Land of Snarls? – Eureka Street/RTÉ World Report/Sunday Business Post


Not looking so Gucci these days. Downtown Bangkok, Friday May 21. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

BANGKOK –  Standing this morning amid the burnt-out ruins of southeast Asia’s second biggest shopping mall right in the heart of Bangkok, it has become clear that the ‘Land of Smile’s 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. Not least on the media – with 2 journalists dead since April 10, injuries running into double-figures, and talk of reporters being deliberately-targetted.

Over 50 people –  mostly civilians – are now dead and hundreds have been 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 yesterday, I was told by soldiers that ‘terrorists’ lurked inside, and wanted to kill foreign journalists.

Shopping malls next to the redshirt rally site still smoulder. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

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 March 17, 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 PMs 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

More damage in Bangkok's shopping hub. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

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 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. Nice work if you can get it, and in retrospect it all makes the legitimate concerns about Thaksin’s excesses seem like a fig leaf for yellowshirt’s wanting to pre-empt what looked like becoming an indefinite period of redshirt elected government. 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 April 18, 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 that 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 yesterday, 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 that 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 May 19 crackdown saw flashpoints spring up across a wider swathes of the city, blocking of many main highways, diverting traffic and prompting a slow-down of business elsewhere. For the past two nights, an ethereal and unreal quiet has fallen 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.

More damage in Bangkok's shopping hub. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

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