Reporting from Bangkok: Saksith Saiyasombut
The big screens flanking the stage on the left and the right are bearing a gruesome view. Footage of at times badly injured people from last year’s rally are being shown when suddenly at the sight of blood people started cheering – as it turns out, not for the brutally killed victims of the anti-governments protests of 2010, but for a woman with an Abhisit cut-out mask waving to the crowd behind her.
Thursday’s rally of the governing Democrat Party rings in the final days of a fiercely contested election campaign and the chosen venue was not a coincidence: Rajaprasong Intersection, where a little bit more than a year ago the red shirts held their rally for the better part of their nine and a half-week-campaign to force the government of prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva out, only to be dispersed in a chaotic crackdown by the military on May 19. 87 people lost their lives, more than 2,000 were injured and, for some a symbol of the ‘red chaos’, Central World, one of Asia’s biggest shopping malls, burned down. The red shirts have returned a few times since then to remind people what happened.
Now the government has chosen this (almost) very same spot to show their version on the events of May 19, 2010. Unsurprisingly, the announcement to a rally at that place has been widely regarded as a deliberate provocation to the red shirts, who view this intersection as a symbol of state brutality and political oppression. The more anxious were the expectations on what or if they would do anything to disrupt the event in any way. Despite the Pheu Thai Party discouraging its supporters to stage a counter-protest, some smaller groups had hinted at convening at the site in some form. But during the whole evening, there have been no such incidents reported (though I heard there has been a cursing ritual at the nearby Erawan Shrine the day before).
Contrary to concerns that streets have to be closed off for yet another political rally, the Democrats have chosen the large plaza in front of the Central World. Since this is a private property, the approval of the owners was a privilege the red shirts didn’t have and most unlikely will ever get. The stage, primarily in blue and with a big Thai flag as a background, was positioned in front of the burned down section of the mega-mall that is being rebuilt – another symbolism of the evening.
Supporters started to flock in hours before the event started with a jubilant mood, while many placards and signs are being handed out, many of them showing ’10’, the number on the ballot paper where the Democrat Party is listed. Several politicians and government ministers were warming up the estimated 5,000-strong crowd, while the same two Party’s pop songs were blaring from the loudspeakers. Even two heavy rain showers were not enough to dampen the mood of the mostly older attendees.
The rally kicked off at 6pm with the National Anthem, when deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban shortly thereafter begun his speech, which he has previously touted as the definite ‘truth’ about the crackdown. Suthep went straight ahead to his account, citing many pieces of evidence and lines of arguments that have been previously presented in some shape and form before. Suthep, broadly speaking*, argues that armed militia groups, dressed in black have caused casualties on both sides. But, according to him, no one has been killed directly at Rajaprasong, pointing that the other casualties have happened at places near the rally site. Additionally, the deputy prime minister hints that the late rogue Maj Gen Kattiya Sawasdipol aka “Seh Daeng” has been killed because of an internal argument over the leadership of the red shirts movement.
Of course, he could not resist taking a jab at the opposition, referencing their PM candidate Yingluck Shinawatra statement that she could not control the red shirts from heckling. Suthep understood her sentiment, only to add that the red shirts have ‘hijacked’ the Pheu Thai Party. “22 convicted criminals are on the ballot paper,” mentioning the red shirt leaders running for office, “the worst case would be [jailed red shirt leader] Jatuporn Phromphan becoming a security minister – I’d better start hiding.”
The next two speeches were held by former prime minister Chuan Leekpai and the party’s campaign strategist Korbsak Sabhavasu, who (like all speakers) were interrupted with loud, approving cheers whenever a swipe at the red shirt leaders or Pheu Thai executives was made. Especially when Korbsak read some of the names on Pheu Thai’s ballot, each name was replied with a disapproving, at times disgusted roar, to which he added: “You cannot have any reconciliation with these people!”
The long evening reached it’s climax at 9pm, when a long video clip was played. This video montage, set to “O Fortuna“, showed several quotes by red shirts leaders and Thaksin (including the infamous “We’ll burn down the country”speech by Nattawut), accompanied by scenes of destruction, all allegedly done by red shirts, evoking some kind of Thai apocalypse. It was followed by another clip, which actually is the “We’re sorry, Thailand”-ad from last year, which has created some controversy. But instead of showing the original slogan of the clip (“Seeding positive energy, changing Thailand [for the better]”), a portrait of Abhisit was shown.
The prime minister immediately took the stage, welcomed by load cheers. “We’re here not to put more oil into the flame,” said Abhisit, “but to show that this place is like any other place in the country, a place for all Thais.” Before he continued, he asked from for a minute of silence for all victims. “The truth must be told”, he continued and recounted the events of recent years ever since he took office, including the 2009 and 2010 protests, from his point of view. “People are saying I do not show much emotion,” Abhisit said, “but on the night of April 10, I cried!”
The prime minister went on attack on Thaksin and the opposition in the closing moments of his speech:
“Why does their big boss hinder reconciliation? I don’t understand! His followers are living a difficult life! (…) Like in the past, Thaksin thinks, the red shirt leaders act. This time it is the Pheu Thai Party that acts!”
“Society needs to help those who are legitimately angry and punish those who use them to incite violence!”
“If you don’t vote at all or for us, fearing that the reds will come out again, then you’ll be a hostage of those who incite fear! (…) If you want the country get rid of the poison that is Thaksin, then you should vote for us and vote for us to get more than 250 seats!”
The rally is an attempt by the government to (symbolically) reclaim Rajaprasong not only as a public space, but also to reclaim the sovereignty of interpretation over what has happened during the crackdown. The gloves are clearly off and the Democrats did not leave out a single opportunity to blame Thaksin for the ‘mob’. The governing party is, if the polls are anything to go by, losing ground even in Bangkok. So in a sense this is also a reclaiming of the capital as their home battleground. Abhisit and his Democrat Party, having previously claimed to move on, are apparently not quite done yet with the past.
*Author’s note: This article is aimed at re-telling the atmosphere of the event, rather than disseminating the ‘facts’ presented by the speakers bit by bit. This may or may not be addressed in another post.