Rajprasong intersection: Bangkok’s shopping heart and protest battleground
Rajprasong intersection, a Bangkok shopping hub usually buzzing with locals and foreigners, was instead overtaken by more than 10,000 anti-establishment protesters and their supporters on Thursday evening.
They were rallying in defiance of a “severe” state of emergency announced by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha at 4am on Thursday, after anti-government protests escalated when a group calling itself Khana Ratsadon 2563 (People’s Party 2020) camped outside Government House on Wednesday.
The emergency decree bans gatherings of five or more people and permits detention of suspects without charge for up to 30 days. After a tense stand-off with police, the protesters dispersed peacefully on Thursday after calling for the release of dozens of their leaders arrested this week.
The anti-establishment protesters are demanding Prayut and his government’s resignation, changes to the Constitution, and reform of the monarchy.
Rally organisers said the Rajprasong site was chosen for its easy access by Skytrain and its location in the heart of the capital, which reduced the chances of a crackdown by security forces.
The area is also popular with the young generation, who make up the majority of protesters, and also doubles as a business district where disruption of activity could put pressure on the government.
Rajprasong shopping district is Bangkok’s best-known lifestyle destination but has been occupied by mass protests at least twice over the past decade, forcing the major shopping malls and five-star hotels around the intersection to close.
Centre of the action
The first major rally at Rajprasong in recent memory was the March-May 19, 2010 red-shirt protest against the Democrat Party-led government. Protesters demanded that then-PM Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolve Parliament and hold elections before his term ended in 2012.
After weeks of failed negotiations, the Army cracked down, using armoured vehicles to clear the intersection on May 19. Protesters retaliated by setting fire to buildings, resulting in the partial destruction of one of Bangkok’s largest shopping malls, CentralWorld.
More than 90 people, mainly protesters, lost their lives and over 2,000 sustained injuries in the unrest and crackdown, with dozens killed at Rajprasong and its vicinity. Since then, red-shirt supporters have lit candles and laid flowers every May 19 to commemorate the tragic incident.
In January 2014, Rajprasong again became a battleground as the People’s Democratic Reform Committee led by former Democrat secretary-general Suthep Thaugsuban declared the “Bangkok Shutdown” mission.
This protest lasted from November 2013 to May 2014 and occupied several key intersections in a bid to shut down the sprawling capital. Their aim was to force embattled prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra to step down and hand power over to an unelected “people’s council”.
The “Bangkok Shutdown” protests were triggered by a blanket-amnesty bill that would have pardoned politicians facing charges after the 2006 coup. The anti-government protesters argued that the bill was designed to favour Yingluck’s fugitive brother, former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, allowing him to return home without having to serve his sentence for corruption.
On February 23, 2014, in the midst of the protest, a 40mm grenade exploded in front of the Big C Ratchadamri outlet in Rajprasong area, killing two children and a woman.
The crisis eventually resulted in the ousting of Yingluck and a subsequent military-led coup on May 22, 2014.
The Rajprasong neighbourhood covers more than 1 million square metres, with over 800,000 devoted to shopping malls, about 4,700 retail outlets and hotels.
Every Christmas and New Year, this district is the brightest-lit part of Bangkok.
Apart from being the throbbing heart of Bangkok, Rajprasong is also known as the capital’s spiritual epicentre, drawing both foreign and local devotees to pay homage, make offerings or atone for their sins at the statues of gods and goddesses.
The most famous is Tao Mahaprom, or the Hindu god Brahma at the Erawan shrine. Regular dance performances take place at the shrine of the four-faced god of creation, usually paid for by worshippers whose prayers have been answered.
There are seven other shrines in area, six of them Hindu and one to the Chinese god of four directions and wealth Tao Jatulokabal. The Hindu shrines include one devoted to the god of wisdom Ganesha, a shrine to the Trimurti – gods of creation, preservation and destruction – usually covered with red roses as it is believed to answer petitions for true love – the goddess of wealth Lakshmi, the goddess of power and family Uma, the god of mercy Indra and the god of protection and good wishes Narayana.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk