If this was happening in India, we would see it in Bharat Vs India terms. A populist leader, forced out by traditional elites and a powerful army, calls on his poor supporters from the villages to come to the capital. They take over the glitziest part of Bangkok, hold political rallies under signs that read ‘Louis Vuitton’ and ‘Gucci’ and drive guests out of such tony hotels as the Four Seasons and the Grand Hyatt.
Ever since the Red Shirts, loyal to exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (ousted in a military coup in 2006), thronged to Bangkok in their thousands nearly a month ago, the Thai authorities have not known how to cope.
Thaksin is derided as a ruthless crook by educated Thais in Bangkok but is venerated by the rural poor who regard him as their champion against the powerful elites that have dominated Thailand for generations.
Encouraged by his calls for protest (and presumably, financed by Thaksin’s billions) nearly 1,00,000 rural Thais have journeyed to their country’s capital and taken over its most visible intersection. Because these are poor people, unused to comfort, they have no difficulty in living on the roads, sleeping on the pavements and using the alleys as their toilets. How can any government cope with a protest of this nature?
The protesters are unarmed and largely peaceful and they include women and old people. At the intersection of Rajadamri and Ploenchit roads where they have made their camp, the atmosphere can be festive: they sing songs, listen to speeches, and eat very well from the scores of hawkers stalls that have sprung up to feed them.
On Saturday, the Thai government finally decided that it could not allow Bangkok to be taken over in this manner and ordered an army crackdown. Though the soldiers did not get to the Rajadamri base, battles elsewhere led to 21 deaths and hundreds wounded.
By Sunday, the government had withdrawn again. The PM said he was reluctant to act against his people. The protesters shrugged their shoulders, made more speeches and lived on satay and som tam. They were a long way from their homes. But they were beginning to like up-market Bangkok.