The streets of Bangkok are no stranger to political protests and this week activists are calling for 1m Thai people to join them in a peaceful demonstration in the capital against the planned introduction of the so called Amnesty Bill. My Facebook page is filled with comments in Thai and English, from the humorous to the vitriolic. While some supporters hold up black diamond shaped placards, reminiscent of the anarchist’s black flag, with anti-bill slogans in silent protest and have changed their profile pictures to this symbol, others call for the Shinawatra family to leave the country and pages claiming support for former Prime Minister Abhisit are gaining popularity.
I have been visiting Thailand since 2009 and demonstrations by red shirt or yellow shirt protesters have flared up almost annually since then. The yellow shirts movement sprang up in opposition to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra; yellow is also the colour of the King. The red shirt movement supports Shinawatra and is populated by people from the North and North East of Thailand who have benefited from Shinawatra’s time in power. Since 2006, the two sides have been playing out a political battle in Bangkok and this month’s demonstrations are the latest twist.
Here’s a short retrospective of major events shaping politics in Thailand in the past eight years and how I saw them.
2013 – The ruling Puea Thai party‘s proposed Amnesty Bill would waive all charges against former members of parliament found guilty of corruption in 2008 and who have been living in exile since then, including Thaksin . The Senate rejected the bill on November 11th but Peua Thai – led by Thaksin’s sister Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra – can reintroduce it to the Senate in six months. Opponents want Puea Thai to drop the bill entirely and they have taken to the streets in protest. By Sunday morning local time, the protesters had moved closer to Government House and threatened to cut off all water and electricity supplies to state offices and the Prime Minister’s residence, according to the Bangkok Post. By Tuesday protesters had surrounded the interior, tourism, transport and agriculture ministries, the BBC reported.
The government has responded by invoking the ominously sounding Internal Security Act in Bangkok and three other areas. The act allows authorities to impose curfews, operate checkpoints and restrict movements of protesters.
The national protest – dubbed V for Thailand – has gained momentum in the past month and spurred a series of regional demonstrations across the country and on-line campaigns. Photographs of former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva at the protests showing support for the anti-Amnesty Bill demonstrators indicate his support.
Protests in Thailand change governments and the future of this government will play out in the next few months. Governments in 16 countries have issued travel warnings, urging visitors not to go to protest areas, although none have advised against travelling to Thailand. Protests in recent years have ended in bloody clashes with the military. The Thai government is not afraid of using armed force to end public uprising.
2010 – I arrived in Bangkok on a train from the south very early one morning in late April 2010. A British man on the train was in touch with a pal at the BBC and we were receiving updates straight from the reporters. He advised us to take a cab from the station to his apartment and not to leave until he sent word of the all clear. They were expecting the army to take to the streets. The atmosphere was tense to say the least, and as me and my fellow travellers headed to the safe-house in Bangkok, we scoured the streets for red shirts. We saw a handful of people with banners heading to the protest site, undeterred by official warnings.
Protesters set up camp in central Bangkok for ten weeks that year, calling for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to stand aside. More than 1,800 people were wounded in clashes with the army, which sparked arson attacks in the capital which also destroyed a shopping mall. The city was placed under curfew for the first time in 15 years. A total of 91 people were killed during clashes between government forces and red shirt protesters in Bangkok in April and May 2010. Abhisit’s Democrat Party lost the leadership in the 2011 parliamentary elections.
Later that day, I went to Suvarnabhumi airport to take a flight to Kathmandu. The cab passed through three army checkpoints – this government was not about to be hoist by one of its own supporter’s tricks. In May 2010, a different group of red shirts – the Maoists – closed down Kathmandu for seven days in a general strike. Rally posters featured the faces of Chairman Mao, Lenin and Stalin, although I was not convinced that the protesters could name them all.
2009 – My first trip to Thailand was in January 2009, a few weeks after a major protest had closed the airport and almost shut down the country. Blissfully unaware of the trouble brewing in Bangkok, I headed south to Krabi province. There is a lot of support for the yellow shirts in the south and also a lot of people who are occupied with making money from the tourism. Hoteliers and restaurateurs claimed tourist numbers had been affected that year due to the airport closure, but people came nonetheless, many arriving into south Thailand via Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. While the holiday season was in full swing down south, red shirt protesters in the north were rallying support. Following several days of protests in the capital, red shirts clashed with riot police officers, forcing Abhisit to call a state of emergency, four months into his leadership.
2008 – A Political crisis in Thailand saw six months of protests in 2008 – this time by the opposing yellow shirts – led to the take over and closure of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport, leading to widespread national disruption. This time, the protesters wanted the military to depose the ruling party who it claimed had won the leadership by electoral fraud. The Constitutional Court dissolved the ruling People Power Party, unofficially led by Thaksin in exile, and Parliament voted Abhisit into the PM’s seat.
2006 – Thaksin Shinawatra, then PM, was ousted by the army in a coup d’etat while he was in New York and coup leaders revoked his diplomatic passport and rewrote the constitution. Thaksin was found guilty of corruption in absentia during a 2008 trial. He has been in exile since but has regularly communicated with voters and his supporters from afar, influencing much of Thai political life in the past eight years.