Polling stations as battlefields: stories from the Bangkokian voters

 
In many countries, an expression of political will through voting, despite inconveniences and danger, is seen as an admirable act: a fulfilment of a civic duty. 
 
But here in Thailand, voters who fought obstructions and risk their safety to cast the ballots last Sunday were given different labels: “traitors”, “buffalos” and “the uneducated.” 
 
These labels captured the collective views expressed by anti-government protesters who blockaded attempts at advance polling on Sunday. Despite condemnation from international rights groups, protesters insist election is not what the country needs and are expected to thwart the upcoming general election on February 2. 
 
Videos clips recorded during advanced voting captured moments, which stunned the Thai public. The struggle by some votes to exercise their electoral rights was nothing like what Thailand has seen before. 
 
“I never wanted to be famous. I did what I did because I know it’s a right thing to do,” said Suwinan Chaipramote, a business owner, who climbed over the 2-metre fence to cast her vote, defying hundreds of anti-government’s guards who attempted to block her access to the polling station in Suan Luang district. Her heated argument with protest guards was captured on film and went viral in social media shortly after polling ended. 
 

Suwinan Chaipramote climbs over the fence into the polling station, after the protesters would not let her in.
 

“This is an obstruction! You can’t forbid me from going in there. I’m protecting my rights.” 
“I’m not obstructing, just opposing the election”
“It’s my right. Whether I go no vote or whomever I vote for, it’s completely my rights and business”
“They are corrupted! Why would you vote for them?”
 
As she walked over to untie the cloth knotted to close the gate, protest guards shoved her away. Within seven seconds, she climbed over the fence and got inside the station amidst cheering from the polling staff inside. 
 
“The election officials were all excited and they took me to the voting booth,” she said. “I was very proud that I got to cross the ballots both for the party list and district, as the first and the last person. I was proud, but I’d be more proud if they were more people lining up behind me.”
 
Suwinan was one of around 14,000 voters who were able to vote in Bangkok on Sunday, out of 964,189 people who registered to vote in advance. Forty five stations out of 50 were shut down due to the protests, which was a part of over-two-month-long campaign to uproot the so-called “Thaksin’s regime,” a reference to the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinwatra, now in exile after being ousted by military in 2006.  
 
Many protesters said they do not completely reject the election, but merely want to first establish the unelected “People’s Council” to reform the country, a method they believe would lead to cleanest and most transparent governance. The movement, led by former Democrat MPs Suthep Thaugsuban, who is now facing murder charge from 2010 crackdown, calls for political reform that should have priority over election.   
 
Many Thais, however, do not share such view and think that election will provide a solution to the conflict. 
 
Kitti Eaksangkul, who was strangled by protesters for expressing his wish to vote, agrees.
 

Kitti Eaksangkul, being throttled by the protesters while attempting to go vote in Chatuchak district
(Photo credit: Nation Photo)
 
After the infamous photo capturing him being throttled during an attempt to vote was published in many international newspapers, he said the physical pain was “nothing” compared to those predecessors who have fought against dictatorship in the 1970s in Thailand. 
 
“Many people have died so that we can have the elections, the rights to vote,” said the 40-year-old engineer. “How disappointing it is that these protesters are telling us not to go exercise it.”
 
Unlike Suwinan, Kitti was not able to go inside the station. He was searched by protesters who suspected that he was a policeman in plain clothes which led to a minor scuffle. 
 
“At that moment, I wondered if I was going to be beaten up and die there,” he said. “I knew this mob is full of well-educated and rich people, so (I) didn’t expect them to be doing anything so extreme.”
 
After the photo of protesters attempting to strangle was published, he could not focus on his work because many television stations and newspapers called him for interviews about the incident. Many praise him for the brave and fearless act. 
 
“When attempts of going into polling station is portrayed as grand act of victory, something is seriously wrong with Thailand,” said Kitti. 
 
Even the Election Commission was accused of taking sides. The EC, whose members just got selected into their posts less than two months ago, was criticized for their apparent bias and sympathy towards the anti-government protesters. They were accused of not trying hard enough to do their jobs to pave the way for the election to take place smoothly. 
 
Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, a prominent figure from the five-person commission, became a subject of a controversy after a photo captured him with anti-government protesters, smiling happily, shoulder-to-shoulder. Sodsri Satayathum, former election commissioner has criticized the act publicly as “inappropriate and reckless.”
 
The incident was followed by his off-the-cuff remark, a sexual innuendo about Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, alluding to an incident that she showed up at the Four Seasons hotel for a meeting with a property tycoon. The incident was widely reported and was previously used by the opposition to attack her. 
 
Somchai was previously a public administration professor from Thammasat University, and General Secretary for P-NET, civil society network of election observers. In February 2006, when Thaksin Shinawatra dissolved parliament in and called for election two months later, in which the Democrat party boycotted, he declared that P-NET would not participate in observing the elections. 
 
He claimed that the election at the time lacked legitimacy because the poll date put the opposition at a disadvantage, and called for appointed Prime Minister to replace the caretaker government, echoing current demands of the anti-government protesters. 
 
Some people are also questioning his non-partisanship as he used to be a regular guest on Blue Sky channel, a mouthpiece of the Democrat Party.
 
“If you can’t do you job, you should just resign from your position,” said Pajarinee Rattanachamnong of the election commission. She was another voter who was prevented from going into the voting station in Chatuchak district. But unlike any other voters, she brought with her a flashlight and a dozen of candlesticks as part of an attempt to cast the ballots.  
 
“In case I was blocked or cannot go in, I know I can light a candle and put it as a symbol of my vote,” she said. “I also brought some for other voters so that they can light them next to one another.”
 

Pajarinee Rattanachamnong, another voter who was blocked before the polling station,
uses symbolic action to express her will.

 
A regular at the pro-election vigils held everyday in recent weeks, Pajarinee puzzled anti-government protesters and the public in the area when she turned on the flashlight and shone it on people blocking her from entering the station. 
 
After she insisted on going in to cast the ballot, she was pushed and fell on the ground where dozens of people were lying down to prevent voters from entering. As she got up and could not move, she decided to take out the flashlight again, an act which would later become an Internet meme. 
 

One of the Internet meme resembling the incident
 
“As I took out my flashlight, people were puzzled if I would take out gun and shoot them. But I wouldn’t do that because I like peaceful ways,” she said. “I flashed them on the people because I want them to be enlightened. I want them to think and realize whether what they are doing is wrong.”
 
There were also more violent scenes near polling stations across Bangkok. Aside from Bangna district where one of the anti-government protest leader was shot dead, clashes and verbal violence were seen through out in almost every stations. 
 
At Bung Kum polling station, clashes and tension rose when about 30 men showed up at the district office and were beaten up by the anti-election protesters. After inspection, police found that the white-shirt group did not have any ID cards, prompting suspicion from surrounding protesters that they were Cambodians who were sent to sabotage protesters’ plans.  
 
After the police managed to take the group away without charging them, protesters were allowed in the district office, shortly before arguments with an enthusiastic voter began. 
 
But one person against 50 is difficult. The police had to take her away for safety, but not before walking her around the area, subjecting her to verbal wrath of the protesters. 
 

A voter in Bung Kum district's polling station being condemned by the protesters as being "traitor"

 
“Traitors”, “bitch”, “Thaksin’s lackeys” and “Khmer”, among other derogatory words, were shouted at the lady merely expressing her rights to vote. 
 
 Similar incident at Phra Khanong district station took place. It was one of the few stations that remained open later than other stations, which were mostly shut before 8.30am. 
 

Protesters prevents voters to go cast ballots in Phra Khanong district.

 
“Feed yourself some grass,” having “horns on your head,” “that’s so un-Thai” are just a few phrases used against the voters, who wanted to cast ballots.  Many left with frustration after they could not go in. Some voters were asked how much they were paid to come to vote. 
 
For the upcoming general election on Sunday, another round of violence is anticipated. 
 
Meanwhile, protest leader Suthep said he would not have his supporters mobilized to obstruct polling station on February 2, but he will have major rallies to express their opposition on election. 
 
Deputy Police commissioner said the Royal Thai police will deploy 130,000 policemen to secure polling stations nationwide, while 8,000 policemen would be stationed in Bangkok. 
 
Kitti, who failed to vote last Sunday, said he may try and go to vote again on the upcoming general election. 
 
“Thais never learn how to live with those who have different opinions,” he said. “But we’ve come this far, so we could not get discouraged because we are doing the right thing.”