Anti-government demonstrators swarmed dozens of polling stations in Thailand on Sunday to stop advance voting for next week’s general elections, chaining gates shut, threatening voters and preventing hundreds of thousands of people from casting ballots.
A protest faction leader was fatally shot in a confrontation near a voting center that also left 11 people wounded, the city’s emergency services said, and isolated street brawls broke out in several parts of Bangkok.
The chaos underscored the precariousness of Thailand’s fragile democracy, and the increasing weakness of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s elected administration. Yingluck had called the Feb. 2 vote in a failed bid to ease months of street protests, but police did not disperse the crowds because of longstanding orders to avert violence, which many fear would give the all-powerful army reason to stage a coup.
“It’s a sad day for democracy when the right to vote … is assaulted by a political movement that claims to be striving for reform and people’s empowerment,” Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said of the protesters. “Everything that happened today shows they are striving for the opposite.”
Sunai, who was also unable to vote, said that demonstrators forcefully intimidated would-be voters, and in at least one case attempted to strangle a man. Demonstrators were also targeted – gunmen opened fire on a group attempting to block polling near a temple, killing faction leader Sutin Tharatin while he was giving a speech on the back of a truck.
Although most polling stations in Bangkok and many in the opposition stronghold in the south were forced to close, voting proceeded largely unhindered in the rest of the country. Still, the upheaval proved that demonstrators struggling to overthrow Yingluck have the ability to disrupt the main vote next week, and the country’s electoral commission is unlikely to stand in their way.
The commission, which agrees with protesters that the poll should be delayed, is legally mandated to ensure registered voters are able to cast ballots safely. But on Sunday, its members “just sat down and watched this thing collapse around them,” Sunai said.
The commission is supposed to be neutral, but critics have accused its members of taking sides. Its top executive, Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, has posed for at least one smiling photo with demonstrators, and its officials failed to denounce a violent effort by protesters to disrupt candidate registration in December.
On Sunday, the commission issued no public condemnation of attempts to derail voting. Analysts say that is because courts and the country’s independent oversight agencies are largely aligned against the current government in collusion with the army, royalists and powerful businessmen.
The protest movement, known as the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, had pledged not to obstruct Sunday’s poll. Protest spokesman Akanat Promphan told The Associated Press that those who had locked the gates of polling stations had “acted on their own,” but he did not criticize them and said the decision to close stations was made by Election Commission officials.
The protesters’ effort, however, appeared to have been widely coordinated. Across Bangkok, demonstrators waving the Thai flag physically blocked electoral officials, ballot boxes and voters from getting inside polling centers. Some did vote – one woman climbed over a padlocked gate to try to do so – but officials ultimately shut polling stations in 83 of the nation’s 375 constituencies, authorities said.
Suthida Sungkhapunthu, a 28-year-old office worker, said she turned back from one polling station after reading news of the day’s mayhem on her phone.
“I saw this coming but I’m still quite disappointed,” she said, calling the protesters “undemocratic” as she watched a mob surrounding her polling station a block away. “It’s my constitutional right” to vote, she said.
International Federation for Human Rights president Karim Lahidji also said protesters had gone too far.
“Blocking citizens from exercising their voting rights is a serious violation of Thai laws and international human rights standards,” he said. “The right to peaceful assembly must not infringe on the citizens’ fundamental right to vote.”
About 49 million of the nation’s 64 million people are eligible to cast ballots in February, and 2.16 million applied for early voting. But even before Sunday, there had been increasing doubt that the main poll would go ahead next week. Even if it does, Parliament is unlikely to achieve the quorum it needs to convene, which would prevent a new government from being formed.
Ruling party officials suggested over the weekend that they were willing to delay next week’s ballot, but only if protests end and the main opposition party abandons its boycott. There has been no sign yet that Yingluck’s rivals would agree to any deal, however.
Protesters disrupted advanced voting in 33 of the capital’s constituencies, while polls went ahead in 286 of 375 constituencies nationwide, the Election Commission said, citing preliminary data.
Yingluck imposed a state of emergency in Bangkok Jan. 22 after an escalation of violence that has now killed 10 people and injured more than 500 since protests began Oct. 31.
BP: Sutin was the 10th person killed (the 10 killed include three reds, one police officer vs five protesters. One unaffiliated student was also killed – you can see list per day of those killed and injured in Thai here).
Below is a video where you can hear numerous shots being fired from the location where Sutin was shot:
BP: If you can read Thai, this Pantip thread has some screenshots and analysis of the video. Sutin is in the back of the truck which is quite clear from around 13-16 second mark (truck with white background sign with black font). Also, from the 1:19 onwards you can see a pick-up truck being attacked and it seems clearly someone being violently assaulted.
The blocking of polling places was carried out by bands of protesters, sometimes only numbering a few dozen people, who padlocked gates and intimidated election officials and voters.
The protesters’ ability to disrupt the electoral process showed the weakness of the Thai government, which has been besieged by street demonstrations for the past two months. Protesters have shut down government offices and occupied major intersections in the city.
Among those unable to vote on Sunday was Pruettha Jampathong, 30, a human resources manager at a Thai company.
“I consider myself a very tolerant person,” Mr. Pruettha said after being turned away from a polling place where protesters were blocking the entrance. “But this is very unfair. They violated my political rights.”
He added, “An election is the only scientific way to prove who is the majority in the country.”
In some districts, would-be voters stood outside closed polling places, chanting, “Election! Election!”
BP: According to the EC, 440,000 people were affected, but the reality is that more have been affected. In some constituencies, particularly in Bangkok, people may have not gone to vote as they read/saw on TV about the polling booths been surrounded as of 8-9am with many being closed as of that time. Also, in Bangkok, the EC says 33 out of 50 constituencies were disrupted, but depending on which reports you read between 48-50 constituencies closed early because of disruptions.
On blocking voters, there is the below YouTube clip:
BP: The video shows a lady arguing with a protester wanting to get in to vote and pointing out that Suthep said they wouldn’t disrupt the election and that the gate had been locked and she was being prevented from entering, so she climbed over the fence to great cheers. Not all people are physically able to climb over fences or would want to risk the confrontation of doing so.
Others were more than just blocked:
— NBT Social Live (@nbtsociallive) January 26, 2014
BP: The original photo from The Nation Group is here. It is fairly stark reminder….
Bangkok police said clashes had broken out between anti-government protesters and Yingluck supporters, with the two sides trading punches before shots were fired….
It was not immediately clear who had fired the shots, but the protesters accused the government and police of trying to intimidate them.
Chris Baker, a historian and Bangkok-based analyst, said the violence added pressure on Yingluck to delay the vote.
“It does weaken the government’s position. The protesters will blame this on the government,” said Baker. “With or without this incident the likelihood for violence was there already. I don’t think it changes in the trajectory.”
BP: Agree with Baker. Just see much more violence to come.
Police mostly hung back from confronting the protesters, as part of a broader government strategy of not provoking violence and thus perhaps a coup by a military seen as sympathetic to the opposition. The government last week imposed a state of emergency giving it wide-ranging authority to crack down on protests in and around Bangkok, but it has said it will not use most of the powers.
The PDRC said it did not instigate the polling station protests, although its leaders have repeatedly called for the election to be disrupted because they say the government has destroyed the political system through corruption and cronyism.
“Most polling stations were surrounded by people without the presence of PDRC leaders,” said Akanat Promphan, PDRC spokesman. “We encourage people to protest against election without reform – and campaign for reform before election.”
But critics say the polling station disruption undermined the opposition’s claim to be peaceful and democratic, showing instead that it is prepared to intimidate Thai voters rather than contesting a poll it fears will extend its near 20-year election losing streak.
BP: What Akanat says is just not true.
At 8am, which was supposed to be the time to open the poll station and allow voters to enter, the door to Saint John’s Polytechnic was still closed by the Chatuchak officials. Only Issara was allowed to enter the poll station. He negotiated with the chief of the poll station to cancel the advance election and shut it down. While the door of the station was still closed, a middle-aged man arrived at the school but was told he could not enter.
However, at 10am, Issara Somchai, a core PDRC leader, used a loudspeaker to declare that the polling station at Chatuchak was already closed after he had negotiated with the chief of the polling station.
BP: Issara is a -sixtime MP, former Minister, and is (or is it was now?) on the Board of Directors of the Democrats.
Jonathan Head’s analysis for the BBC:
Thailand’s protest movement has an image problem. It is commonly viewed outside Thailand as undemocratic. The movement’s leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, even wrote a letter to US President Barack Obama this week pleading for more understanding of his goals.
But the scenes of his supporters forcefully blocking people from voting won’t help that negative image.
Mr Suthep’s promise, that the demonstrations would not obstruct the voters, was broken repeatedly. In some areas, election officials appeared almost eager to comply with the protesters, fuelling suspicion among the government’s supporters that the purportedly independent Election Commission is taking sides.
The government says the main polling day next Sunday will go ahead as scheduled. The Election Commission says it should not. They will meet to discuss the timing on Tuesday.
Neither outcome will address the bitter polarisation of Thai society. Each side increasingly demonises and dehumanises the other – even more so after a well-known protest leader was killed in a confrontation that turned ugly outside a polling station.
BP: Despite the death, preventing hundreds of thousands of people from going to vote is just going to hurt the Democrats by association.