Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Down at the Bangkok protest

I took a wander around Democracy Monument, one of the main rally locations in Bangkok's continuing protests. (Photos are below.)

It was relatively quiet and spacious, considering it was shoulder-to-shoulder last night for about 5km with anything from 100,000 (conservative) to 1,000,000 (generous) people.

Today most of those people split into groups to rally at 12 other city locations, mostly police, military and government offices. The Ministry of Finance was taken over and peacefully occupied by protestors.

However, all I saw was at Democracy Monument. There was a happy, friendly atmosphere - certainly not the "rivers of blood" my friend mentioned seeing in the 2010 protests and crackdown. Things are clearly nowhere near that stage yet.

There are stands of free food and mountains of bottled water being shipped in (I'm amazed how 100,000+ people went to the toilet last night). The Democracy Monument itself, on a large roundabout and usually unreachable behind traffic, has a large stage with leaders speaking, often to loud cheers, and a rock band providing entertainment.

Like any major event there are merch and T-shirt stands. Note that the T-shirts, hair bands and novelty glasses have the Thai flag colours and "I Love Thailand", rather than yellow (see below), because political movements always try to show they are about the whole country, rather than the political motives of the groups organising events.

On the roundabout, both McDonalds and the classy Sorn Daeng restaurant are still open behind ranks of chairs and motorbike taxis. Closer to the stage, protestors are seated on traditional Thai picnic blanket - sheets of uncut washing powder packaging.

Bear in mind this is all happening literally within 1min walk from the end of Khao San Road, Thailand's garish and trashy backpacker ghetto where tourists drink towers of Beer Chang and buy scorpions-onna-stick and get idiotic T-shirts that all other backpackers have already. The tourist world is usually entirely, completely removed from the world of real, normal Thailand - backpackers I've met the last 3 weeks have been completely unaware of any protests going on, and the Thais working in tourism generally just want to get on with things. (As do most people!) So it is interesting now that the protests have become so big and made a home at Democracy Monument, it's so close to the escapist world of tattoos, fake dreads, crap jewellery, Indian men selling suits and cries of "massage massage!".

It's difficult to explain the political situation simply without going into detail. But here's a go:

- Former prime minister and billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a military coup in 2006. He fled the country to escape corruption charges, and is "widely assumed" (BBC) to be running the country from exile in Dubai.

- Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra is the current PM and leader of the ruling Pheu Thai Party.

- These protests have been organised and co-ordinated primarily by the opposition Democrat party. As you will see from photos, it is a large operation and there is a lot of money and organisation going into them.

- Primary figure of the protests is former Democrat MP Suthep Thaugsuban. He is facing trial, amonst others, for his role in the police using live ammunition in the 2010 red-shirt protests and the deaths of 91 people.

- Supporters of Pheu Thai, the govt and the Shinawatras wear red and are known as "red-shirts", official name the United front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD). They have been holding rallies at a stadium in Bangkok with maybe 30-40,000 people.

- Those opposing the govt are generally the "yellow-shirts", offically the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD).

- As with most popular protests in large cities, the yellow-shirts and Democrats are primarily middle-class, urban, and wealthy Bangkokians, who generally despise Thaksin. The red-shirts and govt supporters are mainly from the rural poorer Northeast of Thailand. Both groups have bussed supporters to the capital, as in previous years, to boost their rallies.

- The protests were ignited by a govt amnesty law (not passed) aimed at national reconciliation by pardoning all those wanted for crimes from the 2006 coup to today, which was amended to include Thaksin Shinawatra.

- Anger increased at the government's attempt to make the Senate (2nd parliamentary chamber) fully elected instead of appointed, which would have given strength to PTP, given the size of red-shirt support in the north.

- Both parties and sides have been using extreme rhetoric. The PTP/UDD see these protests as forceful eviction of a democratically-elected government. The Democrats see it as necessary in order to rid the country of "Thaksinism".

And that was the quick version!

Anyway enough talking, here's some pictures. I won't put my personal views on the situation, partly because they are as complicated as the situation itself!

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