Violent red tide washes across Bangkok
Yesterday, the tense, month long stand-off between the Thai government and the Red shirts, supporters of international fugitive and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, fought pitched battles around Khao San Road, the backpacker mile in Bangkok, Thailand. Several friends of mine were on site in the Banglamphu area, where more than two million budget tourists stay every year. They described heavily armed demonstrators, fighting the military with Ak47s and M79 rocket launchers. So much for peaceful protests. In fact, frequent grenade attacks have been part of the Red shirt strategy for months.
The military did not manage to clear the demonstrators off the street, the stand-off has descended into a blood bath with almost 900 people injured and twenty dead, and the international media, especially the BBC, reports that the Thai leadership is trying to crush people with democratic aspirations. The BBC has persistently ignored reports and images of highly trained, heavily armed killers amongst the Red shirts and play up the alleged legitimacy of these few thousand protesters.
This is a gross simplification of the Thai political paradox. The Red shirts, i. e. Thaksin Shinawatra and his proxies, are engaged in a vicious power struggle with the old Thai elite, represented on the street by the yellow shirt movement, who occupied the airport two years ago, as well as with the Thai military and the current government. Demonstrators and soldiers appear to be pawns in a much larger game, the roots of which go back years, if not decades.
And the increasing polarization of society in Thailand is a sign of more terrible things to come – poor people in Thailand are fed up with being economically sidelined and underrepresented in politics. Telecom tycoon Thaksin and the Red shirt movement exploit the aspirations of Thailand’s marginalized. Prior to the last military coup in 2006, which brought the current, unelected government into power, Thaksin was the first Thai prime minster who acknowledged the plight of the rural and urban poor by introducing several populist policies, such as cheap health care – the reason for his continued popularity. At the same time he eroded civil liberties, attempted to exert control over the courts, military, police, senate and media and made the poor even poorer, by lending money to village communities, with high interest rates attached.
Thailand appears trapped within the limitations of democracy. The current government does not have a genuine popular mandate. It is in fact a shaky coalition of several interest groups, desperate to hang on to a social order that appears to be slipping away – an order in which the rich are rich and the poor are poor and all the evils associated with an extreme misdistribution of wealth are in evidence.
But an election that returns Thaksin or his proxies to power, a result which is quite likely, would spell further social and economic catastrophe for Thailand, as the former prime minister has already proven that he is primarily interested in furthering his own business interests when in power.
The outcome of the current conflict is uncertain. Unless Thaksin and the red shirt leaders are arrested, trouble is likely to go on for the time being. Justified discontent runs high in Thailand, but it lacks a genuine mandate. It remains to be seen whether the disadvantaged in Thai society will ultimately be able to form a genuine political movement, free from the shackles of Thaksin’s alleged mafia style political management.
Colleague, friend and OnAsia photographer Vinai Dithajohn was shot in the leg during last night’s confrontations and is recovering in hospital. His images are up at www.onasia.com.
Buses leaving Bangkok last night were overcrowded of course, as many people, both Thai and foreigners tried to leave the city, with Thailand’s New Year celebrations (13. to 15th April), a time when many Bangkok inhabitants traditionally leave for their home villages, just around the corner.
I am in South Thailand, where beaches are absolutely packed, arriving boats are filled to the last seat and no one shows any sign of leaving.