Feb 27 2014
Update, 21:30, 28 February: Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has just announced that anti-government protesters will end their occupation of all intersections starting Monday, March 3. The demonstrations will instead be confined to “inside” Lumpini Park. This is a major development — stay tuned for more info.
This past week was a tragic one for Thailand, with children accounting for four out of the five protest-related deaths. Anti-government demonstrators have been dug in for four months, and as violence increases, it appears that neither side will back down soon. In general, Bangkok is still safe to visit, but travellers should avoid the protest sites and surrounding areas.
This past weekend saw the first serious protest-related violence outside of Bangkok, when men in pick-up trucks fired indiscriminately into a crowd of anti-government protesters in far southeastern Thailand. The attack took place in Khao Saming district, a rural area located several kilometres northwest of Trat town and away from the usual traveller trail. Along with dozens of injuries, it took the lives of two five-year-old girls.
In Bangkok, police have respected a recent Civil Court ruling that they refrain from using force against the protesters, and there have been no recurrences of the violent clash that killed six on February 18 near Democracy Monument. The capital has however seen a slight escalation in sporadic violent attacks on protesters.
This past Sunday afternoon, a M79 grenade exploded near the Ratchaprasong protest site in the city’s upscale shopping district, killing a woman and two more young children. The family were reportedly not taking part in the protest, but had instead been shopping in nearby Central World before the explosion occurred as they got into a tuk tuk. The grenade was believed to have been launched from several hundred metres away by an assailant who had no clear target beyond the broad vicinity of the protest site.
In another incident, the Sala Daeng / Lumpini Park protest site was bombarded with gunfire and grenades between midnight and 4:00 this past Wednesday morning. Only minor injuries were reported, but the prolonged attack highlights the increasingly bold tactics being employed by shadowy perpetrators.
Both of these attacks took place in parts of central Bangkok that are frequented by travellers. In particular, the Sala Daeng protest site is difficult to avoid, as it sits right next to a walkway connecting Sala Daeng sky train and Silom subway stations. While we don’t feel it’s necessary to avoid this interchange during the daytime, travellers should not linger at any the protest sites at any time, and the areas should be completely avoided after dark.
Seemingly fun and festive street markets remain on closed portions of Rama I, Sukhumvit and Silom roads near all four of the major protest sites. These generally feel safe, and usually are, but the Sunday attack displayed how violence can happen at any time within the general vicinity of protest sites.
The area around Government House and northeast of Democracy Monument on Ratchadamnoen Avenue in the old city has become eerily quiet following the February 18 clash. Overturned cars and tyre barricades linger as a reminder of the street battle that took place here. Protesters remain encamped northeast of Phan Fah bridge on Ratchadamnoen Nok, which should be completely avoided.
Attractions that are close to Government House and the Ratchadamnoen Nok protest site — including Wat Saket, the Dusit palaces and Nang Loeng market — can still be visited, but travellers should take care to approach from roads other than Ratchadamnoen.
Along with Bangkok Art & Culture Centre (BACC), shopping malls such as MBK, Siam Paragon and Terminal 21, all of which are next to protest sites, can still be accessed safely via elevated walkways direct from BTS stations. Jim Thompson’s House requires walking through the outer fringe of the Pathumwan protest site and could be avoided if you want to be extra safe.
Virtually all other Bangkok attractions are safe and easily accessible by Chao Phraya express boat, BTS sky train and MRT subway. All intercity and long-distance public transport is operating normally. It’s usually only difficult to get somewhere by taxi or tuk tuk if the destination requires going straight into a protest site or an area where protesters are unexpectedly marching. In that case, motorbike taxis are able to ride down closed roads.
While there’s no doubt that protest sites should be avoided, the overall reality still contrasts the dire picture that’s often painted by media reports and travel alerts. The vast majority of Bangkok (and Thailand) is safe. A leading foreign-born, Thailand-based businessman recently echoed this sentiment in an open letter to ambassadors worldwide. This wasn’t enough however to keep Eric Clapton from cancelling a concert planned for this Sunday at an arena north of Bangkok.
On the other hand, the reality appears bleak in the wider view of Thailand’s future. The kingdom’s most powerful general has warned that Thailand “will definitely collapse” should the death toll continue to rise, and a prolonged civil conflict no longer seems unthinkable if the two sides fail to compromise. As anti-government leaders repeat their stubborn mantra of no negotiation, “red shirt” government supporters have begun to organise in the north and northeast.
In what’s said to be only a neutral (and largely ineffective) peace-keeping operation, soldiers have gradually increased their presence on the ground in Bangkok. A leading scholar highlighted how the rift between the generally government-supporting police and generally anti-government military could prove dangerous in the long run.
In the short term, Prime Minister Yingluck has been summoned by an anti-corruption body to hear abuse of power charges today for her role in a failed rice-pledging scheme that has left over a million farmers desperate for overdue payments, though it’s not clear if she will attend the hearing. In response to the threat, a group of her supporters has locked the Anti Corruption Commission’s office north of Bangkok.
Last week, a tentative plan by over a thousand farmers to demonstrate at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport was abandoned when the government renewed promises to pay them. If that proves to be another empty promise, large groups of farmers may yet march on Bangkok.
The situation could further deteriorate if Yingluck is deposed by some sort of court ruling related to the rice scheme, which could happen as early as mid March. This would probably (though not definitely) send anti-government protesters home with a perceived victory, but it would most likely also provoke government supporters to launch their own demonstrations in a repeat of 2010.
At this point, all we can do is wait, watch and hope. A worker at our favourite Bangkok coffee shop remarked yesterday that a revered fortune teller has forecast an end to the Thai protests some time this coming July or August. It might be the best hope we’ve got.
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