Today is Friday and this is already the fifth day of the “Bangkok Shutdown”. Anti-government protesters, led by former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban, continue marching around downtown Bangkok during the day, asking for support and donations while keeping the city’s seven main intersections occupied in an effort to disrupt the infrastructure and increase the pressure on prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her cabinet to resign.
In the evening, just after sunset at around 6:30pm, the crowds are gathering at various intersections such as Asoke, Ploenchit, Siam (MBK), Lumphini, Victory Monument or Lad Phrao. Supplemented by live music performances and speeches on big stages, food stalls and camp sites set up right on the streets, this might be the biggest and longest-lasting outdoor festival in the world right now.
To understand the background of the current massive anti-government protests you have to know about the recent political history of Thailand. Back in 2001 there were held general elections, the first ones under the 1997 constitution and they were considered the most open and corruption-free elections in the history of the country. The winner was the newly founded Thai Rak Thai Party (literally: “Thais Love Thais”), led by Thaksin Shinawatra, not just politician but also one of the Thailand’s most powerful and most influential businessmen (he founded, among others, AIS, Thailand’s most successful mobile phone operator).
For the first time in Thai history, the Thaksin government managed to complete a regular four-year term. The Thai Rak Thai Party also won the 2005 elections that had the highest voter turnout in Thai history. Thaksin’s party even achieved an absolute majority. However, even more extensive to the elections in 2001, there was the issue of vote buying especially in the generally impoverished northern and northeastern regions of Thailand. In other words: Members of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party traveled around countryside Isaan and handed 500 or 1,000 baht notes to the poor rice farmers for the promise of getting their vote in the election.
Thaksin’s main achievements as the prime minister include reducing rural poverty as well as providing affordable health coverage to the people. In 2006 Thaksin had to step back as the prime minister as he was accused of restricting press freedom and masterminding the desecration of the famous Erawan shrine. However the main accusation was that the Thaksin government was corrupt and made politics that only served its own interests – and pockets. The best example which directly resulted in anger among the population and eventually to a blood less coup led by the military was the taxfree sale of Thaksin’s Shin Corporation stock worth 73 million baht to a Singaporean company.
Found guilty of abusing his power by the constitutional court, Thaksin was sentenced to jail for two years. In an effort to avoid the trial, Thaksin escaped into exile.
After a one year term of interim prime minister General Surayud Chulanont, the constituational court decided the Thai Rak Thai Party had to be dissolved due to electoral fraud. A new constitution was approved by a very thin margin. In December 2007 general elections were held and they were won by the People’s Power Party (PPP), said to have been influenced and directed by Thaksin from abroad. Samak Sundaravej became Thailand’s new prime minister.
Once again the ruling party polarized and it was a like-minded group of mainly middle- and some upper-class groups of anti-Thaksin, anti-PPP and royalist sentiments wearing yellow (the King’s birthday color) starting to protest on a daily basis to interrupt the work of the government by setting up camps on public places as well as government complexes. These yellow-shirts called themselves the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). As an anti-protest movement to the yellow-shirts, the supporters of Thaksin, TRT and the PPP government were mainly people from the northern and northeastern regions and started wearing red shirts during their gatherings.
There were several bloody fights between the two groups in Bangkok and in some provinces and it was regarded as an evidence for the longstanding, suppressed polarization between the poor rural and the middle-and upper class urban sectors in Thailand that is still persistent today. In November 2008, the occupation of Bangkok’s two main airports, Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang resulted in a several week long shut-down and an enormous damage for the Thai economy. The incident almost made PM Samak’s replacement, Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law, resign.
However once again it was the constitutional court just a few weeks later that resolved the leading party, PPP, and forced Somchai to resign and once again, for the reasons of vote buying. The Democrat Party, supported by the yellow shirts, won the consequent elections and Abhisit Vejjajiva became Thailand’s 27th prime minister.
Just like his predecessor, Abhisit struggled with the daunting task of re-establishing a national harmony especially between the two main rivaling groups: red-shirts and yellow-shirts. In 2010, a new set of protests took place in central Bangkok, this time initiated by the red-shirts in an attempt to force the prime minister to resign. It ended with 87 deaths and more than 1,000 people injured when the military tried to disperse the protests.
New elections were held in July 2011 and the Pheu Thai Party (literally: for Thai) won it by a landslide (265 seats in the House of Representatives, out of 500). Thaksin’s younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, became Thailand’s first female prime minister.
Again it is believed that the ruling party bought a large amount of its votes from the poor population of the northern and northeastern regions. In different effort to gain support, the government has also passed a highly controversial subsidy program for rice farmers that guarantees minimum prices for them to sell their rice. This caused Thailand to lose its position as the world’s number one rice exporting country to India since prices aren’t as competitive as before and the government has to bear all the costs – which are financed by the people’s taxes and therefore causes anger especially among the middle and upper class people, most of them are yellow-shirts.
The main accusations from the protesters towards prime minister Yingluck and her ruling Pheu Thai Party are once again corruption and conducting policies that mainly serve the interests of the top members of the party rather than bringing the country and it’s economy forward and improving the general prosperity of the Thai people.
However the actual and immediate cause that led to the big and long-lasting protests in Bangkok and eventually to this week’s Bangkok Shutdown has been a by the government proposed amnesty bill for Thaksin in November 2013 – an attempt to whitewash Thaksin’s alleged crimes and pave the way for his return. After it had been approved by the house of representatives (where the ruling Pheu Thai Party has an absolute majority) it was defeated by the senate.
Not appeased by the decision of the senate, the protests continued (and besides the yellow-shirts also people who were undecided in the past started joining the movement), demanding Yingluck and her cabinet to resign. Equipped with whistles and patriotic Thailand accessories like wristbands, caps and shirts, they started gathering at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok’s old town (just 200m from Khaosan Road) on a daily basis. The leader of the protests had become Suthep Thaugsuban, the former deputy prime minister under the Abhisit Vejjajiva government (2009-2011).
During the daily rallies at the Democracy Monument there were public speeches held from Suthep, other politicians as well as celebrities like models or TV stars and in between there were live music performances. A lot of free food and water was distributed to the people and the general atmosphere at these anti-government gatherings was more of a big open-air festival rather than a furious protest.
The red-shirts stayed away from the protests in Bangkok most of the time, however there was one violent incident in the student district of Ramkhamhaeng on the night of the 2nd of December 2013. During street fights between red-shirts and the anti-government protesters four people lost their lives and dozens were severely injured.
On several days in December the protesters conducted a more offensive and aggressive strategy by marching all around Bangkok, asking people to join as well as receiving donations to support the protests (Suthep’s bank account had been frozen ever since the protests started end of November 2013). During one of the marches around central Bangkok I also had the chance to take a picture with Suthep, it was at the Phetchaburi / Ratchadaphisek intersection in Asok.
The protesters also started occupying several ministries as well as the police headquarters. On the 9th of December 2013, PM Yingluck eventually gave in to the pressure by dissolving the parliament and arranging new elections for 2nd of February 2014.
However she decided to not resign as the prime minister and this made Suthep and his followers continue protesting. They were not satisfied with just new elections. They continued demanding Yingluck and her cabinet to step back and more than that: Suthep’s plan is to replace the government by an unelected “people’s council” which should implement political reforms for a period of one to one-and-a-half years before making way for new general elections.
Since Yingluck still refused to step back as the prime minister and only signaled a compromise by postponing the elections for a few months, Suthep initiated the big Bangkok Shutdown Day for this Monday, January 13th 2014. Suthep’s intention is to increase the pressure on Yingluck by disturbing the capital’s infrastructure in form of blocking the seven main intersections by sit-ins (and setting up big stages for speeches and live music performances as well as camp sites right on the streets).
The Bangkok Shutdown Day has been announced only for this one day, Monday the 13th of January, however as everyone expected Yingluck hasn’t resigned yet and so the protesters continued with their “shutdown” by blocking the intersections.
It is really unpredictable how this protest will continue or when it will end, if it will turn from mostly peaceful to violent (there was already unrest on Tuesday late at night when one security guard in Siam was shot) and whether the military will step in at some point. A major student group has already threatened Yingluck to shut down the stock market as well as the airports, however Suthep doesn’t agree to this plan (yet) as the impacts for the country’s economy would be too severe. However he already announced that if Yingluck and her cabinet won’t resign within the next few days, they will “get them one by one.” I’m excited about the upcoming days.
Below are a few videos I took during the protest gatherings at the Asoke intersection on Wednesday, 15th of January 2014.