Fri December 17, 2010

Thai Riots Sign Of Simmering Political Tensions

Thailand's government says that by year's end, it will lift the state of emergency in the capital and other areas affected by anti-government rioting in April and May. But this by no means signals the end of political tumult.

And anti-government Red Shirt protesters aren't waiting for the decree to be lifted. Last weekend, they converged on downtown Bangkok, demanding the release of jailed leaders, dancing to car stereos and noshing on street food.

Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd, spokesman for the military's Center for Resolution of the Emergency Situation, which is in charge of enforcing the emergency decree, says the demonstrators have been law-abiding and the decree can soon be lifted.

"The lifting of the decree will be like a New Year's present to the Thai people," he says in his office inside Royal Thai Army headquarters. "It will reassure them that our nation is returning to normal."

The riots, which left 91 dead and 1,900 injured, were the worst political violence in Thailand in many years. They revealed deep fault lines dividing the country's regions and social classes.

Aftermath Of The Riots

In order to placate public anger and close the book on this spring's riots, the Thai government has ordered investigations. A government-appointed Truth for Reconciliation Commission reported that some Red Shirts had been arbitrarily detained and recommended that the government release them. And Thailand's National Human Rights Commission released a report in June saying that some protesters had been tortured into making confessions.

Critics, meanwhile, say the military is stonewalling probes into who killed protesters. Sansern says the military is not to blame.

"I can categorically deny that the army has killed or hurt any Red Shirts or protesters, including the Japanese journalist," he says. "Killing those persons would bring us no benefit whatsoever."

At least, he clarifies, investigations have yet concluded that soldiers killed any civilians, including Reuters cameraman Hiro Muramoto, who was fatally shot while filming the riots.

Meanwhile, the opposition Red Shirts are re-grouping and evolving. One example of the new breed is Bangkok-based social activist Sombat Boon-ngarmanong.

"I'm known as a 'middle-class Red Shirt,'" he explains, sitting in his office surrounded by piles of red T-shirts. "This is something new, as Red Shirts were previously thought of as poor and rural. People were amazed when big crowds of middle-class Red Shirts came from all over Bangkok to the protests."

On weekends, Sombat organizes Bangkok Red Shirts and their sympathizers for social networking and cafe-hopping. He doesn't follow any Red Shirt leader. Nor does he care to become one, he insists. His interest, he says, is building grassroots democracy among the Red Shirts.

"I got this concept working in NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]," Sombat continues. "I believe in empowering people to organize groups on their own. Then, small groups of Red Shirts would form networks and the networks would choose their leaders from the bottom up."

'Consensus Has Broken Down'

Critics say the Red Shirts have traditionally been organized from the top down, and worse, that their exiled leader, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, bought the votes of the rural poor and manipulated the Red Shirts for his own political aims.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, argues that government efforts to crush the Red Shirts are a futile, last gasp of Thailand's Cold War-era establishment. This alliance of military, monarchy and bureaucracy, he says, once served its historical purpose.

"Consensus among the Thai elites carried the day," he says. "It held. It provided stability, unity, it allowed economic development, it kept communism at bay. That consensus now has broken down."

Thitinan says that the outside world sees the fa├žade of a democratic, civilian government ruling Thailand, "but behind it, it's propped up by guns and tanks and the army."

As for the Red Shirts, Thitinan says that they may be inarticulate and fractured, but they nevertheless represent new voices demanding political participation and enfranchisement, and they won't easily be silenced.

For now, though, the government feels it has the upper hand, and is expected to call snap elections next spring. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.