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Thailand: Black May Redux?

May 19, 2010

During times of political difficulty, and even turbulence, Thailand has been known for its ability to at least cope with its challenges, even if they were not managed well. After events of the past week in Bangkok, Thailand’s ability to cope may very well be tested like never before. Thailand reached a critical stage of brinksmanship and confrontation between anti-government protesters (“red shirts”) and the military-backed, civilian government, led by Abhisit Vejjajiva, when troops used armored personal carriers to smash through barricades to end protests. Many were concerned, including this writer, that violence and bloodshed would escalate to an unprecedented degree.

Bangkok red shirts

Red shirt protesters in Central Bangkok climb on an army vehicle. Photo by Flickr user Pittaya, used under a Creative Commons license.

Early last week, it appeared that Prime Minister Abhisit might successfully end the two-month political crisis by promoting a reconciliation plan that would call for his government to step down a year earlier than its full term and for the holding of new elections in November. In turn, anti-government protesters would vacate Bangkok’s main shopping district and financial center which they had been occupying for weeks. Initially, at least in some circles of the red shirts’ camp, there appeared to be agreement on how to resolve the impasse. However, the two sides deadlocked on who should be held accountable for the crackdown on protests on April 10 that had left 27 people dead and 857 people wounded.

Tensions became further heightened on May 13 when a sniper’s bullet pierced the head of protest leader and renegade army officer, Major General Khattiya Sawatdithol, while giving an interview to New York Times reporter Thomas Fuller. Four days later, the general died from his injuries. In the week after this shooting, tensions mounted in downtown Bangkok, which erupted into a war zone leaving at least 44 dead and approximately 300 injured. After not heeding the government’s ultimatum on May 17 to vacate Radjaprasong (the main shopping center) and Silom (the financial center), as well as further appeals made after the deadline to return home, the government proceeded just after dawn yesterday to remove the protesters. Initial reports indicated that at least six more people were killed, and nearly 60 injured. Many key protest leaders surrendered, but the most defiant of the protesters began looting and causing mayhem when they set ablaze and destroyed the Central World, Southeast Asia’s second largest shopping mall. Approximately 30 other buildings were also set on fire or attacked, including the country’s stock exchange and the state-run television station, Channel 3, causing undetermined millions of dollars in damage. Moreover, violence has spread to some provinces in the rural northeast, a traditional stronghold of the red shirts.

Although the government claims the situation is under control, Thailand’s political establishment should not be lulled into thinking that the red shirts’ political claims and agenda will go away. Another election is not going to bring peace and stability to a country that a decade ago was thought to be a shining example of democratic development in Southeast Asia. Those protesting and their supporters have little or no faith in the political system. The country’s institutions have failed to bridge the divide between a new capitalist class that has won the backing of the rural and urban poor through populist policies and an established, Bangkok-centered elite that is seeking to maintain its traditional grip on power.

Unfortunately, events of the past two months have only made the country’s poisoned political atmosphere more toxic. How can Thailand’s leaders promote national reconciliation when suspicion, mistrust, and acrimony are high on both sides? Will moderates on both sides be able to achieve some form of a constructive consensus?  Given the political, economic, and social challenges Thailand faces – and particularly great economic and social disparities – compromise on the part of its leaders (both in and outside of government) has become critical. During Thailand’s other “Black May,” which occurred 18 years ago today, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej managed to diffuse tensions when a cycle of pro-democracy protests and military repression seemed to fly out of control. In the past, periodic statements by King Bhumibol seemed to ease confrontational situations, but did not solve fundamental social rifts, like those that have taken place in the streets over the last two months. The tragic events in Bangkok this past week have deepened suspicion and mistrust. Anger and resentment will not dissipate quickly.

Nonetheless, all sides in Thailand’s political equation need to grasp that a winner-take-all formula is not a recipe for success. The violence and destruction caused by an undetermined number of red shirts only hurts their cause to have legitimate grievances addressed. National reconciliation will be long and arduous. Over the past three decades, Thailand’s rural population has become more politically and socially conscious and this must be recognized and appreciated. Whatever form of governance Thailand creates for itself, those in power will need to commit themselves to overcoming inequalities in Thai society in both economic and legal terms. All Thais need to believe they have a stake in the nation’s political process and their nation’s future. This will require all sides in the nation’s political equation to accommodate and conciliate in the effort to achieve a more participatory, equitable, and just society. How Thailand can go about this is difficult to fathom given the events of the past week. But one thing is for sure, coping will no longer be enough.

John J. Brandon, who briefly lived in Bangkok, Thailand, and continues to travel there regularly, is The Asia Foundation’s Director of International Relations Programs in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jbrandon@asiafound-dc.org.

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