2Bangkok Situation Update: Thaksin’s Revolutionary Season – February 3, 2011
The Thaksin-funded report to the International Criminal Court paints the Red Shirts as a non-violent movement and alleges that the government and military callously desired a bloodbath. Further assertions are made that the Red Shirts had nothing to do with the burning of Central World. The misrepresentation of these events in both the ICC report and in such articles as Thailand Under Abhisit: Burma with Luxury Hotels seems clumsy and overblown. It is hard to see how an international audience, increasingly savvy about events in Thailand, would be swayed by many of these claims.
The timing of the ICC report, as well as multiple claims from the Red Shirts about a coup, could be part of the ramping up of rhetoric as we near “Thaksin’s revolutionary season”–March-April. This is when, during the last two years, well-planned efforts have been made to overthrow the government. It is a period when many provincial farms lie fallow and it is easy to recruit people for rallies.
The 2009 effort was well-planned and surgical. It was direct and militant in its language and aims. The 2010 effort was more grand and chaotic, ultimately depending on an occupation of the city center to force the military to finally fight it out and provide the long hoped for casualties the movement desired. Had the Red Shirt leaders not been divided among themselves and been more direct in their actions, it could possibly have been successful considering the reticence of security forces to act.
The claim that the Red Shirts were essentially peaceful seems hollow after hearing the daily threats of the Red Shirt leaders from the stage, the very public showing of how Red guards wired buildings for burning, and the pronouncements of rebel soldier Seh Daeng. The Red Shirts’ expressions of anger and “dissatisfaction” as a pretext for violent acts is entirely in keeping with Thai cultural norms (more about this in Is everything in Thailand “unprecedented?” – May 24, 2010 and About Thai protests – April 30, 2010).
The idea that the military strongly desired a crack down is also not accurate. Historically, Thai governments were seen to lose legitimacy after violence was perpetrated on the populace and thus have to step down. Since the 2006 coup, the establishment has been at pains to avoid at bloodshed while the Red Shirts have pinned their hopes on it–from the surprise attack on Prem’s residence to the 2009 Red Shirt rioting. Afterward, each of these incidents were played up along the lines of “the government has shown their hand–they have hurt the people–this requires the government to step down.” Repeatedly the Red Shirts have called on this political tradition to insist that the government is finished.
From ThaiRath, April 14, 2009 – After the attack on the Prime Minister’s car, Reds take the Prime Minister’s secretary Nipon Prompan hostage. They later claim they were “protecting” him and then send him to the hospital.
While there were no deaths caused by the military during the 2009 rioting, Thaksin and others immediately alleged there were many deaths and that meant the government had to step aside. Even when Red Shirts were attacking the Prime Minster’s car in Pattaya or taking hostages and attempting to assassinate the PM, authorities were reticent to intervene, much less open fire.
During the 2010 Red Shirt rallies, there were finally scores of deaths. These rallies shook the establishment to its foundations (more about this here: Colonel Romklao’s revenge – May 14, 2010) and showed the relative independence of both the military and police from civilian control and highlighted the extreme reticence of these forces to becoming involved.
Rebel military personnel (such as Seh Daeng) were taken out by snipers in response to the humiliation the military experienced when it was successfully challenged on Ratchadamneorn Road by the so-called “men in black.” Seh Daeng repeatedly claimed that the defeat on Ratchadamneorn meant that the Thai state was finished and that he was in contact, if not leading, a shadow military force. Despite these and other boasts by the Red Shirts that their men in black were successfully fighting the military, the ICC report makes the strange claim that the men in black were actually part of a government plot to frame the Reds.
It is also highly likely (and a reasonable assumption knowing how the Thai establishment thinks) that snipers were deployed to make sure that Pathumwanaram temple would not be a continuing safe refuge for Red Shirts fleeing Rajaprasong. The establishment knew that violence was the long-sought after goal of the Reds and they would be giving them what they wanted, so the decision to finally wade into the Red Shirt rally site and fight it out must have been a difficult and calculated choice. Compared to the levels of violence perpetrated to “save” the Thai state in 1973, 1976, and 1992, it is surprising that security forces were able to react so quickly and decisively and that the government has able to avoid stepping down. This may be because, unlike the instances of using state power against protesters in past decades, the Red Shirts were not seen by the public as democracy protesters, but as a group funded by a politician for personal gain.
With Thaksin’s revolutionary season of March-April coming up again, it is time to watch if there will be a new ramping up of agitation and protest in coming months. With two failed uprisings already attempted, it will be interesting to see what tact will be tried next.
The urgency in 2009 and 2010 to topple the government was, in part, to prevent hardliner Prayuth in coming to power. With Prayuth in control and a dependable Chief of Police installed, it may be that the playing field has changed and that direct confrontation may not be as productive. The tact of using mass protest to force the hand of the military has not succeeded so far and, if anything, Thaksin’s political proxies realize he will never be allowed to hold power again. The government, aware of the March-April rally period, could likely call new elections in a way that interferes with the ability and rational for protest during that time.
The case for more Red rallies in coming months is related to the fractious state of Thaksin’s Pheu Thai Party. Even if the grouping adheres together for the coming elections, there is a feeling that the establishment will never allow a party that vows to “bring Thaksin back” to form a new government–not after the chaos and level of rhetoric against the very highest institutions that has been generated over the past few years.
Knowing this, Thaksin may decide to shift focus from the fickle MPs of the Pheu Thai and back to the Red Shirts. This means relying on Red Shirt mass action again and possibly covert methods of creating unrest to paralyze the state and force it to allow Thaksin to return to the political equation.