My friend hangs back, telling me the people are a ‘mob’ protesting about the military government and there might be trouble. But I’m curious and we slowly ease closer as the mob heads away from the monument.
“They’re heading towards Government House,” explains my friend, as we reach the monument. There, another mob, actually more frightening than the first one, is gathered. Their tight brown uniforms betray them as Thai police, but their chanting grunts make them sound more like a bunch of football hooligans. These are men ready for (and can I say excited about?) some trouble.
More of the first mob trail past us, waving banners and shouting uproariously in Thai. I ask my friend what they’re saying. He almost blushes. “Some very rude words,” he says, “and that the military government should get out.”
They walk past the police with no trouble, moving on to catch up with their fellow protestors. Apart from the swearing – a highly unusual thing to hear a Thai person doing in public - it seems this protest will be a peaceful one. For now.
Bangkok has taken on a slightly different atmosphere in the past few weeks. I could liken it to the weeks after the bombs went off in London in 2005 – instead of everyone ignoring each other and getting on with their lives, bigger events gave people something in common and created a tentative camaraderie. It’s a bit like that in Thailand now as the country wrestles with the challenge of returning to democracy after last year’s military coup.
At the end of May Thai people were crowded around televisions and radios as a constitutional tribunal gave its verdict on whether Thai Rak Thai – the party that was ousted from government back in September – and the opposition Democrat Party were guilty of electoral fraud. The verdict meant a lot to Thai people – if both parties were found guilty they would be left with a huge political vacuum. If both cleared, people would start to wonder whether a coup was necessary.
Even the King of Thailand spoke up, saying he was concerned about the country collapsing. While, like our Queen, the 79-year-old monarch has little political power, he is much revered by the Thai people, and his words are always taken on board by political leaders
As it was, the Democrats were cleared, while the popular Thai Rak Thai party was found guilty and all its 111 members, including ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, were banned from Thai politics for five years.
British people will be familiar with Thaksin. Currently residing in London, he’s been in the news as Manchester City Football Club’s potential new owner, despite his assets being frozen as he is further investigated for corruption during his tenure in government.
But despite police demanding his presence in Thailand to be questioned in the investigation, in other quarters he’s still very popular. When the tribunal verdict was broadcast police had expected demonstrators to hit the streets of Bangkok in protest. The tribunal, however, had timed its announcement well. The following day was a Buddhist holiday, meaning that people were more concerned with marking the religious occasion than they were with the political situation.
This inherent Thai personality trait – that, as long as no one loses face, they’ll take any excuse to avoid confrontation, and especially violence, and have something to eat instead – has meant the demonstrations have so far been peaceful, and I’ve been able to get up close and personal with them.
One Friday night the same Thai friend who’d followed the ‘mob’ with me previously sent me a text to say their might be trouble tonight as he’d seen a heavy police presence moving onto and around Sanam Luang, a scruffy park area that often holds Royal ceremonies. We decided to go down and have a look.
The park was about two-thirds full of Thais, each wearing a yellow headband and waving red and white flags, both of which demanded in bold Thai lettering: ‘Military government get out.’ My friend explained to me that the people present were from two groups that formed an uneasy alliance. One was pro-Thaksin and wanted him back in power, the other just wanted rid of the military government and a return to democracy – two groups of people with ultimately different goals; surely there’s going to be trouble.
But no. The protest had more of a festival feel than of something that might turn violent at any second (though if we’re talking about Reading or Leeds festivals then it could turn violent at any second) - food stalls circled the park area and everyone was sat down, listening to what the opinion-makers on stage had to say. And for the most part they laughed at what they had to say, which, according to my friend, was particularly crude stuff about those currently in power. It was like being at the comedy stage at Glastonbury.
So no chance of seeing the Thai people flex some demonstrative muscle that night. But that’s not to say it’s not going to happen at some point soon. With an election not scheduled until November at the earliest, my boss at the language school feels that the protests can only get more fervent, and escalate to some more extreme action on the mob’s part.
She recalls the trouble that followed the last military coup in 1991, and the extreme violence that occurred the following year. After Army Commander Suchinda Kraprayoon overthrew the government of Chatichai Choonhavan, he wanted to make a constitutional amendment that allowed him to serve as Prime Minister for the life of that Parliament. The Thai people responded in huge numbers, 200,000 people filling the streets of Bangkok. Suchinda declared a State of Emergency and soldiers eventually shot and killed 52 people. That was the official total, anyway.
My boss recalls going out the next day to join the protests, disgusted at the deaths, and at one point having to hide behind a car when shots were fired. Protesting is a serious game in Thailand.
But whatever happens, I won’t be around to see it. It’s time for me to move on and explore new ground. There’s the rest of Southeast Asia to see yet, and I’m keen to immerse myself yet deeper in this strange part of the world.