Smoke rises from central Bangkok after a night of violence, tears, and death. The Thai government claims success in dealing with the Red Shirt challenge while at the same time a movie theatre, a mall and several banks burn. Fear and uncertainty about the future is one of the few feelings shared by both sides of the socio-political divide.
The recent political stand-off between the anti-government Red Shirts and the military and police forces surrounding them ended with the death of at least 38 civilians and an untold number of people injured. Armoured military vehicles, snipers, and live ammunition were also used to put an end to the prolonged Red Shirt protest in the commercial and shopping centre of the Thai capital. The final assault took place on the early hours of Wednesday 19 May and the main protest leaders surrendered after the barricades were breached and the human toll started to become unbearable.
It was not surprising to see how the rank and file Red Shirts vented their frustration at the overwhelming violence used against them and the arrest of their leaders by burning the symbols of central government elite control. The Stock Exchange, the Metropolitan Electricity Authority, banks, and the Central World Shopping Mall all represent different aspects of elite control in Thailand and thus were targeted by Red Shirts for looting and attack. Needless to say this was an act of desperation more important for its symbolism and meaning as a clue of what is to come.
The conflict has not been resolved and the tens of thousands of dissatisfied Red Shirts spread throughout the country have not given up the struggle. No new social consensus has arisen out of the ashes and debris is piling up in the Thai Capital. Nevertheless, one thing is clear, which is that the military and the elite consider the Red Shirt challenge sufficiently threatening to blatantly abuse the human rights of civilians in front of an attentive international community. After a renegade Major General who had switched sides to the Red Shirts was shot dead by a sniper while being interviewed by a New York Times reporter, it was clear that the elite’s cost-benefit calculus changed in favour of doing whatever was necessary to stay in power regardless of the economic or political consequences.
Now that the government has imposed a curfew in the capital, the world and the Thai people ask themselves what is going to happen now? Is this a return to normalcy and relative stability or just the calm before the storm? Were the Red Shirts just a cursory phenomenon orchestrated and financed by selfish exiled politicians and disaffected leftist intellectuals? Those are just some of the questions that need to be answered before the Thai people can go on with their lives. A simple answer is that instability is here to stay and that negotiation with the Red Shirts will become considerably more difficult now that this level of violence has been used against them. Regarding the true nature of the Red Shirts, the answer lies in the sacrifices made by thousands of unarmed civilians facing tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition in an alien environment with no guarantees of success. Even if financial support is provided by Dr Shinawatra, and the leadership is influenced by leftist intellectuals, the sacrifices made by the people are very real and their grievances are quite specific. They want help from the government in dealing with their basic needs. Will this lead to civil war? A civil war is unlikely; the most likely scenario is low intensity violence throughout the country. The instability in the Deep South and the constant violence there should serve as a preview of what is to come. Protests will continue in other parts of the country, and violence will become more common.
Sadly the average Thai, including the middle class in Bangkok, will suffer from the decisions of the government and the elite it represents. Taking the sky train to work will never again feel as safe as it did before. A parked taxi in front of a building will become an object of suspicion and apprehension. The economy will take a long time to recover and the image of the country as the 'land of smiles' is irreparably shattered in the eyes of the world. Finally, the greatest source of uncertainty for the entire country is the end of the common Thai worldview myth. The cleavage is obvious, and the myth of the monolithic 'nation' is over, and the legitimacy of those in power is in question.
The elite should learn from the recent history of Nepal and consider a peaceful transition leading to a new social consensus rather than risking greater violence and loss of legitimacy. Let us hope that the government will attempt to negotiate with the Red Shirts on mid and long-term goals so as to avoid the worst of what is to come…