Anti-government protests have become an ongoing feature of Bangkok life since November last year and today saw further disruption.
Following clashes between demonstrators and police at the beginning of December 2013, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra called a snap election for February 2nd, 2014.
Today was supposed to see advance voting, allowing anyone unable to vote next week to cast their ballot early. However, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban had warned potential voters that his group would take over the polling stations and would “encourage” people not to vote, which is precisely what has happened.
It’s rarely wise to try to compress the complicated dynamics of Thai politics into a few, brief sentences but, as far as today is concerned, here goes: The Caretaker Government, led by Yingluck (sister of self-exiled former PM Thaksin Shinawatra) know that they are likely to win the popular vote at an election and do not want to delay or postpone. Equally, the opposition protest groups, mostly led by former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep, know that they are most likely to lose an election and so don’t want it to go ahead. Instead, protesters want to see Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck resign and have called for the appointment of a non-elected “People’s Council” to oversee electoral reforms.
To many, blocking access to a democratic process because you know you are going to lose might seem unfair, putting it rather mildly. Some have questioned whether the anti-Government protesters are sincerely interested in seeing democracy flourish in Thailand and wonder how a non-elected People’s Council can fairly represent all members of Thai society. I can’t answer that question on behalf of the protesters and none I’ve spoken to seem to be able to offer a long-term solution. However, Dave Sherman has tried to answer that question in this article for the UK’s Guardian newspaper. I’ve posted the link in the hope of providing balance because what I saw today were groups of potential voters frustrated at not being able to cast their ballot and you, dear reader, might ask how that situation came to pass in a democratic nation – as do I.
There were not great numbers of protesters, from what I saw at just two of Bangkok’s 50 Polling Stations. The ones I saw and spoke to were friendly to me but some wore masks and I would have been intimidated if I had been trying to vote. Even if I’d overcome my fear, the gates of the school had been padlocked by protesters and police were offering no protection to anybody wishing to access the polling stations. Teachers from Bang Kapi school who were due to staff one of the polls had not been allowed to enter and were sitting in a petrol station a few dozen metres from the school gates.
Polls were due to open at 8am but by 8:30 it was clear that this would not be possible and the local Electoral Commission official walked a few metres to the local police station in order to file an official report.
There are 50 electoral districts in the Bangkok Metropolitan area. Protesters mobilised early this morning, blocking access to the Polling Stations, preventing Electoral Commission staff from setting up the polls. As the local Electoral Commission official announced the closure of a Polling Station, protesters moved on, lending their support to protesters at other sites. As I write this, 48 out of the 50 Polling Stations in Bangkok have been closed and very few votes have been cast.
Some potential voters came to inspect the register, taking a note of their election registration number, which they said they would later use when reporting their inability to vote to the police.
I did not witness any hostility or violence. I spoke to some potential voters who were clearly annoyed at not being able to vote and who shouted “Respect my Vote” in English, albeit some distance from the masked protesters.
However, some violent clashes are being reported and protesters have been attacked at Wat Sri Lam, a temple in Bangkok. I’ve just learned that Suthin Taratin, a leader of the Network of Students and People for the Reform of Thailand (NSPRT), which is linked to the anti-Government protests, has been shot and has died.
Government representatives claim that the election will take place next week, as planned and have said that anyone registered for advance voting will be permitted to vote next week. Although, obviously, many of those registering for advance voting did so because they can’t vote next week.
Twitter Thai News List
If you are interested in keeping up to date with events in Bangkok over the coming week as we move towards the election date, then I recommend Twitter, which has become my go-to source of up-to-the-minute information. I have created a list of reliable and impartial observers in my Thai News Twitter List, including voices from Human Rights Watch, BBC and the UN and will continue to amend and update the contributors to this list.