Opinion: When Bangkok Shopping Malls Turn Into Protest Space

A pro-democracy protest in front of Samyan Mitrtown shopping mall in Bangkok on Oct. 26, 2020.

Shopping malls in Bangkok are more than just a place to shop. To the many mall rats, it’s a place to escape the heat, meet friends, dine, date, drink, watch films and more.

Of late, political protests took place inside the malls itself – the malls have become politicized.

The most high-profile recent example was the protest staged by Benja Apan, a key member of the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration at IconSiam luxury shopping mall on Jan 20. She staged a one-woman protest against the alleged monopolization of the Thai government’s COVID-19 vaccine monopoly. She held a placard with the message “Vaccine Monopoly is PR for the Royals”.

It became news chiefly because a security guard slapped the 21-year-old Benja on the face and ended up at a local police station paying 1,000 baht fine for minor assault. Everything was captured on Facebook Live, courtesy of Benja’s colleague who was manning her smart phone’s FB Live episode as the two end up being surrounded by security guards who tried to prevent the use of the mall as a political space.

Hours after, the company expressed regrets and the next day saw the guard resigning.

Whether you take side with Benja or the guard, the truth is, Bangkok’s upscale shopping malls, and not just IconSiam, has become the choice venues for political protests of many young Thais who are against the government and calling for monarchy reforms. Shopping malls in Bangkok are the place for protests, a de facto semi-public venue for political activities. This includes Siam Paragon, Samyan Mitrtown and more.

It is partly due to the fact that over the years, particularly since the 2014 military coup, public space for political activities have been reduced and restricted. Think of Democracy Monument, an icon for not just the struggle for democracy but the venue of choice for numerous political protests since the 1970s.

Late last year, when the protesters wanted to use the venue, they literally had to remove potted plants installed by City Hall and metal traffic barricades. It’s a “green” and indirect way to deter protesters from occupying the symbolic site. Last week, the monument was cordoned off again for another “renovation”.

Then there’s the mysterious disappearance of the Constitution Defense Monument in the northeastern part of Bangkok which marks the defeat of the royalist counter-revolt in 1933. The monument, where redshirts once gathered for political protest, was mysteriously hauled away from the site where it stood for decades in the middle of the night on Dec 27, 2018.

Then there’s also the Public Assembly Act passed by the then junta’s rubber-stamp parliament in 2015 which stated that demonstrators need to inform police no less than 24 hours in advance or face up to 10,000 baht fine. Not to mention the COVID-19 ban on public gathering as a result of the emergency decree.

On the other hand, protesters can walk into any major shopping mall and carry out political protests while the mall’s guards are expected to treat the valued customers, and the not-so-valued protesters, as kings.

It’s a Catch-22 situation for these shopping malls because on one hand, they have to please the government, the royals, while at the same time not be seen as brutal against the anti-government and monarchy-reform protesters. After all, they’re supposed to be in the business of hospitality, running a luxury shopping mall and not a junta boot camp.

Siam Paragon took a different, and more subtle route in handling political protesters by merely trailing them. Protest leaders Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul and Benja herself wore crop tops and staged symbolic political protests for over an hour last month inside the mall on Dec 20.

Siam Paragon allowed the three to roam around and in the end, someone else later filed a lese-majeste complaint to police instead, accusing them of mocking the king in how they dressed and bebave inside the mall.

As for Samyan Mitrtown, on Jan 16. two dozen demonstrators fled inside the mall in the late afternoon of that day when police began arresting a few in front of the mall. Many shops shut themselves immediately in order to keep demonstrators out.

Back to IconSiam, hours after the Benja’s incident, I inspected the privately-owned and spacious promenade where Benja was attacked after being surrounded by the guards and tried to flee. A sign in Thai and English have been posted stating that the place is a private property.

“PRIVATE PROPERTY: IconSiam reserves the right to limit the use of their premises only to activities with advance written permission. In case of violations, the company reserves the right to pursue legal action, including but not limited to claim for damages.”

Two days later, I saw a young activist posted on Facebook a photo of another two young activists holding placards against the lese majeste law at IconSiam’s riverside lawn.

This time, I heard of no physical assault. Apparently, some protesters continue to claim shopping mall space as a de facto political space with varying degrees of success. And despite such an announcement by IconSiam, others continue to insist that it’s in fact a privately owned public space or a de facto public space for political protests.