Bangkok after the burning
TODAY, 21 May 2010
Burning buildings and street shootings in Bangkok have made international headlines. For Thais and foreigners alike there is a sense of shock that such violence has come to the Land of Smiles. Even if the government soon secures the capital, some suggest future politics will worsen.
What caused the violence? Where does the path lead? Is Thailand changing irrevocably? One international think-tank has said the situation is an undeclared civil war. Some paint scenarios in which the royalty will end after the current much revered King.
I do not agree. Thailand is changing but the tragedy could have been avoided and further instability can yet be avoided.
Much depends on how we judge the source of the current violence. Some see the problems as being caused by the large gaps between the rich and poor, and equate the Red Shirts with the unfairly oppressed poor.
It is true that gaps exist, as they do in many other developing countries. But they were not the immediate cause of the conflagration. The cause was a politics that exploited the gaps and sparked and stoked anger.
Consider that many of the Thai poor live in the south, which has solidly voted Democrat, the party of Premier Abhisit Vejajiva. Consider, too, that Thaksin Shinawatra established his stronghold in the north and north-east by allying with many traditional local chieftains who have controlled the existing power structures.
Remember the Red Shirt rejection of the offer made by the Abhisit government to step down by November. The Red Shirts insisted on an immediate step down not because poverty could be addressed between now and November.
They refused because a November dissolution would allow the incumbent government to roll out a Budget including many handouts and pro-poor policies, and to oversee the transition to a new Army chief. This would have increased chances for the Democrats and their coalition partners to do better at the next elections.
Seen in this light, the events in Bangkok are not a civil war. Violence is simply politics by other means. People are being used as pawns in a complex game of power and bargaining behind closed doors. That is the true tragedy.
The Red Shirt leaders miscalculated and some seem to have been callous to the loss of lives, so long as they could paint the armed forces and Abhisit government as the aggressors. Notable Red Shirts included renegade military men and deployed rocket and grenade launchers. The Red Shirts were outmatched by the military but they were never non-violent protesters.
Some of the moderate Red Shirts and perhaps Thaksin did not mean for this outcome. There were more extreme voices among the Reds.
But they must bear the blame of putting these people - including women and children - in harm's way by refusing to call on them to end their protest when the government made their intentions clear.
This does not mean the military and the Abhisit government will escape blame. Nor should the government claim victory even when the streets are again secured.
The handling of both the April and May attempts to clear the Red Shirts must be subject to thorough and impartial investigation. The ruling coalition would also be well advised to offer real and substantial concessions to the poor and reach out to those who are willing to compromise on the road ahead.
In this, it is not clear if Premier Abhisit and the Democrats will survive. The Democrats still face a possible indictment that could lead to their dissolution.
As for the Premier personally, even if he has done what he felt was his duty, some may question if he can remain the unifying face for the next elections.
What about the monarchy, which has been a central institution for the society? Many have called on the King to speak up and resolve the crisis.
When he did speak from hospital, his words to welcome a new batch of judges were variously interpreted. Some stressed he had asked the institutions of the country to do their duty and inferred that the government and military should clear the streets. Others suggested the King was frail and unable to act decisively and in a way that all would accept.
Perhaps the question should be not what the King said, should say, or if he can settle all the problems. We should ask whether the King should still make the decisions as he did in the past.
The hope must be that Thai society has matured since then. The hope must be that those Thai politicians who say they want democracy can also see the value of compromise.
Otherwise, the next elections will again be a winner-takes-all battle, and problems will simmer and again bubble over.
If compromise can come in the wake of the blood and burning of this past week, the tragedy can yet be turned to a better future, and all Thais, including their much revered King, might have reason to smile.