Imagine for a moment that a group of people wished to displace a government by orchestrating a massive popular civil insurrection. They did so by occupying major traffic intersections in the capital city of the country?in one of the world?s most populous metropolises?halting traffic in order to halt government, especially those traffic arteries necessary to reach government offices. This requires tens of thousands of people, if not more, and the logistical capacity to sustain such action.
This is exactly what occurred earlier this year in Bangkok. The People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) launched a campaign to shut down Bangkok in mid-January 2014. Seven major intersections in the city were to be occupied and announced to the public. These intersections were not small places, but major streets with four to six lanes in each direction, and sometimes five- or six-way intersections with fly-overs. This was announced as an ultimatum, part of a series of scaled up actions which the government could only avoid by ceding to PDRC demands. On the day, activists of the PDRC began erecting barriers on the street and redirecting traffic. The city rerouted bus lines. Canopies to shade thousands of people spanned the entire streets (see photo). Central stages were built, and massive screens, three metres tall by four metres wide, were spaced every 500 metres back from the stage so that people could see and hear from the speakers. Satellite intersections were connected to the main stage several kilometres away by video feed, and an Internet channel was established to broadcast the stage live so that demonstrations in other cities in the country could project the same images, and Thais worldwide could follow the events. Water and toilets at each site were provided by the Bangkok public administration, as were emergency medical services. Common people brought food daily and dropped it off at massive free kitchens. Each evening when businesses closed the crowds would swell, and one speaker after another would take the central stage to reveal an aspect of corruption by the current government. They were not only opposition figures, but also people formerly involved or defecting from the ruling party. Mobile crowds would march on city streets stretching up to a kilometer along major roads, and sometimes converged on one or another ministry, surrounding them in order to halt work.
The sitting government refused to step down. The opposition walked out of parliament to join the insurrection’s demand that the government step down. The government responded by calling a snap election, confident that it would again win. A mobile demonstration surrounded the printing shop where the ballots were printed, halting work and causing a shortage of ballots. Nevertheless, the government pushed ahead on polling day. An increasing number of civil officials showed sympathy with the civil insurrection, resulting in many polling officials refusing to show up at polling sites. The opposition refused to take part in the election, causing the election to fail.
The government fled to the country’s second most populous city in the north and one of its strongholds, but was losing its grasp on power. A banner went up on the ministry of public health endorsing the goals of the civil insurrection by calling for a corruption-free government. The supreme court found the government in violation of governmental guidelines and the prime minister and cabinet were forced to leave office, but the ruling party replaced them with other members.
Thailand is infamous for military coups, perhaps more than any other country. When the media asked the military during the civil insurrection if they were intending to seize power, the answer was always “not today.” However, on 20 May the army stopped being an observer. A coup may sound like a bloody affair, but in this case, it was low-key; a few military officers walked into the national television studios and said “We own the place.” That was it.
The military “invited” the leaders of all sides to stay at a “guest house” in a military camp, and informed them they could go home if they stopped public political activities. In a few days they all went home.
The causes of the civil insurrection, failed election, and eventual military coup are multiple and have kept many baffled foreign correspondents from explaining a series of political crisis in a succinct fashion.
The origins of the ongoing power struggle within the country can be traced back to the 2001 election of a telecommunications tycoon and former high-ranking police officer, whose rule was divisive for Thai society. However, if a single individual were to blame the situation might be easy to resolve. But it is complicated by being mixed with the issues of social inequality and the rural-urban divide within the country; how the royalty and the military are involved in the political system; the class status of the Bangkok elite; and a centralized national bureaucracy. In other words, the problem is systemic.
The PDRC was successful in organizing a massive popular event that educated the public concerning the extent of corruption within the country. It was also successful in orchestrating events to force the sitting government out of power, although perhaps not in the form it wanted. The PDRC was not successful in presenting a coherent alternative to the public. The primary leader of the PDRC was a former deputy prime minister of the country who publicly stated that he would no longer run for public office after the event. The PDRC promoted a vague idea of a people’s council to run the country after the government was displaced, which would be charged with restructuring the system, primarily by promulgating a new constitution. How this council was to be nominated and what all it would do was vague. Although it was clear what the PDRC was against, it was not clear what they were for. This left them with only one negotiating position: The government must step down. For those in Thai society who tried to organize mediation between the two sides, this was a problem. The PDRC only wanted the government to go. The government said they were elected and there was no reason for them to step down as a legally constituted government. That some of their practices and policies had so alienated the populace that hundreds of thousands of people were willing to take to the streets for several months did not seem to be an issue about which the government reflected much.
By and large, this power struggle was waged nonviolently. Some violence did occur. stirring international media attention. Over the months of the protest, a few shootings and explosions took place for which no one has been held accountable. It is believed that fringe elements from both sides undertook these very sporadic acts. By and large, the occupation sites had a festive atmosphere. An attempt by the police to dislodge the occupation by the main government complex was foiled when the police charge was halted by a mass of Buddhist monks who stood in front of the occupation site and started chanting, at which point the police charge halted and dissolved, never to return. Perhaps this could only happen in a majority Buddhist country like Thailand. A police charge on an occupation site in the central business district did involve injuries and a death. However, it failed to dislodge the occupation and was not mobilized again. The military refused to assist the government in dispersing the occupation.
The situation remains unresolved. The military says its rule will be temporary, and that as soon as a new constitution is written a new election will be called. A civil government is being put in place until that time. However, the military has not launched an effort to reconcile the country. The two sides remain divided and if that situation remains unaddressed they could simply recommence their struggle once the military steps off the stage.
Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan is the former Regional Representative for Nonviolence International in Southeast Asia, and lived in Bangkok for 20 years.