On the hot and humid late afternoon of 25 May on Ratchadamnoen Nok Avenue near the Democracy Monument, people had gathered and were listening to public speeches by speakers of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). The yellow of the shirts and diverse colours of the umbrellas which linked to one another like a floating raft made the afternoon uniquely more colourful than usual. The spokesperson on the PAD stage continued to invite the public from their homes to show their stance against the “outlaw government which is trying to amend the constitution for themselves”.
This would have been just another political gathering of the PAD, after the much larger gatherings which they held in the past during the campaign to oust former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, if another group had not moved closer to them.
On the other side of Ratchadamnoen Avenue, a few dozen demonstrators from Sanam Luang slowly moved closer to the Democracy monument and started burning newspapers which had the names of the five leaders of the PAD. Then more of those who had gathered at Sanam Luang moved to settle near the Democracy Monument.
The speaker on the PAD stage continued to attack the government and Thaksin Shinawatra loudly. A considerable number of people moved to sit near the monument to listen to the anti-PAD group which had just moved from Sanam Luang. The two groups were separated only by the road. The small loudspeaker placed on a truck used by the speakers from Sanam Luang did not produce a loud noise so I walked across the road closer to them to hear what the speaker was saying about the need for constitutional amendments, while at the same time attacking the leaders of the PAD.
When I looked around at the group coming from Sanam Luang, it was quite hard to see who the spokesperson really was. One man on the loudspeaker warned the protesters on the opposite side not to be fooled into becoming the political tool of any group. Meanwhile, older women took turns cursing the PAD for being no good.
In the evening, more people came to join both sides. From a rough estimate, there were a few thousand gathering around the road exiting Ratchadamnoen Nok Avenue, while those on the other side of the road coming into the avenue outside the Methavalai Sorndaeng restaurant numbered around two to three hundred. The latter group was more chaotic.
Near the base of the monument became more crowded. Some smiled when they saw the group from Sanam Luang screeching away. Some kept yelling back. Meanwhile, things continued to become more tense on the PAD stage as some of the speakers turned to face the other side. Suddenly, some of the Sanam Luang group clapped in unison and yelled “here is our loudspeaker”. Turning to look at them, I saw an old man carrying an old speaker on his tricycle. This had no effect as most had turned to listen to the speech on the PAD stage, responding once in a while when they did not agree with what was being said. The only time that both sides of the street clapped together, as if they shared the same stance, was at references to the respected institution.
Although neither side was homogenous, it could be said that this was the first time that two visibly different crowds had gathered near each other. The two groups were different politically. They were different in terms of class and social status. This is a situation we had not witnessed in the past, but we may see this more often in the future.
When two older women who were violently and frantically cursing the PAD were questioned about why they were against the PAD and why the constitution needed to be amended, both of them stopped assaulting the PAD and explained in great detail the reasons why the constitution needed to be amended. What they said was that the 1997 constitution needs to be the benchmark - that they supported the elected government and that the demonstration by the PAD could be used as a pretext for a military coup d’état.
These women described themselves as regular citizens and did not care about what they were being called, whether they were seen as radical, or whether the group was seen as illegitimate if violence occurred. One said “Ah! I do not care. I have been suffering for two and a half years. This is too much!”
On the other side we saw a large number of PAD supporters who disagreed with the constitutional amendments. They started to sign their names calling for the impeachment of MPs and senators involved in the motion calling for amendments to the constitution. Many of them were young people.
Although the older people here were not abusive, they were just as animated when they explained that the 2007 constitution does have legitimacy and was designed to plug the loopholes of the 1997 constitution. The loopholes for them include vote buying and corruption by politicians. Therefore the amendments are simply to make the politicians not guilty and to give them unlimited power once again.
One man in the PAD group said “the 2007 constitution is like having a gun at home. If you are not doing anything wrong, you should not be afraid of the gun.”
The group of thousands listening to the speeches from the stage were quite peaceful and gentle, while the other two or three hundred were more chaotic and uncontrollable. Some of them verbally attacked the PAD, while others yelled at the police who set up barricades between two groups. Some fainted or claimed that they were injured by actions from the other side; these claims were hard to verify.
The messages of conflict written on placards by the two sides created a level of confrontation. However, what was more dangerous than verbal assaults against the “PAD leader” or “the government” and “Thaksin” were the insults against the crowd. The degree of violence increased when vulgar words and insulting attitudes were expressed by an academic speaking on the PAD stage targeting the Sanam Luang group, which led to plastic water bottles being thrown back and forth and then glass bottles, wooden sticks, and rocks. Meanwhile, police officers holding shields separating the two sides could not stop the objects being thrown from different places.
At 9 pm, when the PAD leaders came to the conclusion that they would move the protest to the front of Government House, the crowd slowly moved along Ratchadamnoen Nok Avenue while the police continued to separate the Sanam Luang group and the PAD for fearing that clashes would break out.
The leading convoy went through the anti-riot unit which was set up near the Phanfa Bridge and stopped near the larger formation of police lines near Makawan Bridge.
Negotiations between the head of the convoy and the officials continued amidst rumours among journalists that tear gas could be used if the PAD persisted in going through. The focus of most reporters was on the head of the convoy when there were clashes at the tail of the protesters’ procession, where many people were injured.
The information in the newspaper reports was along the same lines, which afterwards led to the condemnation of the Sanam Luang group for creating the disturbance and the violence. In contrast, the photos of citizen journalists on different webboards showed a different picture of violent behaviour from the PAD security as well.
If there are no important political changes, this situation is likely to be with us for a long time although Thai society does not want the final answer to end in violence. The middle class and the working class are not allowed to use excessive force arbitrarily.
The important question is how we can escape from the trap of violence which keeps growing bigger. It is not certain that the demands on the leaders of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, or Saturday People against Dictatorship, or other groups, will bear fruit when we see the mood of the crowd. Another condition rests with the PAD. How can we find a solution to this violence if the PAD can only condemn the other side as wicked, uneducated, and easily bought by politicians without paying any attention to them or showing any interest, or giving them any space?
One middle-aged woman with the Sanam Luang group asked, “Are you a journalist? If you do not publish the story from our side, there is no use talking to me. We have suffered from the media for a long time. In the end, we are seen as evil, as dogs”. The woman answered my question as the Sanam Luang group began to gather around Phanfa Bridge. When the situation became calmer, I saw all the reporters sitting near Makawan Bridge, a few hundred meters away.
Translated by Pokpong Lawansiri