Who Will Blink First in Bangkok? – The Irrawaddy

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UPDATE Monday 4pm – 2 soldiers were injured after 4 grenades were thrown into a Thai army barracks outside Bangkok earlier today. This came during and after a tense stand-off outside the 11th Army Regiment, which ended at 130pm this afternoon. Tens of thousands of Red shirts made their way from central Bangkok. Red shirt leaders  demanded that soldiers open the gates, and reiterated an ultimatum that the Government to step down.

Red shirt leaders re-issue an ultimatum to PM Abhsiit to step down, outside the 11th Army barracks. Troops lined up inside the gates in case of trouble. (Photo: Simon Roughneen©)

Predictably, the Army refused to open the gates, and the Government will not step down, though it says it will listen to what the Red shirts have to say. The demonstrators are moving back to Phan Fa bridge to spend the night there, and have said they will protest at Government House tomorrow, where they have vowed “to spill blood”.

Leaders of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) have told the Thai government that it must dissolve parliament by noon on Monday or have hundreds of thousands of Redshirt demonstrators on the march around Bangkok, The Army’s 11th Infantry Regiment, where the prime minister has spent the last few days, is a likely demonstration site for some of the group.

The statement came on Sunday while demonstrators celebrated in a carnival atmosphere on Ratchadamnoen Avenue. The crowd numbered around 600,000 by Sunday evening, according to UDD spokesman Sean Boonpracong. Other estimates put the crowd between 100,000 and 200,000.

While this is far short of the ‘million man march’ promoted by the UDD last week, the numbers may be enough to stifle traffic in Bangkok at the start of the working week, depending on where the demonstrators go. While the UDD pledged a peaceful demonstration, it is not clear how it could realise its stated ambition of forcing the government to disband by occupying the streets around Phan Pa bridge for a few days. At a press conference last week, senior Redshirt Jaran Dithapichai said that the demonstrators wanted to force the Government to “clamp down” on the march, if thedemonstration did not lead to a dissolution. At the same press conference, UDD spokespersons, including some former Communist rebels, spoke openly, albeit vaguely, to foreign media about “civil war” in Thailand, if the ‘million man march’ leads to violence.

Federico Ferrara teaches at the National University of Singapore, and is author of the newly-published ‘Thailand Unhinged’. He told The Irrawaddy that “It strikes me that whether or not Abhisit can just “wait it out” depends on how the red shirts plan to get to Bangkok as well as what they plan to do once they get there. If they converge on Bangkok in an orderly fashion, proceed to their 4-6 rally sites, and then meet on Ratchadamnoen Ave. for a large but peaceful demonstration that takes place in a relatively small/confined area, the government can wait it out as long as it wants.”

Fanning out across Bangkok and demonstrating at politically-symbolic locations could therefore be taken as an attempt by the UDD to force the pace. The Thai Government is mulling the introduction of emergency powers, but says it will not do so unless the demonstration turns violent. The UDD regards this as an attempt to disband the march, saying that the emergency laws prevent gatherings of more than five people. On Sunday, UDD leaders speaking near the stage set up at Phan Fa Bridge said that the Government is considering asking the courts to revoke the bail for some of its leadership, which would leave them vulnerable to arrest, which presumably the army would be empowered to enforce, under emergency powers.

However Paree, a press officer with the Red shirts and Deputy Chief of Thai Red News, said on Sunday that he think the Government’s apparent slowness to react to the Red shirt gathering indicates “indecisiveness and disagreement” in the Cabinet, and possibly also in the Army, or between the Government and Army.

Paree added that the police are “on our side”, citing the relaxation of stop-and-search procedures deployed on Red shirt convoys coming into Bangkok since Friday. Later that evening, Thaksin Shinawatra personally thanked the police when addressing the Red shirts by videolink. The UDD leadership spoke with the PMs office last night, to ask that protestors be allowed easier access to Bangkok, something that likely contributed to the police relaxing its policy. It shows that the Government and the UDD leadership are in contact and can agree on measures to eliminate potential flashpoints, even as both sides get set for a ‘high noon’ Monday showdown.

Although Thailand has been riven by political protests and demonstrations since before the 2006 military coup that deposed then-PM Thaksin Shinawatra, the phenomenon of hundreds of thousands of rural Thais coming to Bangkok to demand a change of government is unprecedented.

Amid accusations from the Government that a ‘personality cult’ has developed around former PM Thaksin – with the UDD labelled a vehicle for his political ambitions – the Red shirts say thay are fighting what they deem an ‘elite-based’ political system and an illegitimate government. The current administration was installed in late 2008, all after Yellowshirt anti-Thaksin protests caused chaos on Bangkok during the preceding months.

Dr. Sophorntavy Vorng has written on middle-class culture and society in Thailand, and is now researching at The Max-Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Germany. Analysing Thaksin’s impact on Thai politics and society, she told The Irrawaddy that “Thaksin definitely tapped into a hotbed of resentment and there’s no doubt that something really needs to be done concerning the extreme marginalisation of the poor in Thailand.”

That pro-Thaksin sentiment was in evidence all weekend, with demonstrators donning cartoonish masks of the former PM, who was greeted by roaring adulation when he gave a videolinked address to the demonstrators at 8.30pm. He called the gathering a “historical moment”, and stressing his vie that the unfairness of Thai society and the indifference of an elite, bureaucratic system was what brought people to Bangkok and onto the streets.

How far this can go in persuading non-UDD Thais that the demonstration, coming soon after a February 26 court verdict seizing over half of Thaksin’s 76billion Baht in frozen assets, is not cover for an attempt to get back into power, if only by proxy, remains to be seen. Despite his popularity among north and north-eastern Thais, his Prime Ministerial legacy remains up for debate. Sophorntavy Vorng wondered “whether he has shown any real evidence of introducing the kinds of policies and initiatives which will effect the social change and structural reforms needed to even out the class inequalities he is claiming to address.”

The ‘million man march’ began on Friday, with a ceremonies held at locations in Bangkok and UDD strongholds elsewhere in Thailand, particularly the north and north-east, strongholds of support for Thaksin Shinawatra. Ceremonies were held at politically-significant locations such as the Laksi Circle, site of a monument to the Thai Constitution and commemorating the 1933 defeat royalist rebels seeking to overturn the previous years revolution which ended absolute monarchy in Thailand. Red shirts burned incense and chanted, in a ritual that was set to begin at 12.12, on March 12 March. It began a little after, according to The Irrawaddy’s watch, but the 12/12/12 numerology is apparently meant as a warning for Thailand’s elites.

Elsewhere in Bangkok, life proceeded as normal all weekend and on into Sunday. The air-conditioned malls were thronged, and the subway and city rail were no more or no less busy than usual. An IPhone stall set up just outside Siam Paragon attracted a steady crowd both this morning and earlier this afternoon, including few Red-clad would-be protestors checking-out the wares on display, and in no apparent hurry to join the masses near Phan Fa bridge.

In anticipation of a week-long sit-in, with temperatures in the mid-30s, the UDD set up first aid and toilet facilities all along the Ratchadamnoen Avenue, and the areas close to the barriers blocking off the demonstration area saw a bevy of motorcycle – and taxi drivers making a killing on ferrying media to and from public transport sites.

But how long the demonstration lasts could become clearer later on Monday, as the Red shirts move out across Bangkok. US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt M Campbell was in Bangkok last week, part of a regional tour in anticipation of President Obama’s state visit to Indonesia next week. He said “We are urging restraint and we want very much for issues that are passionate, and important political matters, to be dealt with in an appropriate way through the electoral process and through other democratic institutions.” Campbell is scheduled to return to Bangkok to give a lecture on US-Thai relations at Chulalongkorn University on Tuesday morning, in what could be quite different circumstances.

However, if both sides recoil from brinkmanship, a longer-term deadline for dissolution might be brought into play, as whispered among some UDD leaders on Sunday. Some might take this as backing down, but the pro-Thaksin elements in Thai politics have a parliamentary strategy to accompany its recourse to ‘people power’. Peau Thai was seen to have distanced itself somewhat from the ‘million man march’, but is actively pushing a no-confidence motion to try bring down the Abhisit-led Government. The demonstrations could potentially play a part in getting former Thaksin allies in Bhum Jai Thai and Chat Thai Pattana to break from the governing coalition led by Abhisit and the Democrat Party. Federico Ferrara said that if the rally causes disruption and his badly-handled by the Government, “it might put some pressure on these parties, who operate mostly in regions sympathetic to the Reds, to jump ship yet again.”

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