THE black smoke that had hung over Bangkok’s jagged skyline for six days grew thicker and more noxious. On May 19th combat troops marched into the protest camp where a few thousand anti-government red-shirt stragglers remained, defiant to the end. Their main leaders went quietly, to howls of disapproval from diehard demonstrators, but 13 people died and more than 80 were injured as the camp was cleared. Angry protesters torched their tyre-and-bamboo barricades, then set fire to the Bangkok stock exchange and Central World, one of South-East Asia’s biggest department stores.
The dawn assault on the fortified camp was methodical, and met only scattered resistance from gunmen holed up inside. It was not, mercifully, the Tiananmen Square rerun that some had predicted. Most protesters took shelter in a temple, and then were herded away to evacuation points. Security forces had overwhelming force on their side. On the outskirts of the camp, though, riots flared along a main road that had seen the worst of the recent fighting. Arson attacks spread to new areas, and gun battles erupted in the blackened underpass beneath an expressway, not far from a port slum that has begun staging its own red-shirt rally. Protesters in the north and north-east, where red-shirt sympathies run deepest, were quick to resort to arson attacks in retaliation.
All this has its roots in a military coup in 2006, when the then prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecoms tycoon, was removed from power. He fled into exile, but the red shirts continue to support him, and have been demanding new elections. They present themselves as rural and poor, as opposed to the urban elites who are closer to the revered King Bhumibol and his family. The protests have been their way of venting their political frustration. They have also revealed the deep social and economic divisions in Thai society.
The prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, has failed to make any headway with the red shirts. On April 10th he hastily sent in troops to clear another protest site, with the loss of 25 lives. But he does deserve credit for offering a compromise since then. On May 3rd he proposed the holding of elections in November, a year before his term ends, as part of a reconciliation package. That the leaders of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), the red shirts’ formal title, failed to grasp this olive branch is tragic. They, as much as trigger-happy soldiers, must bear some responsibility for the lives lost.
Yet even on May 18th an 11th-hour ceasefire had appeared close. But mistrust on both sides proved impossible to bridge, and the talks failed. In truth, this approach may have been doomed since widespread fighting erupted on May 13th after a presumed army sniper picked off General Khattiya Sawasdipol, a rogue officer who ran the red shirts’ security. He died on May 17th. Suspended from duty but not yet stripped of his rank, he was honoured with a funeral sponsored by the king at a Buddhist temple, another reminder of how much rank means in Thailand. 更多信息请访问：http://www.24en.com/
By then, the die had been cast. Military units trying to block off the sprawling protest site were attacked by stone-throwing yobs who brought along petrol bombs and firecrackers. Shadowy black-clad militia-members also joined in, though fleetingly. Soldiers shot back without much restraint, even at paramedics trying to bring out the wounded. Road junctions were declared “live-fire zones”. The mayhem spread to other parts of the city. The military cordon appeared to be breaking as red shirts defied orders to stay away. Something had to give. In the end it was overwhelming military force, not a political deal among the warring factions, that won the day.
As the bullets flew and the bodies fell, crocodile tears came from afar, as Mr Thaksin tweeted his sorrow to his followers. From his luxurious exile he denied, once again, that he was giving orders to the red-shirt leaders and urged everyone to embrace peace. There is little doubt, however, that Mr Thaksin holds sway over the splintered, squabbling red-shirt leadership. The two-month protest would not have been possible without his deep pockets, vengeful will and political network, even though the red-shirt cause has become much larger than him. And his stubbornness seems to have undone the peace talks, despite his protestations.
In April 2009, when troops were also called in to restore order in Bangkok, red-shirt leaders got carried away by their own rhetoric and found themselves quickly out on a limb. Veera Musikapong, a moderate Thaksin follower, recommended surrender instead. Tellingly, he left the red-shirt camp last week when it became clear that hardliners led by Mr Thaksin would not accept Mr Abhisit’s peace plan. Mr Veera’s behind-the-scenes efforts to bring the leadership back into the fold came to nothing.
As Thailand’s crisis continues to unfold, many will wonder how it came to this. If politics is the art of the compromise, Thais had appeared to be experts. Various political factions, both elected and unelected, cobbled together governments that oversaw steady economic growth even as they squabbled and scrapped for the spoils. That pragmatic formula no longer works. Political crises have polarised opinions within families, workplaces and communities, and hollowed out the centre.
That is why this crisis goes much deeper than previous rounds of political violence, including the bloodshed in May 1992 when a coup leader sent troops out to mow down pro-democracy protesters. Then, King Bhumibol Adulyadej was able to order a truce between the army chief and the protest leader, and appoint an interim administration to steer the country out of crisis. Bhumibol, who is 82 and confined to hospital, has stayed out of the current mess. Some red shirts, and many foreign observers, believe that the palace has already taken sides and is no longer an honest broker. The 2006 coup and royalist yellow-shirt protests in 2008 drove home that message. But even if Bhumibol did try to mediate this time, there is no simple fix. The prospect of the looming succession, with an unpopular crown prince in the wings, further heightens tensions.
Why compromise failed
The aftermath of the May 19th crackdown will probably see sporadic unrest, both around Bangkok’s slums and in the north and north-east. Many of the red shirts at the rally came from the north-east, which accounts for around one-third of parliamentary seats. Since 2001 the region has overwhelmingly voted for Mr Thaksin and his allies. The red shirts had sought to force a new election in the belief that voters would turf out Mr Abhisit, the darling of Bangkok’s privileged classes.
Had the red shirts accepted the prime minister’s offer of elections, the timetable would have been to their advantage. Now an election seems like a liability in a climate of violence and fear. It is hard to imagine government candidates setting foot in the red-shirt heartland without a phalanx of armed guards. Many in Bangkok would be irate to see the protest leaders run for office. Mr Abhisit has argued that an election, in itself, will not solve Thailand’s political problems. He has a (self-serving) point. A chaotic, disputed ballot, and the absence of neutral bodies to settle disputes, could drag Thailand further down the road towards civil war, which is increasingly talked about.
Many are asking why peace talks failed, when the red shirts had little hope of resisting the troops. Insiders say that Mr Thaksin was a serious spoiler, as were General Khattiya and other radicals. In a dysfunctional and factionalised movement, internal talks bogged down. Some leaders balked at facing criminal charges without the guarantee of bail. But the leadership was also held hostage, in part, by its own rhetoric and the emotions stirred among its followers. Many were enraged by the April 10th slaughter and unimpressed by the six-month timeline for elections. “The mob would not allow them to give in so easily,” says a senior security official.
Some red shirts complain that the prime minister’s plan was too vague and lacked teeth. They did not trust Mr Abhisit to keep his promises, and asked what would happen if he resigned or his party were dissolved for electoral irregularities (it faces a court case). But by far the greatest distrust, and the hardest to overcome, is that felt by a sizeable number of Thais, inside and outside the red shirts, towards the country’s royalist elite and its political, military and business allies. This grouping blithely tossed out Mr Thaksin when he got too big for his boots. That he was thuggish and greedy was a handy excuse. But the 2006 coup failed to bury him politically and only unleashed a wider backlash against an elite that still believes in a divine hierarchy of which they are the agents. Mr Abhisit would object to such a description, but his class betrays little sympathy or interest in the aspirations of rural and working-class voters. Their attitude, says Supavud Saicheua, an economist at Phatra Securities, is: “We are brilliant people. We know what you want.”
Such intransigence has bred dark, violent dreams. Most red shirts swear blind that they stick to peaceful methods, even if they have to resort to disruptive sit-ins. Indeed, the protests were surprisingly jolly and gentle at the start, to the relief of Bangkokians who remembered the April 2009 unrest. Their message of social and economic injustice, and of the double standards in Thai justice, got a sympathetic hearing. It seemed that the tide had shifted towards the red shirts and away from their yellow-shirted rivals in the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD).
But it has long been apparent that some red followers do not believe in gradual change in Thailand’s political order. Simply put, they think it is not possible to play at democracy in the current circumstances. To this group of rogue military types, armchair revolutionaries and opportunists, the endgame is not elections, but regime change. The current violence is only the start of a long revolutionary road. This is the unfinished business of 1932, when the absolute monarchy ended and Thailand’s power balance began to shift towards other forces. It is still in flux, and is likely to remain so as long as the post-Bhumibol future is so uncertain.
Conservatives will object vehemently to this characterisation of Thailand’s troubled politics. They will argue that Mr Thaksin has hoodwinked the world into believing that his red-shirt rabble is poor and oppressed. Not so, they say. Thailand’s economic growth has trickled down to the masses, all under the benevolent gaze of Bhumibol. In recent weeks the foreign minister, Kasit Piromya, has railed at foreign diplomats who talked to the red shirts after the April 10th clashes, which the government says militant gunmen fomented. He snubbed a senior American diplomat who dared to sit down to breakfast with moderate opposition figures. He says foreign allies should be doing more to catch Mr Thaksin, a “terrorist”, as he calls him.
When the UDD called for the United Nations to step into the crisis, Mr Kasit retorted that Thailand was “not a failed state”. That is true. But if it does become ungovernable, the fault will not be Mr Thaksin’s alone. Equally culpable is the royalist PAD that Mr Kasit belongs to. He and many of his peers could not stand the idea of an elected government loyal to Mr Thaksin. So they helped organise a six-month protest in 2008 that culminated in the seizure of Bangkok’s two airports, all in the name of defending the monarchy. Two prime ministers were removed by the courts on dubious grounds. The stage was set for Mr Abhisit to take power, enraging those who voted in his opponents and laying out the template for mob rule which the red shirts have copied. No PAD leader has gone on trial for what he did. The red leaders may be less fortunate.
Sorting out this mess would require an end to the “crooked procedures” that began with the 2006 coup, says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. That means constitutional reforms to undo the undemocratic rules imposed by the army. It may also be helpful to lift bans on politicians from dissolved pro-Thaksin parties, some of whom are far more moderate than those in the UDD and not necessarily on Mr Thaksin’s side. All of this was under discussion a year ago, after Bangkok’s last conflagration. That Mr Abhisit failed to make these changes and frame his mission as peaceful reconciliation is lamentable. It will only be harder now.
整理这个烂摊子，有赖于始自2006事件的“畸形规程”的终止，朱拉隆功大学(Chulalongkorn University)大学的政治科学家提塔南•蓬苏迪拉克(Thitinan Pongsudhirak)说道。那意味着，通过宪法改革以解散军队强加的非民主统治。冰消瓦解的前他信党派中，有些人远比UDD的人要温和得多，也不是非向着他信这边不可的，解除对这些政客们的禁令，或许也会有所帮助。一年前，在曼谷最近的一次大火之后，所有这些都在讨论之中。令人惋惜的是，阿披实没能做到这些改变、构造起他和平调解的使命。现在，时局只会变得更艰难。