Mitigating dissent risks

Mitigating dissent risks

'Protests' get their own sites, which activists say crimps their style

Lan Khon Muang ground in front of City Hall is one of the seven protest locations designated by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. (Photo: Pornprom Satrabhay)
Lan Khon Muang ground in front of City Hall is one of the seven protest locations designated by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. (Photo: Pornprom Satrabhay)

The designation of seven protest sites by City Hall has been met with a cautious welcome from academics, politicians and protest leaders who agreed it should not stop rallies spilling to other parts of the capital.

The protest sites were specified in the announcement inked by Chadchart Sittipunt not long after his election as Bangkok governor.

The most popular governor in Bangkok's election history pledged not only to make the capital liveable but also safe and orderly.

The seven sites are Lan Khon Muang ground in front of City Hall, the Thai-Japanese Youth Centre in Din Daeng district, the public space beneath Ratchavibha Bridge near Soi Vibhavadi Rangsit 36 in Chatuchak district, the parking lot in front of the Phra Khanong district office, the 72nd Anniversary Stadium in Min Buri district, the Chalerm Phrakiat Stadium in Thung Khru district and Monthon Phirom Park in Taling Chan district.

Rally organisers must notify the district office ahead of time so that officials can facilitate the gathering and the maintain safety of demonstrators.

Positive step

Authorising the protest site designation, Mr Chadchart reckoned it would protect protesters from safety threats and motorists as well as residents from disruption or disturbance by large gatherings.

Wanwichit Boonprong, a political science lecturer at Rangsit University, said the "protest zoning" move may be interpreted as being politically driven as it cements Mr Chadchart's legitimacy as a popular governor.

The sites would also render the estimation of the number of rally-goers in attendance within a clearly-demarcated space easy and more accurate. The number cited by authorities is often criticised by protesters as deflated while many times the size of the crowd of protesters assessed by protest leaders themselves is dismissed as an exaggeration.

The turnout essentially gauges success of a protest as it correlates positively to the level of political pressure the protest can pile on the powers-that-be.

Mr Wanwichit said Mr Chadchart pledged on learning of his election victory that he would be neutral politically. All groups, despite of their political preferences, are open to express their views and hold demonstrations at the seven sites.

"It's a positive step towards Bangkok might be rated as a cosmopolitan that supports the airing of free political voices.

"That will be carried out under the stewardship of an elected governor rather than the police or the military like before," the academic said.

The new rules are modelled on Mr Chadchart's observation of mass protest management in developed countries where fixed demonstration venues operate on the fundamental principle that a free and rightful expression in a public space must also respect other's rights not to be affected by a protest.

The designated protest sites in Bangkok can open up a channel where complaints and various, localised grievances can be communicated to people in society.

As a benefit to tourism, visitors to the capital will not feel unnerved with the protests taking place in designated areas, according to Mr Wanwichit.

Rose-tinted glasses

However, the protest venue designation issue should not be looked through the rose-tinted glasses, according to people familiar with the issue.

The law governing popular protests in public places was a concept formulated by the now-defunct National Reform Council, said Jade Donavanik, former adviser to the Constitution Drafting Committee and dean of the law faculty at Dhurakij Pundit University.

The law, which was recently enacted and designed as a regulatory vehicle for public peace and order, stipulates that a protest must be "enabled" in public spaces.

"A similar law exists in most democracies. Mr Chadchart probably drew inspiration for the protest sites from a Speakers' Corner, the best known of which is in the Hyde Park in London, England.

"To verbalise an opinion in the open which bothers no one, where there is no need for a heavy presence of authorities around, is to nurture democracy," Mr Jade said.

Anyone wanting to join can do so. Others can keep away if they so choose.

However, practically Mr Jade said protesters would prefer to picket where their demands will carry the most weight.

"The folks troubled by a labour issue would naturally prefer to rally outside the Labour Ministry or Government House. From time to time, they must be able to hold a 'symbolic' protest outside the seven sites although they must not stay too long," he said.

A symbolic protest pays dividends if it is peaceful and guided by a clear and rational agenda. If the government does not respond to the demand of a reasonable protest, it would find itself in the hot seat. And if the government kept ignoring the rally, the protesters might have justification to resort to drastic campaign such as closing roads which would heap even more pressure on the authorities.

If events turn into unrest, it amplifies the extent of the problem to which the protesters call the government's attention. When that happens, many governments in democratic nations would resign, except where riots occur with the destruction of public properties. In which case, the government would be excused for staying on to contain the situation.

"It doesn't follow that the protesters will resolutely be confined to the designated rally sites. They should be able to organise the protest elsewhere although rallying at unauthorised areas must come under strict regulations," he said.

"A dynamic protest is one which doesn't inconvenience others nor cause chaos," Mr Jade added.

Every square inch a protest site

Meanwhile, Piyarat "Toto" Chongthep, leader of the We Volunteer (WeVo) guards for the youth-led, anti-government protests, agreed with giving protesters space at the seven sites equipped with mobile toilets, closed-circuit televisions and lights.

However, he thought the designation of the rally sites was unnecessary given the principle that people should be free to organise a protest on every square inch of public space in the country.

The government, provincial governors and local administrative organisations are duty-bound to facilitate protests and keep any counter-protesters away from the rally goers.

He insisted protests can at times inevitably affect the rights of others. After all, people are aware of the protest demands or the problems which are highlighted at the rallies.

"We put out the word so people can understand that it is within our right to protest and especially when we raise political demands.

"I believe people have a good idea about the protests and don't regard them as hurting their rights. We didn't trespass on anyone's property," Mr Piyarat said.

No matter how reassuring the law enforcement agencies are in providing security at the designated protest venues, the "third hands" are hard to detect and can infiltrate the crowds and launch attacks, he added, noting such elusive elements were rarely caught.

Mr Piyarat said some of the designated sites were too small and suggested that large grounds such as Sanam Luang or the Lumpini Park should be allowed access to protesters.

Thatchapong Kaedam, a core leader of the youth-led Ratsadorn group, maintained rallying at designated sites does not bode well for political leverage.

He added protests vary in format and they do not all fit into the designated sites. Demonstrations, particularly those motivated by political issues, work best when they are staged as symbolic protests and can move from place to place.

"No public parks in Bangkok should be off-limits to protesters," he said.

Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn, the Move Forward Party's former Bangkok governor candidate, warned the seven protest sites should not give the authorities excuse to seek to curtail people's rights to organise and join rallies in other frequent protest locations such as the area outside the Government House or the Democracy Monument.

"Where to converge for a protest should be a matter of choice," he said.

The public assembly law requires the protest organisers to notify the authorities about the protest activities. It does not restrict people's rights to participate in a rally, he added.

Possible ruse

While the allocation of protest sites has been generally well-received, some believe it may well be a ruse.

One ani-government protester, who declined to be named, said people should be able to rally anywhere and not restricted to designated areas. "The government wouldn't listen to protesters' demand regardless of where they hold the rally," the protester added.

Meanwhile, "Sea", a member of the Thalugas protest group, was sceptical, saying it may well be a way for an autocratic regime to deceive people into thinking it respected personal freedom.

Krisanapat Tanpichai, a 21-year-old college student who has joined protests, said protesters should know well not to cross the line by violating other people's rights as they sometimes march on the streets and put traffic on hold.

Puttipong, who did not give his surname, said he lives near a BTS skytrain station in the city where protests often take place.

"The protesters were out of control... I don't agree with anyone wreaking havoc and flouting social distancing to get across a demand," he said.

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