2Bangkok Situation Update: Present and Future

[We received a big response to our previous situation updates, so here is another article with more thoughts on the present situation and some overriding issues.]

Once again we are at a phase where various centers of power are weighing the benefits of having their enemies destroyed by their allies—which will also be destroyed in the process. A relatively small group of protesters are shaking the authority of the government and causing inertia in the security forces showing that a high stakes political game is going on.

Negotiations have been of no use. The Red Shirts know the government would only use them to stall and exhaust the protest while allowing the government to display a sense of fairness. Immediate dissolution is impossible as the door must be further closed on Thaksin’s return by the next military reshuffle.

The Red Shirts have zero negotiating room. The only immediate goal of the protest is to bring down the government now so new elections and Thaksin's return can be assured. The Red Shirts are creating a crisis on the ground while the political arm of the movement—such as Chavalit Yongchaiyudh—works with dealmakers like Sanan to engineer a split in coalition parties.

If other parties and emerging groups continue to eye elections towards the ends of the year beyond this present sense of crisis, it also does not bode well for Thaksin’s quick return. The government has to fall sooner rather than later.

(Photo: 2Bangkok.com)

Above: Sticker in a taxi. It shows Thaksin overing a tray of cakes and reads: Sawasdee New Year 2010 - I would like to deliver all happiness from the far land to every Thai and thank you for your wishes for me and my family. I would like to thank you for your support in submitting the petition to HM King. I will never forget your merits for me and Thailand - [signature] Thaksin Shinawatra

The government's hands are tied. Unable to stand behind operations to forcefully control the protesters and unable to exert its influence over security forces, it has to walk a middle path of meekly waiting and countering Red Shirts claims and threats. So far this strategy has only benefited the Red Shirt cause.

The events of April 10 almost spiraled out of control for both the Red Shirts and the government. The spectacle of snipers of unknown origin along with armed Red Shirts was a blow to prickly army pride—and the Thai military is dangerous when provoked. The daily announced and then cancelled plans of the Red Shirts are not primarily to keep the authorities off balance, but to see how far they can push in defying military while not risking some sort of harsher backlash.

When finally caving in to pressure to crack down, the Democrats—who long prided themselves as a clean and modern party—found themselves presiding over a bloody crackdown like dictatorships of the past. This strikes at the very heart of how the Democrats see themselves. As mentioned before, their coalition partners are reveling in the situation of having the Democrats be the bad guys while making side deals to ensure they can be part of a future government coalition.

So the situation on the ground is not being dictated logically or legally by what should be done to counter the Red Shirts, but by the sum of what all the conflicting power interests are willing to have happen to benefit their various positions.

This bring up some interesting questions.

What happens if we are in the same situation another three weeks from now? The window of opportunity to install a new government before the next reshuffle will eventually close. It is certain that Red Shirt leaders with arrest warrants hanging over their heads have nothing to lose. They have to be certain that a new, friendly government will quickly emerge to halt criminal proceedings against them. What could be done to shake the government further?

Secondly, what will be the goals of the Red Shirt movement beyond dissolution? The Red Shirt gathering in Bangkok has given the group credibility and aspirations that will last beyond Thaksin patronage and certainly reshape Thai politics. Each day the group continues to occupy the center of Bangkok and thumb its nose at  government authority, its renown and ambition will grow.

A common fear is that the movement will morph into some sort of communist, wealth-redistributing organization and a scenario is repeated like in Nepal. However, besides some fringe voices, there are no real signs of this thinking now. As the group is directed at serving Thaksin’s need for immediate elections, no more concrete demands are clear. Exactly how the rallies are finally ended could cause changes in their goals, but so far the movement appears to center on calls for prosperity and capitalism—not some truly radical agenda. In the future, it is most likely that the movement will continue to be a backing group for powerful figures and political parties—all who promise to advance the economic position of the rural poor.

Other questions yet to be answered: Would Chalerm Yoobangrung—a wild card in the midst of the Pheu Thai Party—be able to wrest control of the party from Thaksin loyalists? And how does Newin’s Bhum Jai Thai Party hope to counter Pheu Thai and install Newin as Prime Minister after his political ban ends? Has the current Red Shirt movement dented Bhum Jai Thai’s ability to also serve as a counterbalancing rural party to Pheu Thai in the next elections?

One encouraging factor is the Thai capacity for bringing alienated groups back into the fray. This happened in the late 1970s when disaffected students fled to the forests to join communist organizations. Thai organizations and authorities did not decide to hold institutional grudges against "rebels" (as is so often the case in developing countries), but used many methods to welcome and integrate these people back into the power structure. Within a few years after the polarizing events of Black May in 1992, top generals had returned and were receiving medals like the big men they were and voices from across the spectrum were drafting a new constitution.

The events of recent years have in some ways exceeded traditional Thai upheavals of the past. Instead of a single brutal and decisive crackdown that reset the political clock at the first peak of political agitation, we have a drawn out and decidedly indecisive series of provocations that have included attacks on the monarchy and privy council (and this was perhaps only made possible by the coincidental existence of a new medium of expression—the internet).

However, the Thai tendency that all should be eventually forgiven is strong. This tendency sometimes appears unfair to Westerners who demand blame be laid and the chips fall where they may, but the test of the staying power of the current system may be if the desire to “set the village at peace again” eventually prevails.

Others test are if a parliamentary system can be developed that will accommodate the aspirations of a newly empowered block of voters and if new and accepted parameters for open protest can be absorbed and accepted into the “Thai way.”

Dozens of political lines have been crossed in recent years in the conduct of politics and protest. That means we are presently drawing out and testing new lines. That this comes at the dawn of a new age is perhaps fitting and not unexpected. Whatever the immediate outcome, eventually society will have to settle on an updated set of parameters for political protest and disagreement.

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