Bangkok Protest Updates (January 2014)

In December, I wrote some advice for tourists visiting Bangkok and other areas of Thailand during the current round of political protests. Much of that advice remains valid and I will repeat some of it again here to help you plan your visit to Bangkok and get things in perspective. There have also been some significant developments since the New Year and this updated report aims to cover some of the possible scenarios. More street protests are planned in Bangkok during January, but there are also some legal decisions that could influence the way the political situation develops this month.

Protest dates in January

January will be a key month for the political crisis currently gripping Thailand. The main core of the anti-government protest groups are headed by Suthep Thaugsuban and his People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). Elections in Thailand are scheduled for February 2, but the PDRC have repeatedly announced their aim to block the polls as they try to pile more pressure on Yingluck Shinawatra and the interim government. The Criminal Court have already approved a warrant for the arrest of protest leader Suthep on insurrection charges, but the fact he hasn’t yet been arrested combined with the fact that the protests have been sustained and well-funded, suggests Suthep has powerful behind-the-scenes allies.

The PDRC have declared there will be more street rallies in Bangkok with daytime marches taking place on January 5, 7 and 9. These may cause localized traffic congestion but aren’t anything for tourists to be unduly concerned about. These three marches are being billed by the PDRC as a warm-up to gather support and raise awareness for the main event which is a mass rally scheduled to take place on January 13. The proposed rally on the 13th has been billed by anti-government protest leaders as the ‘Bangkok Shutdown’. It’s a phrase that has already been adopted widely on social media, but it’s too early yet to get carried away with the idea that the whole of Bangkok will be paralysed by protesters. From past rallies, the PDRC have shown they certainly have the capability to draw huge crowds onto Bangkok’s streets. Whether they can do that again on January 13 and build enough pressure to either draw the military into taking action or forcing some other outcome remains to be seen.

If it goes ahead as planned, the January 13 rally could have a major impact for Bangkok and, in turn, tourists visiting the city. The PDRC plan is to occupy a number of road intersections in the Thai capital. The PDRC say their main rally stage at Democracy Monument will be disbanded on January 13 and they won’t return there again. Instead, new rally stages will be set up at a number of locations including Lumphini, Pathumwan, Ratchaprasong, Asok, Victory Monument and Lat Phrao intersections. There is also a plan to target the government complex at Chaeng Wattana which has previously been the site of demonstrations earlier in the PDRC campaign. I’ve marked the proposed main rally areas on the map below, but these could change. Some of these rallies are scheduled to take place close to major shopping malls (including Terminal 21), but protest leaders say they will not disrupt mall activities with all shopping centres expected to remain open. Depending on the number of protesters who turn out, up to 20 of Bangkok’s intersections could be targeted. How long the protesters will be there is anybody’s guess. The PDRC say the occupation of roads could last for one day or it could last until February 2 if elections aren’t cancelled. At the same time, the PDRC say they will keep lanes clear for ambulances and buses.

Should I avoid visiting Bangkok?

If it was me, I wouldn’t change travel plans. Obviously, I’m not you and you have to make your own decision. The situation is fluid and things could change as could my advice, but as it stands at the moment if I had family or loved ones visiting Bangkok tomorrow or in the next few days or the next few weeks (and I do) I would still tell them to come and enjoy their trip.

Rallies are set to take place in locations along Sukhumvit Road, Silom and other downtown areas of Bangkok on January 13 and may continue for a number of days. You may unwittingly stumble across an anti-government protest rally, but there is no need to panic if you do. Previous marches into commercial areas of Bangkok have mostly been good-natured, but noisy.  The political tension will probably increase as the election date in February approaches and there is the potential for the atmosphere at any of the rally sites to change so you need to use your own common sense and judgement.

Life is going on as normal for the overwhelming majority of people in Bangkok and elsewhere in the country. If the situation ever got to a stage where I would be advising my own family to change travel plans, I would say so here and on my Facebook and Twitter pages. This is very much an internal political affair. Tourists are not being targeted and there is no reason to feel unsafe because of the protesters. So far, the protests have been little more than an inconvenience for those tourists in Bangkok who have been affected by road closures and traffic congestion. That’s not an attempt to downplay the seriousness of the political crisis or the previous violence that has taken place. My advice here relates specifically to tourists. Some may disagree with my assessment of the current situation in Bangkok. No problem. Ultimately, it is an opinion and no more than that, but it’s based on real-life experience in Bangkok and Thailand and practical knowledge of the current situation. Whilst I’m happy to answer queries via email and social media, individuals still have to use their own common sense and judgement. I don’t have a crystal ball and can’t predict what will or won’t happen in Bangkok later in the month. If I could do that I would be picking the winning Thai lottery numbers rather than spending hours and hours writing updates and responding to emails.

Will Bangkok airports remain open?

The PDRC have said a number of times that airports won’t be targeted by their planned occupation of road intersections on January 13. Indeed, they have said their strategy is aimed at crippling the government and is not aimed at ‘the man on the street’. If you are travelling by taxi to or from Bangkok Suvarnabhumi or Don Muang airport please allow plenty of extra time for your journey. You may also wish to consider using the airport rail link to get to or from Suvarnabhumi especially on January 13. For Don Muang there is the option of the overland train from Hualamphong station or alternatively you could take the Skytrain to Mo Chit or metro to Chatuchak Park and then catch a taxi from there on to Don Muang. A rally site is planned for Chaeng Wattana government complex which is just to the south of Don Muang airport so that could affect traffic in the area and result in congestion (on January 13 and the days after) as could another proposed site at Lat Phrao intersection.

Will public transport in Bangkok be affected?

The protest leaders say public transport such as the BTS Skytrain and metro will not be specifically targeted, but with road closures and added traffic congestion in Bangkok it will probably result in increased demand for all forms of public transport. The morning and evening commuter rush hours may well be even more crowded than usual on public transport and protesters themselves will probably use the Skytrain and metro to travel between rally sites.

Are tourist sites in Bangkok still open?

Yes. All major tourist sites in Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand remain open as usual. The PDRC are not planning any action against tourist sites, but if their plans are successful on January 13 it will have a major knock-on effect for road traffic in Bangkok and will also see more people using the metro and Skytrain. Depending on where you are staying in Bangkok, boat services along the Chao Phraya River can be a good way to get to locations such as the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Arun. Canal taxi-boat services are another efficient way of getting around parts of Bangkok, but aren’t for the faint-hearted and not a very practical option if you are carrying heavy luggage.

At this stage, the proposed rallies are something to be aware of and you should be prepared to be flexible with any sight-seeing plans if you are in Bangkok on January 13 or the days immediately after.

Will there be protests elsewhere in Thailand?

In response to the continuing PDRC protests in Bangkok and the planned action by Suthep and his followers in Bangkok during January, pro-government supporters (known as the red shirts) say they will also take to the streets in a show of support for Yingluck Shinawatra and the government. The red shirts insist that elections must take place and red shirt leaders have warned the military not to launch a coup or obstruct the February 2 poll. The red shirts say they do not wish to confront the PDRC group and will not come out on the streets of Bangkok. What the red shirts plan to do is rally in those areas where their support is at its strongest which is mainly in the north and north-east of Thailand. The red shirts say their rallies will be peaceful and they appear to be a reminder to the backers of the PDRC that their ideas for an unelected government or people’s council has strong opposition. Red shirt rallies are set to take place in traditional strongholds such as Chiang Mai and Udon Thani, but should have no impact on tourists other than some possible localized traffic congestion. However, feelings are clearly running high on both sides and rival groups may try to antagonize each other. If elections are blocked or the Thai military comes out in support of the PDRC then that would change the dynamic again and may just serve to remove one set of protesters in Bangkok and replace them with another.

Keeping the protests in perspective

From a tourist point of view, the biggest problem in Bangkok in January is likely to be localized traffic congestion due to road closures. That’s not to say that there won’t be more violence ahead of the planned polls on February 2. There are militant factions on both sides of the political divide and, tragically, it’s almost inevitable that there will be more politically motivated violence in Bangkok at some stage between now and the end of the month. One way or another, Thailand is sure to make international headlines again in the coming weeks. The background to the political crisis is complicated and has its roots in the rise to power of Thaksin Shinawatra and the subsequent 2006 military coup which ousted him as prime minister. The lead up to that coup, the reasons for it and the subsequent power struggles involve some very sensitive issues for Thailand and the future path the country takes. If you are visiting Thailand just use your common sense and don’t get into political discussions or talk about the Thai monarchy.

I can’t stress enough that although it’s the protesters who make the headlines, most Thais I know and speak to just want to see a peaceful Thailand and an end to all the protests and counter protests that have plagued Thailand in recent years. Use your own discretion and be sensible. Keep up with the news, but try to keep it all in perspective. Most people in Bangkok still have to work to pay the bills and have more reason to object to the protests than tourists do. Bangkok is a vast city and Thailand is a big country where daily life continues as normal for most Thai people as it does too for the vast majority of tourists.

Location of proposed rally sites in Bangkok from January 13

Please note the map below is a guide to give visitors to Bangkok some form of reference. The exact locations of rally sites remain liable to change at short notice and more could be added or taken away depending on the numbers that decide to join the protests. In recent days, the PDRC have spoken about setting up 20 different rally sites across Bangkok, but it’s also possible they may choose to concentrate efforts on a smaller number of strategic locations for maximum impact. The blue pin shows the location of the original main rally stage at Democracy Monument. Protest leaders say they will disband the stage here on January 13 and set up other rally sites including those marked with yellow pins.