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A very Thai revolution

Protesters in Bangkok are trying to bring down the government with smiles, selfies and roadblocks

There’s something uniquely Thai about attempting to bring down a government with smiles, whistles and selfies. Despite the real threat of indiscriminate violence and military intervention, the first three days of the ‘Bangkok Shutdown’ proceeded with a carnival atmosphere. Occupying major intersections and blockading government ministries, protesters succeeded in grinding the capital to a halt in an attempt to force the downfall of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The initial spark for this final showdown came last November. A controversial amnesty bill that could have allowed Yingluck’s brother, ousted former PMThaksin Shinawatra, to dodge corruption charges caused a public outcry. By the New Year this had morphed into a wide-ranging movement against the government that had claimed eight lives.

‘Corruption’ was undoubtedly the word of the day as protesters aired their grievances in colourful and exuberant fashion. This accusation, along with an urban, affluent background was the primary factor uniting the diverse groups. Mutual dislike of a government voted in by rural and working-class ‘Red Shirts’ doesn’t necessarily make for a cohesive movement. However, the Democrat Party’s ‘Yellow Shirts’ had emerged as self-styled leaders of the shutdown, aiming to hoist an unelected people’s council into power to push through reforms.

One speaker at the rally site at Asoke intersection battled over a cacophony of whistles to call on those present to "Be Happy. Keep Smiling. Sing while you walk... Make it beautiful”. And it was. A sea of colourful umbrellas, Thai flags and wide smiles greeted Democrat Party boss Suthrep Thaugsbuan as he toured rally sites collecting fistfuls of cash donations from his wildly adoring supporters. The jubilant mood was clearly gathering pace on day one as throngs of people joined the melee, waving flags and taking selfie upon selfie. Yellow Shirt leader put the estimate for day one at as much as 180,000, but other estimates by news agencies put it at as little as 50,000.

In the days leading up to the shutdown, unknown gunmen opened fire on protest camps in three separate incidents that left eight seriously injured. A swirl of rumours around the identity and aims of these gunmen had the phrase the ‘Third Hand’ bouncing around the city. This shadowy group was supposedly laying the groundwork of fear and violence necessary for military intervention to overthrow the government. With an extra 18,000 security personnel deployed in the capital, fears seemed to be confirmed.

“Thailand’s troubled democratic history has been marred by a seemingly intractable cycle: military coup, interim government, elections, repeat"

Yet there have hardly been any visible security forces on the streets and by historic standards the protests have passed relatively peacefully. A rally of several thousand people outside the barricaded Royal Thai Police Headquarters met no resistance and soon dispersed. But while numbers have dwindled since the first day of the shutdown, tensions have been escalating due to a string of violent incidents. On Tuesday four people were arrested carrying handguns and a grenade after detonating a ‘ping-pong bomb’, a small IED made by filling a ping-pong ball with explosives, at the home of former Democrat Party PM Abhisit. In a separate incident on Tuesday two protesters were shot at a rally site but survived their injuries. 

As it stands all outcomes are possible. A peaceful resolution is still achievable, yet as more of these incidents occur, that becomes a more distant prospect. While Suthrep’s side levels legitimate accusations at the government, the Red Shirts are themselves not without ammunition. The Democrat party was instrumental in the military coup of 2006, the highly lethal crackdown on protests in 2010, and is not without its own accusations of corruption.

Thailand’s troubled democratic history has been marred by a seemingly intractable cycle: military coup, interim government, elections, repeat. The democratic process has been unable to cement itself as the only legitimate method of regime change and reform. So while the people on the streets dream of a better more just Thailand, the means they use to bring about that dream might just end up preventing Thailand’s fragile democracy from flourishing.