Thursday, May 20, 2010

Thailand’s Slow-Burning Revolution

Thailand has experienced three major violent political upheavals in the 35 or so years before the present crisis began. All can be linked, and while each offers a differing insight into how the state has responded to being challenged, context makes them unreliable indicators of the country’s direction in the coming days and weeks.

On Oct. 13, 1973, months of antigovernment protests against the armed forces’ dominant role in government culminated in a huge demonstration in Bangkok. The following day, troops attacked protesters, killing at least 75 people and wounding hundreds of others. King Bhumibol Adulyadej directly intervened, superficial order was restored and the three politicians seen as largely responsible went into exile overseas.

On Oct. 5, 1976, leftist students at Bangkok’s Thammasat University protesting against the killing of two students by rightists a few weeks earlier were attacked by well-organized militia fighters. The official death toll among the students was 45, but hundreds more were widely believed to have subsequently murdered. Many fled into the bemused arms of the then Communist Party of Thailand, whose fighting strength was drawn from the same rural north that remain the hinterland of today’s Red Shirts. The subsequent anticommunist campaign by the Thai military was accompanied by a wave of extrajudicial killings that have been largely forgotten outside these communities.

Between May 17 and May 20, 1992, at least 44 people were killed and hundreds injured when troops fired at demonstrators protesting against efforts to make a prime minister of a military leader who had seized power in a coup the previous year. In addition to acknowledged casualties, many of them drawn from the upper classes, at least 100 people were presumed killed by the security forces after the immediate unrest. When containers were found on the seabed off the Sattahip naval base in the Gulf of Thailand in 2009, there was widespread speculation that they might hold the remains of the missing from “Black May.” The fact that they did not has not diminished the belief that the state is capable of killing its opponents.

These precedents, rather than vague talk of compromise and national unity, are likely to guide the actions of the Red Shirt activists and their countless thousands of supporters across the country as they prepare for the aftermath of the loss of their key redoubts in Bangkok. For them, any outcome to the crisis that erodes their present strength will be resisted.

The problem for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his allies is as much cultural as political. While democratic institutions are developing roots across the region, the concept of “loyal opposition” is still regarded as an oxymoron by many local politicians. It is within this context that an overly soft line against the Red Shirts will be interpreted by United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship activists, Abhisit’s opponents within government, the military and pro-establishment People’s Alliance for Democracy Yellow Shirts as a show of weakness rather than pragmatism.

Nevertheless, an effort is likely to be made to re-emphasize the narrative that distinguishes the Red Shirt leadership from the “misguided misled.” In this model, the red rank-and-file would be allowed — even helped — to return home, accompanied by a chorus extolling their virtues as loyal but unwitting dupes of toppled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his clique.

The reconciliation process may also be the last opportunity Bhumibol has to demonstrate his traditional role as final mediator by using his monarchical and semidivine authority to end the ongoing quarrel and unite them under the crown. His silence, either self-imposed or managed during what may be the defining national event of his long reign, has amplified the perception of the great changes now facing Thailand.

There is speculation that the 82-year-old king, confined to hospital since September, is reluctant to risk his legacy by engineering what would amount to a truce rather than settlement between the government and its military patrons against a broad front opposed to its lack of democratic legitimacy and fearful of its future intentions. If the monarchy cannot offer protection at such a time, then doubts over its future utility as a final arbiter between narrow, unbridled authority and the marginalized majority are certain to grow.

As the three episodes of the past have shown, once cohesion is lost, the red leadership at all levels will be targeted for judicial punishment and extra-judicial disposal. The death of the Red Shirt’s Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol after being shot by a sniper has been widely interpreted as a warning from the state apparatus that no one is immune from the consequences of their actions.

The Red Shirt script is now being literally written in blood. The determination, resilience and courage of the Red Shirt core, confronting heavily armed troops with makeshift weapons, has already created a mythic narrative that will ensure that however the May 2010 confrontation in Bangkok ends, their actions will be recalled and recounted in their home villages for years, further adding to the kindling that fuels Thailand’s slowly unfolding revolution.

GM Greenwood is an associate with Allan & Associates, a Hong Kong-based political and security risk consultancy.

Asia Sentinel

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