18 October 2014

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Tens of thousands of protesters are attempting to "shutdown Bangkok," blockading streets and crippling banks, businesses, and government ministries while authorities do little to stop the campaign to topple the elected government and replace it with appointed technocrats.

The American Embassy e-mailed a security alert to U.S. citizens in Bangkok, advising them to stockpile a "week’s supply of cash … [and] two-week supply of essential items such as food, water and medicine."

The embassy's alert, published in local media, fueled some panic buying.

At least eight people died in clashes during the past few weeks leading up to Monday's (Jan. 13) start of the blockade, and one protester was shot in the neck before dawn.

Throughout the day, festive protesters at seven key intersections and on dozens of main streets blew loud whistles, danced to live bands, photographed themselves in selfies, and listened to speeches by leaders atop huge makeshift stages.

Tens of thousands of protesters laid blankets and woven mats on the streets to sleep in the open during the warm dry weather or in small tents.

They dined on grilled chicken, papaya salad, and other Thai cuisine cooked in mobile kitchens, and bought or sold headbands, bracelets, whistles and T-shirts adorned with the red, white, and blue of Thailand's national flag which the protesters' display to show their patriotism.

Many joined scattered marches to surround the ministries of finance and foreign affairs, and other government buildings, to force the administration to collapse.

Traffic snarls affected one million people in this modern Southeast Asian capital of more than 10 million residents, officials said.

But thousands of commuters avoided some blockades by traveling at dawn, while others worked from home.

Many government officials retreated to backup offices.

Most shops, hotels, and offices remained opened including on blocked streets.

The blockaded zones were accessible by subway and elevated railway lines which protesters also used to bypass their own barricades.

Protesters also blocked Rama VIII bridge, one of several spanning the wide Chao Phraya River and linking Bangkok to a suburban sprawl of residences, factories, hotels and other businesses on the other side.

Mr. Suthep said he may continue the blockades until Jan. 31.

This Buddhist-majority country however has been suffering since Mr. Suthep's first rallies began on Oct. 31, resulting in less tourists, a weaker Thai baht currency, and worry among international investors.

Police ignored protesters' violations because Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's strategy is to avoid a crackdown which could cause bloodshed.

Instead, Ms. Yingluck hopes a nationwide election on Feb. 2 will resolve the issues.

Police have also not arrested protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban on a recently issued warrant for alleged multiple murders committed in 2010, when he was deputy prime minister in the previous government.

Mr. Suthep was then working with the military to crush pro-democracy protesters during nine weeks of street clashes, which resulted in more than 90 deaths -- most of them civilians.

Mr. Suthep is also wanted on a recent warrant for "insurrection," punishable by life imprisonment or lethal injection, for leading the current protest.

The stocky, gesticulating, career politician demands Ms. Yingluck and her popular administration immediately resign, and be permanently blacklisted from politics along with her politically powerful family and their allies.

Mr. Suthep said he wants to replace the government with a "people's council" of 400 appointed "good people" who are not politicians, who would rule for 18 months.

Those technocrats would change Thailand's system of government by limiting democratic elections and shifting power to appointed representatives.

Mr. Suthep would then allow fresh elections, minus the current politicians in Ms. Yingluck's administration, plus more appointees.

Mr. Suthep promotes "the idea of a caretaker government of wise, decent, experienced policy experts [but] the proposals of the pro-technocrats are themselves deeply undemocratic," Rich Garella, a U.S.-based political analyst said in an interview on Monday (Jan. 13) during his visit to Bangkok.

"What the two sides have in common is a lack of faith that the political system will protect their rights and their assets, so they take their politics outside of the political system," he said.

The government's supporters "see themselves as protecting democracy, while the pro-technocracy demonstrators see themselves as promoting good government," Mr. Garella said.

In response, Ms. Yingluck recently dissolved Parliament's House of Representatives, leaving a half-appointed Senate in place.

She scheduled a nationwide election on Feb. 2 for the House, which Mr. Suthep and his followers said they will not allow, partly because their candidates would most likely do poorly at the polls.

Even though Ms. Yingluck and her Pheu Thai ("For Thais") party are expected to win, she may not be able to form a new government because protesters recently blocked dozens of their candidates from registering.

More than 300 other parliamentarians loyal to Ms. Yingluck face possible impeachment or other punishment for allegedly violating the constitution during parliamentary procedures.

Ms. Yingluck brought the protest crisis upon herself when her government recently attempted to create an "amnesty" for her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who won three elections beginning in 2001 before the military ousted him in a bloodless 2006 coup.

The amnesty would have included hundreds of other people on all sides who were charged, arrested, on trial or imprisoned for political activity since the coup.

Ms. Yingluck's opponents saw the amnesty as a trick to bring her billionaire brother home from self-exile.

After the coup, Mr. Thaksin was convicted for abuse of power, stripped of $1.2 billion of cash and assets, and given a two-year jail sentence which he is dodging.

Mr. Thaksin currently travels the world, advising Ms. Yingluck who was elected in 2011.

Mr. Thaksin is immensely popular, and Mr. Suthep insists that Mr. Thaksin controls Ms. Yingluck as his "puppet."

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Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.

His websites are:

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(Copyright 2013 Richard S Ehrlich)