Update: A new version of this column was posted on May 20.
“The government does not want to negotiate, so I think many more people will die,” said “redshirt” leader Sean Boonpracong in Bangkok on Monday (May 17). “This will end as our Tienanmen Square.” Or more precisely, it may end up as Thailand’s “8888": the massacre by the Burmese army of thousands of civilians demanding democracy on August 8, 1988.
The army still rules Burma today, and commits further massacres whenever the citizens show resistance (most recently in 2007). The Burmese army’s successful resort to violence in 1988, after so many Asian dictatorships had been overthrown by non-violent demonstrations, may even emboldened the Chinese Communists to use extreme violence on Tienanmen Square in 1989. But I would never have put Thailand in the same category.
Even two months ago, I would have said that Thailand is a flawed but genuine democracy, and I would have pointed to the non-violent behaviour of the pro-democracy “redshirts” who took over central Bangkok in mid-March as evidence that the Thais would sort it out peacefully in the end. But a lot of people have been killed by the Thai army since then, and now I’m not so sure that there will be a happy ending in Thailand.
It’s quite possible that there will be a massacre in Bangkok this week, and that the military will end up back in control permanently, riding a tiger from which they cannot dismount. Then the whole country would start down the road that leads to Burmese-style tyranny, isolation, and poverty.
Thailand wouldn’t get there right away, of course. It took 40 years of repression to transform Burma from the richest country in Southeast Asia to the poorest, and Thai generals are not ill-educated thugs like their Burmese counterparts. But they would find themselves in essentially the same position: condemned to hold the whole country hostage at the point of a gun forever, lest they be punished by some later government for mass murder.
The protesters in central Bangkok are already being picked off by army snipers: five or 10 a day killed and dozens per day wounded. (The army insists it shoots only “terrorists” hiding among the protesters, but there is ample footage that shows unarmed people being shot down.) The death toll now is in the 60s, and almost all the dead are civilians.
The roots of this crisis are in the military coup of 2006, when the Thai army overthrew the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin, an ex-policeman who became a telecommunications billionaire, was not an ideal prime minister: his “war on drugs” involved thousands of illegal killings of dealers and addicts, and his response to unrest in the Muslim-majority far south was clumsy and brutal. But he endeared himself to Thailand’s poor.
Thailand has been a democracy since 1992, but Thaksin was the first politician to appeal directly to the interests of the rural poor rather than just bribing their local village headmen to deliver their votes. He promised them debt relief, cheap loans, better health care, and he delivered—but that was not how the urban elite wanted their tax money spent.
A “yellowshirt” movement seized control of the streets of Bangkok, seeking Thaksin’s removal and demanding strict curbs on the voting rights of peasants because most rural people were too ignorant to make wise choices. After months of confrontation in the streets, the army took control in 2006, ejecting Thaksin from office—but it was not unequivocally on the side of the “yellowshirts” either.
The soldiers allowed a new election in late 2007—and Thaksin’s supporters won again, of course. His opponents used the courts to dismiss two prime ministers drawn from the pro-Thaksin party for “conflict of interest” (in one case because the prime minister appeared on a television cooking show), and ultimately simply had the whole party banned and its members ejected from parliament.
The rump of the parliament, cleansed of most representatives of the rural poor, then voted in the current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva. The “redshirts” are demanding his resignation and a fresh election, and their demands may yet be met. Abhisit almost gave in last week, mainly because the urban elite are not certain that the army will act on their behalf.
Thai army officers are not usually from the privileged Bangkok elite that sponsored the “yellowshirts”. Many are from humble backgrounds, and most of their troops are country people, just like the “redshirts” behind the barricades. So Thai generals are doubly reluctant to give the order to clear the city centre: they do not want a massacre that would trap them in power forever, and they cannot be sure that their troops would obey the order anyway.
There is still some hope, therefore, but the situation is very grave. People are being killed every day, and there are predictions of civil war if the protesters in Bangkok are massacred. Nobody knows for sure which way the army will jump, but if it “restores order” in the way that the elite wants, then a long, dark night will fall on Thailand.
Though not, one hopes, as long and dark as the Burmese night.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.