Before the rhetoric and propaganda from all sides totally overwhelms meaningful discussion, and yes I plead mea culpa as well, it’s worth looking back to the start of the weekend to see how this kicked off. I do not pretend to have the courage of a Nick Nostitz and I’m happy to write this from a fair distance from the fighting.
The government/army intention was to seal off the protest site with another set of barricades outside the ring of those erected by the red shirts. Two things happened when this activity started. Seh Daeng, the army general who had joined the red shirts and was overseeing their defenses, was shot by a sniper and red shirt guards came outside their barricades to attempt to stop the army erecting new barriers. At that point we start to see the red shirts taking casualties. Added to the above we now have red shirt sympathizers on the outside of the army’s barrier trying to break through to those on the inside of the red shirt barricades, or least disrupt what the army is attempting.
Now if we look at recent aggressive behaviour on both sides of the dispute we can make some judgments. It’s worth remembering that there is a heavy overload of testosterone in all three layers of this cake as most of the participants are now young Thai men of an age that produces substantial quantities of the substance.
The offer of a roadmap leading to a November election was the first real concession to the UDD by the Abhisit government. We can’t really call this aggressive behaviour, even if as some think it wasn’t an honest offer.
Although at first the UDD leadership welcomed the offer and were asking their followers in Rajprasong to be ready to pack up as victory was theirs, splits occurred among the leaders with the hardliners like Khattiya calling for the replacement of the present ones with the ‘second generation’. That left the UDD following the then status quo of continuing the occupation.
Thrown back at Abhisit were more demands of having himself and his deputy officially arrested and bailed so the UDD leadership could claim the same privilege. Now it has to be said that Abhisit is caught between a rock and hard place. Those that have some knowledge of Thai history know that the Democrats are far from the worst of the Thai political parties. Although they all have the stink of corruption the Democrats, especially when under Chuan’s leadership seemed to smell just a little less. (Yes I know the problems they had in Phuket.) So with the Thaksin and the UDD on one side of him and an increasingly more outspoken PAD on the other, and it must be added pressure from the Bangkok residents and middle-class to take a tougher line with the red shirts, Abhisit needed to do something.
Let’s look at Abhisit’s options at the end of last week. In order of aggressive behaviour:
- He could have ordered the army to attack and clear the red shirts from Rajprasong.
- He could do what he is now doing in trying to isolate the Rajprasong camp.
- He could have done nothing.
- He could have made more concessions to the UDD by having himself and Suthep arrested.
- He could have resigned and given in to all the UDD demands.
Now the second option he took was not the most aggressive he could have taken, and this follows on from both this year’s and last year’s protest where he hasn’t taken the hardest line open to him. Was this because he couldn’t rely on the army to be tougher? I don’t know the answer to that. What is fairly obvious is the neither he nor the army command trust the police to take any real part in this weekend’s actions. That the officer levels of the Thai police force are riddled with Thaksin sympathizers comes as no surprise to many here.
Now what was very aggressive was the shooting of Seh Daeng and whether this was a positive move in achieving the government’s limited aims of isolating the red shirt can be argued. I suspect it wasn’t and I also suspect it wouldn’t have been in Abhisit’s plans. Khattiya had plenty of enemies inside the army even before his possible involvement in the death of a fellow army officer, Colonel Romklao, on 10 April. (It must be remembered before the legend starts to build that Khattiya was up until recently regarded as an extremely right wing military officer with an ability for self publicity.)
On the red shirt side the attack on army positions while building the barriers by UDD guards from the Rajprasong camp was aggressive and the start of their taking many casualties. Whether this was what the UDD leadership wanted, or whether it was a reaction to the shooting of Seh Daeng by the guards themselves we will probably never know. What we do know is that by this time the UDD leadership had become more hard-line with the desertion by Veera and other more moderate leaders.
I’m not sure if the army was prepared for those trying to break their barriers to offer relief to those in Rajprasong. Anyone who had seen the motorbike taxi riders escorting Thakisn from the airport on his last return could guess that those boys would be out again. As has long been known controlling the motorbike taxi ranks gives you a small private army. Certainly now the army finds itself caught between both those inside and outside the camp.
Writing this on Sunday morning well away from the actual fighting, I’m wondering where we will be tomorrow morning. We have seen the first group of protesters already tried and sentenced to six moths in prison and I guess this is the threat to those outside Rajprasong to deter them from attacking the army’s backs. Still at the moment there are no massive amounts of soldiers in town. Will the army flood Bangkok with troops and tanks to bring it all to a head. Pictures of tanks in the streets don’t go down well in the foreign press. Many of us still remember the pictures of Australian journalist Neil Davis killed by tank fire in the 1985 coup attempt.
On both sides now it’s probably easier to fall into increasingly aggressive behaviour rather than looking for any way out that would allow more protesters not to be killed. Natthawut is calling for a similar government response to that of the 11 April when the army backed off after the deaths of the day before. The problem for Abhisit is that when they did this there was no corresponding conciliatory behaviour by the UDD. What can the red shirt leadership offer Abhisit now? Unless there is either surrender by Abhisit or the army, what chance now for the red shirts at Rajprasong. Can they motivate enough people to force the army off the streets as in people power revolutions in other countries? Remember they couldn’t get the one million people they were promising in March and probably never had much more than a tenth of that at any one time.
I know some on New Mandala have been calling for more martyrs and this is very achievable. I suspect a people’s power revolution is just not on, so you may just end up with wasted lives. I see reports today of politicians leaving the country. Chavalit, Banharm and even Potjamanm, I didn’t even know she was back, left for various Asian destinations. The boys starting a six month stay in prison and those boys already dead won’t be able leave anytime soon. No, as I write this they won’t be sleeping in London or having lunch in Sydney.