Thailand protests: a close call

2010-05-21 00:00

“THE government does not want to negotiate, so I think many more people will die,” said Red Shirt leader Sean Boonpracong in Bangkok on Monday. “This will end as our Tiananmen Square.” Mercifully, it didn’t.

The danger was real enough. If the army had used all the force it had available in trying to clear the thousands of protesters out of central Bangkok, which they had occupied since mid-March, there would have been a massacre. And if hundreds of poor peasants (for that’s what most of them were) had been killed by the army, then it would have been trapped in power permanently­.

One is tempted to say that this demonstrates the basic common sense of Thais, except that we have just had such vivid demonstrations of unreason from the very same people.

Two weeks ago Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had agreed to the protesters’ key demand: new elections this year. Instead of closing the deal, the protesters insisted that Abhisit also order the arrest of his deputy prime minister for having ordered an earlier attack on their encampment in which about 24 people were killed.

Abhisit refused, of course — and then cancelled his offer of elections this year as well. That is why another 40 people were killed in the past two weeks, and why democracy in Thailand ended up in real danger. The obstinacy of both sides needlessly prolonged a confrontation that might have ended in much blood. It was more by good luck than by good judgment that the Thais got through this phase of the crisis without mass killing.

The Red Shirts who feel cheated by the political manipulations that put Abhisit in power have retreated from central Bangkok, but they are still very angry and they certainly predominate in northern and north-eastern Thailand, the country’s rural heartland. They could seize control of much of it tomorrow, if they chose to do so.

The roots of this crisis are in the military coup of 2006, when the Thai army overthrew the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin, an ex-policeman who became a telecommunications billionaire, was not an ideal prime minister: his “war on drugs” involved thousands of illegal killings of dealers and addicts, and his response to unrest in the Muslim-majority far south was clumsy and brutal. But he endeared himself to Thailand’s poor.

Thailand has been a democracy since 1992, but Thaksin was the first politician to appeal directly to the interests of the rural poor rather than just bribing their village headmen to deliver votes. He promised them debt relief, cheap loans, better health care, and he delivered — but that was not how the urban elite wanted their tax money spent.

A Yellow Shirt movement seized control of the streets of Bangkok, seeking Thaksin’s removal and demanding curbs on the voting rights of peasants because most rural people were too ignorant to make wise choices. After months of confrontation in the streets, the army took control in 2006, ejecting Thaksin from office — but it was not unequivocally on the side of the Yellow Shirts either.

The soldiers allowed a new election in late 2007 — and Thaksin’s supporters won again, of course. His opponents used the courts to dismiss two prime ministers drawn from the pro-Thaksin party for “conflict of interest” (in one case because the prime minister appeared on a television cooking show), and ultimately simply had the whole party banned and its members ejected from parliament.

The rump of the parliament, cleansed of most representatives of the rural poor, then voted in the current prime minister, Abhisit­. The Red Shirts started their occupation of central Bangkok two months ago in order to obtain his resignation and a fresh election. They have not changed their demands, nor is there any good reason why they should.

The basic issue in dispute here is whether Thailand is really a democracy or not. If it is, then one way or another the Red Shirts must get their way, for they represent a clear majority of Thais, and they were cheated of the government they chose. But there is no obvious way to get from here to there.


• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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