Traveling the world means that you become a relatively frequent visitor to the foreign office website to check for up to date news of the countries you are visiting.
It has almost always just turned up the generic stuff: pickpockets, scams, water advice, health etc. However as you may have read or heard on the news there is a little bit of trouble in Bangkok, so more than anywhere else we have been careful about where in the city we go.
Bangkok is not unused to protests and famously a military government was over thrown by protests started by students in 1973. Sadly this success was not without cost and a number of students, and others that joined the cause, lost their lives as the military rulers resorted to gunfire in a last futile attempt to retain power.
There is a memorial to the fallen close to the main democracy monument erected to celebrate the victory of the people. It has display boards that tell the story of the protests, and it is powerful and moving stuff. But it is history. Things that happened 3 decades ago…
Walking round the city today with the foreign office website advice fresh in your mind you cannot help but be a little more aware. Vigilantly monitoring your surroundings and trying to sense the mood and atmosphere of an area.
The tensions in the city built from the peoples unhappiness with the government, and particularly the Prime Minister. The sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, with many believing that he is still the puppet master pulling the strings, tried to put quell the unrest by calling a snap election. However the people in Bangkok believing that the process would be unfair took action.
Numerous areas of the city were occupied by protesters to restrict the city’s day to day life and disrupt the elections taking place. These areas have quickly developed into what feels like a festival atmosphere (complete with the festival smell) with tents, food stalls, even a stage with bands now playing in support of the movement. Banners now state that on 13-01-14 a campaign to “Shutdown Bangkok, Restart Thailand” commenced.
Walking through one of the main ones you get the real sense of disgruntlement, but they feel completely peaceful. This isn’t a protest by the young militants alone either, there are people from all ages and social backgrounds showing support through their t-shirts, badges, flags etc. This is clearly a population that wants change. Reform before election is one of their slogans that is seen all around the area.
Whilst we have been in Bangkok the government has started to try and clear the areas forcefully. Almost inevitably this resulted in violent scenes, and at the camp nearest the democracy monument the reports state that 3 protestors lost their lives and a policemen was hospitalised.
Strangely the day afterwards the area is bereft of any officials. No police, no army, no areas marked off as being inaccessible to the public. This means that it has become a sort of attraction, more for the locals than tourists. You see people, warily at first, wandering round the numerous vehicles that have been rolled over and smashed, before they become more bold and start to climb on them to pose for photographs.
With nobody watching over the area, graffiti and posters in support of the shutdown have been quickly daubed over the vehicles. On one side of the road there is a small cordoned off area, in which a small floral tribute lays upon disturbingly large blood stain, potentially marking the scene of where a protestor lost their life.
Speaking to people in Bangkok and other places in Thailand, it appears that the views on the government, and in particular Thaksin Shinawatra are polarised. With geography being the significant driver behind the views.
He is a self-made man, who was vastly wealthy before he came to power, and is seen in the poorer north (where he and his sister are from) as an almost ‘Robin Hood’ type character. His supporters, and the UDD the political party, are known as ‘red shirts’.
The PAD party followers are known as the ‘yellow shirts’ and believe that there is significant corruption and that there needs to be change.
Ms Yingluck is now facing corruption charges, and the protestors show no signs of ceasing their activity. You can only hope that however this resolves over the comes days and weeks that it doesn’t create a need to add more names to the democracy memorial. Sadly though, as we have followed the story since leaving Bangkok, it appears as though this could be a challenge.