Normally bustling Bangkok ground to a halt on Monday as antigovernment protesters made good on their promise to shut down the sprawling Thai capital. Seven key intersections around the city were besieged, blocking traffic and maddening a population of over 6 million, as well as thousands of foreigners here in peak season hoping to enjoy the shopping, temples and restaurants.
Protesters, however, were unmoved. “The people cannot negotiate,” protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban told the assembled crowd late on Sunday. “There is no win-win situation. There is only win.”
Forty-five nations have issued travel warnings, while the U.S. embassy took the unprecedented step of urging Americans in the city to stockpile a “week’s supply of cash … [and] two-week supply of essential items such as food, water and medicine.” Local officials were also taking the threat of violence seriously, and more than 20,000 police and troops have been deployed to guard 20 key institutions, most notably the city’s airports, which were famously seized by protesters in 2008.
For two months, Suthep, a former opposition lawmaker who quit the Democrat Party to lead the protests, has incited whistle-blowing mobs, numbering around 200,000 at their peak, with his firebrand speeches calling for the ousting of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Yingluck, who won a landslide election in July 2011, is accused of being a puppet for her brother, billionaire former minister Thaksin Shinawatra. She has dissolved parliament and called fresh elections for Feb. 2, but the Democrat Party has boycotted the ballot and instead demanded the formation of an unelected “people’s council” to enact unspecified reforms.
Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in 2006 but remains an influential figure in the Pheu Thai party from his aerie in Dubai, where he lives in self-imposed exile. The current tumult began in November with protests against a now shelved amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return home and reunited with some $1.2 billion in cash seized and assets, following his conviction in absentia for abuse of power.
Thaksin-backed parties have won all five Thai elections since 2001 with significant majorities. Populist policies such as cheap health care, microfinancing and fuel subsidies ensured strong support in the impoverished, agricultural northeast of the country. Supakit Bumchatong, a 36-year-old taxi driver who moved to Bangkok from the northeastern city of Udon Thani seven years ago, is typical of many northern voters. “When my father was ill and died, the hospital bill was 250,000 baht [$7,500] but I only had to pay 30 baht [$1],” he says. “I can earn money now, and my sister went to university. That is why I love Thaksin Shinawatra.”
The rival Democrat Party, backed by the Bangkok middle class and voters in southern provinces, has not won an election since 1992 and attributes Thaksin’s enduring popularity to brazen vote buying. Academics say there’s no evidence for that — “it’s about policies that can affect their well-being,” says Professor Bhanupong Nidhiprabha, an economist at Thammasat University near Bangkok — but that doesn’t alter the perception among Thaksin’s opponents.
“I don’t like Thaksin because poor people in countryside don’t work and sell their votes,” says Tina, a 21-year-old protester handing out whistles by Bangkok’s Asok intersection. “I love my King.”
Ostensibly to maintain order, the military has deployed forces in Bangkok, but this has naturally raised eyebrows in a country that has seen 18 actual or attempted coups since 1932. That the same battalions that spearheaded the 2006 putsch are now standing by in the capital may be of special significance, says Paul Chambers, research director of political science at Chiang Mai University.
“[This] is sending a message that these Suthep-led demonstrators are taking to the streets, but the pro-Thaksin police better not try to repress them,” he says. “It’s a very dangerous situation.” (Thaksin was formerly a police officer before starting his telecom business.)
Upheaval is becoming onerously familiar to the Thai people. The past decade has seen the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, the 2006 coup, the 2008 Yellow Shirt occupation of Suvarnabhumi Airport, the 2010 crackdown on Red Shirt protests and the nation’s worst flooding in a half-century in 2011.
“If Thailand has shown one thing over the last 10 or 15 years it’s resilience,” says Winfried F. Wicklein, principal Thailand economist for the Asian Development Bank. “I’m very confident that [this current unrest] is something the country can master.”
Thailand boasts Southeast Asia’s second largest economy and is a vital commercial hub, home to some 5 million migrant workers. Since the protests began in November, the baht has dropped 6% against the U.S. dollar and the stock market is the worst performing in the region.
Bhanupong warns that if the stock market continues to slide the property sector could also be affected. “Confidence is a big problem,” he says. “From last year until now, consumption has gone down, and it’s going to get worse as consumer confidence has been eroded.”
Tim Forsyth, a lecturer on international development at the London School of Economics, who specializes in Southeast Asia, thinks any effect will be temporary. “Possibly investment will go to the competitors such as Vietnam, but I suspect that long-term investment will not change its direction as a result of whatever happens in this current Thai crisis.” However, violence or a military takeover “will result in a loss of investment.”
Bhanupong says the protests are designed to affect blue collar workers in the service sector, such as hotel staff and taxi drivers. (Hotel occupancy is down to just 50% compared with the seasonal norm of 90%.)
“The poor people will suffer more, the upper classes won’t feel it yet, but we’ll probably have to wait for the stock market to fall further and then they’ll have a realization about the importance of rule of law,” he says.
Until then, disruption is the name of the game. On Monday, a cacophony of ear-piercing whistles erupted as demonstrators bearing yellow headbands expressed their dissatisfaction with the current government. The situation will deteriorate if earlier pledges to cut power at key government institutions and the residences of Cabinet members are carried out, or if progovernment Red Shirt demonstrators come to the capital in search of confrontation. With eight people killed and more than 400 injured in recent street violence, the possibility of bloodshed is high.