In the years since the 2006 coup, the authorities have been clever in making sure key protest areas have been off limits to protesters. Most Thai parks are gated and guarded–ostensibly to control crime and stop rural people visiting Bangkok from sleeping in parks to save money. While fences can be easily torn down by protesters, the idea that politically important Sanam Luang is to be fenced and regulated like all other parks marks a turning point in its history.
Above: October, 2006 at Thammasat – One of the iconic images from 1976: Right-wing mobs beating the corpses of lynched protestors.
Sanam Luang has a long been a focal post for political protest. Thammasat University faces on the park and its undergraduates in particular have been active in political protest in the past–particularly during the 1973, 1976, and 1992 events.
In 1992, the military-dominated government floated the idea of fencing off Sanam Luang. This idea was hotly contested by activists and the public at large as it was seen as an attempt to curtail protests that were simmering over the continued military capture of the government.
Later, during the Thaksin years, the plan to relocate Thammasat undergraduates to the remote Rangsit campus was vigorously pushed. The stated reason was to relieve overcrowding at the campus, but many activists and students saw the move as part of a plan to ensure a student uprising in the key area of Sanam Luang would not imperil Thaksin rule as it had for others who had overreached in the past.
Above: November 28, 2004 – Thaksin mobilized yellow-shirted Village Scouts at Sanam Luang in an attempt to foster a nationalistic response to the resurgence in violence in the deep south. As scouts assisted in the massacre of protesters at Thammasat University in 1976, the spectacle of them marching by the university again raised suspicions about the message they were sending to Thaksin’s growing opposition at the time.
Fencing off Sanam Luang would have been unthinkable 10 years ago, but the tumultuous events of recent years changed everything. In the last decade the paradigm of “the military vs the people with the monarchy as final arbiter” has fallen by the wayside. In this age, political battles are fought with sponsorship from ambitious tycoons in the background with the goal being total power–with no polite Thai-style backing down in the service of unity.
Protest is still seen as undesirable and no defined societal limits have developed for it. From Yellow Shirts taking over the airport to Red Shirts threatening to burn down the city, there is still very little sense of protest as a desirable part of the normal democratic discourse. Protest remains a go-for-broke undertaking, up to and including making sure the monarchy is embroiled in a partisan way.
Marketing vs reality views of Sanam Luang – September 27, 2008
This is complicated by the success these protests have had. The Yellow Shirt protests of 2008 were successful in stalling the government in its plans for constitutional amendments to clear Thaksin. The Red Shirt sieges of Bangkok of 2009 and 2010 were apparently unsuccessful on the ground, but protester deaths appear to have ignited a popular upsurge in sympathy. Coupled with economic issues, Red popularity in the service of Thaksin swept the Democrats from power.
How the military and police interact with protesters remains critical. During tough times security forces often have appeared to be unwilling or unable to follow orders, much less take action. Considering the tricky blame game that surrounds Thai protest, this is probably understandable.
Above: Thai Rak Thai rally at Sanam Luang – March 3, 2006
The fencing represents the end of an era for the area. Undergraduate university students are no longer politically active. The idea that Sanam Luang or other downtown areas are effective or desirable protest sites is no longer valid.
The pro-Thaksin camp in particular realized that protests downtown were having little practical or psychological effect since the real business of the city and nation takes place elsewhere. Rajaprasong, the new heart of Bangkok, was chosen to ensure the Red Shirt siege could not be disregarded (unlike the recently ended and virtually ignored PAD protest at government house).
The development of Rajaprasong area security will be worth watching. Rajaprasong remains a rallying cry for the Red Shirts and their hollowed ground. The Yellow Shirts and the Democrats have rallied there as well. It will especially interesting to see if the area can be made off limits over some pretext in the same way multiple areas have been made unavailable downtown in the past.