Bangkok’s Shutdown Day Could Last Much Longer

Monday, January 13, is “Shutdown Day” for the anti-government, anti-election protesters that have been rallying around Bangkok for almost two months. Barring a coup, these rallies intended to paralyze government functions could go on for weeks.

Update early Sunday evening: the Siam Square Rama I intersection, bounded by MBK, Discovery Center and the Bangkok Culture Centre, is already being blocked, so assume premature occupation of the other six city points.

I explained the background of the political crisis about a month ago. Since then, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved the parliament and, as per the 2007 constitution, set February 2 for the next parliamentary election. She and her cabinet have been running the country as ”caretakers” in the meantime.

The protesters, calling themselves the PDRC (People’s Democratic Reform Committee), are having none of it because the only significant opposition party, the Democrats, would handily lose any election to Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party. The Democrats are boycotting the election. The leader of the PDRC, Suthep Thaugsuban, is a former Democrat deputy prime minister with a reputation for corruption.

But in the past month he’s been joined by many cleaner Democrat politicians, including the former longtime leader of the party, Chuan Leekpai, a staid lawyer renowned for his modest means and lack of corrupt practices. Another was the upper-class Democrat governor of Bangkok who won’t stand in the way of his city being trashed or shut down. Anti-election proponents have been busy disrupting meetings of the Election Commission and preventing Pheu Thai candidates from registering to run.

The goal of Suthep and his followers is to force Yingluck to hand power to a reform committee that would somehow rout out corruption and the influence of Yingluck’s exiled brother, Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin, a telecoms tycoon, was ousted from the premier post by a military coup in 2006. Who would be on this committee, how members would be selected and what methods they would employ have never been stated. Of course, there is no provision in the 2007 constitution for such a panel. There would be no elections for the foreseeable future. It’s also not clear who would lead the government and head the ministries in the interim but certainly Yingluck wouldn’t be allowed to continue as prime minister.

Major Bangkok protest sites

This isn’t the greatest map of the seven rally sites but anyone familiar with Bangkok will recognize that they are very centrally located. I find the standard Google map more confusing. Anyway, four of the sites are at Siam Square, Victory Monument, Ratchaprasong and Asoke, which all have Skytrain stations. Asoke is the major intersection of Sukhumvit Road and Sukhumvit Soi 21 where both the Skytrain and subway have stations. Lumphini Park is close to a subway station and the business district of Silom Road. Nonetheless, it probably makes sense for visitors to stay in hotels close to the subway or Skytrain lines because the traffic will be horrendous. Creating traffic jams is part of the PDRC strategy to bring the government to its knees.

While the police tend to be sympathetic to the UDD, the working-class supporters of the government, they have announced that they will not prevent the PDRC from setting up their stages or gathering at these major intersections.

The subway, Skytrain and regular trains are all expected to operate as usual. They did for two months back in 2010 when a much bigger group of so-called Red protesters camped in the middle of the Ratchaprasong shopping district for two months. Yes, that demonstration ended very tragically when the Army killed more than 70 protesters, but for the two previous months, the rally site was very safe and actually a fun place to visit.

Although there are supposed to seven stages set up at intersections around town, only one will be occupied 24 hours per day, so these anti-government protesters apparently don’t have the financial backing that the pro-Shinawatra Reds, the United Front for Defense of Democracy (UDD), did back in 2010. Moreover, Suthep Tuagsuban originally announced 20 intersections before scaling back to seven.

How long will this go on? Certainly more than a day. Government offices can close for a day or two or hold off the hordes trying to cut off utilities. After the 2011 floods and the rallies of the past decade, they are also better equipped to operate at alternative sites. But if actions against the government aren’t effective, will the PDRC step up the pressure by shutting down private companies, public transit lines or main roads? Would the police then feel compelled to act–perhaps by releasing tear gas or firing rubber bullets?

Enter the Royal Thai Army

The Army has announced that it will be bringing troops and tanks closer to the city on Monday night. That might mean a coup. It also just might be a warning to the two sides, a way of staving off violence (but why Monday night? Why not earlier?). The UDD support Yingluck, the elections and the Pheu Thai Party. So far, the Reds have kept their rallies outside of Bangkok or far away from the PDRC protesters. The latter favor adornments of red-white-and-blue and/or yellow. (Tourists: be aware of the color coding!). But one Red rally in the north of the city last month left one little girl an orphan. It only takes a few nuts with guns to set off a major tragedy.

The army commander in chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, initially tried to maintain a neutral stance. He has had his own disputes with some of the Yellow media supporting the PDRC. But late last month he said he wouldn’t rule out a coup and Yingluck has appeared reluctant or unable to get a vote of confidence from him. PDRC members are styling themselves as royalists and true patriots (red, white and blue are the colors of the Thai flag). It was the army, after all that ousted Thaksin from office in 2006 and, on orders of a Democrat prime minister, killed more than 70 Reds in a few days to dissolve the 2010 protests.

What’s open and closed

The Stock Exchange of Thailand, big companies, government offices and big stores plan to stay open on Monday and beyond. The banks emphasize that they are taking precautions to make sure ATMs are well stocked. I have talked to some small shop owners close to rally sites; they say they will close on Monday and decide to re-open depending on the situation. Chulalongkorn University is closing down for the week but it is very close to the Siam Square rally point.

Expressways and the airports are supposed to operate as usual and the protesters say they won’t shut down Suvannabhumi Airport, as their precursors did in December 2008. At least 60 international flights have been cancelled in the prime tourist season. The numbers of mainland Chinese visitors alone are expected to decline 60% year-on-year this month.

What about the Immigration Department? I have no idea what the contingency plan is and I have looked for answers. The office is in the far north of the city, about 20 km north of the Morchit Skytrain station. It’s in a huge government complex on Chaeng Wattana Road that the protesters briefly invaded in December.

Despite the ludicrous location, this is where tourists must go if, for example, they want to extend their two-month tourist visas for an extra month. I think any alternative location will be more convenient to the vast number of people. The old office was on Suan Phlu Road, off Sathorn, and that still functions as an immigration jail. I also heard something about the Imperial shopping center in Ladprao but that is also one of the rally points.

If anyone will know about the Immigration Department status, I think it would be Richard Barrow whose sites are targeted to expats and tourists. I included his Twitter feed in an earlier piece on the best news sources for keeping abreast of the Thai political situation. He even has a timely Twitter hashtag: #bangkokshutdown.