Thai violence far from over

2010-05-20 13:01

Bangkok – Two months of chaos on the streets of Bangkok are likely just a foretaste of political violence that could sweep through Thailand as protest movements become increasingly militant, analysts say.

Observers said that although Thailand has seen frequent bouts of civil unrest and coups in its turbulent history, it is now heading into uncharted territory as a split deepens between its elites and the rural and urban poor.

"There have been rumblings and grumblings in the past but never expression of anger and fury to this extent," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's prestigious Chulalongkorn University.

"The raw emotion behind political beliefs has increased the stakes in Thai politics. It has also deepened the polarisation," he added.

Troops dislodged anti-government "Red Shirt" protesters on Wednesday from their sprawling encampment in a central commercial district, ending rallies which have seen at least 75 killed and some 1 800 wounded since mid-March.

Battle zones

Parts of Bangkok were reduced to smoky battle zones as Reds clashed with security forces in their campaign to topple Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, but analysts said more trouble lies ahead.

The government has declared a state of emergency in 23 provinces as well as Bangkok to try to prevent the violence from spreading into the rural and impoverished northeast, which forms the Reds' heartland.

In a troubling sign that the fight was already being taken to the countryside, four provincial halls have been torched and besieged by protesters.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, from the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said violence is becoming part of the political culture in Thailand, where previously it had been anathema in the "Land of Smiles".

"Thirty-five buildings are burning, not only in Bangkok but over parts of Thailand. It signifies the radicalisation of Thai politics. I would call it the new radicalisation of Thailand," he told AFP.

Beginning of war

"It's not the end of the conflict, it's just the beginning of another phase of war. Whatever you want to call it: civil war, guerrilla warfare, it's up to interpretation."

Despite a placid reputation that has helped foster a lucrative tourism industry, Thailand has plunged into regular bouts of political crisis, including 18 actual or attempted coups since 1932.

The country has suffered regular episodes of violence pitting soldiers against protesters, most notably in 1992 when King Bhumibol Adulyadej made a dramatic intervention to end hostilities.

The Reds complain that Thailand's poor have been left behind while the Bangkok middle class enjoy the fruits of decades of economic growth and the elites hold the reins of political and military power.

They are mostly supporters of ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup. Celebrated for populist policies that benefited the poor, Thaksin was also accused of gross human rights abuses and corruption.

Despite the criticism, Thaksin and his allies have won every election in a decade and Abhisit faces a tough fight in the next vote, due by the end of 2011.


Thailand's elites see the Reds merely as Thaksin's paid foot-soldiers, but William Case, director of City University's Southeast Asia Research Centre in Hong Kong, said their movement was becoming increasingly sophisticated.

"They've got a lot more organisational know-how, a lot more awareness, a lot more capacity than before. They're able to act on class resentments now," he said.

"Once they've been mobilised in this way, it becomes very difficult to stop it."

Paul Chambers, senior research fellow at Heidelberg University, said the Reds had "galvanised into a people's army" mimicking the tactics of rival Yellow Shirt demonstrators who occupied Bangkok's airports in 2008.

"If you continue seeing the use of demonstrations to pressure change in an increasingly violent fashion, then people become accustomed to seeing it," Chambers said.

"Opposing mobs become the norm and then democracy is simply a dream. Elected governments are a sideshow to opposing mobs."