If you want to know what this article is about, well, it’s all in the title.
We were lucky enough to be a part of the city wide shutdown of Bangkok this Monday 13 of January 2014. We were expecting many things, prepared for the worst. While BBC headline spoke of seven protesters who were shot this weekend, the local (government controlled) news station told tales of the many people who had been arrested bringing guns and explosives to the demonstrations, and the opposition-backed ‘Sunday Nation’ proclaimed: “People’s revolution will win!!” . The both of us were starting to wonder if this ‘Shutdown’ might turn very quickly into more of a ‘Showdown’. It’s when we stepped in the street to join one of the rally points that we discovered how wrong we were. This wasn’t a riot, it wasn’t even what we would recognise as a ‘protest’. It was more like a folk festival.
Let’s start with some explanations:
If you wonder what it is all about well it’s an incredibly large amount of people, mainly urban and middle class people led by Suthep Thaugsuban, secretary-general of the PDRC (People’s Democratic Reform Committee) who are looking to change the actual governement and “Get Thaksin Out!”. An easy job you’d think when you consider that Thaksin has already been stripped of office & all powers, convicted of multiple counts of corruption and forced into exile, following the previous coup in Thaïland. But the incumbant Prime Minister, Miss Yingluck Shinawatra, is Thaksin’s sister, and the public belief is that she is only a puppet and that infact Thaksin himself is still controlling affairs in the country.
What started the protest in 2013 was an ‘Amnesty Law’ that Yingluck tried to pass, and that protesters believed would allow Thaksin to return without facing any jail time. The Amnesty was eventually refused by the Senate, but the anti-governement protest kept on going.
So you might wonder: what do they want? A new vote is coming in February but the protesters believe that votes are being bought by Thaksin’s party in rural areas. Therefore they want to install an unelected “people’s council” to pick the country’s leaders.
Anyhow, we aren’t here to take sides on a matter that we don’t know so much about, what I am here for though is relating the events of the big Shutdown today, Monday 13th of January 2014, in Bangkok.
There were seven main rally sites in Bangkok today, each with it’s own protest leader. The goal was clearly to block access to all governement buildings and close all of the main roads, essentially shutting down the city. Oddly though, for us, this made things easier. Whereas in the runup to the protest we’d been hardly able to move in the city, with public transport choked and impromptu campsites springing up on roads and intersections causing enormous traffic jams, today many of these roads were clear. With the campers heading off to the main rally sites, the roads blockaded at entrance points to the city and the majority of shops and businesses closed, many areas of Bangkok were deserted. The only areas that managed to maintain business-as-usual were those around the tourist hub at Khao San, but even these were quieter, with many of the usual touts, salesmen and tuktuk drivers either unable to access the city, or away joining in the demonstrations.
We left for a walk to the rally point of Pathum Wan Intersection (at least we think we did)around 12.00. Not really knowing which direction to head, we followed the flow of people, the music, the hundreds and hundreds of tents to finally enter what seemed to us like a rally site. Security did let us in happily, bashing a bit my shoulder and telling me “Welcome Sister” and while I was still unsure on what to expect it sure wasn’t what we’ve seen!
People were simply sitting down, listening to a man on stage and were smiling at us while we were passing by.
The roadsides were lined with hastily erected market stalls selling drinks, protest merchandise (!?!) and handing out free food. People were happy, those people, who had been depicted in the newpapers as a rampaging angry mob, were sat on the floor drinking tea and singing songs. They were asking us to sit down with them, offering us food and drinks, asking to have pictures taken with us. That was the clear face of a peaceful protest.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am not somebody that knows well those types of event but I am under the impression that you don’t see so much friendship, peace, camaradry in protests in Europe. So while walking the street, passing between the tents of a family of 7, I never felt in danger. Those people just want to be heard and while their leaders and the governement don’t seem to find peace, they are happy to be heard.
So after a while walking around, getting interviewed by some guy from Malta (yep, we are that charismatic or mainly just the only foreigners in this place… ) and receiving tons of smiles and kind words from the protesters we came back to our good old hotel because we are not as tough as them, because the warmth of this bright sun just got us sweaty and tired, but I came back happy after getting close to such event.