Thursday, July 15, 2010

Red, Yellow and Black: Behind the Destruction of Thailand’s Democracy

On the afternoon of May 19, following weeks of protests and mayhem, most of the core Red Shirt leaders barricaded in the center of Bangkok surrendered meekly to the Thai government forces. One leader who evaded capture was the volatile Arisman Pongruangrong. Just before vanishing later that afternoon, Arisman was wearing a T-shirt bearing the image of Mahatma Gandhi. The symbolism was deeply ironic.

Almost a century before, Gandhi had expounded a political principle that the Red Shirt leadership, including Arisman, had still not absorbed. To dislodge an entrenched government like Thailand’s, a popular uprising had to do two things: attract public support in very large numbers and be nonviolent.

The Red Shirts failed on both counts.

The group was protesting grievances related to the 2006 overthrow of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s government and what they said was political and economic injustice stemming from income disparities between the rich and the poor. Their central demand was that the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolve Parliament and call immediate new elections. In questioning the electoral mandate of the Abhisit government they had a point. In drawing attention to the government’s lack of a constructive response to the social and economic grievances of the Red Shirt movement, they had another point.

But they were never going to remove Abhisit through direct physical confrontation alone. They were neither sufficiently numerous nor sufficiently well-armed for that.

Weeks before, Red Shirt leaders had promised to bring one million protesters to the streets of Bangkok. Their numbers never approached that total and dwindled as the conflict continued, with escalating violence. For their protest to achieve its stated aims, they had to persuade police and army personnel to disobey if and when the government ordered a crackdown. If that had happened in sufficient numbers, the government would have been defeated. But for that to have occurred, the Red Shirts first needed to attract large numbers of previously uninvolved Thai people to join them.

Their failure to do either was due largely to their lack of commitment to nonviolence.

As the conflict continued, it brought growing inconvenience and disruption to the lives of ordinary Bangkok residents. Public transportation and the delivery of public services were disrupted, especially harming the livelihoods of the working poor, the Red Shirts’ main potential allies. The Red Shirt leadership displayed a lack of interest in the hardships caused by their disruption of the city’s economic life. This cost them public support and placed them in a similar self-serving category to the pro-establishment Yellow Shirt demonstrations of late 2008. Those demonstrations had included the blockading of Bangkok’s airports, also causing massive disruption to the city.

The worst feature of these demonstrations was that they seemingly worked. As many saw it, with the help of the courts the Yellow Shirts successfully unseated a government they disliked.
More of the same behavior from their political opponents was then inevitable. The Red Shirt version of a similar strategy was no less disruptive, no less arrogant. But it was significantly more violent. There were several different elements among the Red Shirts, with correspondingly different agendas. Most felt a sense of injustice, both political and economic. But they differed among themselves on how their protest should proceed.

First, there were large numbers of genuinely nonviolent and unarmed rural people, and this group was numerically the largest. They included many elderly people, women and children, the latter innocently dragged into the conflict.

A significant number were among the 89 who died in the fighting. They were the true victims.

Second, there were large numbers of youthful hotheads, men in their 20s and 30s armed with homemade weapons — sling-shots, Molotov cocktails and rocks.

Finally, there were mysterious, black-clad, well-armed and well-trained men, possibly former or serving military or police personnel, who were not necessarily protesting anything. There may have been different groups among these black shirts, but they seemingly included professional killers, there to implement the agendas of other, as yet unknown, employers. That included killing soldiers and police. One of their goals was apparently to incite wider violence with the hope that this would destabilize and discredit the government. Nevertheless, despite abundant rumors, we still know little for sure about who they were and who hired them.

The failure of the Red Shirt leadership was that — contrary to Gandhi’s admonition — they tolerated the coexistence of three groups within their midst. The presence of the violent black shirts, especially, meant that eventually the state would have no choice but to move against them, leading to many innocent deaths. It also meant that the protesters progressively lost the sympathy of the Bangkok population and any chance that significant numbers of rank and file military or police personnel might disobey orders, potentially bringing down the government. Short-term politics dominated the crisis, of course, but there were important underlying economic drivers, some of which had been building up for decades.

First, although average incomes in Thailand have increased dramatically in recent decades there has simultaneously been a long-term increase in economic inequality.

This occurred even though the incidence of absolute poverty has declined. A further and more recent economic driver of Red Shirt grievances is less widely understood. The Thai economy is heavily export-dependent. The global financial crisis that began in 2008 impacted severely on Thailand through a 25 percent contraction in global demand for its exports.

Many of the industries most heavily affected are labor-intensive, employing vast numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled people from the north and northeast. In response to the crisis they were laid off in huge numbers, many returning to their villages. Unfortunately for Abhisit, the global financial crisis and the suffering it produced coincided with his accession to power.

Global events were largely responsible, but it was easy for a local rabble-rouser to blame the current hardship on Abhisit and to contrast it with the relative prosperity of 2001 to 2006, Thaksin’s period in government. These economic phenomena have meant that unskilled and semi-skilled rural people have not participated fully in Thailand’s long-term economic progress.

With reason, they feel left out of the development process. It is not difficult for a populist demagogue to portray these events as meaning that the urban elite has gained unfairly at the expense of the rural masses. Thaksin’s great political achievement was to recognize this electoral opportunity and to grasp it. It was also his undoing.

So now what? Having seen off the immediate threat, the government must surely offer a gesture of reconciliation. That must include a commitment to elections in November or earlier and a guarantee that the electoral outcome will be respected, even if a pro-Thaksin party wins. There must also be a commitment to a process of genuine dialogue to address the Red Shirts’ real grievances — not brinkmanship based on mutual threats of violence.

But there is a major obstacle: disagreement on the meaning of “democracy.” The word democracy appears in the official names of both the Yellow Shirts (Peoples’ Alliance for Democracy) and the Red Shirts (United front for Democracy and Against Dictatorship). Both are misnomers.

Neither group adheres to democratic principles internally.

As he was being arrested on May 19, one of the Red Shirts’ more moderate leaders, Veera Musikapong, was quoted as saying that he and his colleagues must now “dissolve our anger, because democracy cannot be based on anger.”

Wise words, but is anyone still listening to anyone else?

By Peter Warr founding director of the Poverty Research Center at Australian National University.

Global Asia

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