Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?

Bangkok Reporting

Our Bangkok correspondent H. Numan summarizes the recent political crisis in Thailand.

Who’s afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?
by H. Numan

Happy New Year, people! A few days ago we celebrated Songkran, or the Thai New Year. It was the worst Songkran in living memory. The ‘red shirts’ tried to commit a coup d’état or revolution. Whatever you prefer. Fortunately, the government learned some lessons in the very recent past. On the news it seems the government cracked down massively with unrestricted violence. Fortunately, it wasn’t that bad.

Let’s look at the events for a bit. We have to go back a few years now.

Prime Minister Thaksin was removed in a bloodless coup. For a year the military ruled, but they returned power to the parliament. In the meantime Thaksin’s party, TRT (Thai Rak Thai — Thais Love Thailand party) was disbanded. It continued. However, under a different name: PPP. As the TRT and now the PPP have a firm majority (75%), not very surprisingly the new government was actually very much in favor of Thaksin. The new prime minister Samak was busy rewriting the new constitution to allow Thaksin to return and take control of a new government.

This didn’t ride well with the middle class Bangkokians. Unrest started again, this time not by the army but by the ‘yellow shirts’. Which are mainly middle class Bangkokians. The prime minister tried to call a state of emergency, but got support from neither the police nor the army. Samak was suddenly fired, because he moonlighted as a cook in a TV show. The new government was headed by the brother-in-law of Thaksin. Can you be more obvious? I guess not. Too obvious, because the Somchai Wongsawat government immediately got in trouble with the same protesters.

It took several months, in which Government House was under siege for months and the government fled to Don Muang Airport, until the protesters besieged and took over the old airport as well as the new airport Suvarnabhumi. Lacking any support of the police and the army, the government had no option but to resign.

This all happened in early December of last year. The protesters are now called the ‘yellow shirts’ for their color. Their name is PAD, People’s Alliance for Democracy.

As you can understand, all this didn’t sit very well with the other party, the people supporting Thaksin. They saw their party and influence fade away almost completely. They picked red as their color, and are know as the ‘red shirts’. Thaksin was very active in stirring up his supporters. The grouping is named the UDD (National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship) and of course has a point. Their party still is the majority party in parliament. Should they have something to say as well? Is a parliament democratic when the 75% majority party is outside government?
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Thaksin organized big meetings in football stadiums, in which he appeared on large video screens and live telephone conversations. He called for action. Until a few days before Songkran, in veiled terms. He wasn’t directly calling for a revolution, but as close as one can, without using the actual words. The UDD organized daily rallies and demonstrations. Again the government was in serious trouble.

The Apisit (Democrat Party) government tried to ease the tensions by allowing these demonstrations, which got bigger and bigger and every time more aggressive. A few days before Songkran, Thaksin actually called for a revolution, in so many words. The UDD responded.

On Saturday 11 April the UDD laid siege to the ASEAN annual meeting hosted by Thailand in Pattaya, in the Royal Cliff resort. Despite massive police and army presence, the demonstrators broke into the besieged resort. The representatives had to be evacuated by helicopters. Thailand lost face in a massive way, and so did the government. The UDD announced they wouldn’t stop until Apisit was removed from office, and they blockaded major traffic intersections in Bangkok. This was the proverbial drop of the bucket. All newspapers, whether they support the government or not, supported the government on this one. No exceptions. Thai and English newspapers all called this a major insult to Thailand. The reds had gone too far.

On Sunday 12 April, the first day of Songkran (New Year is celebrated from 12-16 April) the reds tried to revolt, by blocking major intersections, such as Victory Monument, the Din Deang intersection and government offices. They confiscated buses to block the roads. Some even took control of a gas truck filled with liquefied petrol gas and threatened to explode it near a housing complex. The community living there wasn’t exactly keen on seeing “Towering Inferno” live; they took what was at hand and settled matters themselves until the army took those protesters prisoner. Which saved them from being clubbed to death, I think.

The army used mainly blanks and life rounds fired in the air. Two people got killed, several hundred were injured. Within hours peace was restored. Most red shirts were allowed to leave, only those really involved in violence (such as those LPG hijackers) will have to explain themselves in court.

A reasonably restrained reaction, given the enormous tensions that gathered since December last year. And several hundred thousand demonstrators active. This is shared by the population: several polls were conducted to see how people felt about it, and about 70-74% supported the government.

Thaksin’s passport was withdrawn, but you don’t have to worry for the poor man. He was immediately given a diplomatic passport by Nicaragua. Thank you so much, ‘people’ of Nicaragua! Always nice to see someone supporting the oppressed. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Chavez had helped out, if the ‘people’ of Nicaragua hadn’t. Or maybe Kim Jong-II from North Korea would have.

These are the events as they took place. I personally witnessed the helicopter evacuation in Pattaya; I was on the other side of Pattaya Bay that day. I was happy to get a seat on the bus back to Bangkok. There wasn’t any real danger: most taxi drivers are Thaksin supporters, and all they did was shuttle demonstrators to and from Pattaya, mainly from Bangkok. Some blocked intersections here and there along the way. But no real violence. (That was planned for the day after.)

Earlier I reported about the yellow revolution. Someone, I think a supporter of Thaksin, didn’t agree with me. Which is fine, as I quite like a debate and democracy. The above is a more or less what I witnessed. I talked with a lot of Thai people, who almost unanimously supported the government. None supported Thaksin. I did not talk with taxi drivers, who also almost unanimously support the other side. For obvious reasons: I am not keen on getting kicked out of a taxi or making someone — whose side lost — needlessly angry. No need to rub salt in the wound, what?

One can argue that Thaksin saved the Thai economy. That he did, but for a very high price. He was already a billionaire. One of the reasons to seek election as PM was to extend his mobile network monopoly. Much easier to do that when you are PM. As he is a billionaire, fluctuating the currency influences his bankbook in a nice positive way. That’s another reason for running for office.

The normal behavior of an ousted Thai PM is to retire in comfort (usually to Japan) and play golf the rest of his life. Especially if you are removed the way Thaksin was.

I can only speculate here; I don’t have firm evidence. What was Thaksin planning to do? His CNN interview was pathetic. I actually felt embarrassed watching this guy make a clown of himself. The Prime Minister refused to respond to this silly performance. CNN did ask him to, but he declined.

The king, sadly, is old. He is the longest-reigning monarch in the world. Meaning he doesn’t have much time left. Also, his state of health isn’t very good. This might explain the silence from Dusit Palace. Who will inherit the throne? This is an issue not discussed here as long as the king doesn’t. So far he is silent on that issue too.

What could Thaksin have done, had he returned? Not run for prime minister. The previous constitution only allowed for 2 turns, 8 year maximum. He had already had served that. Become a privy counselor to the king? Possible, but extremely unlikely. The king showed his dislike for Thaksin rather publicly on several occasions. What can a man do, who wants to run the government? But cannot do that under the constitution?

So I feel the problems aren’t quite over yet. Things have cooled down. The big show has to start. The only way it can more or less be solved quietly is by having Thaksin extradited to Thailand, to face a court. That is not likely to happen soon.

As a final note: you may have watched in horror what happened in Bangkok. Please be aware that tourists were never in danger at all. Not during the ‘yellow’ revolution, nor during the ‘red’ revolution. Protesters of either side didn’t harm tourists in any way. Far from it: they would much rather have their picture taken with a ‘farang’ (western tourist)!

Should you have planned a holiday to Thailand: just do it. The country is a great place to be. The unrest is normally focused on a tiny part of Bangkok. Just a few hectares. If a riot occurs on Wall Street in New York, would you cancel your planned trip to Queens? Or to Newark? The same goes here. Just don’t wear yellow or red shirts, don’t engage in political debate (it isn’t your business anyway) and enjoy being on a great holiday!

This was Bangkok reporting,
H. Numan.