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Averting Disaster: Reflections on Violent Protests in Thailand

April 22, 2009

Thailand has seen some turbulent times over the past three years, but this past week was probably the low point. Protests by the anti-government United Democratic Front against Dictatorship (UDD), also known as the “red shirts,” threw the country into crisis at a moment when it should have been basking in the international spotlight.

The ASEAN Plus Six Summit was cancelled on Saturday, April 11, when UDD protestors managed to outmaneuver the security forces at the heavily guarded Royal Cliff Resort in Pattaya. How the protestors managed to push their way up to the building despite the presence of nearly 5,000 police and military – and a relatively narrow corridor to the hotel that should have been easily defended – is still a mystery. Several foreign leaders were forced to evacuate by helicopter, or divert their travel at the last minute. A shadowy new “protest movement,” its followers clad in dark blue and brandishing weapons, met the red shirts on their way to the conference center, leading to intense street violence.

The situation intensified when nearly 100,000 red shirt protestors moved to the center of Bangkok. On Sunday, security forces were further embarrassed when two armored personnel carriers were captured in the streets of Bangkok. As tens of thousands of red shirt protestors laid siege to Bangkok, residents started to come out of their houses to defend their property. As the protest deteriorated into looting and vandalism, the chaotic situation in Bangkok seemed to be moving to a level of intensity beyond the government’s control.

Rejecting demands from the protestors to resign and call for new elections, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva ordered the military to subdue the red shirts, invoking the recently declared Emergency Decree. Many Thais wondered if the military would follow the order; during a previous protest of the “yellow shirts” last November, the military refused to respond to former Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat’s order to clear the inundated Suvarnabhumi International Airport. But this time, finally, on Monday night, the military responded. By Wednesday afternoon, most of the red shirt leaders were in police custody and the exhausted and dejected protestors were heading back to their homes in the provinces.

Could there be a silver lining to this dark cloud that has descended over Thailand? Yes, actually. While it was a difficult week, it could have been much, much worse.

The government regained a large degree of its damaged credibility through its adept handling of the crisis in the final turbulent days. The prime minister regained the momentum by Monday, and managed to get a handle on the crisis through measured response and effective communication. As my colleague, Dr. James Klein, has argued in a recent In Asia post, Prime Minister Abhisit’s use of “soft yet steady measures” helped avoid loss of life, and prevented further escalation of tensions. Under clear orders from the prime minister, the military used remarkable restraint in the crackdown, and emerged from the debacle with restored public confidence.

By regaining control of the streets, the government averted a potentially disastrous scenario. In the midst of the crisis, the leaders of the yellow shirt movement, or People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), held a press conference demanding that the government crack down on the UDD protests and restore law and order. If not, they threatened to mobilize their yellow shirt movement once again and take care of the situation themselves. There was remarkable irony in this statement: only four months earlier, PAD was illegally occupying Government House and the international airport in clear disregard of Thai law, in an effort to topple a previous government. Yet, this should not hide the fact that this threat was real and potentially disastrous. If the yellow shirts had indeed mobilized and met the red shirts on the streets of Bangkok, the result would have been much bloodier than actual events.

Both groups of protestors appear to be at least partially armed. During the airport siege, an armed group of protestors, the cleverly named “PAD guards,” protected the entrances and provided a credible threat of violence should the security forces have decided to move in. While the PAD protest did not instigate violence as the UDD protest did, they defended their occupation with the threat of violence. During the red shirt street violence, protesters used a variety of weapons including firearms, Molotov cocktails, sticks and clubs to destroy property and attack officials. A violent clash between these two opposing movements would have escalated the already deep-seated resentment between them. After the initial clash, tit-for-tat sporadic attacks would have likely ensued beyond the control of the government.

While the yellow shirts did not follow through with their threat, the ongoing risk of instability and violence remains a dominant theme in the political struggle.

Both protest movements have been discredited through their actions in the eyes of mainstream Thai society and the international community. In the aftermath of the airport siege, PAD has lost many of its supporters and corporate sources of funding. While it remains a serious movement, with a well-honed communication and media network that could easily mobilize tens of thousands, there are signs of growing discomfort with PAD – especially among educated young people in Bangkok. The UDD is reeling from the recent events, but will most likely rebound, fed by the deep well of resentment in the North and Northeastern regions of the country. Still, it is unclear how much longer former Prime Minister Thaksin will have the ability to galvanize the red shirt crowds, as more and more foreign governments deny him entry, and there are growing signs that his resources are dwindling.

Unfortunately, the moderate middle ground in Thai politics has been squeezed and silenced by the politics of polarization and brinksmanship. Both protest movements have some legitimate grievances, but they have sought to polarize the electorate in order to mobilize large, angry crowds. The government’s much-debated association with the PAD is an Achilles Heel that will serve to fuel alienation and resentment in much of the country. The red shirt protest leaders’ cry of double-standard is very likely to resonate with many Thais and foreign observers. The half-hearted efforts of authorities to prosecute PAD leaders, in spite of economic damage in the hundreds of billions of baht, have become increasingly difficult to explain.

While it is too early to gauge the economic fallout from the UDD protest, the reverberations are already being felt. Several international credit agencies and investment advisors have already downgraded the outlook for the Thai economy, credit rating and currency (“Assessing the Damage,” Bangkok Post, April 19, 2009). Despite generally effective government efforts to restore confidence, the combination of two disruptive protest movements within less than five months has most likely extended and deepened the economic recession. The effects of the PAD protest are only now becoming evident. A recent article in The Straits Times (“Thailand still reeling from airport closures” March 20, 2009) illustrates the extent of the damage. In the aftermath of the PAD airport siege, Bangkok has lost more than 30 percent of its air traffic as businesses and travelers reroute their travel through other Asian hubs, according to an official from the Pacific Asia Travel Association. Tourist arrivals are down by nearly the same level.

Despite the gloomy outlook, Thailand has avoided the worst case scenario, for now. The most important silver lining from the recent crisis is that the violent protest movement did not achieve its aims. One of the most damaging aspects of the PAD protest was the misguided claim that the protest had precipitated the fall of the Somchai government. In fact, the government fell after the Constitutional Court ordered the ruling party, Puea Thai, to disband and barred the prime minister from politics after a guilty verdict in a case of elections fraud. The fact that the ruling came in the middle of the airport stand-off led to widespread perceptions that the protesters had “won.” The subsequent lack of prosecution against the PAD leaders has reinforced this perception.

Protest movements are a critical part of democracy. But as we have seen in Thailand recently, the politics of violent protests – where political parties become entangled with (armed) protest movements – creates a downward spiral of brinksmanship, polarization, and economic destruction. The threat of more disruption and violence remains as long as the latest fashion in protesting is tolerated.

A few days ago, the Abhisit Government invited all parties to submit proposals for constitutional reform and called for the current tensions to be resolved through the political system instead of in the streets. This move is a very positive step, though it remains to be seen whether a compromise can be found. As this reform dialogue begins, all parties would be wise to distance themselves from the protest movements that have taken Thailand to the brink of disaster.

Thomas Parks is The Asia Foundation’s Regional Director for Conflict and Governance. He is based in Bangkok and can be reached at tparks@asiafound.org.

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