The per­ils of protests

Bangkok Post - - SPOTLIGHT -

Alot can go wrong when mo­bil­is­ing mass protests and the youth-led show of force against the govern­ment last week­end il­lus­trates this point.

The much-hyped United Front of Tham­masat and Demon­stra­tion (UFTD) protest had all the trap­pings of a suc­cess­ful band­ing to­gether of pro-democ­racy in­di­vid­u­als bound by a com­mon goal — to vent their frus­tra­tion against the govern­ment and push for changes to the sta­tus quo, ac­cord­ing to po­lit­i­cal ex­perts.

They ini­tially chose Tham­masat Univer­sity’s Tha Prachan cam­pus to mass the pro­test­ers. But it had been ex­pected that the turnout would over­whelm the cam­pus grounds and so the UFTD co-lead­ers de­cided they would seize the ad­ja­cent, much larger area to con­verge on. They set their sights on oc­cu­py­ing Sanam Luang, which was re­peat­edly de­clared by se­cu­rity au­thor­i­ties as be­ing off-lim­its to the pro­test­ers.

The ex­perts said that judg­ing from the UFTD’s pre­vi­ous gath­er­ings, the turnout for the week­end demon­stra­tion was es­ti­mated by those fa­mil­iar with or­gan­is­ing mass ral­lies to be in the re­gion of 20,000. But only days later, they re­vised up the pro­jec­tion to at least 60,000 pro­test­ers.

The abrupt re­vi­sion was thought to have been the re­sult of the rally or­gan­is­ers be­ing spooked by the prospect of sev­eral antigov­ern­ment cliques join­ing hands with the stu­dents who had been widely be­lieved to be the main­stay of the pro­test­ers.

The red shirts, with their pent-up anger still brew­ing since the Na­tional Coun­cil for Peace and Or­der over­threw the Pheu Thai Party-led ad­min­is­tra­tion in May 2014, had been counted on to be will­ing par­tic­i­pants of the mass week­end rally.

Sev­eral ob­servers reck­oned the rally would be head­lined by the par­tic­i­pa­tion of young stu­dents, in­clud­ing those from high schools. The pres­ence of the young and in­no­cent would have turned up the heat on the govern­ment as the au­thor­i­ties would have had to take a more sub­tle ap­proach to ex­e­cut­ing crowd con­trol mea­sures.

Also, the young stu­dents had what could be a po­tent weapon up their sleeves — their dis­plea­sure with an ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem which they in­sist has failed them and a so­cial or­der which they say is ob­so­lete.

Come the big day on Sept 19 and the hopes that many had of wit­ness­ing a mass protest which would be a force to be reck­oned had dimmed.

For starters, the young pro­test­ers were few and far be­tween at the rally which be­gan in the af­ter­noon last Satur­day. The red-shirt sup­port­ers who were ini­tially pre­dicted to play the role of “re­in­force­ments” had shown up in droves and a num­ber of them stayed through­out the rally which lasted un­til the next morn­ing.

The ob­servers said it was not hard to imag­ine how the protest would have turned out if so many red shirts had not de­cided to join.

The size of the protest was also a highly con­tentious is­sue and the num­ber of par­tic­i­pants cited by the po­lice, the re­porters cov­er­ing the event and the protest co-leader were poles apart.

UFTD core fig­ure Panusaya “Rung” Sithi­ji­rawat­tanakul as­serted a claim that 200,000 demon­stra­tors came to­gether at Sanam Luang on Satur­day. Her es­ti­mate was dis­counted by Pol Maj Gen Piya Tawichai, deputy chief of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Po­lice Bureau, who main­tained the num­ber of pro­test­ers hov­ered be­tween 18,000 and 20,000. Sanam Luang cov­ers about 110,000 square me­tres and about one-third of it was still blocked off at the height of the rally.

Many pro­test­ers were mo­ti­vated to stick around by UFTD co-leader Parit “Pen­guin” Chi­warak’s an­nounce­ment early in the rally that he had a “huge sur­prise” in store for them.

By the next morn­ing, about 2,000 pro­test­ers re­mained in Sanam Luang af­ter spend­ing the night there. They woke up to the UFTD’s move to in­stall a replica of the Khana Rat­sadon plaque in the mid­dle of Sanam Luang, which lit­er­ally means “Royal Ground”, and called the ground the prop­erty of the peo­ple, ie Sanam Rat­sadon.

Khana Rat­sadon was a Si­amese group of mil­i­tary and civil of­fi­cers, and later a po­lit­i­cal party, that staged a blood­less coup against for­mer King Pra­jad­hipok and trans­formed the coun­try from an ab­so­lute to a con­sti­tu­tional monar­chy on June 24, 1932.

The protest drew to a close af­ter Ms Panusaya pre­sented a list of the UFTD’s de­mands for re­form of the monar­chy to the Privy Coun­cil pres­i­dent via Met­ro­pol­i­tan Po­lice Bureau chief Pol Lt Gen Phukphong Phong­pe­tra.

The ob­servers said some pro­test­ers might not have been pre­pared for what has been de­scribed as the sud­den wrap-up of the rally.

Ac­cord­ing to the ob­servers, the protest lacked the im­pe­tus needed to keep it go­ing as it was run by mostly young co-lead­ers in­ex­pe­ri­enced in or­gan­is­ing mass gath­er­ings. A lot of the pro­test­ers came from other prov­inces and could not af­ford to re­main at the rally too long while the fi­nan­cial means to sus­tain the gath­er­ing may have been lim­ited.

The govern­ment also learned that it pays to ex­er­cise re­straint in man­ag­ing rally sit­u­a­tions, which left the protest or­gan­is­ers with no rea­son to jus­tify pro­long­ing it.

Panusaya: Claims 200,000 turnout

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