A Thai History of Violence About to Repeat Itself?

"The level of hate in Thailand" (picture courtesy of Mark MacKinnon)

The Economist has yet another article about Thailand that might caused the magazine not to appear on the newsstands there. While there was one topic that certainly was the main reason for the non-distrubuting, the other one is worth discussing in my opinion. Key excerpts:

Can further bloodshed be averted? Two factors suggest not. First, in Thailand violence is more embedded than most care to admit. (...)

The violence first. The shootings on April 10th, in which five soldiers and 18 protesters died, raised the spectre of previous military slaughters of innocents, which also happened in 1973, 1976 and 1992. True, the army has shown restraint this time. It first applied modern crowd-control techniques—water cannon, tear gas, rubber bullets. But the crowds refused to disperse. Worse, the army was caught after dark in civilian-filled streets, which smart commanders know to be a recipe for disaster. Soldiers fired into the crowds, in self-defence (they said) against armed “terrorists”. Then they fled for their lives, abandoning a column of armoured personnel carriers. Humiliated, junior officers want revenge.

Violence is not a military monopoly. Thailand can be a vicious place. Crime and vigilante justice are rampant, hitmen are cheap, militias abound and a Muslim insurgency rumbles on in the south. Under Mr Thaksin, extrajudicial squads killed thousands of suspected drug-pushers and other criminals.

From the start, the red shirts have had a thuggish element. Most reds are disciplined, conscious that a good image counts for much. But a minority has long carried sticks and knives and lobbed petrol bombs. (...)

Both army and protesters, then, have their grievances. And now, after months away, the yellow shirts are back. These are the pro-establishment People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) whose own minority of black-clad guards once used guns and explosives against the police and which stockpiled golf clubs as weapons—nicely reflecting the group’s milieu. On April 18th leaders of the PAD called for martial law and gave the government a week to end the protests or, they said, they would order their own people back on to the streets. All this amounts to one big reason to believe peace will have to wait.

"Banyan: Bloody shirts in the city of angels", The Economist, April 22, 2010

There is an ever-present potential of violence since the beginning of the protests and with recent developments showing no sign of easing off tensions at both sides, the possibility of a 'civil war' (especially when the yellow shirts are coming back) is being thrown around. Seven days after the PAD has urged the government to wipe off the red shirts out of Bangkok, the protests are still there. It is yet to be seen if the yellow shirts will up the ante against the red shirts now.

But how likely is it? Patrick Winn examines:

According to analysts, it’s unlikely.

Many academics define civil wars as conflicts that tally at least 1,000 deaths per year and witness the weaker force inflicting at least 5 percent of all fatalities.

The probability of such a large-scale conflict remains “quite remote,” said Federico Ferrara, a National University of Singapore political science professor and author of "Thailand Unhinged: Unraveling the Myth of Thai-Style Democracy."

“The two sides are very unlikely to engage in open warfare with one another,” Ferrara said.

Still, future stand-offs between Red Shirts and troops, rival demonstrators or both could very well serve as flash points for more bloodshed, he said. “Given the firepower and strength of the two sides, the conflict definitely has the potential to create mass casualties.”

The current Thai preoccupation with civil war is more than hysteria, said Kevin Hewison, director of the Carolina Asia Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The civil war threat, he said, has been invoked by the government itself, which has warned that Red Shirts are pursuing a potentially violent overhaul of Thai institutions.

Bitterness is compounded by the insults such as “buffaloes” [see picture above] and pro-government columnists’ insistence that rural voters are uneducated and easily swayed by corrupt politicians.

“For the Red Shirts who fall into this category, this is a terrible rejection of their world and their lives,” Hewison said. This class rage is further stoked by protest leaders’ stage rhetoric, which frequently derides the prime minister and his allies as “murderers and tyrants.”

"Is Thailand headed for civil war?", Global Post, April 25, 2010

Winn then goes on tackling the issue of the 'watermelon soldiers' (as discussed here) and concludes that even though the country will not spiral into civil war but an ugly "urban-rural divide and sporadically violent demonstrations."

The arrogance of many middle-class citizens of Bangkok certainly was there before and is one of the main reasons of the whole political conflict, the ruling establishment has simply neglected much of the rest of the country. All essential decisions are made in Bangkok and now the rest of the country wants to take at least a piece of the power back to themselves.

Some recent incidents outside of Bangkok, most noticeably the seizing of an army train by red shirts in Khon Kaen, indicate that the political conflict may spread out in the countryside and the government now has not only has a frontline in the South, but in the Northeast as well.