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THAILAND: Uncertainty Hovers Over New Year Revelry

BANGKOK, Apr 14 2010 (IPS) - Very few things – not even the political gridlock that erupted into violence a few days ago – can prevent Thais from celebrating the traditional New Year, marked by drenching one another with water. But this year’s festivities were more muted than usual amid the uncertainty around the anti-government protests, which have lasted for more than a month now.

As in the past Buddhist new years, people stood out in the streets or drove through the city to throw water at each other, using weapons of revelry ranging from colourful plastic guns to pails on the back of pick-up trucks.

Passers-by had their faces smeared with white paint as part of fun and greetings that marked the traditional New Year in this South-east Asian country.

But uneasiness hung over the festivities as many followed the latest news relating to the crisis, sparked by the red-shirted protesters’ demand that the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolve Parliament and call for a new election.

“Another Songkran (New Year) like this,” a cab driver sighed, hitting the driving wheel with his hand. “This is really bad now.”

He was referring to the second year that Thailand is going through a difficult new year in April. At this time last year, protests by the same red shirts – called such because of the protest colour of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) – had led to violent clashes with the government.

After those clashes, which alienated many, the red shirts prepared to organise better for more protests. The current protest, which began on Mar. 12, has drawn many Thais from the poorer regions of the north-east.

The UDD protesters say the Abhisit government should go for a new vote because it did not get into power through an election but through a political deal made possible by the military 16 months ago.

“It looks like another Songkran (New Year), another songkraam,” remarked Bangkok employee Jew, playing on the Thai words on the New Year festival – ‘songkran’ – and the word for battle, ‘songkraam’.

Under the summer heat that has exceeded 40 degrees Celsius, a feeling of watchfulness hovers all around. Residents are going about their normal lives in an abnormal political environment, knowing full well that things could change in a snap.

That was what happened on Apr. 10, three days after a state of emergency was declared, when the shoving between Army troops and red shirts in old Bangkok, plus the throwing of a grenade from somewhere, soon led to mayhem and bloodshed that killed 23 people.

The bloodiest political upheaval in the country since 1992, the violence has been followed by debates about who is responsible for the clash and fresh calls for talks as the government comes under intense pressure from different quarters on different ways to proceed.

The rumour mill is on overdrive, speculating on rifts in the ruling coalition and the military as the country awaits the next chapter in this political saga. The UDD demanded Parliament dissolution in 15 days and shortened this to an immediate one, while the government at first floated dissolution in nine months and lately said six months. The UDD rejected this.

Sudden changes are also what employees in Rajprasong commercial district, which tens of thousands of red shirts have occupied since Apr. 3, are learning to get used to.

While the mall beside the protest site remains closed, others nearby have opened with shorter hours because business industry losses are estimated to have reached 40 billion baht (133.3 million U.S. dollars) to date.

On Wednesday afternoon, the management of Siam Paragon mall announced that it would close at 2 p.m. A restaurant attendant explained: “Oh, changes are now normal. Today, it’s because more red shirts are coming.”

She was referring to news that red shirts at Phan Fa bridge in old Bangkok – the first protest site the UDD occupied near the site of the Apr. 10 clash – had begun to leave in order to join the group at Rajprasong.

While waiting, red shirts in Rajprasong indulged in water splashing on the second day of New Year revelry. They sang and danced to protest music and cheered their leaders’ anti-government diatribes, while sitting below tall billboards advertising Prada and Louis Vuitton.

But reminders that this was not one’s usual revelry came up now and then.

At one point, the protest leader on stage teased the crowds much like a show host would. “Tired?” he bellowed into the microphone. “Oy, we musn’t get tired because that means what if the soldiers come, we wouldn’t be able to face them. At another point, wooden batons were being distributed to protesters.

Looking out at the blocks of streets occupied by protesters with electric fans and chairs, Tou, who works at a local condominium, muttered: “I don’t really know how long this can continue. Does it really need to take the blood of our own people?”

Near the Victory Monument meantime, groups of people gathered for a second day in support of the Abhisit government.

In the English-language newspaper ‘The Nation’, Atiya Achakulwisit said that in Thailand’s colour-coded politics – the reds are against this government, and the pro-establishment yellow shirts had been against the previous government – there was now a new colour, black.

Even if Parliament is dissolved or the government “miraculously manages to disperse the crowds,” she wrote, “this immense feelings of antagonism and divisiveness among fellow citizens . . . will see our country plunge deeper and deeper into an abyss that has no colour because it will be black as pitch.”

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