In Thailand, the land of snarls

Standing amid the burnt-out ruins of southeast Asia's second biggest shopping mall right in the heart of Bangkok, it becomes clear that the Land of Smiles has become, for now at least, a land of snarls.

Although some media have been accused of hyping-up the situation — or of being oblivious to the fact that the rest of Thailand has not yet been embroiled in the surreal violence hitting Bangkok in recent weeks — what took place in the capital in recent days was unprecedented and brutal.

With over 50 dead and hundreds wounded, amid an increasingly polarised political situation, the uncompromising quashing of the anti-government redshirt rally by the Thai army may have sown the seeds for more conflict later on.

The redshirts can point to the government and army as brutal killers, firing on unarmed protestors and acting to support an unelected government, which they previously helped manoeuvre into power. The Government and yellowshirts (anti-redshirt protestors who took to the streets in 2006 and 2008 while redshirt parties were in government) can point out that the redshirts were not peaceful protestors, that they sheltered or tolerated a violent black-clad armed faction, and that they laid waste to the shopping heartland of the city when they failed to get their way.

'The army wanted to kill us all,' claimed one woman as she boarded a bus leaving Bangkok on Thursday. Trying to access the burnt-out remains of the rally site, I was told by soldiers that 'terrorists' lurked inside, and wanted to kill foreign journalists.

There is right and wrong on both sides, and both stand guilty of half-truths and demonisation of the other. The recent violence and increasingly-shrill stereotyping will only sharpen a cultural and class-based mutual loathing.

The redshirts have adopted the slur phrai — which more or less means 'hick' — as a defiant and ironic appelation, much as inner-city blacks in the US call themselves 'nigger'. Phrai more or less rhymes with khwai, Thai for buffalo, another of the insults screamed at redshirts by yellowshirt rivals in recent weeks. But the redshirts have plenty of wealthy nouveau-riche types among their number. Former Thai prime minsiter and de facto redshirt leader Thaksin Shinawatra is a former telecoms billionaire for example.

On 17 March, redshirts pushed through police cordons to carry out their 'blood spilling' protest, dousing Thai PM Abhisit Vejajjiva's front gate with blood donated by thousands of the demonstrators. Redshirt leaders played up the class card that morning, pointing out the PM's allegedly-extravagant house in an up-market area of Bangkok. The residence, as it happens, is nothing special, no more so than any decent-sized middle-class house in a Sydney suburb.

Yellowshirts had good reason to regard Thaksin as corrupt, and everyone had reason to be concerned at his centralisation of political power, the brutal 'war on drugs' that saw over 2000 extrajudicial killings, and his paranoid restrictions on media.

Their answer was to take to the streets for months in 2006 — nothing illegitimate about that. But it gave the army an excuse to oust Thaksin in a coup, citing 'instability'. But then a redshirt, Thaksin-linked party won the next elections, leading to more yellowshirt protests, as they could not accept the result. Yellowshirts occupied Government buildings and the country's airports in 2008. But rather than face a crackdown, their action contributed to a managed removal of the redshirt party then in government, and its replacement by the current administration, which is supported by the yellowshirts. The double-standard continues to enrage redshirts.

The yellowshirts, encompassing many old-school Bangkok bureaucratic and business elites, see themselves as urbane, educated sophisticates, On 18 April, the night five grenades exploded in Bangkok's main banking district, yellowshirt protestors carried placards sniggering at the redshirts as 'uneducate (sic) people'. The delicious irony of such hubris would be funny, if it was not so serious.

This superiority complex means they feel entitled to subvert the democratic process, not least as they and affiliated parties cannot compete with the redshirts in a one-man, one-vote system. Little wonder then that a key and long-standing yellowshirt demand is to have a proportion of the legislature nominated, rather than elected.

As redshirts left Bangkok on Thursday, boarding buses laid on by the Government, many said that they will be back. How and when remains to be seen. Their stronghold is in the rural north and east of the country, culturally closer to Laos and Cambodia than Bangkok, and these demographics mean the redshirt-aligned parties will be favourites to win any free and fair election in Thailand.

While the recent fighting and political rallies were confined to central Bangkok, the final days before the 19 May crackdown saw flashpoints spring up across wider swathes of the city, blocking off many main highways, diverting traffic and prompting a slow-down of business elsewhere. Late in the week, an ethereal and unreal quiet fell on a usually bustling, non-stop city, which is under a 9pm–5am curfew, as is much of the rest of the country. Whether the rest of the country remains quiet for long, seems unlikely

Simon Rougheen Simon Rougheen is an Irish journalist based in southeast Asia. He writes for The Washington Times, Asia Times, The Irrawaddy, ISN Security Watch, World Politics Review, and others. Pictured: Redshirts pass through an army checkpoint (photo by Simon Roughneen).

Topic tags: Simon Rougheen, Thailand, redshirts, yellowshirts, phrai, Thaksin Shinawatra



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