The bloody and confusing events of 10 April in Bangkok reveal vividly the character of Thailand’s chronic crisis of political legitimacy. Though many commentators are understandably focusing on the minutiae of the enigmatic violence of 10 April which led to the death of 25 people and injuries to over 800 more, these events also expose the labyrinthine nature of power play in Thai-style conflict and the continuing potency of the “third’ hand (whether real or fictitious) in fomenting violence in moments of crisis. For many analysts, the central ghost in the machine remains Thaksin Shinawatra who has allegedly bankrolled the whole red shirt movement and determined its direction, and without whom they believe the ongoing agitation would be impossible. However, the red-shirt movement now represents far more than Thaksin, as others have noted. Most critically, the recent events expose the continuing clash of ideologies unleashed by the coup of 2006 and the overthrow of elected governments by organized conservative crowd action and judicial fiat during 2008. Since coming to power by parliamentary vote in December 2008, the Democrat-Party has tried in vain to squash politics back into the parliamentary box. The unprecedented crowd action of the People’s Alliance for Democracy in paralysing the country in late 2008, tolerated by the military and exploited by the Democrat party to step into power, is the precedent that the red-shirt movement has followed in its street politics. Thailand is now reaping the whirlwind.
In mid-March 2010, what seemingly began as a festival of popular democracy among crowds of red-shirt supporters demanding the dissolution of the Democrat Party-led parliament and new elections, turned into a bloody confrontation on 10 April as troops attempted to clear the core rally area around the Phan Fa bridge and the Democracy Monument in central Bangkok. In the aftermath of the fatalities and injuries (to both troops as well as demonstrators) caused by mysterious gunmen and bomb-throwers, the blame-game continues between red-shirt leaders and the Democrat-led government as to who was responsible for the targeted killings that occurred. However, this bloody confrontation was already foreseeable for a number of reasons. First, it was predictable in the diametrically-opposed positions of the protagonists from the beginning; second, it was predictable in the calibrated escalation of provocation among red-shirt leaders (modelled in many ways on the Yellow shirt crowd action of October 2008); third it was inevitable because Prime Minister Abhisit had to affirm control of the situation at numerous levels – including the pragmatic domain of limiting crowd activity and the symbolic domain of affirming legitimacy for political survival. As happened with the clamp down on red-shirt demonstators in March–April of 2009, the government and the military leadership, armed with emergency powers and control over radio and TV media outlets, attempted to control the narrative of events and interpretation of the violence and its black-clad perpetrators. They are now demonizing the red-shirt movement (in particular its leadership) as a fundamental threat to the nation and its highest institution of monarchy. They have opened a space for the People’s Alliance for Democracy to emerge (disguised as a variety of non-aligned networks) once more on the streets in the name of the “the nation” to legitimize a hardline crackdown on critics of Thailand’s established power structure.
It is not possible here to provide a blow-by-blow description of events as they have unfolded over the last eventful month. Some themes, however, are important to underline. Political theatre, rhetoric, rumour, dissimulation and innuendo have been prominent over this period among parties in the conflict. During the major rally at Phan Fa bridge beginning on 14 March the rhetoric of red shirt leaders (particularly of the master orators Nattawut Saikoe and Wira Musikaphong) intensified beyond a condemnation of the “amart” (aristocratic bureaucrats) and the government’s “double standards” to a full blown rhetoric of class war, drawing on the evocative identification of the red shirts as “phrai” (bonded serfs in the pre-modern Thai social structure). It was a brilliant piece of symbolic self-identification serving to contrast red shirt identity with that of powerful historical enemies. After two weeks of escalating protests (which forced the virtual besiegement of Prime Minister Abhisit in a military camp) negotiations were brokered between both sides and televised. During these sessions Prime Minister Abhisit gave an impressive display as a statesman, willing to engage with the red shirt leaders in continuing talks about their ongoing concerns. He offered the appearance of concessions by offering a house dissolution in nine months, though not 15 days as demanded by the red shirts. For their part, the red shirt leaders needed to display resolution to their own audience, and pressed for a quick dissolution, not trusting the wily Democrats to guarantee a process of dissolution because it would be contingent upon a referendum in advance. Though Abhisit’s therapeutic self-presentation in the televised negotiations was alluring, he chose to ignore the fact that to the red shirts he was not a neutral player in the game of political reform, but a major part of the political problem. Further, his argument that he wanted to see the political atmosphere calm down before elections were held was the complete reverse of red –shirt logic, that the Democrat government was the product of an outrageous political rape that had been committed on the people: effectively the product of a second “silent” coup in December 2008. Perhaps the offer of a six month time-frame, as recently proposed by the Democrat’s coalition partners, may have done the trick and taken the wind out of red shirt leader’s sails, but this was not forthcoming from Abhisit. Soon after the failed negotiations, the red shirt leadership expanded the rally to the busy retail district of Ratchaprasong, defying the government’s attempts to eject them. Red shirts were emboldened by the army’s reluctance to utilize weapons. Despite the affirmation of peaceful protest, red-shirt rhetoric of defiance escalated, explicitly anticipating a messianic confrontation with the authorities in emotional proclamations such as “we will stay here until we die.” Though understandable as a necessary retaliation against Aphisit’s refusal to quickly dissolve parliament, the rhetoric complemented aggressive red shirt crowd action that followed.
As with all crowd-government confrontations since 2008, the threat and the reality of violence have been a critical ingredient in power play and discourse. As with the clashes of October 2008 and April 2009, the party that was demonstrated to be the instigator would lose all political capital. Put more bluntly, though culpability has always been contested in crowd-government confrontations since October 2008, the party that can project innocence to both the international world (in simple terms the U.S. State Department) and the Bangkok middle class wins the symbolic legitimacy game. This time the red shirt leadership and its supporters affirmed their commitment to peaceful protest, but such commitment was compromised from the beginning by a string of bombings on military installations and other public places. As in April 2009 the red shirt leadership claimed that their peaceful protests were being discredited by a “third hand.’ For its part, the government and the military could not locate the culprits of these bombings, despite the finger being pointed to the maverick Thaksin-supporting general Khattiya (“Sae Daeng”) Sawasdipol. While the Abhisit government has continued its mantra of upholding the law, the incapacity of the authorities to convincingly identify and apprehend culprits of attacks well before the 10 April clash raised questions about both the capacity of the authorities and the unity of the army itself.
As with all previous clashes, controlling the narrative of culprits and victims has been imperative. The government began this when it declared a state of emergency on 7 April after red shirts broke into the parliament building to demand an immediate dissolution. On the following day the signal of the red shirt cable TV channel (People Channel) was blocked, as were a number of key web news sites reporting on the red shirts. All television channels explicitly critical of the red shirts, including the PAD yellow shirt station ASTV, remained untouched. The government’s main TV channel, NBT, stepped up its condemnation, most stridently in its talk shows, which were hosted by ardent enemies of Thaksin Shinawatra, such as Chirmsak Pintong. In the afternoon of 10 April, troops moved into the Rachdamnoen Avenue area to pressure protestors, but by dusk mayhem had broken out with confusing accounts of shootings of both red shirts and soldiers (including senior officers, and the death of a Japanese photographer) at the Kok Wua intersection. Video footage the following day revealed shadowy black-clad figures firing war weapons. Other clips indicated that firing was coming from above surrounding buildings. The exact identity of these figures is still obscure, but the government narrative is that these were “terrorists” connected to elements of the red shirt movement, bent on creating chaos. This does not account for the larger number of red shirt deaths. As for the believability of official version that soldiers played no role in shootings, skepticism has been stimulated following a change in the military spokeman’s information from an initial statement (11 April) that soldiers only fired live rounds in the air, later changed to an admission (13 April) that some soldiers had fired live rounds in self-defence. A number of scenarios are possible in explaining the shootings and identifying perpetrators, which also includes the involvement of serving military personnel engaged in their own covert conflict with superiors. Though the popular choice for the main bad guy is “Sae Daeng,” military sources close to the government have suggested to me that the shooters are former rangers commanded by another shady former officer (“Sae “Ice”, Gen. Trairat Inthat) and that Sae Daeng is just a decoy figure.
Over the whole period of the red shirt demonstrations, the military command has shown a singular lack of capacity in identifying and apprehending those responsible for violent attacks. This allows for room for rumour and speculation about collusion in exacerbating the violence. Not surprisingly, the red shirt leadership is blaming the military for fomenting the shootings. Regardless of all this, the 10 April events have given the government the upper hand to proclaim elements of the red shirt leadership as allied with “terrorists.” This has served to besmirch the red shirt movement as a whole. Ordinary red shirt supporters are being counselled to leave the rally site (now centralized at the Ratchaprasong intersection) for their own safety. The other major development is that the paranoid discourse of the “nation and monarchy in danger” has been encouraged to flourish. Following the declaration of emergency , on 8 April TAN cable TV’s “Political Hot Pot” show featured Sophon Ongkara lambasting the government for doing too little and too late, and condemning red shirt protestors as “just a bunch of thugs” and “working for Thaksin’s agenda to get rid of the monarchy.” And on the evening of the 10 April clashes a major gathering of the PAD was held in Krabi province and televised by the so-called “Esan Channel.” With no sense of the irony of his pronouncements Chamlong Srimuang condemned the red shirts for breaking the law. He vindicated the PAD’s own previous illegal efforts by claiming that this has been done for a higher good, unlike the red shirts, who acted as minions of Thaksin. He and others slammed both the government and army for their weakness, promising that the yellow shirts would step in if the government didn’t do anything.
From 16 April, several networks proclaiming that they represented non-aligned citizens, with some led by noted yellow shirts (including the so- called “Network for Protecting the Nation”) demonstrated in front of the 11th Infantry regiment headquarters (where Abhisit is based) to oppose the dissolution of parliament and urge the government to apply sterner measures of martial law against protestors. This development is significant and contrasts with the period of demonstrations in 2009, when an official government militia, the “blue shirts” were recruited to oppose red shirts. Now the popular red shirt opponents are supposedly ordinary non-aligned citizens, which may be the case for some. But the slogans of many, however, betray their conservative yellow shirt ideology which brands the red shirt movement as a traitorous plot to destroy the monarchy. The latest development has been a meeting of the PAD at Rangsit University (19 April) where its leadership has announced a 7-day deadline for the government to arrest UDD “terrorists” and to end the red shirt activity, or it will step in. Though this highlights widespread criticism of Abhisit’s government among conservatives for being too soft, it can only aid the government in providing the pressure it needs to force the military to act strongly against remaining red shirt demonstrators, a development already foreshadowed in recent statements of the military as they prepare to protect the Silom area from a planned advance of red shirt demonstrators. Not surprisingly, many concerned observers in Thailand are now comparing the atmosphere of conservative backlash to the paranoia that accompanied the massacre of protesting students in October 1976.[Marc Askew is Senior Fellow in Anthropology, School of Philosophy, Anthropology and Social Inquiry, University of Melbourne. He is currently resident in Thailand on an extended period of fieldwork. He is editor of the forthcoming volume Legitimacy Crisis in Thailand, to be published by Silkworm Books and King Prajadhipok’s Institute.]