Tensions in Bangkok are running high as tens of thousands of protesters occupy city streets Monday, building barricades and holding key intersections in a growing call to replace the democratically elected government with an unelected "People's Council."
Under the banner "Shutdown Bangkok," the primarily urban- and elite-led occupation appeared "festive," with protesters "singing and dancing in the streets," the Guardian reports.
Led by former deputy premier Suthep Thaugsuban and the People's Democratic Reform Committee, the protesters are threatening to shut down the city for up to 20 days and boycott the upcoming February 2 election unless the government under Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is replaced.
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On Monday, Yingluck invited opposition leaders to discuss a proposal to push back the date of the election. Ministers have until now said a delay would be impossible under the constitution, but the Election Commission is calling for the vote to be postponed until May.
Over the past two months, calls to overthrow the government have been marked by violence and repeated clashes with police. Police attacked protesters on December 26 as they blocked candidate registration in 8 southern provinces and attempted to storm a stadium where election preparations were taking place. At least 8 people have been killed so far in the latest political unrest.
As Bangkok-based journalist Mark Fenn reports for Waging Nonviolence:
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The protesters are drawn from Bangkok’s middle class and wealthy elite, and from opposition strongholds in the south of the country. Their constant refrain is that poor rural Thais — those who voted for the government — are ignorant, ill-informed and sell their votes to the highest bidder.
Frustrated at the inability of the Democrats to win elections, they say the country is not ready for democracy. This hate-filled rhetoric has contributed to an atmosphere where many Thais are now seriously debating the merits of universal suffrage and one-man-one-vote.
And the Guardian continues:
This so-called Bangkok shutdown is the latest move by Suthep and his largely urban, elite followers, who have been calling since November for an end to the "Thaksin regime" – a reference to Yingluck's brother and former prime minister Thaksin, a hugely divisive leader who won over poor northern farmers with his rice subsidy and healthcare schemes, but fell foul of Bangkok's elite, who hated the telecoms tycoon's cronyism and money politics.
Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and now lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai to avoid corruption charges. Yet he is considered to be the man pulling the strings behind the current government, and any new elections – such as those most recently called for 2 February, which the opposition Democrat party has already boycotted – will more than likely see a return of the popular Pheu Thai party to power.
Though Suthep said in an interview Sunday that the protests would be non-violent, many observers agree with Fenn who notes that "more mass protests and bloodshed seem inevitable."
Reportedly, 10,000 police and 8,000 soldiers have been deployed to maintain security across the city.
"Don't ask me how long this occupation will last," Thaugsuban said in a speech to supporters broadcasted on the movement's BlueSky television channel. "We will not stop until we win."