Feature – As soldiers and riot police gather near the main red shirt rally stage, fears grow of more violence in Bangkok
BANGKOK – Watching as a pair of twenty-something ladies clambered out of a blue Mercedes saloon outside Silom metro station, before handing riot police bottles of cold water, one onlooker scoffed before beckoning me over.
“It’s not fair,” said the middle-aged lady, who said she is “a lawyer living in Bangkok” and giving her name only as Phatarphon. “What is not fair?” I asked. Tthe soldiers and police get cold drinks”, she replied, “but those people are sitting in the hot sun for more than one month.”
A group of around 40-50 red shirts stood 50 or so meters away, across the busy intersection at the entrance to Lumphini Park. Behind that is the main red shirt protest stretching over a kilometer down to the main shopping area in Bangkok, where the stage pounds to incessant speeches and intermittent song. At the ‘front line’, a line of protestors crouched behind green netting and barbed war, with sharpened bamboo spears propped against the wire, as if awaiting a cavalry charge.
“Why you just take photo here?” asked one of the protestors. Explaining that I was on way across the junction to photograph of the police and troops stationed across, this seemed to placate the interrogator, who glared and demanded that “sure you don’t say any stupid about us!”
The red shirts are backed by and support the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and in late February saw over US$1 billion of his assets seized by the Thai courts due to conflict of interest and corruption charges dating to while he was in office. After almost-nightly videolink addresses to the red shirts when the protests began on March 12, Thaksin has been quiet in recent days, though he gave an interview to Reuters earlier Monday, when he restated a demand for fresh elections.
The red shirts want new elections, deeming the current government to be illegitimate as it was formed after courts dissolved a pro-Thaksin, red shirt-backed party in late 2008. Some of Thaksin’s coalition allies of Thaksin then switched sides, giving the Democrat Party enough support to form a Government.
By nightfall Monday night, Thai troops were crouching behind sandbags up on the ‘Skywalk’, a pedestrian walkway running above street-level and leading to the Silom and Sala Daeng rail stations. The area is touted as Bangkok’s “Wall St”, home to banks and finance houses. The red shirts earlier threatened to take their demonstration to this economic hub, after occupying the the Rajaprasong intersection – site of southeast Asia’s second-largest shopping mall – for more than one week so far.
Hundreds of armed troops and riot police have manned the area since early Monday morning, erecting razor-wire and sheltering down side-streets, including Patpong, one of the city’s red-light areas. There troops and police sat and patrolled somewhat awkwardly, though breaking into sporadic banter with the ladies sat outside the streets bars and massage parlors.
Whether or not the deployment is merely to prevent the red shirts moving into Silom – or is a prelude to a crackdown on the protestors – remains to be seen. The red shirts have said they will not march into the financial area, reversing an earlier pledge to do so on Tuesday April 20. Meanwhile army spokesperson Col. Sansern gave this uncompromising-sounding prognosis of what needs to be done: “Whatever will be will be. If we have to clash, we will … We need to enforce the law decisively. We can’t just think that ‘we don’t want casualties,’ otherwise the country can’t move forward,” Sansern said.
Speaking on Thai TV on Monday evening, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva reiterated his position that his administration would not give in to red shirt demands for an immediate dissolution of parliament, and reminded viewers of his offer to timetable a dissolution and elections by the end of this year. However earlier on Monday, red shirt leaders accused the Government of “preparing a killing field,” while Col. Sansern retorted that the red shirts used women and children as human shields, amid ongoing allegations that “terrorists” roam among the red shirts. The murky origins of the black-shirted gunmen who fired on the army on April 10 have not been confirmed, with rumors circulating that they are comprised of of army rangers, southern separatists and foreign mercenaries.
Col. Sansern said that “to protect the demonstrators from danger, soldiers have been deployed to prevent people with war weapons from using tall buildings around Rajaprasong as their attack bases.” Red shirts allege that this is cover for placing snipers on rooftops to target demonstrators. However acting Government spokesperson Dr Panitan Wattanayagorn countered saying that “the charge that the government plans to take back Rajaprasong area by firing at protesters from high-rise buildings between April 19 and 21 is nothing more than a rumor”.
The alleged presence of pro-red shirt army rangers among the protestors comes after the unexplained theft of weapons in the weeks leading up to the April 10 violence, followed by a number of unexplained bomb attacks in Bangkok. Before launching their so-called “Million Man March” last month, red shirt leaders spoke openly of possible civil war in Thailand – if the army cracked down on their protest and the government did not give in to red shirt demands.
With army chief Gen. Anupong Paochinda now heading the government’s emergency security response, after the embarrassing failure to arrest red shirt leaders at the SC Park Hotel last Thursday, army cohesion and unity is coming under the spotlight. The precision of the attacks on army positions on April 10 has led many to conclude that the perpetrators had military training. With pro-Thaksin elements on the army purged since the 2006 coup that deposed the former PM, and presumed bankroller of the red shirt protest, some believe that army is dividing along pro- and anti-Thaksin lines.
Based at the University of Heidelberg, Paul Chambers follows Thai military affairs. He told The Irrawaddy that the April 10 violence will exacerbate any army rift. “The (April 10) shooting of Col. Romklao will serve to consolidate Queen’s Guard military leadership against suspected watermelon soldiers”, he said. The assassination of the Col. had the appearance of a well-planned military maneouvre, according to some observers.
The political situation is becoming more complicated, with the People Alliance for Democracy (PAD) demanding that the Government remove the red shirts within seven days, or an unspecified counter -protest would be undertaken. “We give the government seven days to return peace to the country or we, every member of the PAD, will perform our duty under the constitution” to protect the throne, Chamlong Srimuang, one of the PAD leaders, said on Sunday last. The PAD, or ‘Yellow shirts’, notoriously occupied Bangkok’s international airport in late 2008, stranding hundreds of thousands of tourists, as they protested against the Thaksin-backed Government.
The previous day, around 4000 people, members of the PAD-linked ‘no colors’ movement rallied at Bangkok’s Victory Monument. Just as red shirts seem unwilling to bend on their demand that PM Abhisit dissolve parliament immediately and call elections, the no-colors group were unyielding.
“There should not be elections”, said one man, leaning on his newish-looking Kawasaki motorbike , parked on the traffic-choked roundabout encircling Victory Monument. He refused to give his name but said that he is an army officer there “to support the King”, and dismissed the red shirts as “sent by Thaksin, who wants to become President.” A Filipina who gave her name as Mary told The Irrawaddy that she has been living in Thailand for 35 years, and wanted to bring peace to the country, believing that “the reds don’t want peace.” Other protestors gathering around said that that the Government has been too slow to act, and that the red shirts should be removed from Rajaprasong district immediately. “One, a 22 year-old student at Thammasat University, who again declined to give his name, said “we have five million in Bangkok, they just have ten thousand”. Despite these ominous words, he concluded that “all we really want is peace.”
Last week, a vehicle carrying PAD members was stopped by police, who found a number of weapons onboard.
The PAD – in the form of the the New Politics Party (NPP) under media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul – is expected to compete for some of the same voters as the incumbent Democrat Party, whenever the election takes place. Abhisit offered to hold an election within nine months, but that has been complicated somewhat by a recent Election Commission statement seeking the dissolution of the Democrats due to alleged misuse of campaign funds. The PM is thus coming under pressure to end the protest, though no-colors protestors at Victory Monument on Saturday told The Irrawaddy that they supported the incumbent, breaking into sporadic chants backing Abhisit.
It is now over one week since 25 people were killed in fighting near the initial red shirt protest site, around Phan Fa bridge and the tourist magnet Khao San Road. Khao San is usually a hub for wild and wet Songkran celebrations, but last week’s version was somewhat muted, as red shirts prayed at a temporary shrine to protestors killed in the previous Saturday’s fighting.
I returned to Bangkok just in time for Songkran, albeit on a half-empty Thai Airways flight from Rome, and airline staff confirmed that they received “a number of cancellations” after the April 10 violence. Business leaders and hotel owners have been quoted as lamenting the impact of the red shirt protest – which is the latest round in a four-year cycle of political demonstrations in Bangkok – on tourism and on investor confidence in Thailand.
Ian Bremmer is President of Eurasia Group, a political risk research and consulting firm, and author of the soon-to-be published The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War between States and Corporations? In an email to The Irrawaddy he remarked that “although markets have shrugged off concerns to date, with investors thinking of Thailand as undifferentiated in the context of Asia’s rapidly-growing emerging markets,” it is “becoming increasingly difficult to bet on Thailand,” given the current political stand-off.
The prospect of serious economic losses, a damaged business and investment climate and spooked tourists could perhaps focus minds on either side of the divide. However, a week after Bangkok’s worst political violence since 1992, a compromise based on a political solution – as recommended by army chief Gen. Anupong – seems nowhere in sight.
Andrew Walker teaches at Australian National University and is co-founder of the mainland southeast Asia-focused New Mandala blog. He told The Irrawaddy that the April 10 violence was “the blood from the bloodless 2006 coup”. He cautioned that the street-fighting “starkly demonstrated to Thais that if electoral solutions cannot be found to conflict, dark spaces will open up for extreme elements who want to take matters into their own hands.”
– Photos below run chronologically, updated Tuesday afternoon April 20.Show