Jan 18 2014

Bangkok protests take their toll

Published by at 12:45 am under Practicalities


As the so-called “Bangkok Shutdown” enters a sixth day on Saturday, anti-government protests are beginning to take their toll. While the city has not been shut down and the vast majority of it remains safe, the situation is tense, fluid and unpredictable.

Demonstrators sit on Sukhumvit Road and listen to a speech from leader Suthep.

Demonstrators sit on Sukhumvit Road and listen to a speech by leader Suthep on Friday.

Friday saw a marked escalation of violence, most notably when an explosive was tossed at protesters from the third floor of an abandoned house during a march on Ban That Thong Road, just west of Chulalongkorn University. Over 30 people were injured in the blast, including one critically who, according to a media report, died on Saturday morning. (This map by Richard Barrow pinpoints protest sites and places where violence has occurred).

In what was perhaps Friday’s most worrisome incident, a small but radical pro-government “red shirt” group showed up at the anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) protest site near Government Complex on Chaeng Watthana Road, inciting a brief but tense standoff. The incident highlights how some government supporters are losing patience with what they consider to be a wealthy minority group attempting to overthrow a democratically elected government.

Other incidents on Friday included a grenade thrown at the house of Bangkok’s opposition-leaning governor, and gunshots fired near the Pathumwan protest site in the predawn hours. No injuries were reported at the governor’s residence, but two protest “security guards” were hurt in Pathumwan.

Most Bangkokians are just trying to live their lives.

Most Bangkokians are just trying to live their lives.

While the escalation of violence is alarming, it has so far occurred only as sporadic flare-ups. No serious violent clashes or crackdowns have taken place, and we still feel that, for now, Bangkok is safe. Even so, we fully agree with the US Embassy’s emergency message stating that travellers should avoid protest sites and marches.

A handful of military personnel were spotted at BTS sky train stations from Thursday, though their very light presence appears to be nothing more than a precaution — at least for now. While a military coup is never off the table in Thailand (the country has seen 18 in 80 years), it appears unlikely. Police also remain largely nonexistent, and one of the most unsettling aspects of the protests is how security seems to be entirely in the hands of amateur “guards” provided by the protesters themselves.

our signs facing the wrong way.

Another happy smiling unofficial guard barring access to a public place for no clear reason.

Meanwhile, a completely separate development centred around angry rice farmers is brewing in rural Thailand and may have an effect on what unfolds in the capital. The government has failed several times to deliver promised payments for huge amounts of rice pledged by farmers as part of a government programme to sell wholesale rice to China. The project has allegedly been riddled with corruption.

Large groups of farmers have already protested outside of provincial government offices, and if they’re not paid soon, they may invade Bangkok to launch their own separate anti-government protest. As farmers from the rural north and northeast are generally seen as the Pheu Thai party’s backbone, this could be a devastating blow to embattled prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Yingluck has however received support from a new group of demonstrators who increasingly popped up in Bangkok this week. Standing behind the slogan, “Respect My Vote“, they’re a mix of government supporters and moderates calling for cooperation on both sides of Thailand’s political divide. The group’s peaceful demonstrations have been marked by burning candles and wearing white, which symbolises purity in Theravada Buddhism.

It's getting a bit crusty down there.

Getting a bit crusty down there.

The PDRC remains entrenched at its seven main protest points, where a number of protesters are camping out. The protesters have also continued marching to various ministries and other offices in an ongoing effort to shut down the government. Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has also led marches aimed at collecting donations and closing major roads that have normally been open, including mid Sukhumvit on Thursday and parts of Sathorn, Rama IV and Charoen Krung on Friday.

The New York Times reported Friday that protests are waning, but this is a premature conclusion. While PDRC ranks did thin out midweek, it’s important to keep in mind that the majority of protesters are middle class Bangkokians who have jobs, families and lives outside of the movement. They may not be in the streets all day, every day, but they haven’t gone anywhere.

Emotions were clearly running high following Friday’s violence, which could trigger a fresh outpouring of support. During a speech on Friday night, a tearful and exhausted-looking Suthep vowed to press on. The Asok protest stage may have been blasting the ’80s rock song, The Final Countdown, on Friday afternoon, but we expect numbers to swell over the weekend.

Traffic rambles off the open part of Victory Monument traffic circle.

Traffic rambles out of the open part of Victory Monument roundabout.

After laying low earlier in the week, most of Bangkok’s eight million residents inched back into their routines on Thursday and Friday. Taxis and minibuses quickly learned how to avoid the main protest sites, and the majority of Bangkokians seemed mainly concerned with getting to/from work and other day-to-day basics. It’s as though the protest sites are large stones that have fallen into a river — they may be disruptive, but the water naturally learns to flow around them.

Yet this adaption isn’t taking place without some difficulty and frustration. The traffic jams and over-crowded trains that were initially predicted have begun to materialise, and government ministries are struggling to produce vital documents like passports and work permits.

With so many different protest sites in such key locations, residents live with the constant sense that they’re being surrounded by mobs. Even in unaffected areas like Thonburi, Chinatown and Khao San Road, the sounds of whistle-blowing and protest leader ranting via TV broadcasts are inescapable. Tenseness blankets the city. As long as the government persists with a controversial election planned for February 2, things may get worse before they get better.

Hang in there, folks.

Hang in there, folks.

Given this lingering uncertainty and escalating violence, should you cancel your trip to Bangkok? All public transport is still operating normally, all tourist attractions and nightlife areas are open, and even the shopping malls that are literally on top of protest sites can be safely accessed directly from BTS and MRT stations. In short, the city remains visitable.

On the other hand, if you have kids in tow or simply want to be extra safe, skipping Bangkok is not an unwise idea. Every other destination in Thailand, including Chiang Mai, Kanchanaburi and all of the islands, is as safe as ever. As for us, we’re not going anywhere.

Check out previous posts on the “Bangkok Shutdown”:
What exactly is shut down in Bangkok?
What’s Bangkok really liked during the “shutdown”?
Where to stay in Bangkok away from the protests?
“Bangkok shutdown” or “Bangkok annoyance”?

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