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Smiles Conceal Simmering Tension in Bangkok

by Joshua Kurlantzick
January 13, 2014

Anti-government protesters block a major intersection in Bangkok's shopping district on January 13, 2014. Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters occupied parts of central Bangkok on Monday, ratcheting up a two-month agitation to force the resignation of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and meeting no resistance. (Kerek Wongsa/Courtesy Reuters) Anti-government protesters block a major intersection in Bangkok's shopping district on January 13, 2014. Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters occupied parts of central Bangkok on Monday, ratcheting up a two-month agitation to force the resignation of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and meeting no resistance. (Kerek Wongsa/Courtesy Reuters)

The first day of the Thai anti-government protesters’ Bangkok shutdown, which is now planned to go on indefinitely, went off relatively quietly, at least by recent standards in Thailand. The protesters massed at major intersections, blew whistles, held almost festival-like cheers, and generally gathered peacefully. Although many Bangkok residents were annoyed by the chaos created on the streets, business districts, and public transportation, a significant percentage of Bangkokians support the general aims of the protest movement; and, the relatively peaceful nature of the first day of the shutdown allowed some people in the capital to briefly exhale.

Although many policemen—and, most likely, some army soldiers sympathetic to the caretaker government—have been chomping at the bit to crack down on demonstrations, on the first day the security forces operated with great restraint, especially by the brutal standards established in Thailand in the past four years. The caretaker government’s decision that it was willing to potentially postpone parliamentary elections for several months, in order to cool tensions and address some of the protesters’ demands, also could be seen as a positive step forward.

But no one in Thailand should exhale too deeply. The leader of the protests, former Democrat Party deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban, who was already acting like a messianic figure, seems to have been empowered even more by the first day of demonstrations, and by the equivocal response to the protests by army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha. Not only has Suthep now vowed that the demonstrations will go on indefinitely until the government is toppled but he also has become increasingly belligerent, even ridiculous, in his demands—that media in Thailand broadcast every announcement by protest leaders live, that the local media stop covering the caretaker government. The protesters already have rejected elections not only in February but also potential polls held a few months down the road. One suspects that they would reject elections altogether, at any time, and under any circumstances.

What’s more, as often happens in Thailand, Monday’s seemingly benign image conceals a darker reality. Many currents of tension run just below the surface of the situation in Bangkok, and were visible even on the peaceful first day of protests. In the early hours of the demonstrations, someone shot two people at the anti-government camps. No one has any idea how many armed, reckless agitators exist a midst the protesters or against pro-Puea Thai men and women in the police and the general population. A hard-line group within the protesters already has vowed that, if the government does not step down in several days, the demonstrators are going to move faster to totally paralyze the city, including attacking the main airports and other transportation hubs. This step, even more than the current strategy of mobbing at key intersections in Bangkok and stopping some forms of public transport, would paralyze commerce and tourism in Bangkok, totally embarrass the government, and force the Yingluck caretaker government to respond more forcefully. Indeed, it was just this type of airport shutdown several years ago—by basically the same group of royalist, elite protesters—that helped topple a previous iteration of Puea Thai. Expect some kind of tough move by demonstrators by the end of this week. As the International Crisis Group warned today, the “scope for peaceful resolution is narrowing” in Thailand. Indeed.

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