Schools were closed and the main intersections of the city were blockaded, but the Sky Train urban transit system was working and many commuters took river ferries to get to work. Shops opened, as did the stock exchange.

The government has deployed 10,000 police, along with 8,000 soldiers at government offices, but they kept a low profile yesterday.

The crisis looks set to drag on for many days, possibly longer, and could inflict considerable damage on southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy.

Eight people, including two police officers, have been killed and dozens wounded in violence between protesters, police and government supporters since the campaign against Yingluck’s government started in earnest in November.

Thaksin was ousted by a military coup in 2006 and sentenced to jail in his absence for abuse of power in 2008.

In a bid to end the unrest, Yingluck, who was voted in with a big majority in parliament, called a snap election for February 2nd.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has rejected the election, which Yingluck’s Puea Thai Party would almost certainly win.

Instead, the protesters want to install an appointed “people’s council” to change the electoral system and bring in other reforms to weaken Thaksin’s influence and his ability to win elections, which he has done in every poll since 2001.

Suthep, who was deputy leader of the Democrat Party in 2010, is facing murder charges for his role in the crackdown, which left 92 people dead.

He has given frequent speeches during the protests, and walked along downtown Bangkok’s main thoroughfare yesterday surrounded by supporters. Suthep’s stated goal is to eradicate the influence of the Shinawatra family on Thai politics but he says he would call the protests off if, as some fear, civil war breaks out.

Demonstrator Phonwiwat Sirsupom said he was glad the protests were peaceful. “It’s good that we are able to have a demonstration without any major disruption to traffic and business,” he said.

Asked if he thought the election would be delayed, he said: “I don’t think this will end until the soldiers intervene.”

Yingluck said she had proposed to meet various groups tomorrow – including her opponents – to discuss a proposal from the electoral commission to postpone the elections, according to deputy prime minister Pongthep Thepkanchana.

The International Crisis Group said there was no clear way out. “But there are ways to render a bad situation potentially catastrophic. Denying the chance to vote is one. So is the propensity of some leaders to achieve by mass action – often violent – what they cannot by popular mandate or negotiation,” it said.

In the last few years Thailand settled into a period of seeming detente between the various colour-coded groups on the different sides, but it is difficult to see where middle ground could come from. Fundamental tensions remain unresolved, and analysts believe that if a solution is not found for the current issues there could be serious violence, even civil war.