BANGKOK — Though life in Bangkok is hardly predictable, there are three constants. It’s hot, it’s loud and the traffic is dreadful.
But the Thai capital’s gridlock — already infamously bad — is set to get a lot worse.
Seven of Bangkok’s most-congested intersections are now blocked off by legions of anti-government protesters. Their strategy relies on generating traffic jams so unbearable that the government will cancel elections and surrender power to an unelected council.
This uprising, called “Operation Occupy Bangkok,” is the latest maneuver by a protest movement that spent much of December invading key government key ministries. That offensive compelled the ruling party — elected in 2011 — to dissolve parliament and call for new elections early next month.
But even that concession has failed to satisfy protesters. Operation Occupy Bangkok’s leaders and their faithful vow to barricade the Thai capital’s traffic choke points until the government capitulates. They refuse to negotiate.
“We’re beyond fear. Past being afraid,” said protester Kwan Issa, 48, who drove from the nearby province of Chonburi to reinforce a blockade on Sukhumvit Road, one of Bangkok’s busiest thoroughfares. “We don’t want the army to stage a coup. We want the people to do it themselves.”
Amnesty International has described the situation in Thailand as “tense, volatile and unpredictable.” Disorder in the streets inevitably stokes rumors of a military coup. Thailand has seen 18 attempted or successful army coups since the rule of monarchs ended in 1932.
Thailand’s army chief has grown so weary of Thai reporters’ daily questions about a potential coup that, according to the Bangkok Post, he lashed out at the press and told them to give it a rest.
Though mindful to sidestep the word “bhatiwat” — Thai for “coup” — protest chiefs are certainly pursuing a takeover. The movement’s leader, a firebrand former deputy premier named Suthep Thaugsuban, pledges to seize control and install an unelected “people’s council” that will purify Thailand of corruption.
“We’re hoping the army will choose our side,” said 58-year-old protester Kanika Petchphrawong. “They don’t need to stage a coup. We just want them to protect us as we continue our mission. That’s all we ask.”
Traffic jams (expressed in Thai as “stuck cars”) are already horrendous in Bangkok. Government statistics indicate that traffic slows to an average of 10 miles per hour in rush hour hot spots — slower than a reasonably fit human’s running speed.
Blockades that further freeze Bangkok’s traffic will likely prove costly: up to $30 million per day, according to the Thai Chamber of Commerce University. The risk of bloodshed is also high and eight deaths are already associated with the ongoing protests.
How long the blockades will last is difficult to determine. Suthep has vowed to “fight until victory.” Another protest leader, Nittikorn Lamlua, has threatened to shut down air traffic control centers if the premier, Yingluck Shinawatra, does not flee the country by January 15, according to Thai Rath, Thailand’s largest paper.
Thailand’s US Embassy has even urged Americans in Bangkok to stock up on a week’s worth of cash and two weeks’ worth of food.
Multiple protesters interviewed by GlobalPost urged Bangkokians to patiently endure the coming traffic hell. “I’d tell them to please be patient,” said protester Seri Techna, 47. “It’ll be over soon and it’s for the good of our country.”
Tens of thousands of protesters reinforced the blockades on Monday. Recent demonstrations, according the Associated Press, have summoned up to 200,000 people at their height. Nearly 20,000 police and troops have been deployed.
This crusade largely centers around uprooting one of the most successful and resilient political networks in Thailand’s history.
The network, helmed by the powerful Shinawatra family, has won every major election in more than a decade. Its head is the former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in Thailand’s last army coup in 2006 and now self-exiled in Dubai to evade a prison sentence for corruption. Current Prime Minister Yingluck, 46, is his younger sister.
The anti-Shinawatra movement is tightly aligned with Thailand’s oldest political party, the Democrat Party, which has not won a general election since the early 1990s. Suthep, a party stalwart, has advanced a belief among his followers that Thailand will be forever doomed to corruption and misrule if his people’s council — presumably handpicked by his allies — is not installed.
Thailand’s police have summoned Suthep and more than 50 other leaders to answer charges of insurrection and “causing a state of chaos.” Such states of chaos, however, have a tendency to reap gains for those who stage them.
In 2008, anti-Shinawatra protesters known as the “Yellow Shirts” stormed the premier’s compound and shut down its airports. Their campaign helped bring on the court-ordered dissolution of a ruling Shinawatra-controlled party.
In 2010, a rival protest faction known as the “Red Shirts” occupied strategic locations in Bangkok for months. Their camps, fortified with razor wire and bamboo staves, were designed to force new elections, not suspend them.
The siege ended in an army crackdown that left more than 90 dead. Suthep, then deputy premier, was later charged with murder over allegations he and then-premier Abhisit Vejjajiva sanctioned the use of live ammo against the protesters.
But that crisis, however bloody, paved the way for fresh elections in 2011 that brought Yingluck and the current ruling party (Pheu Thai) into power.
Inured to instability, Bangkok’s inhabitants have grown resourceful. On the first day of the big shutdown, many commuters shifted to alternative modes of transport — including boats plying Bangkok’s canals — to lessen the gridlock nightmare predicted in non-stop media coverage. Others simply stayed at home.
“We feel that it’s our right to do this,” said protester Pui Walarakchat, 76, who set up a flimsy tent in a typically bustling intersection flanked by glitzy shopping malls. “Almost nothing can force me to get out the way. We’ll let ambulances through. But cops? Absolutely not.”