03 July 2014

 

 

This increasingly violent Buddhist country is suffering a political meltdown, ominously expressed in gallows humor about deadly plastic traffic cones, but in hospital emergency rooms no one is laughing.

Welcome to Bangkok where if you touch a bright orange-and-white striped plastic cone -- on the wrong street at the wrong time -- you could join the handful of bloodied victims publicly shot, stabbed or beaten for doing so.

Thousands of anti-government protesters have been trying to paralyze Bangkok's streets and government offices since November, amid clashes which killed more than 28 people on all sides.

The military clamped martial law on Thailand on Tuesday (May 20), claiming it needed to control the violence.

Emboldened by a sense of immunity from arrest during the past six months, protesters had recently been defending their traffic cones to block cars from their rally sites, bridges, highways and other occupied locations.

If confused or irate motorists got out of their vehicles to move a cone, the protesters' thuggish "guards" attacked the hapless drivers.

Politicized security forces were unwilling or unable to protect the victims.

Police feared arrests would spark widespread rioting, while some military officers are said to secretly support the dictatorial mobs.

Traffic cones quickly came to symbolize vigilante violence.

A Directorate of Joint Intelligence official, Col. Wittawat
Wattanakul, was shot and injured in Bangkok's wealthy Chaeng Wattana neighborhood on April 25 after getting out of his car to remove a cone.

Buddha Issara -- who is a much-feared, politicized Buddhist monk -- commands guards, mobs and blockades in that area where he has stopped key government offices from functioning.

The saffron-robed monk also publicly demands, and receives, huge amounts of money from targeted businesses which he threatens to blockade because they have displeased him.

To repair his notorious image, Buddha Issara offered to surrender his guards to police for investigation and offered Col. Wittawat $1,600 in compensation, which was rejected.

"I admit that sometimes the guards' actions affect other people, but we have always apologized and offered compensation for the damages," Buddha Issara told the Daily News on May 11.

"If those persons want to sue us, we also accept that," said the monk who supports Suthep Thaugsuban's anti-government protests but is seen as a dangerous future rival because he also manipulates Buddhist beliefs.

"Buddha Issara defended the guards' defense of traffic cones, claiming that the guards are tasked with establishing safe perimeters around the protesters to prevent potential assailants from approaching the demonstrators and lobbing grenades at them," the report said.

Elsewhere in Bangkok, thugs loyal to Mr. Suthep allegedly smashed a car's windows and beat Surasuk Sowattanangkoon unconscious on May 9 after the driver removed cones blocking a highway.

The next day, other protest guards repeatedly stabbed an ice delivery man, Thanakrit Pinwiset, puncturing his lung and liver after he tried to move a cone.

The assaults created so much tension among Bangkok's Thai and foreign residents that some began fighting back by posting satirical photos and comments about traffic cones on Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

For example, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's adult son Panthongtae appeared with four other Thai men absurdly crouching, heads bent and hands in prayer, around a traffic cone on a Bangkok sidewalk.

He posted the photo on his Facebook page to jokingly show people what to do when they see a cone.

"In #Thailand, things like Buddha images are sacred. Also Traffic Cones. You shouldn't touch them," tweeted Richard Barrow, an online tourism columnist, humorously linking the photo.

Political parties supporting Panthongtae's father -- who was ousted in a 2006 coup -- are the most popular in Thailand.

They won elections in 2001, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2011 and 2013.

But on May 7, a coup-created Constitutional Court toppled Mr. Thaksin's sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, for blatant nepotism during her 1,000 days as leader.

The same court earlier annulled Mrs. Yingluck's February re-election victory, after Mr. Suthep's supporters aggressively blocked 10 percent of the country's polling booths to invalidate the voting and weaken her position.

Mr. Suthep and his colleagues are too unpopular to win at the polls, so he is now trying to cancel elections tentatively scheduled for July or August, and the new martial law regime may agree to further delays.

Mr. Suthep hopes the military will allow an unidentified "good" person to seize power as prime minister and rule with a tribunal of other unelected technocrats.

"Oriental Shocker! Traffic cone appointed prime minister of Thailand!" tweeted Mango Man, mocking that strategy.

Another Twitter user echoed late U.S. President Ronald Reagan's anti-Berlin Wall slogan and tweeted for Mr. Suthep to "tear down these cones!"

Some created portraits of a gigantic orange traffic cone replacing Bangkok's iconic Democracy Monument, built in 1940.

The height of irreverent humor appeared in a Photoshopped poster showing a tiny traffic cone made of clay, set into a triangular gold frame and described as a new Buddhist "cone amulet" to be reverently worn on a necklace by devotees.

Inspired by the viral cone chatter, pro-election Red Shirt leader Nattawut Saikua climbed onstage at a Bangkok rally on Tuesday (May 13) and theatrically approached plastic traffic cone placed on a green stool.

In a classic Muay Thai boxing attack, Mr. Nattawut brutally kicked the cone, delighting tens of thousands of Reds at the rally.

 

His antics were described as kicking his enemy, the "Chaircone" of the anti-government protesters -- a pointed dig at Mr. Suthep.

Mr. Suthep is currently dodging an arrest warrant for alleged multiple murders linked to his role alongside the military in 2010 when they crushed a nine-week pro-election protest which killed more than 90 people, mostly civilians.

He is also avoiding an arrest warrant for leading the current "insurrection," punishable by life imprisonment or lethal injection.