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Red Shirt Talks Signal Military’s Influence

by Joshua Kurlantzick
March 29, 2010

Red Shirt Protesters in Bangkok

Photo Courtesy of Reuters/Damir Sagolj

Over the weekend, Thailand’s Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjavija, besieged by street protests of the red-shirted supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, suddenly reversed his position and declared that he was open to direct talks with the reds’ leaders. (Abhisit previously had said he would not listen to any ultimatums for talks.) The red shirts immediately asked for the dissolution of Parliament, which presumably would lead to a new election that their party would have a strong chance of winning. Some media coverage suggested that these talks signified a breakthrough, a compromise that created the possibility of ending Thailand’s standoff, which in recent days has included bombings and grenade attacks.

But the talks actually signal something more ominous. As Bangkok’s The Nation notes, the compromise seems to have occurred because the red shirt protestors started marching to locations in Bangkok where army troops are temporarily garrisoned, raising the specter of a clash:

“Gen Pravit Wongsuwan, the defense minister, and Gen Anupong Paochinda warned Abhisit that he has to step forward to hold talks with the red shirts. Otherwise, the military would abandon their support of the Abhisit government.”

(Thanks to Bangkok Pundit for highlighting this quote)

In other words, if Abhisit did not talk to the protestors, the military would have thrown its support behind another coalition of parties that are Abhisit’s opponents. This is not any step forward; if Abhisit resolves the crisis, it is only a demonstration that the military still holds all of the most important levers of power and is capable of maintaining or ousting political parties as it wishes. As long as this is the case, Thailand will never return to the quality of democracy it enjoyed in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by WANG Yu

    whether to talk, when to talk, talk under pushing by whom, would be interesting signals to focus in order to get ideas of who is taking in power behind the scene.

  • Posted by beste reisezeit zypern

    I don’t really understand the problems they have in Thailand. It would be better for them to work together and try to find a good solution for the future of the country.

  • Posted by Maaba

    The movement of Red Shirts was founded shortly after the 2006 coup that removed Thaksin from office following his second landslide election victory. The first campaign of the Red Shirts was focused on defending the 1997 people’s constitution – the first in Thailand’s history that was drafted in a popular, democratic manner with participation of elected officials from all the regions – against the imposition of the new 2007 constitution, drafted by handpicked people appointed by the military junta.

    The grassroots growth of the Red Shirts rapidly increased the size and influence of the group following a series of repressive actions by the government. The country’s most popular political party, Thai Rak Thai, was banned by a court ruling in 2007. The elected prime minister Samak Sundaravej was ousted from office for appearing on a cooking show. The People’s Power Party, successor to Thai Rak Thai, was then also banned in 2008, and more than 100 democratically elected members of parliament were disqualified from politics for five years.

    The understandable anger felt by many Thai citizens after seeing their popular will suppressed was underscored by systemic double standards exercised by the country’s judicial system. One constitutional court judge who banned Samak also regularly did paid appearances on radio and taught at a private university.

    When the pro-government elite movement, People’s Alliance for Democracy, held disruptive rallies, invaded government buildings, and illegally occupied Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport in 2008, there was not one single arrest, trial or conviction. Instead, these same people are on television every day. In comparison, scores of Red Shirts have already been imprisoned, and those arrested in the most recent protests were processed and convicted in improbably swift trials.

    It was all the more impressive that tens of thousands of these activists volunteered to sleep outside at the rally site in obvious discomfort, while risking their lives before the coming violence to make their point. They came to Bangkok to remind the ruling elites and the world that they also have constitutional rights as Thai citizens, that their votes should count too, no matter their level of wealth, class, and education.

    But the distractions from these basic facts are numerous. The ruling military elite argues that the killing of almost 70 civilians (only one confirmed death of a military officer) over the past month is justified because they are armed – although most often with slingshots, homemade fireworks and bamboo sticks. The ruling military elite talks about the funding of the Red Shirts, as though these people are risking their lives for some reason other than the anger over having their votes stolen.

    The unlawful deployment of force used by the Thai authorities against the protesters, their flip-flopping on the issues of elections and their unwillingness to meet the protesters’ pleadings for negotiations to avoid violence speaks volumes about their legitimacy to govern.

    But the facts speak for themselves, and the demands by the Red Shirts for new elections and real representative government must be dealt with in a sincere and orderly reconciliation effort.

    Above all, the Red Shirts simply want the right to vote, have a say in who runs the country and how.

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