Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Goliath 1, David 0

Riot or revolution, the week-long revolt of the red shirts in Bangkok ended yesterday, not with a bang but a whimper. Hundreds of heavily armed soldiers with M-16s formed a noose around Government House while the several thousand remaining members of the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), many of them in tears, filed past to buses waiting to take them back to their home provinces. Each had to show their ID card and have their picture taken by the authorities. As the troops drew near to them Tuesday morning, protest leader Veera Musigapong had told everyone to disperse. This is not a defeat, he said, but is aimed at protecting the life of the protesters.

This ending was inevitable, given that the anti-government gathering of over 100,000 red-clad Thais I visited and photographed last Wednesday was a collection of Davids battling a Goliath not yet ready to fall. The powerful military, wealthy royalists and "godfather" politicians who run Thailand and who backed Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's rise to power four months ago have not yet abandoned him. This had been in question on Saturday when red shirts overwhelmed ineffective security in Pattaya to force cancellation of a major summit conference, dealing Abhisit a humiliating blow. Why had the military been unable to prevent this? The soldiers finally emerged on Sunday, not with tanks but with numerous armored personnel carriers, riot shields and guns. Abhisit's relatively peaceful resolution of the conflict which ended four days of rioting and street battles in Bangkok should do much to restore his reputation.

Monday was called "Black Songkran" by the press, for the beginning of the three-day Thai New Year's water festival. Red shirts spread throughout downtown Bangkok, blocking busy traffic intersections with taxis and comandeered buses, and throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at riot control forces. On Sunday, thugs had attacked Abhisit's car, seriously injuring his driver, and the prime minister
declared a state of emergency in the city. I stayed home, glued to the TV, heart sick that what seemed like a broadbased demand for "real" or "true" democracy by people excluded from the political process had descended into anarchy. Red shirts set fire to buses and piles of tires, sending black smoke into the clear blue sky. They even threatened to blow up a gas tanker near an apartment building if solders advanced. In some neighborhoods, residents fought back and two were reported killed by rioters. Others sent driverless buses careening into lines of troops. Later, protest leaders would argue that much of the chaos was caused by agitators and renegades, but it appeared as if the demonstration had spiraled out of contol and turned into a violent mob. "The red-shirt movement is not a military movement," said Jakrapob Penkair, one of the most prominent opposition leaders. "There are several groups who came to join us because of the emotional, ideological similarities," he said. "Their methods might not be desirable or satisfactory, but I maintain we cannot control the people from doing what they feel they have to do." I hoped that the military could end the standoff quickly and with a minimum of violence.

Today the media, aligned with the country's power elite, is crowing over their success. "
The army has become the people's hero," wrote the Bangkok Post. Although government spokespersons said the military used blanks and shot in the air only to warn protesters, TV footage clearly shows soldiers aiming at protesters, and of the 100 injuries reported, many were from gunshot wounds. That the carnage was not greater is more of an accident than the intent of either side. Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled prime minister who was overthrown by the military in 2006, had addressed his supporters around Government House by video link and had called for a revolution (which he retracted two days later). In addition to Musigapong, protest leaders Natthawut Saikua and Dr. Weng Tochirakarn turned themselves in to police. Warrants were issued for others, and several went into hiding. "It gets harder and harder to see any way out or reasonable way forward for Thailand,” said Duncan McCargo, a professor of Southeast Asian politics at the University of Leeds. “Both sides have lost sight of reason in their absolute determination to thwart the other.”

What is the result of all this? Peace will be illusive now as hundreds of thousands of seeds for full democracy return to their cities and villages. Many will notice that the treatment of red shirts was vastly different from that of the yellow shirts last year. Other than one feeble attempt to disperse them, members of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) were allowed to occupy Government House for months and close down the country's international airport for a week without serious consequences. PAD leaders remain at large, and have threatened to return to the streets if its puppet, the Abhisit government, does not perform as ordered. The UDD television channel was taken off the air while PAD's ASTV continues to operate and agitate for conservative goals. The red shirts, while not all supporters of Thaksin's return, are angry that his elected government was overturned by the military in 2006, and two prime ministers loyal to him, whose party won the December 2007 election, were deposed by the PAD protests and politicized court decisions. Abhisit, whose Democratic Party has never won an election, came to power through Parlimentary maneuvering. The red shirts conclude that democracy is a farce in Thailand and this message may spread, despite their failure in Bangkok to force Abhisit from office.

"I want to save the people," Jatuporn Phromphan, one of the protest leaders, said as he walked up to surrender to police with a grim-faced band of supporters. "But I will continue to fight for democracy." By naming the King's closest adviser as the architect of the 2006 military, coup, Thaksin violated the rules of discreet political discourse in Thailand and released a genie that will not go back in the bottle. The blogger who writes under the name of Khi Khwi (buffalo dung), says that
those who yearn for real democratic change — those whose ideals transcend the restoration of Thaksin to an office he occupied legitimately and abused shamefully — should take heart in the recognition that the events of the last few months may have already undone decades of establishment propaganda. Old taboos are being shattered. Old myths are being destroyed. And, at long last, the iniquity of old untouchables is now being increasingly exposed to well-deserved public disgust.
Some think Abhisit will change his spots and become the reformer many Thais want. Born to rule, the patrician Abhisit has been unflappable throughout this crisis. If he can break free of his handlers, he might attempt to push through necessary changes to the 2007 constitution dictated by the military which bans political parties for the indiscretions of a single politician, the law that brought down Samak and Somchai's People's Power Party last year and which exists nowhere else in the world. But the powers behind him are ruthless. Thailand has the most independent military of any democracy in the world, with a surplus of generals involved in a variety of business enterprises. They do not automatically obey the head of state. Behind it all is the 82-year-old monarch, 9th king in the Chakri dynasty. Since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, the ruler is by law above politics, but no one doubts the power that is wielded in his name. Most recently, the brutal lèse majesté law has been used to stifle dissent, even though the King in the past has declared that he is not above criticism.

Thailand's future is full of promise and peril. That's what I find exciting about living here. Nothing is certain. While some of the scenes on TV in the last week showed rage out of control, I find Thais normally to be warm and friendly. I feel perfectly safe here. They appreciated my appearance at their rally last Wednesday and gave me the thumbs up for witnessing their call for true democracy in Thailand. It's not easy to understand a culture so different from the one in which I grew up, a southeast Asian country possessing a political history filled with strange twists and turns. I'm trying to decipher the role Buddhist and animist religious beliefs and rituals play in Thai behavior. And why is the monarchy so important? Looking at life here through the traditional East-West bifurcation is not useful. Asia is no more exotic than America; it's just less familiar. Many Thais are tired of being manipulated by corrupt politicians who buy their votes but withhold real power in determining their lives. This goes for Thaksin as well as Abhisit and the current government. Power controlled by Bangkok and exercised by godfathers in the provinces is not real democracy, and the red shirts that gathered here this week know that. They will not remain silent for long. And I want to be here to see what happens next.

Recent resources for understanding Thailand's ongoing revolution for democracy: Exiled academic Giles Ji Ungpakorn on "The Reds' Fight for Real Democracy" in the London Guardian, Tyrell Haberkorn's "Thailand's democratic crisis" on openDemocracy.net, "Thais on the Brink" by historian Michael J. Montesano in the Malayasian Insider, and Andrew Walker and Nicholas Farrelly on "Thailand's Royal Sub-Plot" in Inside Story.

1 comment:

hobby said...

For a slightly different take on the Thai political situation, can I humbly suggest that you expand your resource base to include the works of Duncan McCargo, Michael Connors, and Pasuk & Baker.