Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Thoughts post battle of Bangkok

It's nearly 1pm (close to 1.30 at time of publishing) and things are beginning to come to a close in Bangkok today.

Earlier this morning the army finally breached protester lines and entered the red shirt camp in numbers, Al Jazeera estimated around 200 or so soldiers made up the first wave.

Right now red shirt leaders are beginning to face up to the end of their 7 week occupation of Bangkok. While Veera, a key figure, left some time ago, Arisman has reportedly just fled the camp though the others are waiting to be arrested and receive their fate.

All in all it is a sad ending and I can't help thinking things could (and should) have ended better for the red shirt protesters.

They have held talks with Abhisit and leading government officials a number of times but failed to agree on a compromise. It is sad, but somewhat inevitable, that developments have seen more than 30 people lose their lives (with two more deaths rumoured today already) when the reds could have walked away with what they (allegedly) came for.

By pure chance that the missus, little fella and I road into Bangkok with the protests when they first came to the city back in March. We didn't join them on their quest to overthrow the elite and force an election but, like many, my recollection of meeting them was that they were friendly.

I wonder just how many of those whom I met remain in Bangkok now, where the mood is more defiant and edgier than ever.

Placing the blame

There is no doubt that both sides (subscribing to the two sides theory for simplicity) are culpable for what has happened, albeit to different levels.

In a bid to end the protests the government has killed more than 30 civilians.

Whilst, to any sane person, firing on your own people is madness, let's put ourselves in their shoes for a second. They want to end the protest, they are prepared to fire live ammunition...why then have seemingly innocent civilians lost lives while (Sae Daeng aside - there is enough debate as to who fatally shot him for a post alone) none of the key, strategic red shirt leaders were threatened?

This arbitrary, senseless shooting of innocents saw the red shirt protests engage and return shots, though not with far more basic weapons and not the military issued heavy weapons many journalists have claimed.

This escalation of violence marked the beginning of the end. "Red shirts return fire" simply fanned the flames giving the army legitimate reason to fire live rounds in 'self-defence'.

Assigning culpability for escalating violence, one must also look to the red shirts.

I can't help but wonder what could have been had they been able to remain non-violent, as the banner draped across their main stage proclaimed them to be.

Of course, as an anti-government movement, membership of the reds is loose, that is to say its membership comprises a range of different viewpoints and aims for the protest. For some the agreement of an early election was enough, while others seek more extreme aspirations such as the return of Thaksin Shinawatra's funds, while others seek the former Prime Minister's physical return to Thailand and an overthrowing of the institutions.

For that reason alone their supporters have reacted in different ways, some of which has been violent which, with considerable news coverage, has painted a very different view of the protest which was originally all about peaceful change.

To use game show terms, let's look at what they could've 'won'.

No agreement

Prime Minister Abhisit, having wiggled himself a little more power than many said institutions have until now granted him, went out on a limb with his peace roadmap.

Talks with the reds shirts came epically close to a conclusion, which could have avoided bloodshed (particularly of the last week or so), yet they failed and the rest is as reported. Thais and foreigners have lost their lives, Bangkok has been shut down, millions of lives (mine included) have been affected.

The irony of these failed talks is that the reds could have walked away with the prize - a much sought after (and at one point unlikely) early election date. Yet they insisted on near radical conditions which compromised the reaching of their goal of an election date.

They demanded that Deputy Prime Minister Suthep should hand himself into police - just as red-leaning police chiefs responses for deaths relating to the PAD's occupation of Suvarnabhumi airport were forced to - an act that would show his responsibility for the deaths at the hands of the army.

Suthep did subsequently hand himself into, but such is the fragmented nature of Thailand's police force, the reds deemed this to be the 'wrong' police station and thus the deal and ceasefire was on.

That the reds assumed Suthep would glady hand himself in is strange. After all, they did not hold all the power in this situation and thus misjudged their strength against the government.

A fair better and more productive approach might have been to take the agreement and work on Suthep separately/at a later date. This would allow them to walk away, hands held high...PR rhetoric claiming they had influenced this government, got their way and come home to work on electoral success.

As it is, going back to game show-isms, they (most likely) leave with nothing.

What is next?

The next chapter is yet to unfold but you can be sure this will not the end of the red shirt struggle.

What started off as a reasonable request (and one which I supported, given that the Prime Minister does not hold direct democratic legitimacy - he was voted in by parliament (representing the people) rather than the electorate itself) has ended with everyone losing.

People have lost lives, families have lost loved ones, the reds have lost their battle, the army has lost (further) credibility but, by far and away, the biggest loser has been Thailand. The full estimates of financial cost are yet to come in (though this post gives some insight), but given the country is still recovering (financially and reputation wise) from the PAD protests at Suvarnabhumi, the cost will be significant.


TumblerBlog has a number of quotes from The Economist summarising the close of the protests. The one I've chosen from below sums up my long, rambling thoughts above in a far more succinct statement - this is what I should've written to save time.
Mr Abhisit may deserve credit for offering a plausible compromise to the red shirts. That the leaders of their United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) failed to grasp this olive branch is tragic. They must bear some responsibility for the lives lost, as do the soldiers who marched into downtown Bangkok.


Mike said...

Jon just watched the surrender on TNN-but what now? I have a horrible feeling this is not going to go away. The Government may well have won battle of the red camp but in my opinion are a long way from winning the war.

Having watched the battle unfold today I have to say that for the first time in this sorry mess I thought the Army got it right.

ThailandMusings said...

As this post is a bit old I think we now know what the next step is and I hope it is isolated to May 19th, but fear that now the genie is out of the bottle so to speak these types of "attacks" will continue.

Here's a couple quotes I've come across (sorry can't remember what site so no link to them):

" hardline leader prophetically warned Bangkok would become a “sea of fire” if the government would not yield."

"As fires consumed parts of the Thai capital, a radical splinter group known as “Red Siam” sent an email to reporters claiming that “any attempt of ‘democratic reform’ has now ended. From today, we begin the journey of democratic revolution of Thailand until we achieve one.”"

Jon said...

Hi Mike,

Looks like things have settled down but I fully agree this is only the beginning. All we can hope is that the red movement manifests in a legitimate political entity, and not an anarchic, guerilla-style operation.

Read the link below from The Indy, tells of soldiers firing on the safe haven temple...I think the army has made huge mistakes, though the body count could have been even higher I suppose.

Jon said...

Hi Steve,

What comes next is anyone's guess but it would seem the immediate threat in Bangkok has been neutralised.

I'm hoping the red shirts will collect themselves together for a legitimate political movement. Anything else might see a return to anti-establishments acts and anarchy, a situation that will benefit no one.