Thailand: a bloodbath and afterwards?

On May 19, the government of Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajiva finally launched an assault on the Red Shirt camp in the Bangkok neighbourhood of Rachaprasong. Television stations from around the world broadcast brutal images of assault tanks destroying the bamboo and tyre barricades and soldiers armed with rifles firing live ammunition at demonstrators. The disproportion between the images of war and the faces of the demonstrators, mostly peasants and urban workers, is striking.

The media have had much to say about the violent elements among the Red Shirts, which is profoundly abject when one sees the resources employed by the military to “cleanse” the neighbourhood. Since the beginning of the demonstrations, the government has used all kinds of violence against the demonstrators, including the use of snipers, and during the “final assault”, the soldiers were authorised to kill. It is not surprising in this context that the demonstrators expressed their hatred and rage by violence against the military and the symbols of wealth.

As in 1973, 1976 and 1992, the ruling elites have responded to Thai aspirations to democracy and social justice with bloodbaths. The balance sheet is the heaviest since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932. The authorities acknowledge 81 deaths and nearly 2000 wounded since the beginning of the demonstrations in the capital on March 12.

Proposed elections

Around mid-April, the government proposed a five-point roadmap to resolve the crisis. It included the perspective of elections on November 14. The Red Shirts, while accepting the plan, requested guarantees and that the deputy PM, Suthep Thaugsuban, be charged for the civilian deaths which occurred during the repression of April 10. But for the government, the roadmap was offered on a take it or leave it basis. A strange way to seek to resolve such a sharp political crisis. The date of the proposed elections, November 14, would allow Abhisit to be in power at the strategic moment of the restructuring of the top command of the army. Also, charges of terrorism and conspiracy against the monarchy were maintained against leaders of the Red Shirts.

This tactic proved successful for Abhisit. He profited from the divisions inside the UDD [United front for Democracy against Dictatorship, the umbrella organisation of the Red Shirt protesters] on the approach to follow and appeared as a democrat who had extended a hand to the demonstrators which had been rejected. Thus after being assured of the support of his coalition partners, he could employ strong-arm methods to send back to the countryside the “rural hordes” who had invaded the capital.

However, it was still possible on the eve of May 19, to avoid the military repression and the deaths which followed it. Around 50 senators were in discussion with the leaders of the UDD to organise a truce. But this attempt was rebuffed by Abhisit. From the beginning, he was among the members of the government who advocated repression rather than openness to negotiations. Remember that Abhisit and his Democrat Party had refused to participate in the snap elections organised in April 2006, when [then-premier] Thaksin Shinawatra had sought a new mandate after several months of opposition demonstrations calling for his resignation!

The Abhisit government was strengthened in its determination by the position taken by the United Nations. After several days of confrontation from May 13 to May 16, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, stated in a press release, “to prevent further loss of life, I appeal to the protesters to step back from the brink, and the security forces to exercise maximum restraint in line with the instructions given by the government”. It could not be clearer that she was giving the government the green light to use force. A far cry from Pillay’s statements claiming that the High Commissioner is the spokesperson for victims everywhere.

At the international level, silence has dominated. Thailand is not China, Iran or Venezuela. Massacring peasants and workers in the streets of Bangkok does not arouse as much indignation as killing demonstrators on Tiananmen Square. US President Barack Obama has not said a word on the political crisis or the civilians killed but the US government has condemned the Red Shirts for “damaging private property”. It is true that the Thai elites can count on the support of the US government whatever happens.

After the end of the Second World War, the US made Thailand its main base to contain the development of Communism in Asia. That involved the setting up and financing of authoritarian regimes and military dictatorships. The withdrawal from the military bases in the 1970s did not mean the end of this cooperation. Military agreements continue, as shown by the annual joint military operations and the fact that the military base at Udon Thani was used by the US in 2003 to illegally interrogate (and torture) detainees in the context of the “war against terrorism”. Thailand remains a strategic country for the US which is seeing its power in the region threatened by that of China.

With the crushing of the camp at Rachaprasong, the traditional elites may have obtained a respite but the struggle is far from over. The roots of the Thai crisis are deep — growing social inequality which is among the highest in Asia, a two-speed justice system, an increasingly authoritarian regime. The rage and hatred filling the hearts of the Red Shirts and their sympathisers is more fundamentally that of all those, and they are in the majority in the country, who aspire to democracy.

Thailand’s pseudo-democracy

Thailand is undoubtedly not a dictatorship but democracy “Thai style” is an authoritarian democracy. Democratic liberties are conditional on submission to the established order and this rests on censorship, emergency laws and judicial or military coups against governments which do not please the elites. The violence of the repression and the disproportionate means employed show, if there was any need, to what extent the establishment has been shaken by this movement which has liberated political discourse in a country where to declare oneself a republican or a communist is forbidden by law. The bloody repression of May 19 is a sign of the weakness of the government.

Thai society is for now at an impasse. Authoritarian democracy Thai style is stricken. Thais no longer believe that genuinely democratic elections can be organised to contribute to a resolution of the crisis. On the one hand the “enlightened elites” think that only they know what is good and necessary for society and its uneducated and uncivilised citizens. They are sure of losing the next elections. Hence the choice made by some of them to repress in order to stay in power. On the other side, the majority of society, aspires to a genuine democracy and respect for the ballot box. Their struggle is handicapped by the fact that there are no real parties representing their interests. Their votes have been used by Thaksin, one of the richest people in Thailand, to provide a basis for his power and to advance his own interests, at the price of numerous abuses.

Finally, the old Thai political order resting on the symbolic function of the king, “guarantor of unity” and holder of power of last resort is threatened. The events of recent weeks could well have very seriously shaken the almost godlike image of the old monarch. In a country where portraits of the king in public spaces are omnipresent, their absence in the Red Shirt camp in Rachaprasong is revealing of the breadth of their disillusionment with the monarchy. Their repeated appeals to arbitration from king Bhumibol remained without response and the idea that he supports the existing regime is increasingly widespread even if it cannot be debated openly.

One of the obstacles to a real democratisation of the country resides precisely in the role attributed to the constitutional monarchy. To counter the idea which appeared in the late 1990s that “sovereignty emanates from the people”, the royalists put forward the idea that “sovereignty belongs to the people” although in the final instance it resides with the monarchy. The succession of king Bhumibol by his son Vajiralongkorn, detested by the people, could lead to a new period of conflicts and the challenging of the established order if mobilisations do not come before. The elites have won a battle but not the war and history is not on their side. Or as the Thai proverb says, “who escapes the tiger meets the crocodile”…

[From the Asia Left Observer website. Danielle Sabai is one of the South East Asia correspondents of International Viewpoint and Inprecor, the English-language and French-language monthly journals of the Fourth International.]