Yawning Bread. 13 April 2009

Abhisit declares emergency in Bangkok over Red Shirts




I was transfixed by the unfolding developments in Bangkok and Pattaya over the weekend. Early in the week, some 100,000 Red Shirts appeared at various rallies in Bangkok, an astounding number. 

On Thursday, 9 April 2009, a portion of them besieged the Victory Monument roundabout, causing gridlock and utter chaos in the capital city's public transport system.

Then on Friday, they marched on the Royal Cliff Resort in Pattaya where Asean leaders were scheduled to meet their counterparts from China, Japan, Australia, etc. It was relatively peaceful, and the rally dispersed after they managed to hand a letter over to the Asean leaders protesting the legitimacy of the Abhisit government.

On Saturday, a new "colour" made its appearance -- dark blue shirts. They confronted the Red Shirts, and a short but furious fight broke out between the two sides. The Red Shirts, being far more numerous, pushed forward, and eventually entered one of the conference buildings in victory.

The summit was cancelled and the gathered leaders had to be evacuated by helicopter to U-Tapao air base from where they flew home. Abhisit himself was the first of the heads of government to flee.

You may ask: Where were the security forces? What were the police doing? Wasn't the army guarding the place?

And while you're at it: Who are the Blue Shirts?

These questions point to a far more complicated situation than most Singaporeans understand. It is not a simple two-sided conflict of government versus anti-government. On the so-called "government" side, there are multiple forces who can and do act independently of each other, sometimes at cross-purposes. The whole contest is also being played out against a background of repeated uprisings in modern Thai history, the memory of which is shaping both sides' tactics.

On Sunday, a state of emergency was declared over Bangkok and the surrounding provinces. Exactly what the government hoped to achieve with that is not yet clear, but the risk of blood being spilled has risen. I now estimate it at over 50 percent.

* * * * *

Last month, I was speaking to a non-Thai friend who had been living in Bangkok for many years. I asked him: "I know the army does not take orders from Abhisit; there are forces bigger than the Prime Minister, forces he does not control. Who is the central figure behind them?"

I knew it would be hard for him to give a clear-cut answer, because there are many shadowy figures, but his simplified answer illustrated very well the complexity of the situation. He said, "The queen." 

This diagram below will give you an idea of the forces at play. 

On the left side, we know that the Red Shirts take inspiration from deposed prime minister Thaksin. Is he the one giving orders? I'm beginning to doubt it. I think the Red Shirt movement is now bigger than Thaksin, and I don't think he can fully control it anymore. The movement is a boiling over of the rural and lower classes' long-suppressed frustration at being exploited by the rich and the powerful.

It is couched as a demand for democracy because they know that they have the numbers to win any free election.

On the right side, the first thing you'd notice is that Abhisit is almost naked in that he has no "ground forces" of his own. He is in office by courtesy of the bigger forces on that side of the contest, and he is dispensable. Anytime they don't need him as figleaf, he goes.

The palace and the generals are the ones calling the shots. Their ground forces are the yellow shirts and, in theory, the army. We have not yet seen the army in action, so we don't quite know, in reality, where the army junior officers' and rank and file's loyalties lie. But because the generals are on that side, for now we assume the army is on that side too.

The problem both sides face is that if there is any pattern to be gleaned from previous uprisings, it is this: The side that fires the first shots and causes the first fatalities is the loser. Your moral high ground is immediately forfeited and there is no way Thai society can fully support you.

Thus, so far in this contest, both sides have tried their best to avoid lethal violence. The police, and even soldiers supporting them, in manning protective cordons have generally been armed with no more than batons.

The Red Shirts in turn have shown remarkable discipline, pushing forward steadily but not running amok, and pulling back when ordered.

What has been interesting so far is that many observers have come to the conclusion that the rank and file of the police forces have their sympathies with the Red Shirts. This is hardly surprising. They come from the same social class as the poor and downtrodden. This explains why so often, when the Red Shirts push forward, the police just give way. It may also explain why so many Red Shirt leaders arrested by the police have "escaped".

Take the guy who broke the rear windshield of Abhisit's car earlier this week. This happened when, prior to the Asean summit meeting, Abhisit held a cabinet meeting in Pattaya and found himself nearly lynched by a group of Red Shirts, on his way out of the seaside town. The guy who broke the windshield surrendered himself to the police for that act, but later, when he asked for a smoke break, they let him out, and he just walked away.

What about the Blue Shirts? They're the classic agents provocateurs. It is now widely believed that they were soldiers disguised as anti-Red demonstrators. Eyewitness accounts suggest that they were the ones who started the melee on Saturday morning at the Royal Cliff Resort by throwing objects at the Red Shirts.

Look at the Blue Shirts' haircuts

Quite likely, Abhisit did not even know that a bunch of Blue Shirts was being organised, for it would have risked exactly what happened later, infuriating the Red Shirts so much that fighting would break out, threatening the entire summit and causing him to lose face. More likely, other chieftains came up with the idea behind the prime minister's back, perhaps because saw an opportunity to force a showdown with the Red Shirts.

And now that showdown may be happening, with the state of emergency declared over Bangkok. How will the junior officers and solders respond? This is the question we have to watch out for.

First indications are not good. The Red Shirts managed to seize three armoured personnel carriers on Rama 1 Road, just in front of the chi-chi Siam Paragon Shopping Centre. How did the soldiers give up their vehicles so easily? Are they demoralised? Or are their secret sympathies with the Red side too?

Below is a Youtube video from another part of Bangkok. Not only Red Shirts, but ordinary bystanders are getting heated the moment they spot an army personnel carrier. When surrounded and nearly overwhelmed by people, the army vehicle lurches back and forth, destroying a motorbike (and latter it sounded like it crashed into a car or two), which only leaves more people incensed. Imagine if an accident happened and someone was killed...



Thailand's army is mostly made up of conscripts. Either they wouldn't know how to react calmly and with discipline to protest situations or their obedience to their commanders could be shakey. However, there are crack units who will probably obey orders to shoot if given.

And let's not forget the Yellow Shirts whom we haven't seen in action so far this year. What role is being thought up for them in the coming days or weeks? And how much of all this does Abhisit control? Or even know about?

* * * * *

If the rule is that whoever shoots first cannot win, then how will the generals ever prevail when two-thirds of the country are more or less on the side of Thaksin and the Red Shirts?

Ah, but that rule was only true when the king was active enough to intervene the moment the first shots were fired. Now he is ailing. Suppose he doesn't intervene this time, will the first shots be followed by more shots? And then, some more?

I am getting very concerned with this fast deteriorating situation.

Yawning Bread