BANGKOK, Thailand — The masses of Thai protesters bent on ousting the government vow to invade it all. The premier’s compound. Practically every ministry from finance to foreign affairs. Even Bangkok’s Dusit Zoo, an urban sanctuary for penguins, gibbons and a gaggle of hippos.
From their base of operations — a seized government complex with a sweeping pavilion — a core of roughly 100,000 anti-government protesters deployed smaller teams of thousands to occupy key ministries. Seemingly unarmed, and often elderly, they have sprawled out mats on ministry property, cranked up loudspeakers, blasted defiant rhetoric and refused to budge.
Their mission, if successful, would bring radical change to one of America’s closest Asian allies and a nation where democracy — at least as a vague ideal — is a cherished concept. Leaders of this movement claim they will replace Thailand’s popularly elected government with a politburo-style appointed council of “good men.”
“That can only be done by tearing up the constitution and rewriting the whole thing,” said Chaturon Chaisang, head of Thailand’s Ministry of Education, which is among Bangkok’s invaded offices. These ambitions, the minister said, amount to a “different form of coup d'état.”
“Of course, it’s not legitimate. I don’t think Thai society will accept this. At least not the people who voted last time,” Chaturon said. “What they’re proposing will not lead to a peaceful end.”
In Thailand, where direct rule by monarchs ended more than 80 years ago, the word “democracy” and its Thai equivalent (“prachatipitai”) are embraced by political factions of all stripes.
The movement now disrupting ministries in a bid to oust the government calls itself the Civil Movement for Democracy. Its leaders are stalwarts of the Democrat Party, Thailand’s oldest political party. The unelected council they fight for would be called the “People’s Committee for Thailand’s Absolute Democracy Under the Constitutional Monarchy.”
What animates most protesters is a sense of nationalism mixed with existential fear. They are frustrated that the basic machinery of democracy — popular elections — has for more than a decade handed power to a political network helmed by one of Thailand’s most powerful families, the Shinawatras.
As protesters see it, halting elections is a price worth paying if they can free Thailand from the grip of a political cabal backed by uneducated voters hooked on government handouts.
“We’re not a full democracy anyway. We’re not at the same stage as Western countries and the key driver behind that is education,” said Polagorn Kheosiplard, a protester and corporate manager. “Bangkok people understand democracy. But in the upcountry, they’re like, ‘What the hell is that? Just give me the money.’”
Thailand in the 21st century has been defined by a series of sweeping victories by the Shinawatra camp — which has proven resilient despite military ouster and a wave of subsequent court orders to disband its parties.
The current ruling Shinawatra-led Pheu Thai party (translation: “For Thais”) soundly won the last general election in 2011. Its paterfamilias is tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, a twice-elected former premier ousted in a 2006 army coup. Since 2008, he has lived in exile (mostly in Dubai) to escape corruption charges.
The current prime minister is his younger sister, 46-year-old Yingluck Shinawatra, the nation’s first female premier. “I’m still here,” she told the Thai press on Nov. 30 as protesters mounted raids on government ministries. “Even though I’m a woman, I won’t run.”
But the protest movement’s leading figure, a 64-year-old former deputy premier named Suthep Thaugsuban, has told his faithful that her government won’t last the week. From an occupied government complex, the firebrand leader proclaimed the imminent creation of his proposed “people’s council.”
“Let the people’s council pick a good man to be the prime minister. Good men to be ministers,” said Suthep, according to the Associated Press. “Make it a dream team.”
Broadly speaking, the movement’s rank-and-file are urban, middle-to-upper class Thais. Blunt objects such as staves and rods — common among Thai street protests — were unseen at multiple protest sites visited by GlobalPost. At the occupied ministries, grandfathers snore in air-conditioned lobbies and young girls snap endless photos of one another on their mobile phones.
Protest leaders have attempted to cast the movement as a righteous uprising for freedom and clean governance. Outside the gates at Bangkok’s American embassy on Friday, a former finance minister and senior JP Morgan banker, Korn Chatikavanij, led thousands of protesters in blowing whistles “loud enough for President Obama to hear all the way in the White House.”
“We want the American people to see with their own eyes ... Thais gathered in various demonstrations across the country, peacefully, wanting what Americans have taken for granted,” Korn said, “which is a legitimate government and a country where everyone has the same status under the law of the land.”
Acts that would quickly summon riot cops in most countries — namely the seizure of key government ministries — have so far been tolerated by police and troops. This is explained by Thailand’s unique protest psychology in which the first side to draw blood cedes the moral high ground.
In a country shaped by a staggering 18 coups since the end of palace rule, bloodshed is also seen as a precursor to armed forces restoring order through force. The country remains scarred by a 2010 army strikes against a different protest faction — the Shinawatra-aligned Red Shirt movement — which scattered only after a guns-blazing crackdown that led to more than 90 deaths and an arson spree that choked the skyline with black smoke.
“We don’t want that scenario to happen again,” said Thailand’s Deputy Premier Pongthep Thepkanchana. He cast the current protesters’ ministry-seizing campaign as an attempt to provoke the government into violent retaliation. “We understand,” he said, “that the leaders of the demonstrations try so hard to cause the government to use force and cause violence.”
The current wave of anti-Shinawatra protests have produced no fatalities. The atmosphere at the occupied ministries is still reminiscent of a sit-in, supplied with steaming pots of Thai food and set to a soundtrack of acoustic sing-a-longs. Their rhetoric, however, is often coarse; their pet name for the premier is a Thai phrase that equates to “stupid bitch.”
These scenes recall the festive atmosphere in past protests that have hit breaking points and veered into chaotic violence.
Bloodshed is highly likely, according to Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. The tension is intensified, he said, by speeches that cast this movement as a “fight to death.”
“Protest leaders use confrontational, nationalistic slogans to hype up protesters. Yet it’s unlikely protest leaders will ever face any direct consequences. In almost every confrontation, they escape unharmed,” Sunai said.
“The reality is very different for the protesters that get killed, wounded or disabled. Or people whose property is destroyed,” he said. “They don’t enjoy the same level of luxury as their leaders.”