Updated Wednesday evening, 19 May
WHEN the red shirts came to Bangkok on 12 March many thought that their rally would disperse after a few days, or at least no more than a week or so. The crowd was impressive – one of the biggest Bangkok had ever seen – though its impact was diminished by over-confident predictions by red-shirt leaders that one million rural protesters would descend on the capital. After the debacle of April 2009, when the red invasion of the ASEAN summit in Pattaya degenerated into street confrontations and an ignominious withdrawal from Bangkok, many thought, or hoped, that the red shirts would be satisfied with a short, sharp show of numerical strength.
But things have turned out very differently. The red shirts demonstrated remarkable resilience and logistical capability, and their protest activity paralysed parts of central Bangkok for more than two months. In late March, they managed to force Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to the negotiating table. The talks broke down, but the fact that Abhisit had “blinked” gave the red shirts hope that they may be able to push him further. Remarkably, the red crowd weathered the failed crackdown of 10 April, which left twenty-one protesters dead, some with their brains literally blown out by unseen snipers. Four soldiers also died in a grenade attack in what looked like a deliberate hit on a senior officer with close connections to the country’s queen. Extraordinary images emerged the next day showing protesters tearing apart armoured personnel carriers abandoned by inexperienced troops.
The 10 April violence hardened the resolve of the reds, making their campaign against Abhisit more personal than ever. They consolidated their protest at a downtown site in the midst of glittering shopping malls, offices, embassies and hospitals. Their numbers fluctuated, but buoyed by music, fiery speeches and the collective effervescence of a common cause the protesters maintained a strong presence behind their bamboo and tyre barricades. In true Thai style, street stalls selling food, drinks and red-shirt paraphernalia sprang up around the protest site. The government’s warnings and ultimatums were brushed aside.
What the past two months have shown is that the red shirts can move very effectively from grassroots mobilisation to the national political stage. But the movement has proven much less adept at withdrawal. Given the forces now arrayed against them, this proved a fatal flaw indeed.
On 3 May, Prime Minister Abhisit made a final offer, laying down what he described as a road map for national reconciliation. The centrepiece of the offer was an election on 14 November 2010, more than a year ahead of schedule. For a few days it looked like a peaceful resolution was in the offing. The reds took their time considering Abhisit’s offer, and their delays and qualifications appeared to be motivated not by intransigence but by a desire to step down from a position of strength. Then the deal came badly unstuck, seemingly over the theatrical technicality of precisely how the deputy prime minister (and security coordinator), Suthep Thaugsuban, should be called to account for the deaths of 10 April. The reds wanted him to report to the police; he insisted on reporting to an investigations office that fell under his own jurisdiction. The red-shirt leaders were also concerned about how the charges of terrorism against them would be handled. These very serious offences can be punished by life in prison or the death penalty in Thailand.
With the red shirts refusing to shift, and with talk of further reinforcements moving in from the provinces, things quickly spiralled out of control. Prime Minister Abhisit withdrew his offer of an election, issued a final ultimatum to clear the protest site and then sent in the troops on the afternoon of 13 May and gain on 19 May. Conflict continues even after the army’s blockade around the main protest site precipitated a surrender from red shirt leaders. Credible reports indicate that army snipers have been shooting protesters. The red shirts responded with homemade fireworks, molotov cocktails and a seemingly endless supply of burning tyres. Roaming gangs of red shirts and rough-and-ready motorcycle taxi drivers succeeded, for a time, in establishing new sites of protest and disruption, building barricades or burning tyres and harassing the army in an urban battle with no clear front line. Among the protesters were some more conventionally armed men who are using pistols and M79 grenade launchers; the origins of these “men in black” is mysterious, but they may represent disgruntled elements in the army or pro-red members of the paramilitary organisations that are part of the formal Thai security apparatus.
Despite the surprising level of resistance shown by the red shirts in these engagements, it has been an uneven contest. So far, almost all of the dead have been protesters, bystanders or medics attending to the wounded. The death toll looks certain to rise as the clashes continue and as other parts of Thailand are potentially drawn into a wider civil conflict; some are already sceptical that the official count reflects the true number of fatalities.
SO WHY didn’t the red shirts withdraw when Abhisit put his 14 November election offer on the table? All the signs pointed to a win by the red shirts’ political allies, the opposition Pheua Thai (For Thailand) Party, at a November election. Why couldn’t the red shirts wait just a few more months to achieve their political objective? Many lives may have been saved.
In the coming weeks and months much will be written about what went on within the red-shirt leadership during the early weeks of May 2010. There are strong signs of a split between moderate and hardline forces. There is much government-led speculation about the role of exiled prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in scuttling the deal. Many of the protesters remain fiercely loyal to Thaksin and there is little doubt that his financial backing has assisted the massive logistical effort involved in staging such a long protest. Some assert that Thaksin is interested in stoking chaos; others suggest that his interests would have been much better served if his political allies could form government after a November election. Much remains unknown and sorting out the details of what went on as the red shirts debated their response to Abhisit’s deal will have to wait until the fog of war clears a little.
But there is a much more fundamental reason for the failure of the red shirts to withdraw and the violent immolation of Ahbisit’s road map: Thailand has lost faith in electoral democracy.
Abhisit’s offer of a November election may have seemed reasonable, perhaps even generous to some, but it was essentially meaningless in a country where respect for electoral decisions has evaporated. The red shirts don’t need long memories to recognise the flimsiness of his offer. Just four years ago, in March 2006, following an earlier round of street protests, Thaksin Shinawatra called a snap election. The Democrat Party, led by Abhisit, decided to boycott the election, because they knew that they would lose. In the end Thaksin’s party received about 60 per cent of the votes cast but the result was cancelled by the courts on a dubious technicality.
Another Thaksin victory was likely in a repeat election scheduled for late 2006. That’s why the army staged its coup on 19 September 2006, pushing aside the most electorally popular government Thailand has ever seen. Although Abhisit said that he disapproved of coups, he has been the main political beneficiary of Thaksin’s removal. But he still couldn’t manage to win an election. In the post-coup election of December 2007 the Thaksin-aligned People Power Party won just short of an absolute majority. Many in the Bangkok elite wouldn’t accept that result either. The anti-Thaksin yellow shirts took to the streets when the new government was only a few months old, occupying Government House and eventually shutting down Bangkok’s international airport. This campaign to overthrow the elected government had the backing of Abhisit’s Democrats, and they got their way when the ruling party was dissolved by the Constitutional Court. With some army-led arm-twisting, Abhisit was finally able to stitch together a parliamentary majority.
Given the chain of events that brought Abhisit to power, why would the red shirts place their faith in his offer of an election? Powerful figures within the government are extremely reluctant to subject themselves to electoral judgement, so how could red-shirt leaders persuade the doubters in their midst that the road map could be trusted? With the yellow shirts openly hostile to the deal, how could the red shirts be confident that they wouldn’t seek to disrupt it?
And even if an election went ahead, recent history underlines the likelihood of extra-electoral intervention, either on the streets or in the courts, to overturn the result. Repeatedly vilified as Thaksin’s crowd-for-hire, how could the red shirts be confident that their future votes wouldn’t be dismissed once again as the product of money politics? Could they rely on the palace to add its moral authority to a defence of the electoral process? Of course not.
The red shirts may have made a fatal error in not accepting Abhisit’s 14 November deal. But their decision is just one facet of a much bigger problem. Thailand’s fatal flaw is its loss of faith in the electoral process, which has opened the way for hardliners to pursue violent alternatives. Even after the surrender of red shirt leaders on 19 May there is potential for further conflict and bloodshed. Sabotage, reprisals and protests in other parts of the country are now being reported. Violence on all sides is deplorable, but remember that those who condemn the red-shirt provocations most vigorously are also those who have consistently denied the legitimacy of their peaceful statements at the ballot box. •
Andrew Walker and Nicholas Farrelly are Southeast Asia specialists in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. In 2006 they co-founded New Mandala, a website on mainland Southeast Asian affairs.