The perils of protests
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— their displeasure with an education system which they insist has failed them and a social order which they say is obsolete.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