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Sunday, May 16

Bangkok: Red Shirt leaders need to stand down. Now. (UPDATED 6X)

UPDATE Monday May 17 6:30 PM EDT
Frankly I am shocked that Fox News Cable and CNN have not mentioned the Bangkok crisis during the first half hour of their 6:00 AM news report.

The 3:00 PM deadline for the protestors to leave the camp has come and gone but it seems few of the Red Shirts have left, despite the government's offer of safe passage with no penalties attached. It's not clear what's going to happen next. According to the latest BBC report:
[...] The government said on Monday it would talk to the protesters as long as they showed "sincerity" by leaving their camp.
The protesters - particularly women, children and the elderly - have been told by the government they must leave the area immediately as it is too dangerous to remain.
The broadcasts warned that those who remained faced two years in prison, but gave no details about what would happen after the deadline passed.

Satit Wonghnongtaey, a minister attached to the prime minister's office, told reporters an "operation [to disperse the protesters] will be executed as soon as possible".

But the protesters appear to be defiant. As the deadline passed, there was little sign of a rush to leave the camp.

A group of around 300 people who sought refuge in a nearby temple have told volunteers there that they do not trust the government's offer of safe passage and do not dare to leave, the BBC was told.

Meanwhile, protesters are reported to be sending up fireworks at circling helicopters.
The report suggests hysteria has set in among many of the protestors, which is fueling their paranoia. They're exhausted from days of unremitting stress and little sleep. Their leadership is in disarray. I doubt many are thinking straight at this point.

Why doesn't the Sangha take a leadership role in this situation? Rival Buddhist sects should put aside their differences long enough to speak in one voice -- urge the protestors to work with the government to end the standoff. The show of solidarity among Buddhist leaders could overcome the protestors' paranoia and help calm them.

Speaking of exhaustion -- the crisis has kept me up all night. I'm going to sign off now and catch a few hours of sleep.
Right now it's 1:34 AM EDT here in Washington, DC. The time is 12:34 PM in Bangkok --less than three hours to the government's deadline to the protestors. See the report after the updates. All we can do now is wait and hope the coolest heads prevail.
Excerpts from AP Report May 17 12:45 AM EDT: "The political conflict is Thailand's deadliest and most prolonged in decades, and each passing day of violence deepens divides in this nation of 65 million — a key U.S. ally and Southeast Asia's second-largest economy. Thailand has long been considered a democratic oasis in Southeast Asia, and the unrest has shaken faith in its ability to restore and maintain stability."

Report also mentions that the slain Seh Daeng, a renegade army officer, was accused of creating a paramilitary force for the Red Shirt protesters:
"Seh Daeng has accomplished his duty. All of us here have the duty to carry on the quest for justice," a Red Shirt leader, Jatuporn Prompan, said. He said that the only hope now to end the violence was intervention by Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The 82-year-old monarch, hospitalized since September, has remained publicly silent on the crisis unlike decades past when he stepped in to stop bloodshed.
Breaking News: Reuters Sun May 16, 2010 11:38 PM EDT: "A rogue soldier and de facto military chief of Thailand's red shirt protest movement has died, said the director of the hospital where he was being treated after an assassination attempt. [Suspended major general] Khattiya Sawasdipol, better known as Seh Daeng, was shot in the head on Thursday in an incident that sparked the latest flare-up in violence in Bangkok."

Breaking: Pattaya Daily News May 17 12:40 AM EDT: Seh Daeng's death may spark revenge killings and have widespread political ramifications in Thailand. Warning: article has graphic photographs.

(UK) Telegraph May 17: "....A state of emergency has already spread to more than a quarter of the country after emergency decrees were declared in five more provinces, as violence erupted in the north and northeast. ..."

BANGKOK, May 16, 2010 11:23 PM EDT
(Kyodo News International) The death toll from four days of clashes between troops and antigovernment protesters in Bangkok rose to 36 on Monday following overnight violence in which an air force officer was shot dead and a luxury hotel was hit by grenades. In addition to the 36 fatalities -- nine of which occurred Sunday and two early Monday -- more than 250 people have been injured in the latest round of violence since Thursday, according to Bangkok's emergency medical center.

Local dailies reported the grenades damaged the fifth and 17th floors of the Dusit Thani Hotel, located in the Thai capital's Silom financial district opposite Lumpini Park, shortly after midnight. It was not immediately known if there were any casualties at the hotel. The hotel management was not available for any comment. Nation TV reported that only journalists were staying in the hotel.

Post Today, a Thai language daily, reported that three grenades also landed near a high-rise office building located on Rama IV Road, less than 100 meters away from the Dusit Thani.

About an hour after the grenade attacks, an air force officer was shot dead and another was slightly injured as they drove a pickup truck into the off-limits zone on Silom Road, a stretch lined with commercial banks and tall buildings that also runs alongside one of Bangkok's main nightlife areas popular with foreigners.

The daily quoted a preliminary report as saying there was a gunfight between troops stationed on Silom Road and the two air force officers in the truck.

The government has declared Monday and Tuesday this week to be public holidays in Bangkok to facilitate restoration of peace and order in the capital, though banks and the financial market opened as usual. It has also decided to postpone until May 24 the start of the new school semester in the capital. ....
According to a Guardian report (Sunday 16 May 19:56 BST) the Thai government has ordered all women and children to leave the Red Shirt camp in central Bangkok by 3:00 PM Monday ahead of an offensive to remove anyone remaining in the camp. The government is also offering safe passage from the camp for males who want to leave:
The army said it planned to allow neutral organisations such as the Red Cross into the protest area to encourage protesters to leave. "Whoever wants to leave, the government will organise transportation, [people] can go in any direction they want. Even men and tough guys and guards, the government will transport them out – the only condition is without weapons."
That means the government has removed the threat of terrorism charges, which carry a maximum penalty of death, for the Red Shirt leaders if they leave the camp peacefully by tomorrow afternoon.

But the leaders who rejected the offer for elections (there was a split in the 22-member 'leadership council' over whether to accept the offer) don't seem to want a peaceful resolution to the violence. They had countered the government's offer with the demand that the deputy prime minister be arrested for ordering troops to move on Red Shirts on April 10, when 25 of the protestors were killed. The demand predictably caused the government to withdraw the offer.

Then today the leaders demanded the United Nations step in, but there was a catch:
"We want the UN to moderate it because we do not trust anyone else. There is no group in Thailand that is neutral enough," the redshirt co-leader Nattawut Saikua said. "We have no other condition. We do not want any more losses."
If you don't trust any group in Thailand then you're not asking for negotiation, and no offer the government can make will be acceptable.

The government rejected the demand: "If they really want to talk, they should not set conditions like asking us to withdraw troops," said Korbsak Sabhavasu, the prime minister's secretary-general. "They cannot make demands if they want to negotiate."

As for bringing in the U.N.:
" ... no governments allow any organisations to intervene in their internal affairs,” Panitan Wattanayagorn, the government spokesman, said ..."
At least some of the Red Shirts have also made the unreasonable demand that the king step in and fix things. That's setting up the king to be a pasty; so far he hasn't fallen for the ploy.

Is there a bottom line to all this, aside from a bloodbath? The urban warfare has virtually shut down one of the most important cities in Southeast Asia, delivered a blow to Thailand's economy, and scared foreign investors. On the other side of the picture, the Red Shirts claim to represent the country's electoral majority -- the poorest Thais in the rural portions of the country.

And Thaksin, a former telecom tycoon who is variously described as a multi-millionaire or billionaire, is now facing a close review of his financial records:
(Reuters - May 16, 8:19 AM EDT ) - Financial transactions involving 106 bank or stock accounts associated with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra will be halted if found to be linked to anti-government protesters, the National Security Council (NSC) said on Sunday.

The accounts and assets -- held by associates, family members and businesses linked to the exiled multi-millionaire -- will be monitored and frozen if found linked to the protest movement.

The Stock Exchange of Thailand, asset management, insurance firms and commercial banks are prohibited from facilitating any such transactions, Tawil Pliensri, secretary-general of the NSC said in a televised address.

The government says Thaksin, who is currently believed to be in Montenegro, evading a two-year jail term for graft, is the de facto leader and main financier of the red-shirted protesters occupying parts of Bangkok.
It seems members of his family had seen the writing on the wall. The Bangkok Post reported today:
Khunying Potjaman na Pombejra, ex-wife of fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and her son and daughter, Panthongtae and Pinthongtha Shinawatra, left for Singapore on May 14, reports said.

Reports said another daughter, Paethongtan, was in a European country. She also left Bangkok on Friday.
A news report yesterday mentioned that Montenegro's government isn't allowing him to send "political messages" to his followers in Thailand. However, I think they'd have to place him in solitary confinement to prevent him from communicating with Red Shirt leaders. Thaksin's ouster from Thailand's government is a major grievance of the Red Shirts.

Today he issued a statement through his attorney calling for the "international community to respond to the Thai government's violent crackdown on protestors in Bangkok." It seems to me if he can get that message out to the world he can also call for the Red Shirt leaders to tell their people to stand down.

From what I've learned up to this point, I'd say the bottom line is war between Thaksin and Thailand's government. Reportedly not all Red Shirts are his supporters. But if his hard-line Red Shirt loyalists can't bring down the government it seems they want to drag it through as much mud as possible.

Thaksin became head of Thailand's government by circumventing the elite power structure; he did this by spreading a great of money among Thailand's majority, the country's rural poor. Then, once he was in power, he solidified his hold on the majority with lavish government handouts. As I noted in yesterday's post Thaksin's strategy opened Pandora's Box; to use a more Asian metaphor he caught a tiger by the tail.

It is the elite, which includes Thaksin, that built Thailand into an economic powerhouse. I doubt all the rural poor are the idiots it seems many urban Thais view them to be. But I don't think enough are qualified at this time to run a globalized and highly urbanized central government.

The fault in this goes to the elite, to be sure, so Thaksin is on the right side of history. However, he's not helping the poor if he continues to use them as pawns in his war against the government even in the face of a bloodbath that will only further divide the country.

What follows is a background report. The one I presented yesterday, by a Westerner named Charles E Morrison (the President of the East-West Center) is the best introduction I've seen to the roots of the current political melee in Thailand. The second report drills deeper and presents Thaksin's view of things.

The author, Suranand Vejjajiva, served in the Thaksin Shinawatra cabinet when Thaksin was prime minister. He's now a political analyst. He wrote the report for the Bangkok Post, and he clearly directed it to Western readers who have no familiarity with Thailand's history and politics. That leaves him with considerable leeway to shade the picture; however, the outside world does need to know more about the views of Thaksin and his supporters.

I won't resist adding that the author's criticism of government-owned media outlets in Thailand is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. While Thaksin was in power The Bangkok Post, which is not government owned, bent over backward to accommodate his government.

A final note before I cede the floor: the "different colored" shirt groups he refers to are the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts; the latter was originally created as a protest against Thaksin and his government's alleged corruption while he was in power. The Yellow Shirts are mainly drawn from "middle and upper-class Bangkokians and Southerners of all classes and supported by the conservative factions of the Thai Army, some leaders of Democrat Party, and members of state-enterprise labor unions," according to Wikipedia. It's a long story, and you can read about it in the Wikipedia article on the Yellow Shirts -- the neutrality of which is disputed, of course.
The challenge of building unity in a world of diversity
by Suranand Vejjajiva
Published: 14/05/2010 at 12:00 AM
The Bangkok Post; Newspaper section: News

Have you listened to the government- and army-owned television and radio stations, which in Thailand mean all with the exception of community radios and cable/satellite TV stations? Blaring out are talk shows and advertising spots calling for kwam samakkee and pen nueng deo literally calling for "unity and harmony" and "becoming one".

Then you can look at the present political conflict with different coloured shirt groups of protesters on the streets. You cannot help but wonder whether these types of nationalistic propaganda are still relevant, or are they just nostalgic sentiments among the current holders of power?

The Kingdom of Siam, or Thailand as it has been called since the change of name in 1939, is a nation state which comprises different ethnic groups living together under the monarchy, with the power structure centralised in Bangkok, the capital of the nation for the last 228 years. With the Revolution of 1932 changing absolute monarchy to a constitutional one, the three pillars of Chard, Sassana, Phra-maha-kasat or "Nation, Religion, King" have become the core principle unifying the peoples under a one-nation state.

The centralisation model used during King Rama IV (1851-1868) and King Rama V (1851-1910) to fight off the threat of European colonialism was adapted into a nationalistic regime in the guise of democracy with a constitutional monarchy, to fend off neo-colonialism and communism especially after WWII. Ethnic cultures are suppressed to favour a modern, unified "Thai-ness". The Thai "central" dialect became the "official" Thai language. Bangkok is virtually the centre of the universe to which resources from upcountry flow and in which wealth is concentrated but is barely trickled down or disbursed back.

As economic globalisation took hold in the past two decades and the threat of communism subsided politically, the "end of history" scenario as Francis Fukuyama described is just an end to one chapter while the rise of the global village and the "clash of civilisations" which Samuel Huntington theorised emerged. The advent of the internet and modern communications technology coupled with developed transportation infrastructure have brought the world closer together. On the positive side is, of course, the apparent economic advancement, but on the negative side is the raised awareness in the differences between ethnic groups - the wellbeing of peoples and communities in different areas are accentuated.

Thailand is no different. It is an illusion to believe that the "melting pot" works here, blending Thai, Lao, Chinese, Mon, Khmer, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Lanna and Isan through to various hill-tribes, into a perfect soup, a united monoculture. We are, in reality, more like a jub-chai kind of culture, a hotchpotch or medley of different vegetables and meat, each with its own characteristic, simmering in one pot.

The Deep South exploded first. The injustice and discrimination felt among the southern Malay Muslims are the sharpest compared to groups in other regions. Historical wounds coupled with rhetoric from the present confrontation between Muslim fundamentalists and the Western world brought about a terror campaign in the three southernmost provinces, now in its sixth year since the raid on the armoury in Narathiwat on Jan 4, 2004.

Then the red shirts rose. The Lanna North, although more gentle and peaceful, has a long history dating back even before the Ayutthaya Period. The local pride could be felt everywhere and legends of the old kingdom prevailed. The Isan Northeast, more tough and rough, not only has the largest share of the population in the country but also a rich mixed culture of local folklore and great empires of the past.

In the past, Bangkok, with its centralised but extensive bureaucratic network, was able to co-opt those people in the outer regions, suppressing dissent while handing out development projects and assistance. A governor is appointed to "rule" each province in the manner of the feudal lord who acts as a benevolent representative from the central government. But under the veil, abuses of power and extraction of local resources to feed the economic growth of Bangkok caused discontent, with strong reactionary protests, even fighting.

This is especially true for the Isan people whose poverty made the region the hotbed for communist insurgencies before - even to the point of possible secession from the Kingdom of 16 provinces at the height of the Cold War.

One may believe that Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai Party was the stimulant that aroused such regionalism but in reality Thaksin was riding the historical wave at the right time and place. People saw Thaksin as the leader who opened up opportunities for economic and social advancement and political rights and liberties. The red shirt movement took hold because it is crystallised from the long and bitter struggles of the past. The injustice and double-standard issues are not a recent phenomenon.

To say that these red shirt people are politically inept and can be fooled into participating in political protests is totally absurd and ignorant. The sad part is a lot of people in the Bangkok establishment circle still think that way.

The key question is: Can Thailand remain unified as a nation? Speculation of a coming civil war is just the worst-case scenario. Even with a bloody conflict very likely, the Kingdom will remain united, to a certain degree and under terms of arrangement.

The key to unity is the institution of the monarchy. The vast majority of Thais remain loyal to the monarch and are in accord that the institution be the main pillar of the nation. And the monarchy must be revered and upheld above politics and conflicts.

But being united as a kingdom does not translate into unity under any particular government or the bureaucracy or the Bangkok establishment as the current propaganda is trying to make it seem. Beneath the constitutional monarchy is democracy. And in democracy lies the answer to the challenge of building unity in a world of diversity.

A democratic process will empower people by opening up economic opportunities and guaranteeing equality in accessing resources for development and progress. Rights and liberties will be ensured. The diversity can co-exist under one united umbrella but it has to be one of true democracy, not one manipulated by the privileged for their own benefit.

That is what the red shirts are asking for, really. And if they are crushed by the weight of the Bangkok establishment this weekend, be sure that they will rise back again, and again.


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