CHIANG MAI – The two factions vying for control of Thailand came to blows Sunday, as the country’s government warned stolen guns could be used for violence amid rising tensions in the politically divided country.
A protest march in the northern city of Chiang Mai took an ugly turn when it was intercepted by a group of red shirt government supporters, who attacked vehicles with rocks, water bottles and flower pots.
In Bangkok, the minister of information and communications technology said local gun shops had seen substantial sales of ammunition suitable for weapons recently stolen from police. The government warned that some unnamed “third parties” may be planning a violent disruption as part of protesters’ plans to “shut down” the capital on Jan. 13.
On Sunday, those protesters offered a preview of what is to come with a boisterous march through downtown Bangkok that saw a huge whistle-blowing crowd wave flags, walk and cheer for 5 1/2 hours in the hot sun.
The streets were lined with people holding out money they stuffed into the hands of Suthep Thaugsuban as he passed by. The former deputy prime minister has become the central figure in efforts to unseat prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, which he accuses of being irredeemably corrupt. Her government has been reduced to caretaker status after parliament was dissolved in early December to make way for an election planned for Feb. 2.
On Monday, Ms. Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party will ask the country’s Supreme Administrative Court to allow 29 of its candidates to run in the upcoming election. Those candidates were unable to properly register after protesters barred access to registration sites. If the court appeal is not successful, the election appears mathematically incapable of delivering enough MPs to meet the quorum needed to open a new parliament.
Mr. Suthep and his acolytes – a broad cross-section of society that includes doctors, actors, housewives, retirees and foreign-based Thais back home to protest – have sought to prevent the election from happening. But, Mr. Suthep told a crowd gathered around Bangkok’s Democracy Monument Sunday night, they intend to do so without bullets.
Calling the government “liars” over the allegation of stolen guns, he said: “You are crazy. I can confirm that we will fight peacefully.”
Ms. Yingluck, meanwhile, made a thinly veiled threat that the country will plunge into chaos if the protesters have their way. In a post to Facebook, she warned about “high drug addiction rates caused by unemployment, or a shutdown in the business sector, or the sale of companies to foreign interests.” Though she did not directly link those possibilities to the ongoing protest, her meaning was clear. “If you don’t want the government to return to power, you have to fight us in the election,” she wrote.
Protesters plan to increase pressure on government with a pair of marches through Bangkok this week, ahead of the planned shutdown next Monday.
Despite their serious overtones, the anti-government rallies have taken on a carnival air. The Democracy Monument, the central rallying point for anti-government forces, is surrounded by vendors selling a vast array of goods fashioned with the red, white and blue of the Thai flag – the colours of choice for protesters who call themselves a “people’s movement.”
Hats, bangles, headbands, patches, stickers, hand clappers and lanyards are all for sale, alongside people offering foot massages (less than $5 for an hour) and others hawking Guy Fawkes masks and toy assault rifles. The T-shirt vendors are particularly busy, displaying a remarkable array of wearable propaganda emblazoned with slogans like “We are free men,” “Fight, don’t give up” and “Willing to be rebellious.”
Most popular of all are the whistles, which have become the protesters’ ear-splitting signature. Most in demand was a model fashioned in the lightning bolt that is the insignia of the country’s Bluesky television channel, which carries hours of live protest coverage every day. On Sunday, one of several giant queues for Bluesky lightning whistles – on sale for $1 each – extended more than 300 metres through the heart of the protest zone.
David Van Praagh, a former Globe and Mail correspondent in South and Southeast Asia, is the author of Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy: The Life and Times of M. R. Seni Pramoj. He is a retired professor of journalism at Carleton University.