The vaguely carnival air apparent in Bangkok on Monday, as tens of thousands of antigovernment protesters swamped several intersections of the city, may not last through today, the second day of protest.
Yesterday, bands played blues and Thai folk music, fast-food vendors did a roaring trade, and fist-pumping orators gave rousing speeches to decry the state of democracy under Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai Party. Protesters of all ages, many sporting national flags painted on their cheeks, shared fruit and gossiped under umbrellas.
However, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former lawmaker for the opposition Democrat Party, urged his supporters to step up their efforts to choke state institutions in coming days. “We must surround government buildings, closing them in the morning and leaving in the afternoon,” Suthep told the crowds.
The mood has become markedly more tense today around Bangkok’s government complex, with angry protesters hurling abuse through the gates of police headquarters, although no officers are seen. A student group aligned with the demonstration also threatens to storm the Thai Stock Exchange building, where extra security has been posted.
Although popular with rural voters in the populous northeast of the country, the 46-year-old Yingluck is despised by royalists and the middle classes of Bangkok and southern provinces. Protesters hold banners portraying Yingluck as a puppet under the control of her notorious brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a polarizing figure who was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and currently lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai following his conviction for corruption.
“Yingluck is not good, Thaksin is not good, we need reform before elections,” one protester tells TIME, expressing the mantra of the movement.
The reform demanded is the installation of an unelected people’s council in place of the national legislature. Protests have now lasted for almost three months, during which time Yingluck has dissolved Parliament and called elections for Feb. 2. However, the opposition knows that Thaksin-backed parties have won every election since 2001 and the odds are high that they will triumph once again.
The current unrest was first sparked in November by a now shelved amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return home. “[The opposition is] worried that the election would only give the Pheu Thai Party a mandate to carry through the amnesty bill to forgive Thaksin,” says Tim Forsyth, a lecturer on international development at the London School of Economics, who specializes in Southeast Asia. “Hence, the [Democrat Party] wants this issue dealt with before the election.”
The diffuse nature of the protests has made it extremely difficult to accurately estimate numbers, but there were clearly tens of thousands gathered at major protest locations on Monday.
“I am here because I love the king,” says one protester festooned in yellow, symbolic color of the ailing monarch. Many protesters accuse Thaksin, a billionaire business tycoon, of attempting to undermine the royal family and traditional organs of Thai political power, including the powerful Privy Council.
Unconfirmed reports in the Thai press on Tuesday suggested that Yingluck was on the brink of resigning, only to be pressured into backtracking by her influential elder sibling. Certainly, on Monday the Prime Minister offered to meet Suthep and negotiate a postponed date for the looming polls. However, the fiery Suthep, who faces rebellion charges relating to recent protests, as well as murder charges for deaths in the 2010 crackdown on pro-Thaksin Red Shirts, told the assembled masses that nothing less than her resignation would be acceptable. The Democrat Party has already boycotted the ballot and candidate registration in southern provinces has been disrupted by opposition blockades.
Meanwhile, in provinces far from Bangkok, pro-Thaksin crowds held banners reading “Respect my vote” to show their support for the elected government and the elections called by Yingluck. So far they have not descended upon the capital (when they did so in 2010, around 90 people were killed in the ensuing violence). Red Shirt leaders are well aware that open confrontation in the street may provoke the military to launch a coup, ostensibly to maintain order. But if Yingluck is forced to relinquish office, there will no longer be anything to lose.