BANGKOK, Thailand — For nearly a month, Thai protesters sworn to topple the government have occupied parts of Bangkok with indomitable swagger.
Among their recent conquests: crashing through parliament gates and yanking guns from security forces, smearing the premier’s front gate with human blood, backing down troops ordered to defend a relay station broadcasting their anti-government satellite TV network.
The red-clad protesters — self-proclaimed “commoners” sworn to drive out a ruling party they deem elitist — are forbidden from gathering under a state of emergency declared earlier this week.
But despite threats to jail protesters, or send them fleeing with rubber bullets and sonic cannons, Thailand’s cops and troops have stomached almost every provocation.
As Thailand’s so-called “Red Shirts” grow increasingly defiant, and rallies threaten Bangkok’s shopping and tourism industries, many wonder if the government will ever quell the movement by force.
“The soldiers aren’t brave enough to fight us,” said Kitti Sunthornphreuk, a 52-year-old government worker from Pathum Thani, a province adjacent to Bangkok. “They’re just children of normal, poor folk. They have the same faces as us. They have the same hearts.”
Military-police divisions totaling roughly 80,000 people have amassed in Bangkok. This force is perhaps larger than the number of protesters, which has ebbed and flowed between 50,000 and more than 100,000, according to police and wire service estimates.
So far, troops deployed to rally sites have been armed with only batons and plastic shields. Scuffles have been isolated.
In lieu of a major crackdown, the government has instead tried to dismantle the Red Shirts’ radio, web and TV network. Largely a means of stirring working-class dissent against Thailand’s “aristocrats” and “powerful rulers,” the network also tells the movement’s followers where to appear for the latest protests.
The network, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said on a live TV address, has broadcast “the manipulation of information that is creating hate.”
The Red Shirts responded by surrounding the network’s satellite uplink station and beckoning soldiers to put down weapons. After firing several tear gas canisters, police and troops offered mild resistance. In the sweltering heat, middle-aged Thai women began tending to young soldiers like worried moms, gingerly lifting helmets to rub cold water into their temples.
Even as police signed 17 arrest warrants for members of the movement’s leadership, they continued to sermonize from a stage set up in Ratchaprasong, Bangkok’s glitziest shopping district.
For days, thousands of protesters — many bussed in from hardscrabble rice-farming regions — have camped out beneath the avenue’s glowing display ads for Gucci and Prada.
The Thai Retailers Association claimed nearby hotels and luxury malls, most of them closed since the area was occupied on April 3, have faced losses of up to $31 million each day. The protests’ effect on tourism remain unclear: tourism agencies are predicting a serious decrease in income, though Thailand’s tourism minister expects to hit this year’s targeted 15.5 million arrivals.
“These private businesses, they’re of the aristocrats,” said Jatuporn Promphan, a Red Shirt statesman, as a sea of red-clad protesters cheered. “They think nothing of you, the people. So you don’t need to think anything of them.”
As the Red Shirts become more bold, their detractors have grown increasingly frustrated with Abhisit’s gentle touch.
In televised negotiations with protest leaders last week, the prime minister agreed to their principal demand — dissolving parliament and holding new elections — but said the process would take nine months. The Red Shirt leadership demanded dissolution in 15 days and left to redouble their efforts in the streets.
The government has so far threatened to break up rallies with sonic cannons, which can cause severe ear pain, and water cannons. But any crackdown involving force could endanger children and elderly Thais who are also camped out in central Bangkok and play poorly to a Buddhist-driven society with little appetite for violence.
Many from Bangkok’s laboring class help sustain protests. But the Red Shirts remain largely unpopular amongst urban, moneyed, connected Thais — the target of protesters’ ire.
“The Red Shirts are annoying. They’ve made Bangkok feel so frantic,” said Piriya Kampusiri, an 18-year-old student at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. “Plus, foreigners are going to think Thailand is dangerous. Tourists, please come! Don’t be scared!”