Space and Spectacle in the Bangkok Protests

Part of the spectacle at Democracy Monument.

 

Bangkok has been rocked with the largest political demonstrations since 2010, with protests escalating into isolated pockets of violence.

Yesterday’s D-Day is part of the “final battle” by the anti-government protesters, with morning marches from all major rally sites converging at Government House. Prime Minister Yingluck announced that she would dissolve the lower house of Parliament, as a reported 100,000-150,000 protesters flooded the streets of Bangkok and members of the Democrat party resigned.

Clashes on so-called V-Day last Sunday left a reported five people dead and 64 injured in the confrontation between anti-government and pro-government protesters, including one who died when a bus was attacked.

Over the last two weeks, anti-government protesters occupied key ministries, government complexes and police headquarters.

The police attempted to alleviate tensions after the worst of the clashes, as they opened up barricades to major government offices – even offering roses to protesters in a symbolic gesture just days after taunting protesters and firing tear gas at crowds.

These protests showcase the complicated intersection of history, social changes, and legitimacy in current Thai politics.

And the very spaces of the rallies themselves become entry points into these deep, complex waters. What do the protests and occupied sites in the city reveal about the myriad of claims and competing political aims among the factions? What can the symbols and aesthetics of this protest tell us about what is happening and why?

 

Watching Suthep’s speech from the camp near Democracy Monument.

 

Background

The historical causes of these recent protests reach back to the 2006 military-backed coup that ousted then-PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who currently lives in exile and has since been convicted of corruption charges. Allegedly, he holds the dubious honor of simultaneously being the most popular and the most divisive prime minister in Thai history. PM Yingluck, his sister, is accused of being a proxy for Thaksin as he continues to effectively run the country from Dubai.

In 2010, Bangkok was torn apart by “the worst civil violence in the Thailand’s history” marked by color-coded protesters clad in red and yellow. The Red Shirt movement is strong in the rural areas in north and northeastern Thailand, and its support ushered in Thaksin (backed by populist policies like the 30B healthcare scheme) and Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party. Yellow Shirts are affiliated with the the Democrats and the “Bangkok-based traditional elites.”

These events are embedded within the context of shifting power relations in Thai society. Dr. Yukti Mukdawijitra (Thammasat University) has reframed the political conflict as one where the traditional middle class and elites (the Yellow Shirts) actively confront the Red Shirts – who bear a new emerging political agency due to a number of recent economic, ideological and political changes in the country.

It’s worth quoting the findings of King Prajadhipok’s Institute’s research on reconciliation, which introduced the idea of amnesty as an avenue towards reconciliation – ironically so, as the proposed anti-amnesty law eventually became the catalyst for the recent mass protests. It cites the root causes of the political conflict in 2010 (also applying to recent events) as such:

At the core of the current political conflict lies the existence, in Thai society, of conflicting views on democracy, with regard to power and resource allocation. The first view places emphasis on the electoral process with the executive deriving its legitimacy from “the majority rule”. The opposing view considers “morality and ethical behavior” of the executive more important than its representativeness.

Both views are being held by a variety of groups for different reasons, be it convictions or personal interest. In the context of a society characterized by strong socio-economic inequalities, the conflict between opposing views on democracy has gained in intensity and scope, investing the social and the psychological domains. Both parties consider that the use of power by the other one is not legitimate, for instance, the intervention of the executive in the work of the public scrutiny bodies or the use of coup d’états. The conflict has invaded all sectors of society, as a result of grassroots mobilization and bias media.

At the heart of things lies a crisis of legitimacy in Thai politics, with its unique blend of democracy, monarchy and morality.

Historically, Thailand has held a complicated relationship to democracy, with a reported 18 coups since democracy was established in 1932. Corruption and cults of personality characterize politics, both regarded as embodied by the highly controversial figure of Thaksin.

 

The view towards Democracy Monument.

 

Symbols and Spectacles of Protest

The occupation of space and the symbols in the protests mediate the myriad of claims and contestations among the Thai polity.

What do I mean by mediate?

What is happening now in Thailand can be considered in terms of the spectacle, which Guy Debord famously conceived of as “a social relation between people that is mediated by images” and which “serves as a total justification of the conditions and goals of the existing system.”

This is another way of saying that society and governments thrive on a constant dissemination of symbols that impart a sense of wholeness, belonging and identification (a point made eloquently here via art). This is doubly so when the very grounds of a democracy – particularly as a non-coercive institution –  is being questioned, as in Thailand.

As said elsewhere, “Whatever you call it – ‘street poetry’ ‘protest art’ or the ‘music of grievances’ – this new genre of popular art has sprung spontaneously from the dusty concrete footpaths and the emotional depths of protesters, supporters and bystanders.”

For example colors, as highly intuitive symbols, are ubiquitous in the current protests. The Thai flag and its colors of red white and blue appear everywhere, from t-shirts to headbands and every accessory in between. And the colors of yellow and red and the historical animosities of their bearers have been seared into the national psyche as of the last few years.

Symbols are everywhere. On the more grotesque (in the Bahktinian sense) end of things, there were widely circulated false rumors that protesters would spray police with human fecal matter – a telling metaphor. Youtube parodies have compared Thaksin with Hitler, and even Spiderman has apparently joined the rallies.

The use of these seemingly absurd symbols indicates a major shift – that the normalcy of everyday life is temporarily suspended within the limits of protest.

 

Encampment.

 

Occupation of Space

Given the long-standing conflict in views about legitimacy and governance, what we are witnessing in many ways is a battle between competing spectacles, or competing visions and narratives of the right way forward for Thailand. The protesters are literally “making a spectacle of [their] dissent.”

With turnout as high as it’s been, the occupation of public and government spaces is an immensely effective way of making the spectacle of dissent visible. It recalls Thailand’s long history of mass protests and occupations, such as in the 2008 occupation of Suvarnabhumi Airport by the Yellow Shirts as well as in protests spanning decades earlier.

Occupation and mass protests are the literal claiming of competing interests on the public, enacted through public spaces.

How so?

Firstly, no built space operates within a political vacuum, least of all in the developed hub of Bangkok. Cities and their designs are meant to reflect power. Thus power relations are embedded within our built landscapes.

Consider the current main rally site at Democracy Monument.

 

Democracy Monument makes a striking backdrop.

 

The site is a historically-loaded one on Thanon (Road) Ratchadamnoen, built to commemorate the 1932 coup that ushered in constitutional monarchy to Thailand (major architectural elements of the monument directly refer to the 1932 Thai Constitution and glorify the armed forces as the protector of democracy and the Thai people).

The monument has been the site for other democratic protests – notably, as hundreds of thousands marched in 1973 and then amidst gunshots in both 1992 and 2010. By occupying this site, the protesters are symbolically aligning themselves with significant historical events and may even appropriate its great mythic cache to bolster their own claims. In a sense, they are inscribing their own layer of meaning.

Secondly, consider what happens when a mass of people takes over a public space, one in theory that belongs to all citizens equally. The effect is both functional and symbolic.

In both ways, mass protests signal the halt of business as usual. At its most basic, the disruption of transportation routes interfere with the everyday tasks that make a city run. This departure from the normalcy of daily can be illustrated by  the ear-piercing whistle-blowing that is now becoming a regular feature of protests.

As spaces are occupied, they become new canvases for the mobilization of alternative symbols.

Last week, the mood at the Democracy Monument rally site was celebratory, despite the violence of the preceding days. The bold architectural wings of the Democracy Monument made a striking backdrop for the surrounding masses of yellow-clad protesters. Large screens were set up around the monument, broadcasting a live evening speech by protest leader Suthep that was punctuated by the crowd’s cheers. The effect was one of a sheer mass of people, unified and empowered.

On Ratchadamnoen and other streets surrounding the monument, vendors offered a selection of Thai flag t-shirts and accessories, those ubiquitous whistles, food, foot massages and even stuffed animals. There was a festive feel, and many observers were snapping away on their phones.

 

Vendor with assorted accessories.

 

Several stalls offered cooked food (rice and curry), and pallets of bottled water were readied for the protesters, all to be given away for free. And further on, in the encampments, tents were set up on the roads, illuminated by large glowing lanterns. I noticed many of the same types of tents, which made me wonder if they too had been given out.

Decorations scattered around the site included cutouts mocking PM Yingluck and posters with various political slogans. Women sat peacefully, weaving red, white and blue baskets. There was even one fanciful tent emblazoned as the “Jimmy House [of] AntiTaksinism,” a play on Jim Thompson’s House, a noted historic attraction in Bangkok.

 

“Jimmy House AntiTaksinism”

 

All in all, the infrastructure was well-developed, begging the question: who is funding the movement?

An apparently wide cross-section of people came out in force, across a range of ages. Waving flags, the younger participants appeared particularly impassioned, underscoring the fact that this is a social movement as well as a political one, and one partially mobilized by social media.

Indeed, a conversation I had last month with a young man employed at an environmental organization mentioned one potential positive outcome to all of this: the engagement of Thai youth (previously indifferent in his view) in politics.

And as the youth join in the spectacle of the protests, it’s an open question as to what impact – social, political and psychological – these current events will have on the future.

 

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