Last night the atmosphere on Silom Road was a far cry from the clashes between security forces and red shirt supporters on Viphawadi-Rangsit Road earlier that afternoon, which left one soldier dead and 18 people injured.
There were a few lines of police and soldiers dressed in riot gear, standing next to razor-wire cordons and guarding places such as the entrances to the BTS skytrain. Soldiers were holding shotguns or M16, but the magazines were not loaded. There was no sign of tension, no tinder box waiting to explode, and most of the security forces looked bored if anything.
Squads of police were resting, lying next to their shields or sitting up against the shuttered shop windows. Most were talking with each other or chatting on their mobile phones, some were tuned into live radio broadcasts of speeches being given by United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship leaders on stage at the rally at Ratchaprasong intersection just across the road.
It was a stark contrast to the scenes last week when hundreds of local residents, workers and “multi-coloured shirt” pro-government protesters would gather each night until last Thursday’s grenade attacks by unknown forces killed one and injured more than 75, effectively sounding the deathknell of the anti-red-shirt counter-rallies.
Only a handful of locals and pro-government supporters, probably less than 10, had gathered outside of Au Bon Pain, but while the numbers were low their sense of frustration with the day’s events and the seemingly endless political deadlock was palpable.
“We’ve had enough, all of us around Silom have been affected by the protests. We can’t make a living,” said Apichart Prakankul, 38, a local street vendor.
“People can exercise their democratic rights, but this [the red-shirt occupation] isn’t democracy. When will it end? If the red shirts can do this, what stops another mob from turning up next time they don’t agree with something?”
Apichart said he was angered by the red-shirts lack of consideration for the rest of Bangkok and normal people trying to go abut their everyday lives. He said he was not a supporter of the yellow-shirted People’s Alliance for Democracy, but he was generally sympathetic with Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s predicament up to a point — he should not back down to the UDD, that would only encourage other groups, including the PAD in the future; the Ratchaprasong rally needed to be ended, but without bloodshed; and that something had to be done soon.
He also said both the soldiers and police had a tough, unenviable job, and Apichart was not willing to offer blanket criticisms of the security forces for not following orders. “I don’t know if that is true,” he said, “it’s a very difficult situation.”
“But if they are refusing or not acting on orders then they are not doing their job, they are deserting the country… they’re not being true Thais,” he added.
It was a sobering, and frankly quite depressing moment, but one that offered insight into the plight of everyday Thais whose lives and livelihoods are being affected by the anti-government rallies.
Across the road, through the bamboo-and-rubber-tyre barricades, and past the piles of broken-up paving slabs, and the scene could not be more different.
Testament to Thailand’s unique and often baffling culture, the scene was one more akin to a temple fair than a hardcore political rally aimed at forcing the government to step down.
People were camped out under awnings, while vendors sold fried chicken and doughnuts next to morbid posters showing close ups of the corpses of protesters who had been shot dead in the April 10 clashes between the army and the red shirts near Phan Fa Bridge, which killed 25 and injured more than 800.
Along Rajadamri Road and throughout the rally site, which sprawls over much of central Bangkok’s key retail district, small crowds of people gathered next to TVs the constantly ran and re-ran news and video footage of the bloody April 10 crackdown.
There was something quite unsettling about this, but it was an example of the UDD’s highly professional propaganda machine. The continuous speeches from the stage, projected on myriad screens throughout the area, named people who had donated a few hundred baht to the anti-government struggle, or in this case thanking a Thai journalist called Pavin and the BBC and Business Digest for their positive coverage of the red shirts which was drawing more support for the cause.
In most cases, the anti-government supporters I spoke too were very friendly. A small crowd gathered when I was interviewing a couple of people, people smiled and someone energetically flapped their fan at me offering momentary surges of cool to counter the humidity.
One Bangkokian told me she supported the red shirts because the Abhisit administration was “unjust, he [the PM] was not elected by the people. Prapassara said she was sure the UDD would win, even though “Abhisit may be too stubborn to dissolve parliament soon.”
She also hoped for ousted-premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s return. “He was the best prime minister we have had, he had the best ideas,” she said.
Another protester, Anucha Jeabjan, 44, a protester, said he witnessed the fighting between red-shirt protesters and the army on Vibhawadee-Rangist Road yesterday afternoon.
“We just wanted to make way to talad Thai (Thai market). We wanted to show Bangkok we are fighting for democracy,” he said. “But the soldiers blocked us, then they shot at us.”
A nearby red-shirt guard, who declined to be named, said the protesters had been unarmed. “We only had our fists,” he said, adding that armed plain-clothed soldiers had infiltrated the demonstrators. “They shot the soldier dead, not us” he said, but admitted that he had not seen the shooting himself.
Despite the claims of some commentators that the current struggle had gone well beyond support for Thaksin, I did not see any evidence of that. Everyone I spoke too held the former telecoms tycoon in the highest regard. That does not mean that there are not people who join the red-shirt rallies who detest Thaksin, but equally detest the military’s September 2006 coup, I just did not come across any last night.
Despite the afternoon’s clashes many protesters said they did not believe the army would lead a bloody crackdown to dislodge the rally from the Ratchaprasong area, saying that the soldiers have “red hearts” and supported the anti-government demonstrations.
Others said they were simply not worried by the threat of further clashes.
“Let them come,” said Wichai Ornor, 54, who travels 20km everyday to join the rally.
“I’m not scared of anything. I used to be in the khratin daeng [red gaurs],” he said with a laugh.
The khratin daeng were one of a number of anti-leftist militias formed in the 1970s to fight to the communist insurgency and were involved in the 1976 massacre of Thammassat University students.
At this point I would like to make a few observations about the current situation in Bangkok. These are my own perspectives and opinions and may be totally wrong, but I believe they are at least worth airing.
First, my experience of virtually every person at a red shirt rally has been entirely positive. They are genuinely nice people, and when you talk to them it is hard not to feel for their situation and their desire to have the government they vote for stay in power without interference from the army or judicial activism.
It is disingenuous to deny that most people in the rural provinces have been politically, economically and socially excluded from the benefits of Thailand’s wealth and development for years. The old establishment, Bangkok elite, call it what you will, through its arrogance, snobbery and refusal to fund development, education and healthcare paved the way for a politician such as Thaksin to come along and tap into a massive political powerbase with the aid of a few populist parlour tricks.
Many Thaksin supporters I have spoken too agree that he was corrupt, but they quite fairly say all Thai politicians are crooked and as Thaksin is the only one to have championed their cause, why shouldn’t they support them. Some say the reason there was an establishment backlash against him was not because he was corrupt, but because his corruption benefited the social group.
Listening to these passionately held beliefs supported by life stories of hardship and poverty in the midst of the energy of a mass rally can be intoxicating. But this is why it is essential to step back and ask a few questions.
If this is a movement about social justice and class struggle, which has moved beyond Thaksin, why are the demonstrations being held now? Why was it only after the February 26 Supreme Court ruling to seize 46.6 billion baht of the Shinawatra family’s frozen assets that the UDD started to organise the “occupation of Bangkok”?
If the red shirts represent an organic, self-sustaining movement for social and democratic justice, would the rallies continue if the money supply, presumed to come from Thaksin (which is paying for the infrastructure, stages, lighting, catering, television crews etc) was cut off tomorrow, or would they rapidly run out of steam?
What I see as a tragedy of the current situation is that people who support the red shirts — provincial electorates and those who oppose military and extra-constitutional interference in the democratic system — have been co-opted by Thaksin who is only concerned about wealth and political power. He is one of the richest Thais, a renegade amat, a member of the elite, and he is hijacking what could be a progressive movement for social change. Some academics and analysts believe that the red shirts/UDD will eventually break away from Thaksin and become a dynamic force in Thailand’s development, but say this will take several years.
The second key issue is talk of democracy. Democracy is a system based on rights which are enshrined in law. But how can democracy — in the Western, liberal sense of the word — function in a society where the Deputy Prime Minister says “what is the point of imposing martial law when no one will abide by it?”
If the lower House is dissolved now and the Peua Thai win the election, anti-Thaksin forces will take to the streets again and the chances of yet another military putsch will loom large on the horizon. Conversely, it is hard to believe that the UDD and Thaksin will say “fair enough” and just give up if somehow the Democrat’s or another anti-Thaksin coalition gain power.
It is also worth asking if the UDD is such a powerful force for democratic change, one which is attempting to invoke the spirit of the ’76 uprising, then why is there such a nasty collection of groups involved in the movement — anti-communist specialist Seh Daeng; Panlop Pinmanee , a former death squad leader who was involved in the Khru Sae massacre, who in 2006 said “as a real friend and former classmate from military school, I fully support Chamlong (Srimuang) in his move (to oust Thaksin)”; and a collection of Red Gaurs and Black Rangers to boot. It is odd that these groups are now standing alongside former cadres of the Communist Party of Thailand, the very same people they used to shoot in the head for 200 baht a pop.
The fact that the PAD has effectively got away with its mass protests, occupations of Government House and airports blockades, which cost the economy in excess of 250 billion baht, does expose horrendous “double standards” in Thai society, but this should not equate to allowing the UDD to hold the country to ransom.
Thailand’s cycle of political tragedy needs to be broken and at this point it is hard to see how another general election can do that. Forcing analysis into simple to explain, but essentially ineffective pigeonholes of left vs right, rich vs poor, or Bangkok vs the provinces is a folly and intellectually dishonest.
Without building consensus or constructing even the most basic principles on which all parties involved in the current impasse can agree on, it is hard to see how the deep social and political divides in Thai society can be overcome.
What exactly that process should be is hard to define — perhaps drafting a new, fully inclusive constitution could be a way forward — but trying to outline a forward-looking strategy for ending the turmoil will probably provide a bigger chink of light at the end of the tunnel than the current Groundhog Day of elections and mass protests that dominate Thai politics.