On the frontlines of the Bangkok shutdown with young protesters yearning for change
Since they began at a traffic intersection in Bangkok last November, the Thai anti-government protests have spiralled into seven massive sites, with opposition leaders claiming over a million in attendance. The government has tried to brand the ongoing protests an insurrection, and there have been several grenade attacks at the rally sites. With five people killed and hundreds wounded during the protests to date, many suspected the rebellion would see fewer participants. The reality, as it turns out, is a little different.
Here’s a little context: the protests were initiated by a group of people called themselves the Network of Student and People to Reform Thailand (NSPRT). Then came the whistleblower protests during lunchtime in the business district of Bangkok; then the Bangkok shutdown, when various anti-government factions teamed up to call themselves the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC).
The PDRC has seen support from all walks of life, including young, middle-class Thai citizens: the kind barely seen in political movements in the last decade; the kind who had ignored news, the kind who thought politics and government administration were something irrelevant. At least, they used to.
Based on some reports from the international media reports, you might think the protests are either class warfare or a fight between supporters of the two main political parties. But the young people on the street will tell you something else.
“It’s the fight between ordinary people and the atrocious government,” replied Oui (not his real name), a creative from one of Bangkok’s leading global advertising agencies. I met Oui at the Ratchaprasong protest site one late afternoon, before he caught a motorcycle-taxi to the NSPRT-organised protest at Nanglerng traffic intersection, near a government building.
Oui has been on the NSPRT frontlines since the protests first started, braving tear gas at Chamai Maruchet Bridge when protesters tried to storm Government House. According to Oui, the Thai government is acting as if it is untouchable – an insult to the Thai people.
But for most of us, the thought of being an “ordinary person” is what keeps us quiet when witnessing corruption. The voice of a lone, unimportant person is unlikely to change anything, right? Parichat Sakunjaroenpornchai, a young architect-turned-activist, admits she used to think like this. Her father owns a sub-contractor business, and corruption is just part of the industry.
“(It wasn’t) until I heard the news that the government had passed the Amnesty Bill at four in the morning while people were asleep that I felt as if the country were raped" – Parichat Sakunjaroenpornchai
"(It wasn’t) until I heard the news that the government had passed the Amnesty Bill at four in the morning while people were asleep that I felt as if the country were raped, as if the government thought their people were stupid and blind," she says. Parichat is now a regular at protests.
November's Amnesty Bill is at the heart of the protests. Dubbed the "blanket Amnesty Bill" and spearheaded by prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, it attempted to pardon those who had committed serious offences during the political conflict of the last decade – including the corruption case that Yingluck's brother, ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra, was convicted for. It would have meant that the disgraced politician, who fled Thailand after the Supreme Court sentenced him to a two-year jail term, would have his confiscated fortune restored to him – all 46 billion baht (US$1.4 billion) of it. The bill was struck down by the Thai Senate later in the month, but the protests show no sign of abating.
Like many other young and upwardly mobile Thai, branding and communications consultant Jintakan Sricholwattana didn’t consider it important to keep up to date with politics. Now, she attends protests once or twice a week, and has joined her friends to set up the Im-Oon fund, which caters meal boxes for the protesters and guards who camp out at the site.
Jintakan first saw the news about the Amnesty Bill on Thai social media while doing humanitarian work in north Thailand. She began reading up on the controversial bill and joined the protests as soon as she returned to the capital. According to her, the protests are the fight of people who won’t stand for corruption.
“Corruption in Thailand has been the big white elephant in the room: everyone sees it but no one talks about it"
Other Thai youths see the protests as the right to express frustration and hope for change. Naamnoi Promchinda, an illustrator, describes herself as a "non-hardcore" protester who only joins the frontlines when her working schedule allows for it. But she’s been turning up to protests two to three times a week since the protests spread to seven venues. “If this government had dissolved since the earlier days of protest, things would not have gotten this far,” Naamnoi says.
You might wonder what exactly these youngsters are fighting for. Naamnoi just wants this government to be out of power first. Oui doesn’t want "this kind" of government anymore. Parichat says the protests are for today ("because it’s what makes tomorrow better"), and hopes this will be a lesson for every future government moving forward.
For most in the anti-government movement, the Amnesty Bill was the last straw. Corruption in Thailand has been the big white elephant in the room: everyone sees it but no one talks about it. While some protesters pin it down to their negative feelings about the Shinawatra family (also known to some as the "Thaksin regime"), many just hope to get rid of all corrupt politicians operating in a corrupt system.
Jintakan says she is fighting to set standards for the future of her country. "I want to make it known that malignance is unacceptable in the society, that the taxpayers are not going to just sit still and let government do whatever they want." She doesn’t want an expiry date for corruption cases – according to her, people have the right to vote, so people should also have the right to remove politicians from power.
Despite increasing reports of gunfire and grenade attacks in broad daylight, most of the young people I spoke to vowed to continue fighting for what they believe is right. Some of them have been asked by their families to just stay home. They aren't budging. "If I get killed or become disabled, at least I have done something right for the country," Parichat says.
On January 21, the caretaker government imposed 60-day state of emergency. It’s probably the first time that Thailand will hold its general elections, scheduled February 2, under a state of emergency. The general election may or may not happen – tomorrow, Prime Minister Yingluck will meet with the Election Committee to discuss rescheduling the controversial elections. Some protesters have already surrounded polling stations, blocking early voters; others still haven’t decided whether to vote "NO" or just boycott the election and stay home. One thing we can be sure of is that as you're reading this article, those undecided voters are digging information on Thai election laws.
We still don’t know how it's going to end. Thailand has gone through this same vicious political cycle of election-coup-interim government-election for many decades now. At least one positive outcome of this political conflict tearing the country apart is that people are more aware and informed of what’s going on. Young Thai people, who once saw politics as irrelevant to their everyday lives, are now enthusiastically educating themselves on the Thai parliamentary system, laws, constitutions, and their rights.
As Jintakan puts it, real democracy happens when people know their rights and duties – and people do that best when they arm themselves with information.