Monday, December 2, 2013

A Tense Sunday

A protestor throws a tear gas grenade back towards police lines

Thailand's political tensions entered a new phase Sunday. The protest leader, Suthep Thaugsupan, said Sunday would be a people's victory day and that the government of Yingluck Shinawatra would collapse after his protestors took over Government House (the Prime Minister's office), the Parliament building and important ministries around Government House. 

Suthep's claims of victory were premature though. Police have reinforced all of the intersections around the protestors' targets with razor wire and tall concrete barricades. Formations of police, with gas guns and water cannons, stood behind the barricades. 

Protestors marched to the barricades, tried to dismantle them. The police threw tear gas. 

Protestors fell back, regrouped and surged forward again. Police used water cannons. 

Protestors fell back, regrouped and surged forward again. Police used tear gas and water cannons. 

Protestors fell back, regrouped and surged forward again. Police threw tear gas. 

Protestors fell back, regrouped and surged forward again. Police used water cannons. 

Protestors fell back, regrouped and surged forward again. Police fire rubber bullets. 

Protestors fell back, regrouped and surged forward again. Police used tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets. 

It went on like that for eight hours or more. The protestors had no chance of breaking through police lines and the police made no effort to leave their fortress and arrest people.

Protestors run under the stream of a water cannon and through a cloud of tear gas.

I went out to photograph the protest with Gavin Gough and Christopher Alan Brown, two other photographers who live in Bangkok (there's safety in numbers when this sort of thing happens). There were hundreds of photographers at the protest site. Most were wearing helmets and some sort of gas mask. (My "gas mask" is a remarkably ineffective Cambodian karma wrapped around a dampened hand towel. Note to self, buy a real gas mask.) 

There were quite a few "newbies" and tourists who wanted to play at being conflict photographers with no protective gear. A couple of photographers were wheeling big ThinkTank like rollers full of camera gear through the crowd. 

Going into a situation like this without a helmet (at minimum) and towing a roller bag is stupid. Rocks and bottles are flying through the air, gas grenades being thrown and shot into the crowd. Journalists and tourists who go into this unprepared put not only themselves at risk but also those who around them who would lend aid if they're hurt. It's no place for sightseers. 
I was crouching behind a barricade with a couple of protestors and the man on the left stood up to throw rocks at police. 

In a way these protests are the polar opposites of the 2010 protests that saw the Red Shirts attacking the government. 

In 2010, the Reds were out of power, their popularly elected Prime Minister deemed ineligible to be PM by Thailand's Constitutional Court. 

In 2011, the Red Shirts (or more accurately, the people they voted for) came back into power when Thailand elected Yingluck Shinawatra and her party, the Red Shirt supported Pheu Thai to govern Thailand. The election results weren't even close. PT won an outright majority. PT has maintained that majority since then and handily survived a censure motion last week. The protestors on the street now are the people who lost the 2011 election. Their demand is that the Shinawatra clan get out of Thai politics. 
Thousands of protestors fill Phitsanulok Road near Government House.

Yingluck Shinawatra is the sister of exiled, fugitive ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was deposed by a military coup but remains popular in the countryside (and despised in Bangkok). Although the Pheu Thai is not very popular in Bangkok (and the Red Shirts are loathed by Thailand's middle class). Bangkok is the stronghold of the Democrats and the protest movement. The protest leaders maintain that she is a puppet of her brother, who was convicted of corruption charges after he was unseated in a coup and could have other charges filed against him if he comes back to Thailand. 

The Pheu Thai still maintains a popular majority in the countryside, especially in Isan and northern Thailand. The popularity in the countryside is so overwhelming that it translates to a popular majority nationwide. 

The protestors call for the dissolution of Thailand's parliament and suggest the country be run by an appointed commission of honest people. The Red Shirts and their majority in the countryside would probably see this as another coup that would stifle their aspirations. 
A guy in his underwear uses a fire extinguisher against the police. Sometimes things are a little surreal. 

Suthep had originally said the protests would end early last week when Yingluck Shinawatra stood down. Then he said they would end in the middle of the week, after his protestors invaded the Finance Ministry and other government offices. Then he said they would end in victory Sunday. Now he's saying in two days more. 

I don't know how or when this is going to end. December 5 is the King's Birthday, the most important nonreligious holiday of the year in Thailand. Maybe the protestors will take a break over the holiday. It does seem as though we have at least two more days of this to endure though. 
Protestors take cover from gas grenades and rubber bullets on a median strip on Rama V Road.


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