After months of relatively peaceful demonstrations and a week of massive anti-government rallies, protests in Bangkok have turned violent. Though nobody in Thailand seems particularly surprised, it’s not clear yet just how explosive things will get. The atmosphere in the city and the fact there were similar scenes just five years ago doesn't bode well for a country in which power is concentrated in the hands of a few but desired by many. Many middle-class Thais are desperate to sever ties with exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, who retains support among the country's poorer rural population and—his opponents would argue—still exerts influence over the current government, ostensibly led by his sister, Yingluck.
The clashes began yesterday outside Ramkhamhaeng University, where anti-government students were holding a protest a stone's throw away from a huge rally of pro-government "red shirts." Strangely, considering the obvious potential for confrontations, there were only a handful of police positioned along the road between the two groups. When the fighting started, the police did very little to stop it. The students first attacked an individual red shirt who was walking past, then later a city bus full of passengers—smashing the windows and terrifying the people inside, who could be seen pleading to their attackers to stop.
But they didn’t. The students threw heavy stones at the bus, hit it (and the passengers inside) with sticks and tossed a number of loud flash-bang type things beneath the wheels. The students' ferocious attack continued for around five minutes until the bus could switch to the other side of the road and speed away. Later that night, gunfire broke out and reports today said that four or five people were killed and scores injured during clashes that ran well into the early hours of the morning.
Yesterday's events were something a little different and, in most regards, far less vicious, though they involved many more people. From late morning onwards, tens of thousands of protesters descended on police lines around Government House in Bangkok’s historic quarter; their stated objective to force their way into the building. As the crowds got closer they started to dismantle the fortifications that the police had set up to keep them at bay. Tear gas canisters were tossed over the walls to push them back.
Most of the protesters dispersed, but a hardcore continued to fight for much of the day, a smaller number all the way into the night. Throughout the clashes, police used water cannons, large amounts of tear gas, and possibly rubber bullets (it was hard to tell in all the chaos). For their part, the protesters chucked stones, bottles, and the tear gas canisters that had been fired at them back at the police.
Today, it could all happen again. Or it could fizzle out. Or it could escalate. Nobody knows. But there doesn't appear to be any signs from the leaders of either side of backing down. As one protester told me, "We've come too far now; we can't go back." Although, considering Thailand's penchant for hyperbole, it's hard to take anything particularly seriously.
Thailand is one of the friendliest places on the planet to visit, and Bangkok an amazing city. But it has a shameful history, revisited once again over the past few days and possibly in the days to follow. Hateful, vicious violence fuelled by cynical, power hungry "elites" on all sides who couldn’t care less that their goals are being achieved by the spilling of more Thai blood.
Yesterday was meant to be "victory" day for the protesters, but despite some success in pushing back police, they are nowhere near their goal of displacing the government. While shaken—Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra cancelled a state trip to South Africa in response to the violence at home—they still appear strong, and Thailand’s violent political reality will continue as long as that lasts.