Protesters party, and a familiar dread rises

opinion January 18, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

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We can only hope that the carnival atmosphere continues, but we all know it is never going to last

Concerts. Walking streets. Vendors selling “cool” protest accessories like iPhone cases featuring cartoons of Suthep Thaugsuban and colourful whistles in the shape of Thailand. Face-painting services. Famous artists on the stages. 
The anti-government campaign transformed into a carnival-like spectacle over the past few days.
Yesterday’s incidents answered the question of how long that would last. Moreover, the election is likely to take place, and even if it’s postponed, chances are that it won’t be postponed long enough to be totally safe from political hostility. One thing is almost certain: On February 2, the festivities we witnessed at the Pathumwan, Rajprasong and Asoke intersections and other places should evaporate.
Whether the election should be held or not is another matter, one that will continue to be hotly debated regardless of the final decision. The evolution of the anti-government campaign is interesting. If your sympathies lie with the protesters, the last few days have brought a welcome phenomenon – civil disobedience that is not boring. Critics, on the other hand, cannot be impressed by the blocking of traffic and “intimidation” of state workers forced to evacuate their offices.
“Oh, yeah. Oooh, ahhh, that’s how it always starts,” says a character in “Jurassic Park: The Lost World”. “Then later there’s running and screaming.” That applies to Thailand’s political protests, too. The 1992 bloodbath was a tragic end to a rally of largely middle-class protesters equipped with the first generation of mobile phones. The Rajprasong shootings and rioting in 2010 were preceded by the beautiful sight of demonstrators dressed in red flooding a bustling business area of the capital a few weeks earlier.
In Thailand, political stand-offs like this one often end ugly. We have already seen bad signs, and big ones came yesterday. To add to the pessimism, this is not the first time that “civil disobedience” has been mooted. Protesters call it a justified expression of disapproval over corrupt governance. The government and its supporters call it public disturbance, lawbreaking and sedition. We have yet to see an example of the government and its opponents agreeing on what is civil disobedience and what is not.
Suthep and his supporters have been marching round Bangkok, “visiting” government offices and setting up stages at key intersections of the capital. The protesters have been branded by the pro-government camp as elite shoppers in disguise, who have sparked a jump in profits for Starbucks and fast-food restaurants and eagerness among brand-name sellers to have the “marchers” come their way.
The truth is, if the protests do continue this way, we should be thankful. We can only hope that the carnival goes on forever, but we all know it is never going to last. The stakes on both sides are getting higher and higher, and it has always been a matter of who blinks first. A weeks-long siege at Government House ended in a coup in 2006. In 2008 there was the crackdown on yellow shirts, and later the seizure of Suvarnabhumi Airport. We can romanticise our political fights all we like, but they never end romantically.
Ironically, the most colourful protest in Thai history has as its backdrop the deepest political divide the country has ever experienced. If the crisis ends well, with a “few” casualties, real history will have been made. 
Politics in Thailand, however, has always delivered the outcome its people feared the most.