Bangkok’s central commercial district was swarmed by anti-government protesters Monday as part of a so-called “shutdown” of the city, a largely peaceful demonstration that cut most traffic to Thailand’s priciest real estate and most prestigious addresses.
The protest targeted the heart of the city’s business district and was the boldest move in two months of protests against the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Protesters frustrated with what they say is a dysfunctional political system have issued some of the most radical political demands seen in Asia in recent years: the scrapping of elections scheduled for February, a hiatus for democracy and the formation of an alternative form of government involving an unelected “people’s council” that would replace Parliament.
“We need to shut the capital to tell people that this government has lost its legitimacy,” said Uracha Trairat, a businessman who flew from Phuket to join the protests. “The government is now destroying itself.”
The protest had echoes of a protracted demonstration three years ago that closed off some of the same areas of Bangkok and ended with a military crackdown that left dozens of people dead. There were no reports of violence from the protest areas by late Monday afternoon, and some observers said it resembled a car-free festival in the capital more than a serious threat to the government.
But a radical and aggressive faction of the protesters threatened to take over the country’s stock exchange and air traffic control system if Yingluck’s government did not step down by Wednesday. In making that threat, one of the leaders of the faction, Nitithorn Lamlua, said protest leaders had already been charged by the government with rebellion, so they “could not lose”. “We will fight until we win,” he said.
The International Crisis Group, a research organization, Monday said the “scope for peaceful resolution is narrowing” in Thailand and that the campaign to stop elections “raises prospects of widespread political violence” and could provoke a military coup. “Competing Thai elites – with mass backing – disagree fundamentally about how political power should be acquired and exercised,” the group said. Chadchart Sittipunt, the transport minister, asked protesters to “think of the country” and urged them not to shut down the air traffic control office. “This is going beyond the expression of opinion in a democratic way,” he said.