Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Bangkok protests: A view from the ground

Bangkok protests: A view from the ground
Published 12 Feb 2014   Follow @elliotbrennan

The photos accompanying this post were taken by the author.

suthep bangkok protest red yellow shirt shinawatra

The week here in Bangkok began in dramatic fashion. A small improvised bomb exploded at an anti-government protest site, injuring six on Monday morning. The explosion followed a weekend accented by two M79 grenades launched into a protest site in the city's north – no one was injured.

Later Monday morning, police acted on last week's Criminal Court ruling to allow the arrest of 19 protest leaders. Sonthiyan Chuenruethainaitham, an executive at T-News and reportedly the only protest leader not to live on site, was arrested and detained – he can be held for up to a week.

As a result, the protesters were on alert for an ambush by law enforcement and opposition forces alike. Those tasked with security for the protest group were visibly tense as Suthep Thaungsuban (pictured left), leader of the anti-government protests, led a march across the city to Asok, a city centre surrounded by iconic hotels and the famous red-light street Soi Cowboy.

Despite the heightened tension, that morning the Asok protest site perimeter was porous and avoiding the newly fortified and guarded gate controls was easy, perhaps suggesting that with the heightened security around the protest leaders, the protesters' security was stretched. The multi-lane Asok Montri Rd was being used as a makeshift square, with a tent city constructed at one end and under the Asok station walkway, the main stage.

Notably, there was no mesh covering the stage where Suthep was due to speak. The mesh nets have become increasingly important, one protester told me as he rotated his arm in a cricketer's bowling action, to fend off projectiles. 'Grenades?' I asked. He nodded.

The purpose of Monday's march was to raise money for embattled farmers. Once loyal supporters to Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai government, they are now angry that promised rice subsidies have not been paid.  Yingluck’s vote-winning rice subsidy was bad policy from day one, but now the caretaker government's hands are  tied. Until election results are finalised they have little power to authorise the funds and must instead seek loans from financial institutions. As a result, Yingluck’s supporter base is eroding. Enter Suthep. [fold]

Seizing the moment, Suthep vowed to raise funds to pay the farmers. The march to Asok, Suthep said, raised up to 16 million baht.  In speeches after the march he noted that one anonymous donor had given him 500,000 baht

Yet among the jubilant, singing crowds, there was palpable fear. The march took a perilous route down Sukhumvit Rd. Above the road runs the BTS, Bangkok's train network. In a crisis that has been marked by explosives being launched at protesters, the route seemed like bad judgement. Security teams arranged by the protesters, dressed in military fatigues and bulletproof vests, were wary of an ambush by law enforcement or opposition forces. They cleared the roads and gazed up through scopes at vacant buildings and waving fans at the overhanging metro stations. At least a dozen bulletproof-vested young men on motorbikes raced back and forth down the road clearing people, cars and tuk-tuks from the route.

Back at the protest march, Suthep was stuffing a cotton sack with cash, donations from an adoring crowd. Selfies were the order of the day, and there was something Obama-esque about his signature double fist pumping salute to his fans. 

Later, at Asok, Suthep spoke to the crowd. He was impressive. His well-phrased oration held the hoard to each word. They knew when to yell and when to blow their deafening whistles. It's a varied mob. There are young kids sitting quietly with serene, toothless grandmothers.

They contrast with the young brooding 'mob' leaders whose steely grimaces, hollow cheeks, and suspicious eyes look as if they have amphetamines coursing through their bodies. Many wear military fatigues with the insignia of the US Army. I'm told there's a hardcore group of a few hundred ready to fight a bloody campaign if needed, and surely these men are among them. This hardcore group is buttressed by the 'resident protesters' numbering 5-7000. The rest are more casual in their protest. As the protest enters its fourth week, most work by day and protest by night. Some protest sites are near deserted by day. 

Along with the hype and the energy the protest leaders bring there is something much more morose and despairing in the air here. Most know, as I've been told countless times, that this could drag on for some time. Indeed, even if the most immediate of solutions – a military coup – were to occur, it would not bring a lasting resolution to the crisis. Not the most enticing environment for new leaders to be born. And so the deadlock continues.

You may also be interested in