Saturday's rally by anti-government, anti-democratic protesters proved beyond all doubt that Pitak Siam has neither the support nor the brain power to be considered a legitimate threat to the Yingluck administration. Only 30,000 people (at most) showed up – well below the million group leader General Boonlert Kaewprasit had been touting. General Boonlert was so disheartened by what went down that he vowed to have no involvement in any future anti-government protests. The whole thing was ill-conceived and poorly organised.
The group has no real ideas on how it is going to see this government toppled, short of a military coup. Their protest was called off when it rained and it was evident no more people were coming, which led to some of those in attendance turning their frustrations on their own leadership, highlighting the lack of group cohesion.
I spent a couple of hours at the Makawan Bridge site outside the United Nations HQ, where several hundred protesters spent the day hurling insults and water bottles at lines of police blocking their way to the main protest area. Multiple attempts to breach the police lines – they even tried to drive a truck through – failed.
Trigger-happy police twice threw teargas canisters into the crowd – a questionable move at best – and suffered the consequences when the canisters were lobbed back at them. For some reason, the police appeared to have no gas masks of their own, or at least, not not all of them did initially. For more, see pics here.
The foul, stinging odour of the gas hung in the air for some time and many people donned face masks and swimming goggles to protect themselves. The mood was tense as the protesters pulled away large concrete blocks that formed part of the police line. It was a futile gesture, perhaps part of a game plan to trigger serious violence.
The protesters could easily have reached the main rally site if they'd just taken a slight detour along the designated route. But instead, they chose to spend hours calling the police “Buffalo!” and demanding Yingluck step down, or else they just sat around aimlessly.
The people I saw were mostly in their 40s and older, evidently very passionate about making their voices heard, but with little in the way of ideas or even common sense. Their absolute disdain for the police reminded me of student protests and English Defence League gatherings I saw in England a couple of years ago.
At the Makawan Bridge site, the people I saw didn't look like they were part of an organised group. It was more like an ensemble of fanatics. The fact that these people have the support of Thailand's Democrat Party (as well as the extremist People's Alliance for Democracy) really underlines how poor an opposition the far-right makes in Thailand. The Democrat response to yesterday's rally is telling:
Democrat Party spokesman Chawanon Intharakomalsut condemned the government for having police fire teargases at demonstrators.
Chawanon said the government tried to prevent the people from joining a demonstration although the Pitak Siam announced the rally would be peaceful.
The Democrat spokesman said the government must be held responsible for the use of violence and teargas firing against the protesters.
The police should be held accountable firing tear gas, but Pitak Siam also need to be held accountable for what they did and what they tried to do. There is some debate over whether or not Pitak Siam had teargas cannisters of their own. I can't really say either way. (Addendum: Two types of teargas canisters were found yesterday. Police initially said they only used one, but then today they've admitted they in fact used two.) Where I think the government has failed is in the releasing without charge of all 137 Pitak Siam protesters, with the sole exception of the truck driver who tried to mow down the police.
What we can take from yesterday is that the government was able to, albeit rather messily, contain and control a situation that could have easily escalated into something terrible, especially if there had been more protesters. Supposedly, efforts were made by the authorities to prevent people from attending the rally, although how many more would have been there is open for debate.