Thailand’s bloody protests

March 17, 2010

Thailand’s anti-government protesters call it a “symbolic sacrifice for democracy”. Bangkok’s royalist elite dismiss it as a PR stunt. The government condemns it as faux “black magic”. Health workers call it a revolting waste of a precious resource. And many others get squeamish simply talking about it.

The blood-letting, blood-splashing and blood-pouring by thousands of anti-government protesters in Bangkok has drawn mixed reviews and raised eyebrows even in superstitious and politically-charged Thailand.

Bags of blood were poured on the gates and fences of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s heavily guarded house. Some were hurled into his compound. Some hit the roof and then burst, spraying droplets of blood. That came a day after blood was poured in front of his office and at his Democrat Party headquarters by the red-shirted protesters, who are supporters of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

In all, protest leaders claim they collected 600 litres of blood from 60,000 people – about a few teaspoons each — although media have expressed doubt about the figure, which if correct means there was enough blood to fill about 10 typical bathtubs.

Reporters and photographers tried in vain to avoid getting hit with bags and droplets of unscreened blood. One soldier was taken away when he said he felt faint at the sight of glistening blood flooding slowly under the gate of the prime minister’s office.

“Hundreds of litres of blood of the common people are mixing together to express one common demand — and that demand is for Abhisit to get out!” said protest leader Nattawut Saikua, standing atop a truck-turned-makeshift stage outside the premier’s residence on Wednesday, as thousands of supporters rattled their plastic clappers in the rain.

The controversial shock tactic grabbed headlines and captured public attention, but it also raised more questions than answers in mostly Buddhist Thailand which is heavily influenced by Hinduism and superstitious beliefs.

On Tuesday, several television channels broadcast live an unorthodox ritual in which a man dressed like a Brahmin priest in white robe cursed the premier as he appeared to bless the blood. That sparked a big debate on Internet web-boards about whether the man was a real priest and whether the ceremony was reminiscent of ancient Khmer black magic.

Even as the government dismissed the move and Abhisit was still seen smiling Wednesday, the premier’s Democrat Party is taking no chances.

On Tuesday, party workers covered a sacred statue of “the Goddess of the Earth” in the compound of the party headquarters with canvass before the protesters arrived to prevent blood from splattering on the golden deity. A government health team in quarantine suits rushed to the area after protesters left to hose it down with water and antiseptic as other workers repeatedly scrubbed the blood-stained ground.

On Wednesday morning, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thuagsuban led a ceremony, lighting incense, offering flowers, and splattering holy water from the Temple of Emerald Buddha “the Goddess of the Earth” statue to beg forgiveness.

“It’s bad omen. I can’t believe any democratic movement would resort to this sort of distasteful black magic,” said Chinnaworn Boonyakiat, a party executive and the country’s education minister.

The use of black magic, astrology and superstitious ceremonies are common across Thailand’s political spectrum. Thaksin has been accused of seeking to channel the spirit of a 18th century king, a coup leader who toppled him was widely known to consult astrologers, and journalists often quote fortune-tellers about political future of the country.

But as the shock begins to subside, observers are wondering what’s next for the protest movement dominated by the rural and urban poor. Many protesters are begining to tire after several days on the streets in scorching tropical heat with little more than wet towels and umbrellas for cover.

Big question remains: Will the “red shirt” leaders declare victory and call off their protests now before resuming in future or will they resort to less peaceful and more controversial measures and risk confrontations with authorities in one last effort to force the government to call elections?

(Editing by Jason Szep)

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