BANGKOK — Hundreds of thousands of protesters seeking an unelected council to run Southeast Asia’s second biggest economy took to the streets of Bangkok on Monday, blocking off several major roads and intersections in an attempt to “shut down” the city and force interim Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to step down.
“We want a government that doesn’t have corruption,” said protester Sukira Komuang, sitting under a banner reading “Restart Thailand,” and awaiting the arrival of protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban to the same intersection that four years ago was the epicenter of a violent army crackdown on supporters of the current government.
The latest round of Thailand’s now eight-year-old cycle of street protests started after the Yingluck-led government sought to push a wide-ranging amnesty bill into law, a move interpreted by opponents as a gambit to allow her elder brother Thaksin return to Thailand without having to face jail. Over the years, the on-off protests have involved groups both supporting and opposed to the current administration,
“This government is for one family, not for the people,” Sukira Komuang said, referring to the Shinawatra clan. Thaksin Shinawatra, himself a former Prime Minister, fled Thailand after being hit with corruption charges in 2008.
However, Suthep, a former Deputy Prime Minister, has himself faced corruption allegations in the past, while the movement he now leads stands accused of wanting to undermine Thailand’s electoral democracy.
From Monday morning, Suthep marched through Bangkok’s jam-packed streets accepting both the adulation of supporters and fistfuls of Thai baht, donation from supporters lining the streets as he stopped-off at several of the intersections where demonstrators gathered, some since Sunday night.
Akanat Promphan, spokesman for the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PRDC), the name for the protest movement, accompanied Suthep on his march around the city on Monday. “Today millions of people have come out in Bangkok to support this movement and to demand Yingluck and her cabinet resign from their caretaking duties,” he told The Irrawaddy.
There was little sign of police near the demonstrations, despite a pledge by the government to deploy up to 20,000 security personnel in advance of the protests. Police headquarters, situated near two of Bangkok’s biggest shopping malls, have been regularly surrounded in recent weeks by protestors who see the police as aligned with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, himself a former policeman. In December, a policeman was killed in clashes with protesters in Bangkok.
The renewed demonstrations have prompted another round of coup rumors in a country where there have been 18 military takeovers—successful or attempted—since the changeover from absolute to constitutional monarchy in 1932. The most recent coup came in 2006, ousting Thaksin. Thaksin’s populism—particularly social spending in heavily-populated northeastern areas—was seen by many southern and Bangkok-based Thais as a challenge to established social and economic hierarchies.
And in a change he has long denied but one that has typically galvanized opponents, Thaksin’s loyalty to Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej was deemed suspect. The current King is the world’s longest-reigning monarch and is screened from criticism by the world’s strictest lèse-majesté laws. Concerns about Thailand’s future, once royal succession takes place, are thought to feed into the latest round of protests.
One anti-Government protestor, giving his name only as Sammy, said that “we don’t want to say anything about the future, but the change is coming, and we don’t want the bad king in the future.”
Thaksin-backed parties have won a string of consecutive elections in Thailand and would likely triumph again should the planned Feb. 2 elections proceed. Fears of losing another election are another reason why the “shutdown” protesters want an unelected council to run Thailand for an undefined period, prior to the next elections taking place, with the slogan “Reform before elections” seen on hundreds of banners across Bangkok on Monday.
The main opposition party, the Democrat Party, supports the shutdown protests and will not take part in the upcoming election, if it goes ahead. The Democrat Party has not won an election in over two decades—though it governed from late 2008, after courts ousted a Thaksin-backed party, until mid 2011, when Yingluck Shinawatra’s Puea Thai won a comfortable victory in Thailand’s last election.
Yingluck had faced opposition over a controversial rice subsidy scheme and over multibillion baht infrastructure projects, which opponents say have been tarnished by corruption and patronage.
However, despite the mismanagement claims, earlier anti-Shinawatra protests had failed to gather critical mass—prior to the attempted amnesty and an attempt to change Thailand’s Upper House from a part-elected to fully-elected body, the latter move blocked by the courts.
And Yingluck supporters are staging rival rallies in many of Thailand’s provinces, except for Bangkok and southern areas where support for Suthep’s demonstrators is strong, amid concerns that there could be a repeat of the deadly violence that occurred in November 2013 when redshirts held a rally at a Bangkok football stadium, close to an anti-government demonstration at a nearby university. On Saturday, seven anti-government protesters were injured when unknown gunmen opened fire on their camp near one of Bangkok’s main tourist haunts at Khao San road.
Speaking by telephone from Ayutthaya, an old Siamese capital an hour north of Bangkok, where pro-government demonstrators gathered, redshirt leader Thida Thavornseth said that “we want to show that we are many people opposed to the PDRC and opposed to the military coup.”