From the commencement of their current protest activity on 12 March 2010, Thailand’s red shirts have demonstrated remarkable resilience and logistical capability. They have maintained a strong presence in Bangkok for more than two months, forcing Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to the negotiating table and weathering the failed crackdown of 10 April which left more than 20 protesters and soldiers dead. The red shirts have shown that they can move very effectively from grass roots mobilisation to the national political stage.
But they have proven much less adept at withdrawal. Given the forces now arrayed against them, this may prove a very fatal flaw indeed.
In the days following Abhisit’s offer of a 14 November 2010 election a peaceful resolution to Thailand’s latest political crisis seemed likely. The reds took their time in endorsing the so-called “road map” but their delays and qualifications seemed to be motivated by a desire to step down from a position of strength rather than intransigence. But then the deal came badly unstuck, seemingly over the theatrical technicality of precisely how Deputy Prime Minister Suthep should be called to account for the deaths of 10 April. There were also concerns about how the extreme charges against the red shirt leaders would be handled. With the red shirts refusing to shift, and with talk of further reinforcement from the provinces, things quickly spiralled out of control. Prime Minister Abhisit withdrew his offer of an election, issued yet another ultimatum and then sent in the troops. So far 16 have been killed and over a hundred injured as the army has attempted to place a stranglehold on the Rajaprasong protest site.
The death toll is bound to rise as the clashes continue.
So why didn’t the red shirts withdraw when Abhisit put his offer on the table? All the signs are that their political allies, the Phuea Thai party, would win the November election. If rumours about the results of internal party polling are accurate, Pheua Thai will win very handsomely. Why not wait just a few more months to achieve their political objective?
In the coming weeks and months much will be written about what went on within the red shirt leadership during the early weeks of May 2010. There are strong signs of a split between moderate and hardline forces. There is much government-led speculation about Thaksin’s role in scuttling the deal. Sorting out the details of what has gone on will be a task for another day, when the fog of war clears a little.
But there is a much more fundamental reason for the failure of the red shirts to withdraw and the violent immolation of Ahbisit’s road map: Thailand has lost faith in electoral democracy.
Abhisit’s offer of a November election may have seemed reasonable, perhaps even generous to some, but it was essentially meaningless in a country where respect for electoral decisions has evaporated. The red shirts don’t need long memories to recognise the flimsiness of Abhisit’s offer. In March 2006, the Abhisit-lead Democrats boycotted the snap election called by Thaksin in the wake of anti-government protests because they knew they would lose. Thaksin’s party received about 60 percent of the votes cast but the result was cancelled on a dubious technicality.
Another Thaksin victory was likely in the election scheduled for late 2006 so the army staged its 19 September 2006 coup, pushing aside the most electorally popular government Thailand has ever seen. In the post-coup election of December 2007 the People Power Party won just short of an absolute majority. But the yellow shirts, with the backing of the Democrats, wouldn’t accept that result. They staged their infamous occupations of government house and the international airport. With open support from Abhisit and the Democrats the yellow-shirts campaigned to overthrow another elected government. They got their way when the ruling party was dissolved by the Constitutional Court, and with backing from the army, Abhisit was finally able to stitch together a parliamentary majority.
Given the fundamentally non-electoral chain of events that brought Abhisit to power, why would the red shirts place their faith in his offer of an election? There are some powerful figures within the government who are extremely reluctant to subject themselves to electoral judgement so how could red shirt leaders persuade the doubters in their midst that the road map was solid? With the yellow shirts openly hostile to the deal, how could the red shirts be confident that they wouldn’t seek to disrupt it?
And even if an election went ahead, recent history underlines the likelihood of extra-electoral intervention, either on the streets or in the courts, to overturn the result. The red shirt protesters are repeatedly vilified as a crowd-for-hire so how could they be confident that their future votes wouldn’t be similarly dismissed as the product of money politics? Could they rely on the palace to add its moral authority to a defence of the electoral process? Of course not.
Thailand’s fatal flaw is its loss of faith in the electoral process. This loss of faith has opened the way for hardliners to pursue violent alternatives. Violence on all sides is deplorable, but remember that those who condemn the red shirt provocations most vigorously are also those who have consistently denied the legitimacy of their peaceful statements at the ballot box.