The latest mass rally in a series of huge protest marches held by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) in Bangkok was held on March 29, as called by core leader Suthep Thaugsuban. It had the objective of marching from Lumpini Park, where the protesters have set up a fortified tent city, towards Royal Plaza and back as a way of showing that people still demand for reform before elections.
The mood was very happy and festive- like previous PDRC rallies, you could hardly tell from the mood that this is was very serious protest march against a hugely corrupted government- and the original plan to move along in one column using one route was quickly scrapped. Simply too many people came for that. Instead, multiple routes had to be used, and even then some groups had to move so slowly due to too many people in front that it was joked it would take till 5 AM the next day to get to Royal Plaza. Even with that, it took three hours to walk from Lumpini Park to Pathumwan intersection. That was where I left and I walked around observing the moving crowd around the intersection that was still moving towards the Royal Plaza for a while. Anyone watching could make some obvious conclusions.
Firstly, any attempt to estimate the ‘size’ of the crowd would be very rough, at best. The government and police estimated the size of the crowd at its peak at 50,000- but then the government and police consistently downplay protester sizes. Estimates were mostly made based on the size of the crowd that braved the Bangkok heat long enough to manage to reach the Royal Plaza, but the fact is that a lot of people marching did NOT reach Royal Plaza, and were only there for some parts of the march (this includes me). The people were constantly coming in and out, at different areas and times; while some were in front of Siam Paragon, others were still stuck down at Lumpini Park (as I was) due to the large numbers of people ahead. To accurately count the number of protesters would require watching the protest in all locations (and there were many) at all times and then trying to estimate based on that- which is impossible, or at least extremely difficult.
Another thing I’d like to say is 50,000 would be a very low estimate, not a high estimate. At Pathumwan, I watched the protest column (only one of them, by the way) walk on continually for nearly an hour before I left, and had started walking through since before I was there, and continued to walk on afterwards. That’s a massive amount of people. Michael Yon, an independent writer who has been covering the protests since last year, wrote:
Nobody knows [how large the turnout was]. In fact, nobody would even be able to round it to the nearest 100,000. As an example of the enormousness of the turnout, at one point the main PDRC march looped back on itself 10km distant. Imagine the PDRC march being a gigantic snake whose head looped 10km back on its tail. That is a 10km long PDRC march. And that does not include KPT’s [NSPRT] massive piece combined with Santi Asoke, or Buddha Issara out at Chaengwatthana.
Something else to consider is that at this point the number of actual protesters physically out in the rallies matter much less than, say, back in January or December when the protest movement was still needing momentum. The political game is now largely being played in the courts, with a number of cases lined up against the government that could result in the impeachment of the Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra. Even if the protesters do nothing other than hold small demonstrations in Lumpini Park, the impeachment of the Prime Minister could still happen due to a court ruling.
This isn’t to say that the number of protesters no longer matter, because it still does; one of the main objectives of the PDRC rally that just happened was to prove that the PDRC still has the support of the people and that protesters are still willing to come out if requested. If anything, the rally proved that the PDRC remains a force to be reckoned with, even if the number of protesters who attend the daily demonstrations in Lumpini Park have dwindled. This is also to be expected; it would be surprising for a movement that has continued on for nearly half a year to receive undiminishing interest throughout.
The rallies also had two side benefits. It was a distraction that allowed a smaller protest group led by Luang Pu Buddha Issara to take over a small red-shirt protest site that has been set up in front of the National Anti-Corruption Commission office. This is particularly important, because an intimidating pro-government rally in front of the NACC could possibly sway the NACC from judging the Prime Minister’s impending rice-deal graft cases impartially.
The presence of such a large group of people also allowed the NSPRT, a PDRC-allied
but separate protest group to easily negotiate its way into Government House to replace a Thai flag and perform religious ceremonies inside. For Westerners this would not seem particularly worthy of note, but in superstitious Thailand, this holds a lot of significance. In a country where rites and symbols in important governmental offices are seen to be a deciding factor in the fate of the country, this would almost certainly have been given some weight by the protest leaders. Thaksin, after all, is widely rumored to have ordered the bloody clashes at Government House a month ago in order to perform black magic ceremonies in his own favor, in accordance with the instructions of a Burmese fortune-teller; the police had been repulsed by the NSPRT protesters, however.
As a rally alone this protest march does not create much of a tangible political consequence. As part of a wider strategy against the government, however, it is significant in showing that support for reform before elections has not decreased, and it has allowed for other side consequences such as the taking of the NACC-front pro-government intimidation rally.
It is now time to look at what will come next. The rulings of the courts and the work of the NACC will be crucial in determining the fate of the Yingluck government, and Thaksin is now playing the same game as Suthep by bringing in his own red-shirt protesters, with a mass pro-government rally called for next Sunday. Details and even the location is still forthcoming, but the red shirts have been struggling with getting the numbers; a previous mass rally held in Ayutthaya was estimated by the police (who are widely sympathetic with the government) to only contain a couple thousand people.
With the February 2 election annulled, renewed momentum in the protest groups and numerous cases lined up on the legal front that could get the Prime Minister impeached, the Yingluck Shinawatra and the Pheu Thai government is worn down and embattled. It could still take months, but, the Yingluck government’s time is clearly running out.