As the Thai capital braces for the upcoming “Bangkok Shutdown” protest day-of-action this Monday, January 13, I can only be glad that I live upcountry in Chiang Mai and won’t have to deal with the madness that’s sure to ensue. I had the bad luck of being in Bangkok last month when anti-government protesters took over several key intersections in the city, wreaking havoc on the already notoriously bad traffic. This time, the protesters plan to block 20 main intersections in an effort to effectively shutdown the capital.
What do they want? If these are pro-democracy protesters they must be demanding elections, right?
No. That would make far too much sense. This time around, the anti-government protest group is demanding NOT to hold elections.
What?! How can this be? Aren’t these the same protesters that have the support of the “Democrat” Party? And aren’t they led by former “Democrat” Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban? Why wouldn’t they want elections?
It’s probably because they know they won’t win. The Thai Rak Thai Party and it’s current incarnation, Phuea Thai Party, have gotten the most votes in every election since 2001. That was the year that former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra first harnessed the power of the rural and upcountry majority to upset the old order in Bangkok. With his populist policies, he was able to remain in office long enough to put in place all the right conditions for his family business to thrive and be sold off without paying taxes on it (to the tune of $1.88 billion). When he was finally booted out of power by a military coup and convicted on corruption charges, a fortune of 30 billion baht ($1billion) in assets was frozen by the state. He’s been living in self-imposed exile in Dubai for the past six years plotting on how to get it back.
The original wave of protests against Thaksin—when he still ran the show—was the work of the PAD (People’s Alliance for Democracy), popularly known as “Yellow-shirts” due to their preferred color of clothing. The color yellow represents the Moon and Monday, which is the day of the week the King was born on. Before any of the protests began, yellow shirts had become very popular as a way to celebrate the King’s 60th year on the throne and his 80th birthday. For a short period of time, everyone was wearing yellow shirts. But then the PAD and their yellow-shirt wearing mob took both of Bangkok’s airports hostage, and just about anyone who didn’t want to be associated with them stopped wearing yellow.
It didn’t take long for a new group to rise up in reaction to the PAD. This new group adopted the name UDD (United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship) and took to wearing red, thus becoming known as “Red-shirts” or Sûea-daeng (เสื้อแดง) in Thai. The Red-shirts—with a large amount of financial backing from can you guess where?—quickly became a force to be reckoned with. They organized massive rallies in the capital by mobilizing their supporters in the North and Northeast to come to camp out in Bangkok. Protesting became a way of life and even an occupation for many, as Red-shirt organizers would routinely hand out daily stipends for people who joined their rallies, as can be seen in the video below.
Did they have genuine complaints to make? Yes they did. A democratically elected government had been removed from power by a military coup. (Who cares if a few votes were bought to get that government elected in the first place!) The second round of post-coup elections were held in 2008, and their side won the most votes, but not enough for a majority of the seats in Parliament. The Democrat party led by Abhisit Vejjajiva was able to cobble together a coalition of smaller parties. But the Red-shirts felt the Democrats didn’t have a true mandate to run the country and were propped up by the power elites in the Army and courts.
So the Reds got bold and took over a large area in the central shopping district of Bangkok. They put up barricades on the roads to set up a virtual Red fortress right in the heart of the city. In the battle with security forces to remove the protesters, there were casualties on both sides and huge amounts of property damage inflicted by the Red-shirts. Central World, one of the largest shopping centers in Asia, was set ablaze and nearly burned to the ground.
After another new election, the supporters of Thaksin once again took power and chose his younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, to take the Prime Minister’s seat. With their side back in power now, the Red-shirts quieted down. Everything seemed OK for a short while, but then the Yingluck-led government got down to their main agenda—attempting to pass a blanket political amnesty bill that would not only allow Thaksin to be able to return without having to serve his two-year jail sentence, but more importantly, it would free up his billions of baht in frozen assets.
Nobody in Bangkok was fooled by the amnesty bill push, and a new wave of protesting began. This time it had no color. It seemed this was part of the appeal. These were regular people—office workers, shop clerks, university students—who raised their voices in opposition to an unpopular bill. While the Red-shirt group made noise with plastic hand-clappers, the new wave of protesters took to blowing whistles. At lunch hour, they’d pour onto the streets, with the sound of thousands of whistles echoing throughout the concrete jungle as a show of numbers.
And they got their way. Yingluck dropped the amnesty bill. But the protests didn’t stop. Somewhere along the line, Suthep took the helm as protest leader and never looked back. A new group was formed with the name of People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC)—although a literal translation of the long-winded Thai name for the group is the puzzling “People’s Committee for Absolute Democracy with the King as Head of State.” Despite claiming to represent democracy, the PDRC demanded that the elected government step down. Yingluck surprisingly gave in and dissolved parliament, with fresh new elections scheduled for February 2, though her hand was somewhat forced by all of the Democrat MPs resigning en masse.
With new elections less than 60 days away, you’d think the Democrats would get hard to work campaigning in order to try to win a majority of seats so that they could rightfully claim to hold the mandate of the people and craft a new agenda for the government. But, no. That would make too much sense for the “Democrat” party to do. Instead, they’re choosing to boycott the elections. And on top of this, Suthep and his group are pushing to disrupt and prevent any election from taking place at all.
What are they offering instead? Suthep has proposed an unelected “People’s Council,” to be largely chosen by his own PDRC, to take control of the government and put in place reforms before a new election can be held. Doesn’t he realize, though, that if such an unelected group were to actually be put in power, the Red-shirts would justifiably come out in full force to oppose it? How could such a council claim any authority? Doesn’t it make a million times more sense to try to win a majority of seats in the fresh round of elections so that your side could claim to represent the will of the people?
That wouldn’t be any fun, now would it? Instead we have one side determined to shutdown Bangkok, while the other side is going to rally to keep Bangkok open. Something’s got to give, and I’m just glad to be out of the way when it does.