Thaksin on Their Minds: Bangkok Protests

It amazes me sometimes how easy it is to live in a bubble. Without the TV or internet it is easy to go on with life without knowing what’s happening even just right down the street. I was here in Bangkok when the Yellow Shirts closed down both airports in protest against an alleged corrupt Prime Minister and just over a year later I am here again as the opposing Red Shirts take to the streets in protest against the current Prime Minister Abhisit. Last year if I didn’t need to use an airport and kept the TV off, I would wake up each morning and have had no idea it was anything more than another sunny day in Bangkok. This year I’m glued to the news and Twitter (which often beats the pants off the news for keeping up to date) following the allegedly peaceful group of thousands of red-shirted protesters pulled (or even paid, in some cases) from the ranks of the poor and rural.

This is a rebellion against the elite, they say, against corruption. They want new elections and the dissolution of Parliament. Up until now there has been little trouble. Yes, a few small bombs have gone off in places that were either vacant or produced only minor injuries. But no one agrees who is at fault. An overzealous Red Shirt? A Yellow Shirt hoping to make the Reds look bad? A variety of other malcontents or political interests?

The Red Shirts want new elections, claiming that Abhisit is illegitimate in the PM position and there is notable support for this point of view among pundits and professors as well. So the claim is that this is about democracy, about ridding the corruption of the privileged, about a fair election. But the former Prime Minister Thaksin, who was ousted in a coup in 2006, wants to return and reclaim his position. Trouble is he was convicted of corruption by the nation’s supreme court and sentenced to two years. In February the court decided to take $1.4 billion of his frozen assets as a punishment. Thaksin has been transmitting long speeches via radio and internet and not always with what one would call polite language. His supporters rally around him as he calls them to action. It’s a worshipping sort of relationship and depending on who you ask he is credited with either having brought money to the rural areas or put plainly, having bought votes. There is little doubt that the current protest funding is at least in part from Thaksin.

The Red Shirts moved into Bangkok March 12 and in recent days have been holding a continuous rally with nonstop agitating speeches and music. They closed Ratchaprasong intersection, a busy crossroads right beneath the SkyTrain and amid some of the most important shopping malls, and set up a stage in the street. The city became a bigger tangle of traffic than it already was and the citizens of Bangkok lost money and missed work in some cases, but at the very least became nervous. But again, if you didn’t have to pass through there, the worst you might notice is the abundance of motorcycles with red-clad riders and red flags.

I stopped in to see the Red Shirts at their rally site as I was hearing more and more of the rhetoric about this being about democracy. It’s a great word but I rarely hear it from people who really want it. I suspect that if an election were held tomorrow and Thaksin or a Thaksin-connected candidate was not put into power, the protesters would not pack up and go home saying, Well, at least we finally have our beloved democracy.

Just a walk among them is enough to see just how much Thaksin is held dear. Autographed photos, t-shirts, flags — his face is everywhere. I know some true believers are out there among them, really hoping for a fair election and a clean-up of some of the infamous corruption in Thai politics and society. But as long as the majority of them look to an exiled convict of corruption for inspiration, what hope can there really be?

Today the tear gas has hit the streets in a couple of conflict areas as the protesters move into different parts of the city. Bullets fired into the air by soldiers came down dangerously in random places. Riot police met angry protesters and many Red Shirts, a number of soldiers and at least one foreigner required medical attention. A friend and fellow travel blogger (Legal Nomads, @legalnomads) inadvertently found herself in the heart of the action when the Red Shirts took a new area in the city. She witnessed the tear gassing and on her way home tonight noticed two petrol tankers parked with slashed tires and a man on top with a gun. All pretense that this can be solved peacefully is quickly dissipating. And I am just a short taxi ride away. I can turn off the TV, unplug, and live inside a bubble while friends and family freak out at home if it makes the cut at CNN. But the areas where that bubble has burst are what I am concerned about tonight. Such a ridiculous waste of resources and efforts from which nothing good will come.

(Even before I can click Publish Post here, one protester is already dead, scores more injured, a soldier has been shot, 20 more injured by a grenade…)

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