It was quiet. Why was it so quiet? There was a pretty good number of people attending King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birthday/the father’s day celebration but I remember being packed into a crowd when I attended the queen’s birthday. What was going on? I scratched my head as I looked over the packets of people settled on the grass of Sanam Luang Park.
Everything felt calm, laid back. There was a Sunday-in-the-park ambience. It was missing the energy of the queen’s birthday. I’d been told over and over again that the king of Thailand’s birthday was celebrated 10 times as much the queen’s birthday. So where was the party?
Just before heading into Bangkok I’d learned that the main event would be at a costal resort called Hua Hin where the king would be speaking from his palace. Many people had already left Bangkok and travelled from other areas of Thailand to greet the king on his birthday. So it made sense to have fewer people attending the Bangkok event.
But I thought back to the troves of yellow sporting, king-supporting people I’d seen on my way through Bangkok. While zigzagging through the frozen traffic on a motorcycle taxi I’d seen truck-loads of smiles, taxis filled with yellow and a steady river of residents evidently heading somewhere for the celebration. It was obvious there had been plenty of people left in Bangkok. Where had they all gone?
When the motorcycle driver dropped me at the iron fence encircling Sanam Luang Park it had looked like the place-to-be with a mass of people streaming along the narrow sidewalk between fence and street. But when I finally found a way into the park—because for some reason the organizers blocked all entrances except two—I was greeted by a rather diminished crowd. This wasn’t the thrilled, flag fluttering, cheering, waving crowd I had expected.
Even the singing of the royal anthem and national anthem seemed flat. There was the same platform with the king’s image towering overhead and a similar ceremony with many speeches.
This time however, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra made an appearance to lead the attending citizens through the candle-lighting ceremony. As she took to the stage there was a small bout of booing and then all went still and silent again. The PM was the source of a protest that had been rocking the city for over a week.
There is a long story behind that issue.
Basically (as far as I understand) it goes as follows:
2006: The Thai army removed Thaksin Shinawatra (the PM at the time) from power in a bloodless coup while he was outside of Thailand. This was the army’s response to the protests led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (or Yellow Shirt protestors) who accused Thaksin of abusing his power.
2007: The People’s Power Party won the next election and chose a man named Samak Sundaravej as the PM.
2008: The PAD Yellow Shirts protested, calling Samak a puppet for Thaksin. Samak was removed from office after he was accused of conflict of interest for appearing on a TV cooking show. Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law, replaced Samak as PM.
The Supreme Court sentenced Thaksin (still outside of the country) to two years in prison for charges of corruption.
The PAD protestors took over Bangkok’s two airports in protest against Somchai and travelers were stranded for a week.
A court found Somchai’s party guilty of electoral fraud and it was dissolved. Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva became PM.
2009: Pro-Thaksin protestors (or Red Shirt protestors) stormed a regional summit in Pattaya. Several days after they rioted in Bangkok. The army restored order.
2010: Pro-Thaksin Red Shirt protestors took to the streets. Soldiers stormed through the demonstrators’ camps and ended the protest. About 90 people died and over 1,800 were wounded.
2011: Pheu Thai party won the election. Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, became PM.
2012: Protestors and the Democrat Party moved to block a government bill designed to seek reconciliation through changes the constitution because of fears that the bill would allow Thaksin to return to Thailand without punishment.
The Constitutional Court did not allow the bill to pass.
Former PM Abhisit and his deputy, Suthep Thaugsuban, were charged with murder for approving the 2010 crackdown on Red Shirt protestors.
2013: The government introduced an amnesty bill designed to forgive political offenders since the 2006 coup—excluding leaders. There were small protests but the bill passed its first reading in the lower house.
The amnesty bill is amended to include political leaders—Thaksin among them. During its second reading the Democrat lawmakers walked out and public anger began to rise. The anti-Thaksin movement began to rumble once more and the Senate voted against the bill, putting it away for about six months.
The Constitutional Court then said the ruling party lawmakers had acted illegally in passing another bill to amend the constitution.
Democrat Suthep Thaugsuban resigned to lead the protests against the government. The rallies drew over 100,000 people to Bangkok.
A portion of the protestors left the rallies and attempted to seize control of several government ministries and offices.
Suthep called for the government to be dissolved and replaced by an unelected “people’s council” which would pick a new leader. The protestors called for the elimination of everything related to Thaksin in politics.
Thaksin Red Shirt supporters started a pro-government rally in a stadium. They gathered across Bangkok, far from the anti-Thaksin protestors, but violence broke out when they were attacked. One to four people were killed (depending on what paper you read) and over a dozen were injured.
Dec 1: The protestors aimed to obtain control of the prime minister’s offices and police headquarters. When they failed heavy street fighting continued into the next day. The police used tear gas, water cannons and sometimes stones to keep the protestors at bay. Some of the protestors used stones, fire extinguishers, Molotov cocktails and fireworks while trying to advance.
Dec 3: The had army stated that it refuses to join either side. The police withdrew from their defensive positions and allowed the protestors to enter the police headquarters and prime minister’s offices.
The government said they wanted peace before the king’s birthday (December 5).
Suthep told the anti-government protestors that it’s a partial victory.
December 5: things were relatively calm. After all it’s a national holiday and the people really respect the king.
December 6: I learned that most of the king’s supporters had gathered at Democracy Monument to celebrate the king while showing their disapproval of the government by dismissing their party at Sanam Luang.
I’d suggest a gander at the Bangkok Post or The Nation Thailand for more information on that if you haven’t been following the news. The BBC also took a look at the protests though their view is a bit different from the local perspective (which I trust more in this case).
Thailand has a pretty fascinating history and its relationship with democracy is very curious.
Despite all of the politics,
the fireworks for the king were still stunning.
Thank you asiancorrespondent.com for the nice timeline.