As promised, the anti-government United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) has mobilised protestors from outside Bangkok to flood the city. They started streaming in from 12 March 2010 for the main rally on 14 March 2010.
The UDD (red-shirts) have the intent and organisation to bring down the government. The question now is whether it has the resources to get done what it has been promising ominously since the last major demonstration in April last year – one final push to bring down the existing government, led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party.
As this article is written, mainstream media report that more than 100,000 from the Northeast, North and other parts of the country have converged in Bangkok’s Ratchadamnoen Avenue, which has been the scene of previous demonstrations. The number is obviously smaller than what the UDD has been promising all month long.
But then last year the government concluded that the same number was instrumental for the Songkran protests although the pro-Thaksin camp insisted the protestors numbered twice the size. Even if we take that scenario into account and assume the numbers this time around can be in the region of 200,000, it is still far short of the promised 1 million. On that account it appears that the show of strength is not impressive.
But the day is still young. The crowd are still flowing and the numbers are still rising. The logistics for the organisers are clearly daunting and delays are inevitable. Plus many supporters from Bangkok are probably not in the count. For example, the sizable support that Thaksin gets from taxi drivers in Bangkok is not in the tally, but could be a significant factor when trouble does start.
More critically, 200,000 protestors are more than sufficient to paralyse the city if the protestors choose to do so. And if they hit the 500,000 mark, which most observers think is within their means, then that is a show of strength than the ruling government cannot ignore for too long, especially if they decided to take to the streets beyond Ratchadamnoen Avenue, as they are promising to do now.
But this is exactly where the crux of the matter lies. How long can both parties stare at each other without making the first move that could lead to violence? On the part of the UDD, the numbers game in terms of size of protestors is one thing. The bigger question is what are the organisers intending to do with the crowd. They have promised a non-violent showdown. But in any tactical assault, results need to be achieved quickly. And this is clearly a tactical manoeuvre for an inevitable strategic intent. The protestors are not expected to hang around more than a week.
In 2008, the anti-Thaksin (ie. yellow-shirt) supporters did something similar by bringing intense pressure on the then-incumbent government by doing sit-in demonstrations for months at key government buildings. It didn’t work even when the government was forced to shuffle the venue for their cabinet meetings because of the siege on government buildings. This forced the yellow-shirts to do the unthinkable and seize the country’s largest international airport. That move brought the government down in less than 10 days. So, the recourse for the reds now has to be something drastic, their non-violent message notwithstanding.
There is also talk of behind-the-scenes horse-trading. The choicest horse in the stable is Newin Chidchob. The mercurial politician was instrumental in bringing down the pro-Thaksin government in 2008 by defecting to the Democrat Party at the last moment. But no one is clear of Newin’s intentions. There is a good chance that even he is not too sure at this moment how to throw the dice.
But decisions have to be taken fast because events are unfolding swiftly. For one thing, indications are that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is contemplating declaring emergency rule in Bangkok. Currently, his government has invoked the Internal Security Act (ISA). Emergency rule means the military will have direct control of the security arrangements but the civil government still retains political power (under ISA, the military can only assist the police in carrying out security arrangements). But emergency rule could just be one step away from martial law. Abhisit’s Government has insisted that this won’t happen. But such a promise is not for him to make or keep; civil government’s usually don’t have much say in these matters especially if the military rule is engineered through a coup d’etat.
Beneath all these scenarios, there of course lies the royal factor. Most commentators have stayed away from commenting on this aspect, though this is probably one of the most critical elements in the drama. Does the royal family have a preference in terms of political alliance and is that preference universal within the family? These are some of the questions that will determine the course of Thailand’s political fate in the coming months. The royals could stay neutral or abandon its preference once the will of people is clearly exercised in the ensuing months.
But whatever happens, it cannot stay out of the fray — as the royals are aware, along with all the other players in the political drama; this time around the battle lines are too pronounced and the people are at a point where they desperately want closure.