Central World, South East Asia’s second-largest shopping mall, became the most prominent symbol of Thailand’s political crisis when it was set on fire in the midst of the turmoil this spring. Its reopening on Tuesday is a powerful symbol of the country’s supposed return to normality after dozens of people were killed in clashes between anti-government protesters and the army four months ago.
But despite the distribution of pink heart-shaped balloons, the tinkling of piped piano music and a $90m refit that includes an ice-skating rink, key areas of Central World – like the government’s reconciliation programme – are still a work in progress. The underlying causes of the violence remain and could re-emerge at any time.
“I don’t see the evidence to suggest that the political divisions have been resolved,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “The reopening of Central World is a good omen for half the story – the Bangkok-based elite – they will see it as a return to normality.”
“But what we don’t see is where the problems are festering in the north-east and even on the outskirts of Bangkok,” Mr Thitinan said.
For nine weeks in April and May, thousands of angry protesters drawn largely from the opposition heartland in the country’s north-east and Bangkok’s underclass took over the streets around the city’s smartest shopping district, demanding the resignation of a government they regard as illegitimate.
The protesters, known as red shirts, believed that Thailand’s democracy had been hijacked by an elite that benefited most from the country’s economic development and used its power to suppress any challenges to its supremacy.
The government sent in the army and in the ensuing violence 91 people, 80 of them protesters, died. When the army made a decisive move to clear the protesters’ barricaded camp on May 19, a hard core of demonstrators looted shops around the protest site and set more than 30 buildings, including Central World, ablaze.
The government has since designed a reconciliation programme that consists of committees to investigate the violence, and identify and address the underlying grievances.
“The only way to resolve this problem is to acknowledge the fact that as much as we might be frustrated that [the protesters] don’t see things from our perspective, that they have a perspective too that needs to be respected,” Korn Chatikavanij, the minister of finance, told the FT in a recent interview.
But observers like Mr Thitinan say the government has made few concessions. Most of the leaders of the demonstration are imprisoned on charges of terrorism; much of the opposition media remain suspended; and a state of emergency remains in place in Bangkok and six other provinces, limiting political gatherings and giving the authorities enhanced powers to detain and hold suspects.
Despite the restrictions, some 7,000 red-shirted anti-government protesters reconvened for a few hours of protest 10 days ago outside Central World. Although the demonstration was peaceful, it was a clear signal that discontent still simmers.
“I don’t see that we have reached any kind of normality,” said Mr Thitinan. “Beneath the surface things are getting worse and the stakes are higher.”