On February 2nd, demonstrations in Thailand successfully blocked numerous polling stations in and around Bangkok. They used large stages, giant video screens, live music, and public speakers. They drew thousands of vendors selling food, t-shirts, whistles, Thai flags, ribbons, and noise makers. The protestors gathered in droves, filling the streets, thus preventing voter access to polling stations for election day.
The demonstrations were part of a movement called "Shutdown Bangkok", initiated by a group called the PDRC (People's Democratic Reform Committee). An exact estimate of participants would have been difficult to make, but the numbers were definitely significant. The sheer number of protestors and massive crowds caused voting to be disrupted across the city. Travel blogger Richard Barrow tweeted that voting was prevented in nine Southern provinces, as well as five Bangkok districts. According to Lisa Gardner
@leesebkk on Twitter:
@RichardBarrow Din Daeng polling station completely blocked by PDRC. Multiple barricades, a stage, music, dancing, no hope of voting.
The reason protestors spent the day blocking the polls is because they believe the current government is corrupt and that the elections will be fixed. Protestors call for a complete government shutdown, followed by political reform, before elections are allowed to take place in their country.
On the other side of the argument, various individuals who support the current government told us that the protestors are only doing harm to the democratic process by preventing Thai citizens from exercising their right to vote. Opposition to the PDRC is especially widespread in the Northern part of the country, which is where many of Thailand's current political leaders hail from. It is also common among taxi drivers and other individuals who depend on tourism for their income and well-being. Tourism, the number one industry in Thailand, has taken a major hit as a result of the protests.
Many Thais agree with opposition groups, like the Red Shirts, who have used violence in hopes of crushing the movement and discouraging demonstrations. They want their country to return to business as usual as soon as possible.
Despite the isolated shootings and bombings directed at demonstrators, marches, and PDRC leaders, the protestors we spoke to expressed a commitment to nonviolence. In fact, a stroll through the protests felt more akin to a large music festival, or a city-wide street fair, than it did to this kind of political upheaval. The protests are an ideal spot to grab some barbeque meat on a stick while watching one of Thailand's hottest rock bands, while keeping in mind that the risk for violence is definitely elevated.
Although it is easy to be taken in by the protests' pleasant and merry-making facade, it is important to remember that the motivation behind the demonstrations is still that of anger and extreme frustration. This sentiment is reflected in the graphic graffiti art painted across the city's fences and structures.
Protestors we spoke to expressed disappointment that there hasn't been any kind of progression to meet their demands, or even an attempt by the government to make some kind of compromise. They are worried that no one is listening, and that the police are neglecting to protect their right to assemble peacefully.
It was explained to us that, for the most part, protestors represent the more educated portion of Thailand's population. We were also told that individuals who support the current government tend to be less informed and prefer to avoid creating more conflict*.
"There are two rules for people in Thailand," commented one individual living in the northern city of Chiang Mai, "Rule number one is don't rock the boat. Rule number two is don't tip the boat over."
Protestors said they suspect that many Thais who oppose government reform are financially benefiting from the same corruption that supporters of the PDRC hope to abolish*.
The thing to understand here is that there are two sides of the conflict, and they both believe that they are one hundred percent in the right. Neither side seems at all willing to budge. Change isn't going to happen overnight for Thailand. Meanwhile, it is worth noting that protestors have declared to us time and again a persistent dedication to peace and nonviolence.
Writing and photography by Kat Vallera - Video and photography by Scott O'Brien
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*Opinions/explanations are extracted from on the ground interviews.
Edit: added full "rock the boat" quote 2/3/14