It's the world's most visited city and the capital of southeast Asia's second largest economy, but today parts of Bangkok were brought to a standstill by jubilant protesters determined to topple the government.
Demonstrators, who met no resistance from police, blockaded seven major intersections, set up camps, and sat in the street, where they sang and chanted antigovernment slogans. The protesters also marched on several government ministries and disrupted public transport.
"Don't ask me how long this occupation will last," protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban said in a televised speech to supporters. "We will not stop until we win."
Mr. Suthep has threatened to shut down Bangkok for up to 20 days until an election planned for Feb. 2 is called off and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra resigns. Suthep’s movement, the People's Democratic Reform Committee, is largely popular among urban elites. They want the government replaced by an unelected people’s council in order to instigate electoral reform, which they say is the only way to end a monopoly on power by Ms. Yingluck and her self-exiled brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was removed in a military coup in 2006.
Protesters occupying Bangkok on Monday included thousands of rubber plantation workers who were bussed in over the weekend from farms owned by Suthep and his supporters in the south of the country.
“We will stay here until there is change,” says Warawut Pukdeeruand, a plantation worker who has pitched a tent in Lumphini Park in the heart of the business district.
More than 20,000 police and soldiers have been deployed to guard parts of the city, including Bangkok’s two international airports, which were seized by protesters in 2008. The US Embassy has warned Americans living in Bangkok that the protests will be disruptive and recommended that they stock up on essential supplies and make sure they have sufficient cash on hand.
Opportunity for peaceful solution 'narrowing'
While Monday’s occupation went peacefully, there are fears violence could erupt if the shutdown drags on. International observers warned the window for a peaceful solution to Thailand’s political crisis was shrinking fast.
“The campaign by anti-government protesters to derail the Feb. 2 election raises prospects of widespread political violence, and scope for peaceful resolution is narrowing,” a spokesperson for the International Crisis Group said today.
Eight people, including two police officers, have been killed and dozens wounded in violence between protesters, police, and government supporters since the campaign against prime minster Yingluck’s government started in November.
Some fear extremists or hired thugs could instigate violence to provoke military intervention, leading to a repeat of 2010 when more than 90 people, many of them Thaksin supporters, were killed in an army operation to put down a similar rally that paralyzed central Bangkok for several weeks.
Others, including a group of leading Thai academics, warned that Suthep’s refusal to participate in elections is anti-democratic and that people’s tolerance for continued disruption in Bangkok, whichever political side they fall on, is limited.
“Tension will increase over the next few days and the silent majority who are not happy with the shutdown will start to register their opposition. Clashes between the two camps will happen,” says Puangthong Pawakapan, associate professor at the Department for International Relations at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
Meanwhile forty-five nations have cautioned travelers against visiting Bangkok until the protests are over. On Saturday, the [American] US embassy urged Americans living in Bangkok to stockpile a “week’s supply of cash … [and] two-week supply of essential items such as food, water and medicine.”
In response to Monday’s protest Prime Minister Yingluck invited leaders of antigovernment protesters and political parties to discuss a proposal to delay the election. Officials in her party had said a delay would be impossible under the constitution. Indeed, voting has already begun among Thais living overseas.
However, the Election Commission, which has been accused of siding with Suthep, now says an election could be postponed until May or beyond if civil unrest continues or the number of parliamentarians needed for the House of Representatives to convene is too small. Protesters prevented the registration of candidates in several opposition-held constituencies in Southern Thailand, which means that those seats will not be filled.
Bangkok's streets were quiet at dusk as many protesters who had been on the streets since dawn went home. They have vowed to return tomorrow and escalate their blockade of the city including shutting down Thailand’s air traffic control and stock exchange, which could be a major blow to the economy.