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Saturday, May 15

The Bangkok melee: what are its roots?

See May 16 post for updates May 16 and 17 on the Thailand crisis and additional background report.

Saturday, May 15, 2010
Voice of America reports today that "Bangkok is looking and sounding increasingly like a war zone."
Street fighting continues in the Thai capital, Bangkok, as anti-government protesters try to push back soldiers who have surrounded their camp. At least 22 people were killed in the last two days and at least 170 wounded.

Gunfire and explosions continued Saturday as protesters for a third day clashed with security forces surrounding their camp. Saturday afternoon, just north of the protest area, the Thai army spread razor wire and set up checkpoints. They put up signs that read "live fire zone" and urged people not to enter.

The anti-government red shirts set up their own barricades of rubber tires and slowly drove a yellow tanker truck toward the soldiers, until shots were fired. Demonstrators hit the ground and scattered into alleyways.

A few protesters could be seen limping away bleeding, apparently shot, but still defiant. They received medical care from nurses standing by to aid casualties.

Army spokesman Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd spoke on national television and said the government regrets the deaths and injuries. He says the army has been trying very hard to use measures to end the protest while avoiding any losses.

Authorities blame the clashes on violent elements among the protesters that they say have fired grenades and guns at soldiers who were forced to return fire. Protesters, however, say soldiers and snipers are aiming to kill them.

The latest violence broke out Thursday after a Thai general supporting the protesters was shot, apparently by a sniper. [Pundita note: When last I heard he's still alive but not expected to survive the head wound. The general helped organize and direct the protests and is adamantly against the protestors compromising with the government.] The protesters have occupied a central commercial district for more than two months, demanding the government step down and allow new elections.

A deal for November elections broke down after protest leaders demanded government leaders face charges for the violent clashes. The government says it expects to restore order within a matter of days.[...]

Over at the (London) Times Online, the headline today clearly indicates which side they're on:
Army brings death and carnage to the streets

What began in early March as a defiant and proud rally intended to oust the Thai Government peacefully and fight for social justice had, by last night, largely unravelled as the army strengthened its stranglehold around thousands of diehard protesters.
Ah, but it's more complicated than a fight for social justice, and rivalries among powerful Buddhist sects and power struggles in the military, as uncertainties grow about the heir to Bangkok's throne, have added to the tangle. And yet at the bottom of it all is a simple story that's played out countless times in history and is unfolding today even in the United States.

Several months ago David Brooks, in a talk with PBS NewsHour about the roots of the Tea Party protests, noted that American voters had long been demanding more transparency in their government but when they finally got it, they were outraged when they learned how Congress actually gets business done.

The more you know, the more critical you become and from there, the more demands you make. The Shah of Iran learned the hard way how the story often plays out. On paper his plan to bring more of Iran's youth into the education system was a great idea, and a necessary step in progress for his country. But when the Shah couldn't provide enough jobs for the graduates, the educated unemployed formed a large pool of the protestors who helped depose him.

The same basic situation is evident in Thailand. When Thaksin Shinawatra, a very shrewd populist, deployed the Bread & Circus routine among the rural poor in order to circumnavigate the ruling class, he unwittingly played Pandora as his term as prime minister wore on. Although Thailand is no stranger to coups getting the lid back on this time is not going to be easy.

For years Thailand had managed to strike a modern pose for the rest of the world but the country still had one foot in the past. Now the past is out in the open and Thailand's democracy must deal with it before the country can move forward.

As to whether Thailand's aging king can help, the situation is so dicey at this point that anything's possible. But he gave his answer four years ago when the events of today were already on the horizon:
On March 24, 2006, in front of a rally of 50,000 at Sanam Luang, Democrat party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva demanded that King Bhumibol Adulyadej appoint a new Prime Minister and Cabinet to resolve the political crisis. The People's Alliance for Democracy's (PAD), The Law Society of Thailand, and the Press Council of Thailand also called for royal intervention. Pongsak Payakavichien, of the Press Council, also called on the civil service to detach itself from the government and demand royal intervention.

However, demands for royal intervention have met with much criticism. The king himself in a speech on 26 April to newly appointed judges dismissed the notion, saying Article 7 of the Constitution invoked by the anti-Thaksin protestors did not give him that power:

"Asking for a royally appointed prime minister is undemocratic. It is, pardon me, a mess. It is irrational."
Wikipedia has been striving mightily to chronicle the mess, but the following analysis from 2009, which happily the Asia Times scooped up from the East-West Center, is the clearest (and briefest) orientation I've found to today's protests in Thailand:
The roots of Thailand's tension
By Charles E Morrison
April 23, 2009

Street politics appear to have become the norm in Thailand, a country once noted for its relative social stability, where even coups - Thailand has had 18 since 1932 - have often been genteel affairs.

Earlier this month, red-shirted demonstrators supporting former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra caused the cancelation of an Asian summit in Pattaya and disrupted daily life in parts of Bangkok in hopes of forcing the resignation of current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. This comes after the events of last November, when yellow-shirted demonstrators opposing the then-government of Thaksin's brother-in-law occupied government buildings and closed Bangkok's two international airports.

Thaksin lost the latest round of violence. Military forces contained the protests, forced the leaders to surrender or flee, and supplied buses to take rural demonstrators back home. But "victory" is surely only a respite, since the larger issues that are dividing Thai society and fueling the unrest remain unresolved. Power has already shifted back and forth three times since the September 2006 military coup, with enormous disruptions to Thailand's society, economy, and international standing.

Thaksin and Abhisit represent opposing forces, both claiming to promote democracy. Now living abroad to escape jail time for a conflict of interest conviction, Thaksin is the central, polarizing figure on the Thai political stage. A former policeman and telecom tycoon, he is the first Thai politician to fashion a power base independent of the traditional elite, Bangkok-centered institutions. He accomplished this by becoming a hero to many underprivileged Thais during the time he was prime minister through the lavish disbursal of money for rural health, education, and grants or loans to villages.

Thaksin was so popular in the countryside that he or his supporters have decisively won the past three national elections, and they are likely to win any new one. In Thaksin's view, his last two victories have been stolen by agents of the urban middle- and upper-classes, allied with high echelons in the military, the courts, and some royal advisors. During the recent demonstrations, his almost daily video messages to his red-shirted United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) supporters called for restoration of government elected by the majority.

British-born, Oxford-educated Abhisit represents Thailand's traditional elite. He heads the country's most venerable civilian political party, the Democrats, but is also the beneficiary of military support and street protests by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). Founded four years ago, the yellow-shirted PAD led urban protests against the Thaksin government, helping to trigger and justify a military coup in September 2006.

Following the coup, the military governed ineptly and had to step aside. When pro-Thaksin forces won new elections in December 2007, the PAD went back into action, culminating in last November's airport occupations. Although ultimately a Constitutional Court decision banning the pro-Thaksin People's Power Party, followed by political defections allegedly engineered by the military, brought Abhisit to power in December, the disruptive demonstrations and occupations by PAD provided the enabling environment.

Many in the urban and traditional elite regard Thaksin as a dangerous populist who gained personal fortune and won elections through bribery, vote-buying, and corruption. They assert that his governing methods were undemocratic, and his extra-judicial, draconian methods toward drug peddlers and insurgents in Thailand's turbulent south lacked accountability.

But Thaksin's opponents also have a democracy deficit, not having won a national election and even proposing a new, non-democratic constitution to perpetuate elite control. Political conflict is hardly new in Thailand, but in years past, the crisis might have been resolved by Thailand's respected monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Now the 81-year-old king is in fragile health, and some close to the palace are regarded as partisans.

With legitimacy problems plaguing both camps, along with the pressure of mobilized street mobs and determined adversarial leaders, an early resolution to the current crisis is unlikely. In fact, economic distress and longer-term uncertainty as the king ages may intensify the conflict.

The Thai political crisis reflects powerful forces that are reshaping the political landscape of parts of Southeast Asia. Increased levels of education and awareness, economic development, and new technologies are all helping to bring demanding new voices into politics, often threatening established elites and traditional power-sharing arrangements.

Although true reforms have eluded the Philippines, and Myanmar has remained mired under military rule, Indonesia has already undergone a major - and so far quite successful - democratic transformation, and Malaysia seems poised for change.

The introduction of new political and social forces often comes with serious disruptions, as are now occurring in Thailand.

But hopefully in the long run they will be accommodated in a new, more legitimate and democratic social contract that will endure long after the current political players have departed from the stage.

Charles E Morrison, president of the East-West Center, once taught Southeast Asian politics at the Johns Hopkins University.

(Used with the permission of the East-West Center.)

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