Discord in Thai kingdom

April 27, 2010

THAILAND/ Punchai is arranging strings of flowers under the imposing statue of King Rama VI at the entrance of Lumphini Park in Bangkok. The statue overlooks one end of the sprawling “red shirt” encampment that occupies a 3 square-km area of downtown Bangkok.

An altar has been set up at the base of the statue of a king who ruled from 1910 to 1925 and is generally credited with paving the way for democractic reforms in the kingdom. He is also the creator of Lumphini Park.

(Pro-government supporter raises a picture of Thai King bhumibol Adulyadej at a rally in Bangkok on April 27.  Reuters/Jerry Lampen)

“We put beautiful flowers here for the king, and the people,” says Punchai, a bicycle rickshaw driver in Bangkok.

It’s sundown and it’s fairly relaxed for a place where guys generally roam about with sharpened bamboo spears and which has a medieval-like barricades made of tyres and bamboo poles.

Children run about in the grass near the statue playing with spears. Women stir curries  simmering in big cooking pots for the evening meals. Yesterday, it was tense here. The men stood in rows in front of the barricade, wearing helmets. Women and children were not be seen. Monks wandered amongst the men receiving  “merit” from them, bits of food or spare change that can mean a more accommodating place in the afterlife should death suddenly intervene.

Police and army  troops are stationed all around the encampment, mostly hunkered down in alleyways or in underground walkways, away from the heat and public eye.  Bangkok has been expecting a crackdown on this sit-in for days. And it hasn’t happened. Not likely to, either.  Despite bombastic threats and rhetoric from the civilian government, the army has said repeatedly it won’t go in because it would be just too bloody.

Emboldened red shirts on Wednesday plan to fan out across the capital of roughly 15 million people on motorcycles and pickup trucks to “explain to the people” why they’ve occupied an expensive piece of real estate in downtown Bangkok for the past seven weeks that is taking a mounting toll in lost business and livelihoods. This seems like a recipe for a riot, if they encounter rival pro-government protest groups, or a police force inclined for a fight.

The government on Tuesday vowed action to prevent the red shirt mobile rallies.  ”We will not be lenient with these people anymore,” said Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thuangsuban.

“I’m not scared they will disperse us,” Niwet Sawangwong, 38, an electrician from Bangkok said. “I’m getting tired of all the threats and rumours. Maybe if they want to force us out, they should do it and let’s see who wins and who are the bad guys.”

The government has sought to portray the red shirt movement,  loyal to former premier Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a 2006 coup, as led by people who aim to undermine the monarchy. 

It’s a serious charge in a country where the king is regarded as almost divine. The red shirts say they are not against the monarchy, but think the king’s advisors are against them and helped instigate the coup that toppled their patron Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006.

The Thai political conflict pits a rural mass and urban working class against what they call the traditional elites that have long run Thailand.  

The 82-year-old King Bhumibol Adyuladej made a rare appearance on TV on Monday night to preside at a swearing-in ceremony for judges but made no direct comment on the troubles in his kingdom. The constitutional monarch is meant to be above politics and a symbol of the unity of Thai people.

It’s what Punchai meant by putting flowers for the king and the people. The king is ailing, getting treatment in hospital the past seven months, and the people are not united.

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