Bangkok Shutdown: Candles lit as mood darkens in Thai capital
In a breezy Bangkok park rimmed by high-end hotels and shopping malls, immaculately-dressed women cradle lit candles and sing John Lennon's Imagine".
"Respect my vote," they declare on the home-made placards they hold high.
Just 400m down the road, grim private guards keep close watch from behind sandbags, rubber tires and metal barricades, directing unsuspecting motorists away from a blockade of one of the capital's busiest junctions.
Protesters and their powerful backers are trying to dislodge a caretaker government that is just two weeks away from getting a fresh mandate. They have, in fact, been trying for almost three months, certain that the dominant Puea Thai party will be re-elected in the Feb 2 snap polls. And they are bent on preventing the election from taking place without political reforms under a council of "good people".
But their tactics, which include invading government offices, as well as shutting off the power and water supplies, have spawned a growing counter-movement of Thai citizens demanding their right to the election. Dressed in white and bearing white candles, these advocates also demand an end to the violence that is increasingly marking the political crisis.
Over the past week or so, candle-lighting events have been held around the country, as far north as Kamphaeng Phet province and far south as Pattani, as well as Nonthaburi in central Thailand. More such gatherings are being held around Bangkok and Chiang Mai over the weekend.
In the capital's Benjasiri Park last Thursday, hotelier Siriporn Teeravithayapinyo, 45, became increasingly agitated as she ranted against protesters who claim to be speaking for "the people".
"Why are they so afraid of elections? If they don't want to vote, then go and choose 'no vote'!" she told The Sunday Times, referring to the option on Thai ballot papers that allows voters not to choose any political party.
Rummaging through her bag for her identity card, she added: "Just give me a chance to vote. I have a Thai ID, I have a right to vote."
Nearby, 24-year-old law student Amonteera Pratumtong held her "respect my vote" placard proudly aloft for waiting TV cameras. She studies at Bangkok's Ramkhamhaeng University, whose students have been associated with the anti-government movement, and whose student union president Uthai Yodmanee is leading the most militant wing of the protest network.
"Frankly, I'm a bit scared because I'm in the minority there," she said. "But I feel that I need to express my views."
The escalating political crisis has riven Thai society and silenced moderates. Taxi drivers turn off their radio the minute passengers enter, for fear that they might lose a customer over the political stance of their favourite station. University students keep mum about their political leanings in case they get penalised by their lecturers. Obscene graffiti is scrawled over election posters bearing the picture of caretaker premier Yingluck Shinawatra.
Protest banners curse Thaksin Shinawatra to the "deepest hell". The brother of Ms Yingluck helmed Thailand until ousted by a military coup in 2006, but it still known to pull the strings from abroad.
The main opposition Democrat Party, which has not won an election since 1992, is boycotting the polls.
Protesters say vote buying will guarantee the Puea Thai a victory, but recent analyses of voting patterns have shown that it has little effect on actual results.
Election advocates agree Thailand needs reform, but stress that it cannot be enacted by a group of people without the legislative authority derived from a real election.
Respected economist Pasuk Phongpaichit told The Sunday Times: "We need a political system where the actors agree to follow the same rules…and respect things like one man one vote. We need to think of politics as a process rather than something which you can just change in one day or two days."
The election commission, grappling with a protest-induced shortage of polling officials as well as candidates, has asked that the polls be postponed. But the contesting political parties do not agree. Meanwhile, the increasing frequency of drive-by shootings and bombings at protest sites has darkened the mood in the capital.
To avoid trouble, pro-election citizens light candles in the early evening and disperse in an hour or so, but pledge to keep gathering.
To some of them, it is inconceivable that Southeast Asia's oldest democracy, which is just salvaging its reputation after the 2006 military coup, be forced by street protests to abandon polls.
Asked what would happen if the election is called off, Ms Siriporn narrows her eyes and replies: "Then don't call Thailand a democratic country."