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Tuesday, May 18

Brilliant reporting puts Bangkok crisis in new light (UPDATED)

UPDATE 2:10 AM EDT Wednesday March 19
I've been doing updates on the Thailand crisis; here is the latest post (May 19 12:55 AM EDT Finally, a glimmer of truth about Thailand mess. Implications for Pakistan and Mexico -- and Iran. CIA, please take notes..

Also see latest Reuters report on crisis -- Thai military breaks through Red Shirt camp barricades ...and my May 18 post on steeply rising economic toll for Thailand from the crisis.

And here's the link for the live blogging on the crisis at Reuters site. Cut and paste version of link:
http://live.reuters.com/Event/Bangkok_protests
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7:00 AM EDT UPDATE
The original version of this post heaped praise on Associated Press journalist Denis Gray for reporting that put the standoff between the Red Shirts and the government in a new light: the report detailed police and military incompetence in the handling of the crisis and addressed divided loyalties in the security forces. Gray's report also had implications for maintaining security in today's cities, and particularly megacites, because the crisis had escalated into urban warfare.

Yet within an hour of posting the story I had to yank it; this was when I learned that the Reuters team of Jason Szep and Ambika Ahuja had beaten Gray to the punch by almost 12 hours. Ironically I'd praised the team's reporting in the original version of this post. That's the way things can go in the pell-mell 24/7 news cycle; sometimes a report gets past me.

In their report titled Worst may be yet to come in deepening Thai crisis, the Reuters team pointed out that the police and military had a role in exacerbating the crisis -- a theme that Gray amplified and made the centerpiece of his report.

Gray also emphasized an angle that the Reuters team didn't address, which is the incompetence shown by the police and military. So his report, which I feature below, is still very illuminating.

However, the Reuters report, which contains additional reporting by Martin Petty, also deserves close attention because it addresses important issues that I doubt anyone in Washington wants to grapple with at this time:
[...] Most analysts say British-born, Oxford-educated Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva won't last long.

Whether he resigns depends on whether this operation ends in heavy losses. At the moment, that's a strong possibility.

Neither side is backing down.

Even if Abhisit disperses the crowd, his political prospects look uncertain, dimmed by weeks of bloodshed that includes 25 people killed and more than 1,000 wounded on April 10 when troops tried but failed to end protests in Bangkok's old quarter.
[...]
"The political divide is increasingly hard to bridge. Hardliners are gaining ground and moderates are being squeezed out," said Viengrat Nethito of Chulalongkorn University.

"The king as a traditional conflict resolver and figure of moral authority is in hospital. That leaves few with enough credibility and moral authority to do the job of moderator.

"Many of the country's elders have been discredited, polarized, politicized, and pulled to one end of the political spectrum or another. That leaves no one, or no strong enough institution, to moderate the larger conflict," he said.

With no peacemaker, the risk of unrest is growing in the north and northeast, a red shirt stronghold, home to just over half of Thailand's 67 million people. Scattered signs of unrest have erupted in recent days. The government has imposed a state of emergency in a quarter of the country to keep order.

RURAL MASSES

Without major reforms to a political system that protesters claim favors the elite over rural masses, there's little chance of stifling the anger that has erupted into violence in Bangkok.

Abhisit has offered a national reconciliation plan but has come under fire for failing to build political support to revise a military-written constitution that overtook a 1997 charter seen as Thailand's most democratic constitution.

Analysts say the longer the fighting goes on -- with troops opening fire on demonstrators fighting back with petrol bombs, slingshots and grenades -- the weaker Abhisit looks, and the more alienated he becomes even by his own supporters.

"His position has been in jeopardy since he ordered the crackdown," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"He will go down in the Thai history as a leader who ordered the killing of the people, even when it meant saving the country -- and his own power position."

If pushed aside by his powerful backers, he would likely be replaced by a coalition partner deemed acceptable to the public in a caretaker role. That would do little to resolve the problem, potentially inciting more protests and strengthening the case for immediate polls the protesters' allies would likely win.

That political victory could bring big changes, including the ousting of generals allied with Thailand's royalist elite, a prospect royalists fear could diminish the power of the monarchy -- and one Abhisit's backers would fight to stop at all costs.

"Even if the protestors are dispersed, which obviously will eventually happen, the underlying social tensions and political tensions will not have been resolved, and they will come up again," said Josh Kurlantzick of the U.S-based think tank, Council on Foreign Relations.

"It's a fallacy for the government to think they can just crush this."
The concerns about Abhisit's shelf life as PM are further addressed in a Reuters report filed today from Bangkok by Nopporn Wong-Anan and Ambika Ahuja (2:10 AM EDT):
Thai protesters agree to talks to end violence

[Summary] Thai anti-government protesters agreed on Tuesday to talks brokered by a Senate leader to end Thailand's deadliest political crisis in 18 years, but analysts doubted the negotiations would halt the spiraling violence.

Troops have surrounded thousands of anti-government demonstrators in the fortified camp they have occupied for six weeks in central Bangkok, as soldiers armed with assault rifles skirmish with protesters on several major roads in the capital.

"We have agreed to take a new round of talks proposed by the Senate because if we allow things to go on like this, we don't know how many more lives will be lost," Nattawut Saikua, one of the "red shirt" leaders, told a news conference.

A group of 64 senators in the 150-member Seante proposed the talks and offered to mediate with the protesters, urging a ceasefire on both sides.

But analysts say that while the proposal is positive, it is unlikely to lead to a peace deal.

The government has not responded and a group of 40 other senators with more pro-government leanings called on the red shirts to surrender and enter the court process.

"It's just the beginning and it's the kind of an offer that doesn't carry much weight since the senators are not speaking in one voice," said Somjai Phagaphasvivat, a political scientist at Bangkok's Thammasat University.

But Boonyakiat Karavekphan, political analyst at Ramkhamhaeng University, said the proposal was a promising start.

"Both sides have come to a dead-end and the only way to get out of this deadlock is to return to the negotiations," he said.

The government's response to the offer was not immediately known, but Nattawut, speaking inside the protesters' fortified camp, said it was in the interests of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to seek a negotiated end to the unrest. [...]
All right; so that's where things stood this afternoon in Bangkok.

Now to return to the original post, which I edited lightly to take the Reuters reports into account.

(For readers who keep track of such things: although the Blogger time stamp shows it was posted at 12:05 AM EDT I didn't publish the original until around 2:15 AM.)
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The other night while I was struggling to see through the fog of events in Bangkok, I uttered a string of colorful phrases after I wasted time reading a report by a (London) Times Online journalist. Newly arrived in Bangkok, he wandered around reporting in 'emo-journalism' fashion on his impressions of the Red Shirt riots.

(Think Anderson Cooper's emotional reporting on New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina if you don't know what emo-journalism is.)

I didn't want impressions. I wanted to know what the hell was going on over there. I turned impatiently to the wire services for help. The Reuters bureau chief in Bangkok, an award-winning journalist named Jason Szep who covers Thailand and Indochina, had teamed up with veteran Thai reporter Ambika Ahuja to produce a report that was the clearest window on the crisis at that time.

More and more during the past decade, as major newspapers and television outlets have rolled up foreign desks or slashed them to the bone in cost-cutting measures, the wire services (e.g., Reuters, AP, Bloomberg) have shouldered the burden not only for breaking hard news stories but for investigative reports. A gold-standard example of wire-service investigative journalism is found in the following report by Denis D. Gray for the Associated Press (AP).

The report will be of great interest to police forces and domestic security services, both government and private, around the world. Riding alongside the social problems that led to the Red Shirt protests is the issue of managing megacities in the 21st Century. The issue takes on greater importance with every year that passes as rural populations quickly migrate in large numbers to large cities, turning them into megacities where vast numbers of poor coexist with the business of a financial and/or industrial hub that is often the economic lifeblood of an entire nation.

Whether the megacity is Mumbai, London, Karachi, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles, Shenzen or Bangkok (22nd most populous city in the world; 2009 ranking), nations that depend on global trade can ill-afford to see the business of a megacity take a hard blow from natural disasters, incompetent management, mass rioting, or guerilla-style urban warfare.

And that's been the strange thing about the Red Shirt situation in Bangkok: How was a protest movement able to take over Thailand's capital and the country's largest city, given Bangkok's modern police force and a professional national military? And take it over not for days but for almost two months with no end in sight yet? Although the Red Shirts did have access to a few modern weapons their firepower in no way matched that of the police or military's.

Part of the answer seemed to be found in 'Seh Daeng,' a renegade major general who fashioned the Red Shirts' motley crew of defenders into a disciplined paramilitary force. The rest was a mystery, at least for those who're at the bottom of a steep learning curve about Thailand's politics, until the Reuters report mentioned above, and this one:
Thai protests expose military rifts, incompetence

By DENIS D. GRAY (AP) – May 17, 11:00 PM EDT

BANGKOK — Soldiers have been hit by their own tear gas. Riot police scattered in fear when a party balloon popped. An anti-government protester, surrounded by security forces, escaped down a rope from a hotel balcony to the cheers of supporters.

In the two-month standoff between Thai security forces and protesters in Bangkok, there have been times when the demonstrators have seemed more organized and the troops hobbled by incompetence, divided loyalties and dangerous infighting.

Some troops have seemed unwilling to obey government orders. Others openly fraternized with the Red Shirt demonstrators — a motley alliance of rural and urban poor.

Rather than quash the protest movement while it was vulnerable, these actions have allowed the number of demonstrators to mushroom and fortify themselves.

"If Red Shirt organization and staying power has proved surprising, the performance of the security forces has been nothing less than alarming," said Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based security analyst. "A remarkable display of incompetence and inaction has seen swaths of the capital city calmly surrendered to mob rule."

Authorities are trying to choke off a 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) area of downtown Bangkok where several thousand die-hard protesters remain entrenched behind barricades of bamboo spikes and tires.

The government hopes that will end the crippling demonstration in which at least 66 people have been killed and more than 1,600 wounded.

There are signs that the government plan is working. Authorities say the numbers inside the protest zone have shrunk to some 3,000 from 10,000 or more a week ago.

But the operation is proving both ineffective and bloody. After the government trumpeted the deployment of overwhelming force — more than 30,000 men and columns of armored personnel carriers — there are inadequate numbers of troops, without any armored vehicles, actually laying siege to the Red Shirt encampment.

And even with their diminished numbers, the Red Shirts have been able to punch out of their enclave and fight running gunbattles with sometimes confused military units in several districts of the city.

"Despite all the violence so far, it is still unclear if the army would be willing to launch a full-on assault to break up the main protest site," said Andrew Walker, a Thailand expert at The Australian National University.

Many within the police, especially in lower echelons, are supporters of the Red Shirts and their hero, ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who began his career in the force.

They and sympathizers within the ranks of the army are popularly called "watermelons" — referring to green uniforms but hidden support of the Red Shirt protesters. Several former army officers are serving as military advisers to the anti-government demonstrators. Among them was Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdiphol, who was shot by an apparent sniper last week and died of his wounds Monday.

The debilitating divisions within the Royal Thai Army are more complex.

In contrast to other Asian nations such as South Korea, Indonesia and even Pakistan, which have tamed their once-powerful militaries, Thailand has had a potent, sometimes decisive force in the political arena. Modern Thai history bristles with 18 military coups and military strongmen, with the army commander often exercising more clout than the prime minister.

The current commander in chief, Gen. Anupong Paojinda, has insisted that the army remains united behind "the nation, the people and His Majesty," King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Early in the crisis, Anupong signaled his reluctance to use force and reportedly is anxious about becoming a possible scapegoat with blood on his hands before his planned retirement in September.

Clearly his troops made halfhearted attempts at best to enforce the emergency decrees and other orders from the weak coalition government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

The lackluster efforts may have stemmed in part from mixed signals to the troops because Anupong's deputy and likely successor, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, is known as a proponent of aggressive action.

"The military is divided within, with many senior officers seeking advantage over intraservice rivals, while doubting the willingness of enlisted personnel to act decisively against their own class," said G.M. Greenwood of Allan and Associates, a Hong Kong-based risk consultancy.

Amid the crisis, senior officers are engaging in the high-stakes jockeying for position that precedes every year's fall military reshuffle, when some retire and others are promoted or sidelined. Loyalties are often divided along military academy graduating classes.

Speculation persists that during the worst violence on April 10, when 25 people were killed and more than 800 wounded, a faction of the military itself was involved in the killing of a colonel and wounding of two senior officers, all close to Prayuth and slated for promotion.

Other theories say the black-clad killers, caught on film and video, were former pro-Red Shirt army rangers or a military-style unit within the protest movement.

Many Thais and expatriates untutored in military matters are baffled by the lack of grit displayed by many soldiers and police.

"Given that the prospect of civil unrest has been growing steadily since 2006, the failure to develop dedicated units in either the police or military capable of a calibrated response is remarkable," said Davis, who also writes for Jane's Intelligence Review, a security publication. Lacking skills in non-lethal methods, the options narrowed to using deadly force or being overwhelmed by protesters.

The prime minister has defended the army's performance and maintained that the military and government are unified.

"I think it would be unfair to say the military have been unsuccessful in what they tried to do," Abhisit told The Associated Press.

But to date, the record has been unimpressive.

Military authorities have telegraphed operations before they were launched. When Red Shirt leaders left encampments with relatively small numbers of followers, authorities failed to muster enough force to arrest them.

In the most recent clashes, troops seem to be violating a basic military doctrine by taking ground from the protesters and then just pulling back to their original positions. On April 10, soldiers abandoned armored vehicles to protesters armed with little more than stones and bamboo spears.

Actions by police and troops have on occasion smacked of slapstick comedy. A Red Shirt leader, Arisman Pongruangrong, was surrounded by police but eluded them by climbing down a rope from a hotel balcony to rousing cheers from supporters. Soldiers guarding a TV station failed to wear masks when they threw tear gas canisters at onrushing protesters — only to be overcome themselves when the wind changed.

A balloon being festooned for a restaurant's Cinco de Mayo celebration burst unexpectedly and sent armed police positioned outside scurrying for cover in panic. The restaurant owner thought it best to remove the balloons.

Associated Press writer Grant Peck contributed to this report.

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