Andrew Johnson

Documentary photographer/filmmaker
   
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Location: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Nationality: Canadian
Biography: Andrew is a Canadian photojournalist currently based in Brazil. His interests are in conflict, polarization in politics, and social inequality. 
Private Project
Shutdown Bangkok
Credits: andrew christian johnson
Date of Work: 02/15/14 - 03/02/14
Updated: 06/07/18
Location: Bangkok, Thailand
Thailand is no stranger to political turmoil. The Southeast Asian nation has seen twelve coups since 1930. Supporters of rival political factions have often taken to the streets and even clashed violently in the decade prior to 2016. One of the main forces has been the populist Pheu Thai (For Thais) party, known as ‘Red Shirts’, who are largely supported by poor and rural northerners. Their rivals, the ‘Yellow Shirts', have been supporters of the Democrat Party, popular among mainly middle-class and city-dwelling southerners. 

Thaksin Shinawatra, a wealthy media tycoon and founder of the Pheu Thai movement, was ousted in a coup in 2006 after facing accusations of corruption. Following his self-imposed exile, a political crisis developed which saw violent clashes in the streets and cities of Thai cities, specifically the capital Bangkok. Hundreds of Thais were killed in violent demonstrations that rocked the country in the wake of governments abruptly changing hands several times. Both sides have been accused by independent observers of inciting violence and carrying out targeted killings against rivals. Members of the police and military are often accused of taking sides and acting independently to crack down on rivals.

The PDRC (People's Democratic Reform Committee) has been described as a monarchist, ultra-conservative wing of the movement to depose the Shinawatra family. Most of the group’s support comes from urban, middle-class Thais, particularly those in the south of the country and within the Bangkok elite. Many of the PDRC see the Shinawatra’s as the epitome of the corruption that has plagued Thai politics for decades. What's more, they see populism as a threat to the monarchy, which is revered as a holy institution and a pillar of Thai society.

These images were taken during a weeklong visit to Bangkok in February of 2014 to cover demonstrations, which led to being embedded with a unit of the PDRC security forces stationed in Lumpini Park, in the centre of Bangkok. The period of this visit had seen some of the worst incidents of violence since the political crisis of 2011. The PDRC had been making strides to disrupt the government while the ‘Red Shirts’ were busy mobilizing their own counter demonstrations. More than 100,000 Shinawatra supporters would converge on Bangkok in early 2014. As a result, clashes were not uncommon between the more hard line cells within both movements.

Tensions were high and periods of calm could easily turn to chaos in a moment’s notice. One night in late February more than 20 explosions rocked Lumpini Park, site of a huge anti-government protest camp. For almost three consecutive hours starting just after midnight the camp was attacked with explosives and gunfire. Three PDRC guards were shot and one was severely injured by a grenade.

The Royal Thai Military, sworn protectors of the King, finally swept into power following a bloodless coup in May, 2014 after the Constitutional Court found Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister, guilty of corruption. The military quickly declared martial law and began dismantling any protest camps that remained. Members of the PDRC and their allies largely welcomed the military’s move, and disbanded their movement.

Shinawattra’s supporters offered little resistance, as the army now had complete control over the country’s affairs, instituting a city-wide curfew in Bangkok and draconian measures aimed at censoring dissent from the media and the public. The question remains whether the junta will restore democracy and address the divisions caused by years of political strife. General elections in Thailand are expected to be held in late 2016 or early 2017. Civil rights, including the right to vote, have been suspended following the coup in May 2014. 

*As of May, 2018, democracy has not returned to Thailand. The beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej is dead, and the Kingdom has passed to an unpopular Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn.*

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