— In Thailand’s capital, tens of thousands of anti-government protesters clogged key intersections, bridges and roads as part of a campaign to force the government from office ahead of February 2 elections. On the first day of the so-called “Bangkok Shutdown,” the enthusiastic crowds are making preparations for an extended standoff.
Although the protests have halted much of the traffic in the main business district Monday, life is continuing as normal in most of the city. Thousands of security forces are deployed in the Thai capital, but they have taken no action against the protesters.
The commercial heart of downtown Bangkok was overrun by flag waving protesters starting Sunday evening, when organizers set up stages and sound systems at rally sites across the city.
By Monday morning, throngs of people moved among several main rally sites, blowing whistles, denouncing the prime minister and vowing to pass reforms to improve a government that they argue has grown destructively corrupt.
Those gathered see the shutdown as a last resort measure to force a corrupt government from office. Ravit Sriwilai came from nearby Samut Prakan province to join the protesters.
Ravit said he had come to the rally today to show that the government has no legitimacy to govern the country anymore, that they must have reform before elections, and that in the past there was a lot of corruption.
Anti-government protesters march during a rally in Bangkok, Jan. 15, 2014.
An anti-government protester wears a mask during a rally in central Bangkok, Jan. 15, 2014.
Soldiers stand guard inside the Thai Defense Ministry in Bangkok, Jan. 15, 2014.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban addresses anti-government protesters occupying a major intersection in central Bangkok, Jan. 14, 2014.
Anti-government protesters with national flags gather for a rally in Bangkok, Jan. 14, 2014.
Anti-government protesters with national flags gather for a rally at Asok intersection in Bangkok, Jan. 14, 2014.
Anti-government protestors participate in a sit-in outside the Royal Thai Police headquarters in Bangkok, Jan. 14, 2014.
Anti-government protesters gather outside the Central World mall in the shopping district in central Bangkok, Jan. 13, 2014.
An anti-government protester stands behind a barricade in a major intersection in central Bangkok, Jan. 13, 2014.
Thailand’s latest political crisis started late last year, when Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s party tried to pass a broad political amnesty that would have cleared scores of people of crimes linked to political conflict over the last decade. Yingluck’s elder brother, former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, would also have been included, paving the way for the controversial leader’s return from exile.
The deeply unpopular amnesty was defeated, and Yingluck later dissolved her government and called for early elections in an attempt to defuse the political backlash, but the protests continued.
Now, opposition parties are boycotting the February 2 polls and protesters are demanding significant political reforms before new elections are held.
Skeptics say the movement risks undermining Thailand’s democracy, but protester Jiravadee Kanamoto said another vote will merely maintain the status quo.
"We want [an] election, but not right now. Our country is not ready for [an] election. If it's… not a fair election, it's not a fair vote. For sure the same people will come back," said Jiravadee.
Thailand’s election commission has suggested delaying the vote by a few months, but authorities have resisted, and even protest leaders say they want more than just a delay before voting.
It remains unclear if protesters will be able to continue drawing huge crowds until the elections more than two weeks from now, but they are organized and prepared.
Vendors around the rally sites sold protest-themed T-shirts and accessories in the colors of Thailand’s flag. Protest security guards help keep order, and hot, free meals are prepared for the thousands camped at the main rally sites.
With thousands in the streets, and passions running high, security remains a key concern. Some 18,000 police and military are deployed to maintain the peace and protect government buildings. However, sporadic shootings have killed eight people and wounded scores of others since the protests began late last year.
Authorities say they are ready to declare a state of emergency if there is fresh unrest.
Thailand’s military has urged all sides to remain calm, but after launching 18 coups in the past 81 years, the possibility of another coup cannot be ruled out.