BANGKOK — Vigilantes hellbent on sabotaging elections in the Thai capital were partly successful in blockading and intimidating voters on Feb. 2. But in at least one corner of the city, a team of Bangkok aunties made sure democracy went down swinging.
It was one of the strangest elections in Thailand’s history. After weeks of invading government ministries, barricading roads and threatening to abduct the prime minister, a self-proclaimed “people’s coup” movement went for broke.
On the eve of a general election, protest mobs besieged polling stations — tactics that led to running gun battles near one Bangkok voting precinct.
But the uprising had met its match in a 50-year-old, bespectacled civil servant named Kinsakan Fongphokai. Distraught that polling stations were disrupted, she and dozens of other would-be voters marched over to a nearby police station to file grievances. Some scribbled away at forms angrily. Others simply moped about the station.
But Kinsakan was defiant. On her orders, middle-aged ladies emerged with folding tables and a stack of paper dug from a recycling bin. She dispatched another man to go fetch a makeshift ballot box.
He returned with a sad, crumpled cardboard receptacle with “ELECTION BOX” scribbled on the side in black marker. The crowd mistook the box for a goofy prop and burst into laughter.
But Kinsakan wasn’t joking.
With election officials cowed by vigilantes, she had taken it upon herself to restore the democratic process — even if that meant collecting votes in a cruddy box in a parking lot.
“This is just a box we found. But now it’s a ballot box,” Kinsakan said. “These papers aren’t for recycling anymore. They’re our votes.”
Within minutes, the crowd was chanting “lueak dtang” (elections) and filing into orderly queues to register and cast their ballots. The aunties had instantly assumed the gravitas of election officials.
“I realize this is abnormal,” Kinsakan said. “But we have our rights. At this rate, with people losing their rights, we’ll achieve nothing. If we don’t vote, this country is finished.”
The “people’s coup” crusade managed to disrupt more than 10 percent of Thailand’s polling stations nationwide.
Their ultimate goal: installing a non-elected council of handpicked, virtuous leaders to cleanse the nation of corruption and misrule. The protesters have declared the current ruling party, Pheu Thai, to be fraudulent and illegitimate despite its solid electoral victory in 2011.
More from GlobalPost: In Bangkok, voting demands nerves of steel
Led by 46-year-old Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand’s first female premier, the party is roundly expected to win the bulk of votes from this beleaguered election.
The uprising’s leadership insists the government is “tyrannical” and must be toppled and that elections must be halted until their utopian goals are achieved.
Bangkok has largely tolerated the “people’s coup” movement so far — even as its street blockades have wounded the economy and kept top cabinet members on the run. The movement attracted up to 200,000 street protesters at its height though its numbers have since fallen dramatically.
But in Kinsakan’s Bangkok district of Ratchathewi, where upper and lower classes live side by side, the election sabotage was for many a step too far.
By the time polls were closed, Kinsakan and her squad of aunties had collected 1,445 votes — most handwritten on the backs of hospital patient evaluation forms they’d managed to rummage up.
The scene was equal parts inspiring and depressing. The votes will certainly hold no weight with the election commission. Kinsakan is aware her election largely amounts to a symbolic venting of frustration but vows to submit her ballot boxes to officials nonetheless.
“I’m heartbroken,” said Srijan Mitipol, an 86-year-old retiree who participated in the makeshift polls.
“In all my years, I’ve never seen anything like this. These awful people don’t want us to vote,” she said. “I would fear for my children’s future if it weren’t for the good people I see today.”
Equally heartbroken was Jitsara Suanwong, an 18-year-old college student who’d arrived at the disrupted polls expecting to vote for the first time.
“This is painful for me. I’ve waited for this day since I started school,” Jitsara said. “This isn’t a country for big shots at the top. It’s for people all over. It’s my first vote and I got robbed right before my eyes.”
The election sabotage campaign is hardly over. Poll disruptions will likely generate do-over elections that could become future flash points.
Though most polling stations in Thailand have operated as normal, the uprising’s anti-government crusade has already led to beatings and shootings outside key voting precincts.
In one high-profile incident, a brawny massage parlor tycoon-turned-politician — a self-styled corruption fighter named Chuvit Kamolvisit previously profiled by GlobalPost — was jumped near a polling station. He managed to hold his own.
And on the eve of election day, an attempt to invade yet another polling station met resistance. Armor-clad men with assault rifles were caught on video waging gun battles in the streets.
“People who protest have their rights too,” Kinsakan said. “But some actions are right and others are wrong. With Thailand split like this, we’ll never progress ... but we believe the great majority of people want democracy.”