Relief and retrenchment in Bangkok as protesters shift tactics

Protesters who brought the city to a standstill have moved their protest camp into a local park, calming tensions, but a legal challenge to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is gaining steam.

Damir Sagolj/Reuters
Antigovernment protesters' tents are set up inside Lumpini Park, the main protest site in Bangkok on March 4, 2014.

In most cities, gridlocked streets in the morning are a cause of complaint among commuters. Not so in Bangkok this week, where the return of traffic was a welcome sign that Thailand’s capital could be getting back to normal after protestors barricaded major roads for weeks. 

“I’m pleased things are finally back to normal,” taxi driver Chitirot Sarakham said Wednesday as he waited patiently in a static lineup of cars in Bangkok’s central business district. “It’s been bad for business. People don’t take taxis when the roads are closed."

After nearly two months of antigovernment demonstrations aimed at "shutting down Bangkok," protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban announced last week that all but one of the protest sites would be dismantled. He said the move was tactical and designed to allow demonstrators to concentrate on disrupting government ministries. Insiders say it was also motivated by spiraling costs and safety fears after a spate of grenade attacks and shootings in which four children were killed and scores injured.

For residents like Mr. Chitirot, who relies on the city functioning at full capacity to make a decent living, the end of the blockades comes as a huge relief.

But if the streets are returning to normal in the capital of Southeast Asia’s second largest economy, the chances of a resolution to Thailand’s political crisis have not significantly increased. Rather than retreating, the core of Mr. Suthep’s followers have merely regrouped inside Bangkok’s largest park, where they insist they still have the numbers to topple the government. Observers say the possibility of Prime Minister Yingluck Shiniwatra being forced out of office by the courts – widely seen as sympathetic to the protest movement – is looking increasingly likely. Meanwhile, signs of a truce across Thailand’s bitterly divided political lines are yet to materialize.

Even the status of Prime Minister Yingluck’s caretaker government has been called into question. Thirty days after a snap general election was held, no result has been announced and parliament has not been able to convene, breaking the rules of the constitution according to a group of Thai scholars.

Park turned protest headquarters 

Lumphini Park, usually a haven for joggers, picnicking families, and tourists in downtown Bangkok now resembles more of a refugee camp or military training base.

Rows of tents crowd the once manicured lawns, the public pool is padlocked shut and trucks packed with demonstrators parade around the running track playing patriotic songs. The numbers of people camped out in the park have spiked dramatically since other sites were shut over the weekend. According to one of Suthep’s aids there are now up to 2,000 people camping in the park and many more who join in activities during the day. 

“I arrived in Bangkok two days ago and came straight here with my suitcase,” says businesswoman Manee Kaewthuam in Lumphini Park, who flew from London where she currently lives to join the antigovernment movement. 

“We’ve got to make sure there is a constant supply of people here, we won’t give up until Yingluck leaves,” Ms. Manee says, adding that security concerns since the recent shootings and grenade attacks in Bangkok mean campers have been warned by protest leaders to be extra vigilant. 

Protesters dressed in bulletproof jackets and army fatigues are stationed at every entrance and leaders of Suthep’s People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) movement have started issuing ID cards for park dwellers.

“I can’t imagine how dangerous it can get at night if the security guards don’t have a screening system,” a PDRC spokesman told a local newspaper on Monday. “Everybody should know who is sleeping next to them.”

Tighter security for demonstrators inside the park has been matched by an increased military presence on Bangkok streets, with over 100 new checkpoints set up around the city. The move was announced by Thailand’s army as a measure to reassure the public that the city is safe, but there has also been speculation on social media that this is a sign Thailand’s all-powerful military is ready to move if violence escalates. 

Legal challenges 

“The crisis is far from over,” says Thai political scientist Puangthong Pawakapan, assistant professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “The feeling is Yingluck will step down soon now that she is being investigated by the anticorruption commission…but her party will replace her with another leader.” 

Yingluck has been charged with negligence in connection to her role in managing a controversial government rice subsidy program that is allegedly riddled with corruption. The program, which paid rice farmers above market rates for their product has run out of funds. Its collapse prompted thousands of farmers, usually core supporters of the government, to join protests in Bangkok in February, adding to pressure on Yingluck. She has been ordered by the national anti-graft commission, the NACC, to defend herself before March 14 or face criminal charges that would likely force her out of office.

But even if the prime minister resigns, most say the crisis will not be over until both sides agree to enter talks to negotiate a solution.

“Bangkok residents are tired of the disruption even if they are against the government. But they are scared to challenge Suthep or encourage him to compromise,” Ms. Puangthong says, adding that pro-government Red Shirts largely based in the country’s populous north should also be prepared to tolerate discussions with the opposition.

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