Thoughts on the Protests in Bangkok

As folks back home are getting wrapped up in the spirit of the holidays, Thailand is wrapped up the spirit of protesting.

I can’t even begin to understand or scratch the surface of politics in Thailand; there are decades of history behind the protests, and multiple influential factors that push and tug at the situation. However, I have many people from back home asking me about the current situation in Bangkok, so I will do my best to describe what’s going on as it has been described to me. (Since I’m not getting close enough to take pictures for myself, I bought my pictures on Shutterstock.)

Today (Monday, December 2nd) I was off school due to the escalating intensity of the protests, but I’m staying safe and far away! I have not been attending the protests for 3 reasons: 1. The fight is not mine. 2. I would rather not put myself in danger. Even though the energy of a passionate protest is alluring, you never know what can happen. Better to be safe than sorry! 3. The Guy Fawkes masks freak me out.

Protest 1

So, it started with an amnesty bill. This amnesty bill would allow exiled government figures to come back into the country pardoned of the crimes they committed while in government. Thaksin (former prime minister) is a hugely corrupt and controversial figure in Thailand who was ousted in a non-violent coup in 2006.

He is the reason why so many were rattled about the bill; people do not want him back in Thailand after pocketing large amounts of money. Who was at the forefront of passing the amnesty bill, then? Thaksin’s Sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who is the current prime minister of Thailand. Many believe that she operates under the influence of her brother (a “puppet” as the protestor below states), while she claims that she makes her own choices.

Although people were outraged at the bill, it seemed to be fuel for the fire they’ve had- a ripe opportunity for protest. But who’s exactly protesting? My colleague, Kelly, who has lived here for 17 years, shed a lot of light on the political situation for me, and his ideas helped me to form the foundation of this piece. He started with, “It used to be simple- red shirts and yellow shirts, but now there’s so many groups branching off…”

The yellow shirts are the proclaimed democratic party, the Peoples Alliance for Democracy, which is comprised of a middle class and elites, and as an added bonus, the military. So, pretty much.. all of Bangkok. The red shirts are the majority of the rest of Thailand- the farmers, the police, people who yellow shirts may write off as the poor and uneducated class of Thailand.

Well, the red party is in the house, and every time this majority red comes into power, go figure, the yellow shirts get upset, and can’t seem to wait 4 years with the elected government, so they start protesting after about 2. In this toxic cycle, the majority of Thailand votes, and the people of Bangkok work collectively to change the results by protesting.

The interesting thing is, when the yellow shirts want the red out, they have always been able to do that. The so-called democratic party, the yellow shirts, force the elected party out in extremely un-democratic fashion. Kelly said, “A coup is not democratic…The process is, if you don’t like the leader you voted for, you vote them out when the time comes. That doesn’t happen here. I know we don’t have a perfect system either, but at least we can’t just walk into the White House with a machine gun and say OK-time to leave! But they can do that here, and it works.”

This seems to happen after every election; this situation is a cruel déjà vu for Thailand- previously they have forced Thaksin out, now it’s his sister. During one protest in 2008, yellow shirts even occupied the airport and basically shut it down for two weeks. (Hello, terrorism!) However, nobody was arrested because people were too scared to do anything… to scared to enforce the laws.

This is one of the biggest problems: there are no consequences here. What would happen if protestors in the United States shut off the power to the police headquarters and tried to take over the FBI buildings? There would be serious consequences. That is happening here- yellow shirts are occupying government buildings, which is definitely illegal, but who’s going to stop them?

Here’s what complicates things even more: Suthep Thaugsuban, the former deputy prime minister, who is also extremely corrupt, has been the one riling yellow shirts up, encouraging them to storm government buildings. A warrant is now out for his arrest. Many say he is a murderer, since he authorized the crackdown in 2010, which killed 90 people.

They probably won’t even arrest him. (They’ve been given many chances.) That might be just what the people are waiting for. If they arrest him, that may initiate much more violence. Will Yingluck step down? I have no idea. Even though she breezed through the ‘no-confidence’ vote in parliament, in this newly declared ‘peoples revolt,’ it seems that the yellow shirts have no intention of quitting until she is out of office. Even if she did step down, I think they would need to have a snap election, and majority red could win again, and we’d be right back where we started.

So really, theres no immediate or simple solution. But Thai people are taking a stand about their dissatisfaction. They’re making a statement wearing Guy Fawkes masks- the international icon for anti-government protestors. The masks strengthen their defiance while concealing their identity. (Along with the masks, whistles, clappers, and Thailand flag headbands are also trendy protesting props.)

However, are they rebelling for the wrong reasons? Their state of unrest may come from fear of losing the benefits one has when ones own party is in power. In my opinion, the people of Thailand are missing the picture. They are not fighting for a government that’s not corrupt. They don’t seem to mind a corrupt government- as long as it’s corrupt in their favor. As the Bangkok post stated in their headlines, “It’s a power grab, not a push for reform.”

Most people looking in on the situation will not be able to take this faux fight for democracy seriously; they see protestors as pawns, who are putty in the hands of higher up government figures who are pulling strings in rings of corruption and greed. An anonymous co-worker stated, “So many things are superficial here. It’s pretty sick. I can’t take any of this seriously at all.”

The country is in a protest-happy frenzy, with protests to protest the protestors. This ever clashing, deep-seated rivalry coupled with a corrupt system incapable of enforcement has forced Thailand into an unstable zone yet again, and though there may be lapses where everything is fine on the surface, history keeps repeating itself here.

As much as people are clinging to hope and ideals (and I hate to say it), I don’t think real change is coming this time, either. When these protests come to an end, Thailand will have successfully slapped another bandaid on a bullet wound. 

The protests have been going on for over a week, and inevitably and unfortunately, they have turned violent. Three people have been killed, 54 injured, and tear gas is now being used to keep protestors from entering government buildings. At least the people are fighting.. maybe in the wrong way, for the wrong reason… but they’re fighting all right.

Latest Update: Saturday, December 7th, 2013:  Protests have simmered down since the King’s birthday on Thursday, December 5th. However, Suthep is ready for a final battle on Monday, December 9th. He claims that the situation is ‘win or lose:’ they will either take over the government house, and get their way once and for all, and if not, he will turn himself into the police. Read the article HERE

Older articles concerning the political situation: Here is one article by ReutersAnd another by TIMEAnd anotherAnd another.