A cyclist moves between the barricades in Bangkok
Tensions in the Thai capital Bangkok are on the rise, as anti-government protesters continue to paralyze the city. Their protest camps are being attacked and activists have been gunned down in broad daylight. A state of emergency declared last week hasn’t calmed anything down, and the opposition is vowing to disrupt the election slated for February 2.
The current impasse was initially sparked by the so-called “amnesty bill,” which would have allowed for the return of the divisive exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. But the protests soon morphed into something much bigger, as the “yellow-shirts”—middle-class supporters of the Civil Movement for Democracy, who are royalist and ironically negate the results of every election that doesn’t go their way—are demanding the abolition of the Shinawatra family in politics and for widespread (and largely unspecified) reforms to be implemented by a non-elected “people’s council.” This would be chosen, in effect, by a Bangkok-led minority to which they belong.
Security guards paid by the opposition searching for a suspect following a shooting
The so-called “Bangkok Shutdown,” which has involved turning key roads and junctions into Occupy-style protest camps and barricades, is now entering its third week and there are signs that the protest leaders are feeling less at ease in the heart of the city. Various marches to government buildings have been cancelled on “security grounds” and opposition leader Suthep Thaugsuban has put a temporary halt on his fundraising marches.
The protest camps have been the target of harassment since the beginning of the shutdown. Last night, one site was reportedly shot at while another was fired upon with an M79 grenade, launched from the elevated expressway above. The night before, a VICE News crew was at a site in the historic quarter of the city when the crowd of protesters, comprised largely of old men and women, came under a similar attack involving “ping pong” bombs – small, home-made explosives packed with gunpowder and with a short fuse—and apparently gun shots. There was little cover and the protesters inside were ordered by panicked security to lay flat on the ground as they scoured the buildings overlooking the site using flashlights. According to one account, the opposition’s security team also sent up an aerial drone to search the area while onstage one of the leaders announced, rather colorfully, that “the wolves were out playing and we’re going to go and hunt them.”
In the end, they didn’t catch any "wolves," and they likely never will. Even the allegiance of the attackers isn’t clear. Politically motivated accusations and counter-accusations are often leveled between the different factions. One possibility is that the attackers were "red-shirts" or some fringe, extremist group affiliated to that pro-government movement. But I honestly couldn't tell you for certain and neither, it seems, could anyone else. The situation in Thailand is an incredibly messy and convoluted one at present.
Opposition supporters stand outside the Royal Thai Army Club
This chaos had bled through from Tuesday, when, at a rally outside the Royal Thai Army Club, an undercover police officer reportedly shot a protester and was in turn badly beaten by a watching crowd before both men were taken away in ambulances. Only 300 feet away, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra sat with Election Committee officials to discuss whether or not the contentious elections should go ahead. The eventual decision by the government was that the elections, scheduled for Sunday, February 2, should proceed as planned. The decision enraged the opposition who see the polls as a challenge to their own demand of “reform before elections.”
That night, in one of his frequent speeches, Suthep vowed to paralyze Bangkok and force closures of polling booths on the day of the election. “We will make all the roads in Bangkok ‘walking streets,’ picnic streets, and we will eat in the middle of the road,” he said.
Medics carry victims of a ping-pong bomb attack
Last week, on an “early voting day,” we caught a glimpse of what that ostensibly quite twee threat might look like made flesh. Groups of opposition protesters blocked voters from casting their ballots across the capital, despite promises they'd made the day before not to stop anyone from having the chance to do just that. It was a day that, like so many recently, ended with a shooting. Suthin Taratin, a yellow-shirt leader, was shot dead in broad daylight as he addressed a crowd of supporters.
If Suthep and his followers do break their word, again, then election day Sunday could see widespread violence. Some elements of the red-shirts have said that they will send groups of supporters to protect the polling booths, but it’s hard to see this happening without clashes that would allow the army to step in, something the red-shirts don’t want.
Opposition leader Suthep Thaugsuban speaks at a rally in Bangkok
For now, the all-important military has continued its stance of apparent neutrality, often acting as a mediator in talks between protesters and police. But the army is always prepared to step in and take over and if the generals see the situation escalating out of control, then nobody is any doubt that they will act. What would happen then is anyone’s guess.
So, the shutdown continues, the government remains defiant, and the army is poised. There are few forseeable scenarios that would result in a happy ending. If the opposition don’t get their way, they’ll continue their protests and the frustration will mount. If they do get their way, the pro-government red-shirts will respond, perhaps with violence. Even if the elections are successful, which is a big "if," it’s unlikely that things will change. The yellow-shirts probably wouldn’t accept the result and would take to the streets once more. It doesn’t look like the army will act against them and the police seem unable to. A resolution to the mess is a long way off. Chaos reigns in Bangkok.