BANGKOK, Thailand – A handful of people sat in the road next to Lumpini Park Wednesday, watching a live video blaring loudly enough to be heard for blocks. A few napped. Only a day earlier, a gunman had let off a volley in the area, wounding one person.
Hundreds of thousands of Thais have participated in these mostly low-scale protests since November, barricading roadways with camping tents and selling wares in the street. The protests were largely peaceful and often festive, with many people in Bangkok supporting the protesters or coming out after work to join in.
In the past week, however, tensions have escalated. Three people died following a grenade explosion in Bangkok’s busy Ratchaprasong shopping district on Sunday where hundreds of protesters had been camping out. At least 22 people were injured in the initial blast, and a 59-year-old woman and a 4-year-old boy were killed. On Monday, the boy’s 6-year-old sister died from her injuries. Another 8-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet over the weekend at an anti-government rally in eastern Thailand.
Wednesday, protesters held another rally outside the Royal Thai Police headquarters demanding justice for the children killed in the weekend’s attacks. Live feeds of the rally were piped to various protest sites around Bangkok, including Lumpini Park and the Ratchaprasong district.
As is common in Thailand’s long history of political demonstrations and coups, nobody wants to take responsibility for the outbreaks of violence. Some say it’s a ploy to disperse the protests. It’s also been blamed on the protesters, with the claim that they want to incite a sympathetic reaction. Some blame it on a mysterious “third hand,” a third party with an unknown agenda.
“They never catch the perpetrators,” said Jacob Stempniewicz, a language and culture professional who has lived in Bangkok for the past 10 years. “Both sides want to claim they’re peaceful. But both sides have been violent.”
The “sides” in question are the anti-government and pro-government factions: the ousted middle class whose party ruled Thailand for many years, and the farmers who in 2001 elected Thaksin Shinawatra, a man now in self-imposed exile over corruption charges – trumped-up charges, to hear his supporters tell it. According to his own claims, the billionaire businessman now rules the country by proxy through his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, the prime minister elected in 2011. She has fled the capital in recent days and condemned the violence as terrorism.
The protesters want her to step down on charges of corruption and have boycotted and obstructed an election held in February where her party held its own. Many of them believe that the military should step in and set up an alternative government.
Martial law has been declared, along with a state of emergency. However, for nearly everyone in Thailand, this means very little has changed, other than additional traffic congestion in certain areas of Bangkok due to the protesters shutting down roads.
Thailand is politicized and polarized, Stempniewicz explained: Declaring martial law is not the same thing as being able to enact martial law.
“You can tell the police to do something, and they might just say no. They don’t want to risk their lives. And maybe they agree with the protesters.”
On Monday, Thai army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha confirmed that the military had no plans to intervene in the current political crisis.