Welcome to Thailand, the land where your right to stand against the government and have your voice heard is alive and well. This is also a place where political discourse can be more polarizing than family gatherings on American Thanksgiving. In my four years here I have been amazed at the will of the people to exercise their right to protest and fight for what they believe in.
I’ve been asked by a few friends about the current situation and I figured I’d do a quick run-down of the political demonstrations in the land of smiles. This is what I can tell you:
The current protests were sparked a few months ago by a now infamous Amnesty Bill (which would have pardoned a few high profile politicians of their crimes and allowed them back into the political fray) and it has been fueled by charges of political corruption in the current government.
The “protests” in downtown BKK.
There are many differences between these protests and the ones from 2010, the main one being the groups behind each of these. The people protesting the government 3 years ago are known as the red-shirts: they are people from the Northeastern provinces of Thailand and supporters of the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his party. They also voted Yingluck Shinawatra, the current prime minister and Thaksin’s sister, into power in the 2011 election. In 2010, the government was run by the same people who are heading the current anti-government demonstrations. Mainly the yellow shirts, a group who made headlines in 2006 for shutting down the airports in Bangkok and eventually sacking Thaksin from power.
The red-shirt protests of 2010. As they say around these parts, not same same.
Back in 2010, the people protesting were literally occupying Bangkok. Northerners trekking south en masse, setting up shop in town and sleeping on the streets for weeks. The demonstrations reached a boiling point, turning violent and soon the occupiers found themselves fighting the military and the police. Buildings were burned to the ground and when it was all said and done, over 80 people were dead. Ultimately the government capitulated, set-up new elections, and the protesters went home.
The main road in Siam taken over by protesters, street vendors, and gawkers alike
The demonstrations of 2014 are a different story. For the most part, these protesters are trekking downtown from all over the city, riding the MRT or the BTS to the rally points and going back home at night to their own beds. The main bulk of the protesters are Bangkokians. These demonstrations have had a far more festive atmosphere. I’d like to blame their ubiquitous whistles but the sounds of Queen and James Brown blasting through speakers and the musicians on stage, are hard to ignore. They have had encounters with law enforcement but police have stayed away from the protests so far this year. (During both protests, neither side has shown trust in the cops, maybe because of their close association with the government, regardless of who’s at the helm.) Historically, the military has backed the yellow-shirts so I don’t see why they would intervene against them, if anything, they might intervene in their favor, like they did in 2006. They have been setting up small bunkers close to the gathering areas. I doubt these protesters are going to want to trash their hometown. As the saying goes, you don’t shit where you eat, I think it’s applicable.
Taking a break from exercising their rights.
Is everything okay? Kinda, sorta, not really.
Eight people have been killed and many others injured so far but these have been mostly due to altercations between the rival groups. All of this violence has been reported to a certain extent but I have friends around town (who live close to particularly volatile areas) who tell me they hear gunshots and explosions with far more frequency than we hear about in the news. The real fear is that the red shirts might come join the party and set off massive confrontations.
Airports might be shut-down. I mean, protesters are systematically occupying government buildings and forcing them to shut down their operations. It’s a bit hard to get around town by car. Downtown in particular. Depending on where you’re going, traffic can be a mess. More of a mess than it usually is. Last month, the sky train was shut down for a few hours as the protesters took over the stations but otherwise, it has been running smoothly and it’s as dependable as ever. Bangkok might be in slight disarray but outside the city, things should be okay. (Chiang Mai, the islands, etc.)
Elections are being held on February 2nd and this is when things will come to a boil. If you’re planning a trip here, try scheduling it some time after that. The political climate immediately after elections will be uncertain as the odds are stacked against the opposition.
At the epicenter, the Asoke intersection, shortly before Suthep took the stage.
There are some peculiar aspects to the art of political protest in Thailand. There’s an odd sense of respect for certain national holidays. In 2010, there had been clashes by the time Songkhran (Thai New Year) came around, but if you were in the city for the celebrations, you would’ve never realized the tension that had preceded it. For a few days in April, that tension had dissipated and everyone in the city soaked each other in water and covered their faces in paste. Afterwards, the hypertension returned and things eventually degraded into mayhem.
Is it safe for travelers? If you’re a foreigner, you shouldn’t be worried as long as you stay away from the protest areas (which includes many places of interest). Don’t wear red or yellow or black. and if for some odd reason, you happened to get caught up in a situation, walk away from the commotion. Right now might not be the time to visit Bnagkok.
Taking a breather after battling the crowds in Siam.
Is yours truly going to be safe? Yup. I live just outside the center and my workplace is out of the way and nowhere near any location of interest for either side. My commute is short and away from downtown. Demonstrators jam-packed my neighborhood a couple of times already but that just meant that traffic was slow moving. If it happens again, I’ll probably stay home, read a book and have a cup of joe. I’m not going outta my way to hang out in the protests areas (photos not withstanding).
I could have ostensibly crowd surfed my way up Thonglor that day.
There’s some uncertainty with the outcome of these demonstrations but what I can tell you for sure, is that I and everyone I know, wish for things to be resolved peacefully. And hopefully sooner than later.