Hong Kong-based security consultant G. M. Greenwood offers some historical perspective on Thailand’s current turmoils in an article in the Asia Sentinel (19 May 2010) under the discouraging headline, Reconciliation or Retribution in Thailand: The odds are on retribution.
Thailand has experienced three major violent political upheavals in the 35 or so years before the present crisis began. All can be linked, and while each offers a differing insight into how the state has responded to being challenge, context makes them unreliable indicators of the country’s direction in the coming days and weeks.
- On 13 October 1973, months of anti-government protests against the armed forces’ dominant role in government culminated in a huge demonstration in Bangkok. The following day troops attacked the protestors, killing at least 75 people and wounding hundreds of others. King Bhumibol directly intervened, superficial order was restored and the three politicians seen as largely responsible went into exile overseas.
- On 5 October 1976, leftist students at Bangkok’s Thammasat University protesting against the killing of two students by rightists a few weeks earlier were attacked by well-organised militia personnel. The official death toll among the students, many of them the children of the elite, was 45 but hundreds more were widely believed to have subsequently murdered. Many fled into the bemused arms of the then revolutionary Communist Party of Thailand, whose fighting strength was drawn from the same northern rural communities that remain the hinterland of today’s reds. The subsequent anti-communist campaign by the Thai military was accompanied by a wave of extrajudicial killings that have been largely forgotten outside these communities.
- Between 17 and 20 May 1992, at least 44 people were killed and hundreds injured when troops fired at demonstrators protesting against efforts to make a prime minister of a military leader who had seized power in a coup the previous year. In addition to acknowledged casualties, many of them drawn from the higher social classes, at least 100 people were presumed killed by the security forces after the immediate unrest. When containers were found on the seabed off the Sattahip naval base at the head of the Gulf of Thailand in 2009, there was widespread speculation that they might contain the remains of the missing of ‘Black May.’ The fact that they did not has not diminished the belief that the state is capable of killing its opponents.
These precedents, rather than vague talk of compromise and national unity, are likely to guide the actions of the Red Shirt activists and their countless thousands of supporters across the country as they prepare for the aftermath of the loss of their key redoubts in Bangkok. For them, any outcome to the crisis that erodes their present strength will be resisted.
The problem for Abhisit and his allies is as much cultural as political. While democratic institutions are developing roots across the region, the concept of ‘loyal opposition’ is still regarded as an oxymoron by many local politicians. It is within this context that an overly soft line against the Red Shirts will be interpreted by UDD activists, Abhisit’s opponents within government, the military and pro-establishment People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) Yellow Shirts as a sign of weakness rather than a display of pragmatism.
Nevertheless, an effort is likely to be made to re-emphasise the narrative that distinguishes the Red Shirt leadership from the ‘misguided misled.’ In this model, the red rank-and-file would be allowed – even helped – to return to their communities, accompanied by a chorus extolling their virtues as loyal but unwitting dupes of toppled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his clique.