Tuesday, March 09, 2010

An Open Letter to the Red Shirts

I support the goal of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (popularly called red shirts) of "ending the age of the Thai military dictatorship and restoring freedom, democracy and justice to our beautiful nation." To that end, the UDD is mobilizing a major protest demonstration in Bangkok this coming weekend when several hundred thousand supporters are expected to descend on the city from all over the country. They will be met by an unprecedented force of from 50,000 to 100,000 military and police with orders under the draconian Internal Security Act to control them. Another 46,000 "disaster prevention volunteers" are on standby. "Our aim is to topple the government," said UDD leader Jaran Ditsatapichai at a press conference last week, "to force them to make a choice between suppressing us and stepping down." The odds are not good, and the prospects of violence are significant. Although I had been asked by the red shirts to help them communicate with the international community, Nan is very fearful of the consequences of my involvement and I am not a little afraid of trouble in the streets. So, as a guest in Thailand, I must respectfully decline to participate directly and will stand on the sidelines praying the Metta Sutta and hoping for an outcome that might somehow reduce the tensions in this polarized country.

Last April, when 100,000 red shirts came to Bangkok and surrounded Government House, I went to see the demonstration for myself and took hundreds of photos. I encountered almost no other farang besides myself but was greeted warmly by many in the large crowd. With music and speeches on several stages, it felt to me like a Thai version of a political Woodstock. A day latter the celebration turned into rebellion with intersections closed by blockading taxis and burning buses, and protesters battling with police in the streets. There is some evidence that "third hand" instigators were behind the violence rather than protest leaders, but the red shirts lost the subsequent spin war. They were branded by backers of Prime Minister Abhisit as revolutionary thugs, enemies of the monarchy and the nation. Worst of all, they were merely pawns of Thaksin Shinawatra, the corrupt leader overthrow by the military in a 2006 coup.

I've been trying to understand the politics of Thailand since I arrived here in August of 2007. Since then I've read many books, articles, news stories and blogs and attended numerous talks. And I've been persuaded that the red shirts are a broad-based political movement fueled by the rising expectations of the rural and urban poor who were given a voice for the first time by Thaksin's policies. He was twice elected prime minister by large margins. I also believe that "unusually wealthy" Thaksin became rich by feeding at the public trough as the government's leader (the gory details are in the comprehensive book Thaksin by economist Pasuk Phongpaichit and historian Chris Baker). His overthrow by the bureaucratic, business and military elites that had traditionally kept the poor under their thumbs made him an immediate martyr to the red shirt's cause. Thaksin is a potent symbol that currently unifies the movement but I believe it is the thirst by disenfranchised people for true democracy that will survive

Since 2006, the military has been effectively in charge of Thailand. They rammed through a new constitution consolidating their power that replaced the popular "People's Constitution" of 1997. The junta's version was the 17th charter since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932 (there have been 18 military coups since then). The preamble to the junta's 2006 document reads: "Thailand has been under the rule of democratic government with the King as head of state for more than 75 years." But political scientist Federico Ferrara calls this the "comic-book version of Thai history" in his book, Thailand Unhinged, and says the country "has only been a 'democracy' in any meaningful sense of the word for a relatively small portion of its post-absolutist history." When the Supreme Court decided last week to keep two-thirds of Thaksin's frozen assets, it was acting under the military junta's constitution even though the generals in their coup had violated the 1997 constitution which was never questioned. The most potent charge the red shirts have against the rulers of Thailand is that it governs under "double standards," one law for the rich and powerful and another for the poor and underprivileged. As Suranand Vejjajiva, a former cabinet minister in Thaksin's administration and currently a columnist for the Bangkok Post, said recently, "Taxi drivers routinely get stopped by police and have to pay fines. It's not the BMWs and Mercedes Benz owners that are being stopped." The red shirts' most recent success was to force Privy Councillor Gen. Surayud Chulanont to demolish the home he had built illegally on national forest land where the poor are often arrested for poaching. Surayud had been appointed prime minister by the military after the 2006 coup.

Three dates are infamous in Thai history: October 14 1973; October 16, 1976, and "Black May" (17-20) 1992. Each time popular uprisings were crushed by security forces with numerous deaths. In 1973, nearly 500,000 people gathered around the Democracy Monument in Bangkok to protest the regime of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikhachon for operating without a constitution. Soldiers firing into the crowd killed 77 and wounded 857. Thanon's return from exile in 1976 provoked another large demonstration that led to perhaps the deaths of 300 students at Thammasat University at the hands of the military and private militias. And in 1992, the military cracked down on over 200,000 demonstrators protesting another coup's constitution and killed nearly 100. Between 1992 and 2006, the military's status as well as its budget were at an all-time low ebb. But the coup of 2006 which removed Thaksin has restored their fortunes and made the generals more powerful than ever (despite recent revelations that they spent millions on a bogus bomb detector and a surveillance blimp that cannot fly).

I fear that something like the above will happen next weekend when the red shirts attempt to make the government choose between suppressing their demonstration and dissolving parliament as a prelude to new elections. Abhisit, the leader of the Democratic Party, who cobbled together a ruling coalition after the coup courts had deposed two prime ministers, has never won an election, and would almost certainly be defeated by Thaksin supporters and red shirts if a new election were called. Since he's the tool of the elites another coup would be unlikely. So the ruling elite have everything to gain by suppressing the demonstration this weekend. Even though the red shirts have declared non-violence as one of their "Six Principles," there have already been several incidents that indicate "third hand" elements may provoke a response or simulate violence on their behalf (a grenade was thrown at a bank and weapons were allegedly stolen from an army warehouse). Government spokesmen have issued numerous hysterical warnings about possible violence, jacking up the fears of the urban population so that a military response will ultimately seem justified. It's a scary scenario.

The red shirts by contrast seem supremely rational end eminently peaceful. Smaller regional demonstrations have been held for several months without incident. Through their English-speaking spokesman Sean Boompracong (on Facebook and Twitter), they have declared their beliefs in constitutional monarchy, non-violent change, a justice system free of double standards, and that Thai citizens "deserve to have their voices heard and their concerns addressed." In addition to the above, their six-point program includes the restoration of the 1997 constitution and "an effort to deconstruct and move beyond the Amartyatippatai (aristocracy) system." They cite Mahatma Gandhi as an example for their movement as he was "successful in liberating the Indian national from the rule of the British Empire."

When I arrived in Thailand the military junta was consolidating its power and promoting a new constitution. But when the first election was held, candidates supportive of Thaksin won handily. Clearly a majority of the electorate did not support the coup. Then the ironically named People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which had demonstrated against Thaksin prior to the coup, took again to the streets, and for many months shut down operations at Government House and even closed both Bangkok airports for a week. This motly collection of urban middle class and thugs for hire had backers in high places. The police were ineffective at stopping them and the military refused to act. Their disruptions caused billions in losses to the Thai economy and the fact that no one was ever convicted of any offense is the clearest example reds can offer about double standards in the justice system. A year ago, after two prime ministers were removed on legal technicalities, Abhisit came to power when one of Thaksin's former lieutenants defected, allegedly at the urging of the military and other powerful sources. Young and well-spoken, he was the ideal front man and has performed well for his backers.

So now we have a classic Mexican standoff (look it up). Neither side has shown the slightest willingness to compromise with the other. Thaksin, according to the yellow shirts and Abhisit's backers, is the devil incarnate. Red shirt leader Jakrapob Penkair, currently in exile, declares that he and his comrades will drive what the calls the "aristocratic dictatorship" from power. The red shirts, according to their elite despisers, are revolutionaries intent on overthrowing the monarchy. "The political situation remains fragile," said Foreign Minister Korn Chatikavanij yesterday. "There is a very small minority of people trying to create instability and potentially violence over the next few days." Thanong Khanthong, a columnist for The Nation who sides with the latter, wrote after the assets decision, "The potential clash looks inevitable, as any political compromise is out of the question." Only historian Thongchai Winijakul, author of the classic Siam Mapped about the construction of Thai identity through geographical adjustment, holds out any hope, and it will require patience. "The best option for the reds to win is by election," Thongchai argues. "No matter what, if they just wait, they have the vote. They are not stupid. They can wait."

The factor no one discusses is the eventual royal succession. Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, has been in the hospital for five months for an undisclosed condition. Last night Abhisit went to the hospital to brief him on plans for keeping order during next weekend's demonstration and the two were shown talking on all Thai news telecasts. After the slaughter of civilians in 1973, 1976 and 1992, the King was seen by some as a stabilizing factor. Since the 2006 coup, his main recorded comments have been during the installation of new judges when he advised them to "do your duty." This was interpreted as support for the Supreme Court's work in determining the disposition of Thaksin's frozen assets. The fact that they did not take all of ex-PM's money is seen as a gesture of fairness, although most commentators believe that Thaksin will never recover a single baht of the remaining third due to other impending court cases.

I am not sure what will happen next weekend, but I know that it will not settle the clash of colors in long-running unraveling of Thailand. Only enlightened statesmanship that would encourage the warring parties to discuss their differences and propose a compromise might stop the downhill slide. And there is no sign of that at the moment. So, because of the likelihood of violence on the part of disgruntled parties on either side of the color divide (and most likely by the so-called upholders of public order), I will not be marching with the red shirts this weekend. I'm also not sure that another large demonstration will bring down the government. If it does, it might be at an unacceptable cost. I agree with the opinion of Thongchai and think that patience, jai yen, will better achieve their goals. Time is on the side of the red shirts.


Hobby said...

Nice summary, but I dont think patience and protest are mutually exclusive.

Also are you following the involvement of Buddhist monks in the colour wars?
The Santi Asoke movement were the backbone for the long running yellow protests by providing considerable logistical support.
On the red side, I understand Thaksin has some relationship with the Dhammakaya temple?

Lets hope it's a peaceful weekend.

nipon said...

No offence but I think you are being a little naive. Thaksin won the elections by 'buying up' MP's. How can he be a champion of the poor when he is a member of the business elite. The bombs planted at Bangkok Bank and the faeces thrown at the PM's house are not done by a 'third hand', they are done by people who were paid directly or indirectly by Thaksin.

wenne said...

well i am sure you know ALL about thailand since you live here for now 3 years.
am in thailand for 15 years and still do not understand half of what is happening.

one thing though is for sure:
as long as the education system teaches thais to shut up and suffer, and as long as unscroupoulous rich people buy votes and influence the outcome of elections at their whim, it is wise not to take sides and just be ´Amazed´ at Thailand