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To the trenches in Bangkok
Publication Date : 05-03-2014
Thailand’s anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) has apparently retreated from its multiple rally sites in the city of Bangkok, bringing some reprieve to the traffic flow after several weeks of disruptions.
But while the move to consolidate the protests to just one site has opened up a sliver of space and has given the caretaker government and the PDRC some time for dialogue, it is in reality an entrenchment.
Lumpini Park, where the protests have now consolidated, has been a site of a PDRC rally for weeks. But it has now expanded. A massive tent city has come up in the sprawling park. While it spills out on to one major intersection, the Rama IV-Silom Road crossing, most of it is contained within the boundary fence, with entry points closely monitored by the PDRC’s security guards.
There are hundreds of tents in the park divided into sections which are numbered. Sidewalk markets have sprung up around the park. On the periphery, Thai army medical units remain, in the event of protests turning ugly.
With the unblocking of multiple intersections, the city goes about its business as usual. But the divisions are not softening and the political war of attrition continues.
In the latest development, a group based in northern Thailand, calling itself the Lanna Assembly for the Defence of Democracy, on Monday denied reports that it had proposed a separate state – which provoked a strong response from the powerful army.
In a Facebook message, the group said its name had been misunderstood as standing for a separate state. It acknowledged that some in the north and north-east, had floated the idea of separating from Bangkok and the south, citing the essentially Bangkok-based movements that have since 2006, periodically crippled and ousted elected governments.
But separation was “not the right way of solving the crisis in Thai society,” it said, according to a translation reported in the Bangkok Post. "However, the idea reflects the people's bitter feelings toward the political injustice which has prevailed since the 2006 coup," it added.
Lanna is the name of an ancient kingdom centred in northern Thailand.
Any talk of separation pushes a hot button in Thailand, and the army has clearly drawn a line, filing a police complaint on March 3 on orders of commander in chief general Prayuth Chan-ocha, against a leader of a Chiang Mai based pro-government “Red Shirt” group which is part of the Lanna group that appeared to endorse the idea of the separate state.
The reports were based on a cloth banner that appeared in Chiang Mai last week, saying, “There is no justice in this country. We want to separate to form Prathet (country) Lanna.”
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra – in caretaker capacity since dissolving parliament last December – quickly distanced herself from the idea of separatism, saying it was not acceptable. Senior red shirt leaders also said the message had been misunderstood. The PDRC demanded a probe of the group by the department of special investigation.
Emotions continue to run high. And consolidating their protest from seven sites to one, only further entrenches the PDRC.
Sitting with two of her friends under a canvas awning in Lumpini Park, with a small Japanese tabletop fan battling the mounting summer heat, businesswoman Natjira Phatisuwan said she had been at the PDRC protests since the movement announced its “Bangkok Shutdown” on January 13.
She moved to the park from Rajaprasong, the site of one of the movement’s previous rallies, after Suthep announced the dismantling of the other sites.
“I will stay here until we win,” she declared. Her friends from Chumphon and Samut Pakarn provinces nodded in agreement. One sold bicycles for a living in Samut Prakarn, the other's husband worked for a government department.
“We are fighting for real democracy, not just majority rule,” Natjira said.
She didn’t have to do this, she emphasised. She was well off, and had a home in the city where she still occasionally went to take care of business matters.
“I live like this now,” she said, “because I think I have to sacrifice for the sake of the country.”
And as she said that, she wept with the emotion of it.