Gwynne Dyer: Thailand heading towards Burmese-style tyranny, isolation, and poverty

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      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.




      May 18, 2010 at 12:13pm

      Very good well written Ms Gwynne Dyer ,of all the post i have read,this will struck thru. the heart of Thailand.

      A Thai Abroad

      May 18, 2010 at 1:02pm

      Please... I'm not sure if this "journalist" has even been to Thailand, but she clearly ignorant, probably being fed information by Thaksin Shinawatra's current spin-doctor, Robert Amsterdam. It was in fact, the protesters who rejected PM Abhisit Vejjajiva's roadmap only about a week ago that got us into this mess. Keep in mind that that proposal of a new election on November 14 was probably so generous that it got the PM into trouble with his own party. And why do you think the roadmap was rejected? - Because there was nothing in it for Thaksin who is clearly funding the current rioting. And check out what happened the last time a military coup leader tried to take office in 1992. I can assure you that BOTH the red shirts and yellow shirts will not stand for that. Burma my a...

      Read Al Jazeera for informed and unbiased reporting. This is a piece of you-know-what.

      LIved in Thailand for 10 years

      May 18, 2010 at 3:08pm

      and it is obvious to me that you know nothing about Thailand. Instead of copying other articles from the internet and compliing them to affirm your own predetermined viewpoint (like most other "journalists" these days), perhaps you should go there (like I did), live there (like I did), learn the language (like I did) and really find out what is going on and what this situation is really about.

      íngel Ramí­rez Isea

      May 18, 2010 at 3:41pm

      Respected "A Thai Abroad": Did the roadmap include re-legalizing Thaksin's party? If not, I see a clear need for rebellion and, thus, the post is mostly correct.


      May 18, 2010 at 4:04pm

      a thai abroard,
      your position is a conspiracy theory worthy of manager website (the propoganda arm of the yellowshirts) or the moon landing conspiracy.

      Thaksin is more influential than you or I but he doesn't control the western media. the western media doesn't like the elites because they dont like what they stand for and they are sympathetic to the basic cause of the reds who's base are undoubtably are isolated from power in Thailand. Just think of the distain your average yellowshirt urban elite would probably show towards an obviously Issan individual.

      besides that as bad as the re shirts may be behaving in terms of harming the Thailand economy - the yellow shirts started it and the power that be made it legitimate by rewarding those yellowshirts - This was a inevitable result of that.

      And if the red and yellow shirts come together and make any sort of government impossible then what will happen? Thailand isn't burma or china but Gwynne wasnt suggesting that, He was just saying that Thailand is creating momentum in a very bad direction.

      Bkk Viking

      May 18, 2010 at 5:47pm

      To a thai abroad.. it seems like Mr. Thaksin gets blamed for everything, and also seems like he is the richest man in the world, the rumors says he is off cnn and other medias to support him...But i think you should check up the word DEMOCRACY and TOTALITARIANISM and ask yourself which of these definition suits the way of Thailand right now.

      Lin Neumann

      May 18, 2010 at 7:35pm

      I witnessed the Rangoon 88 uprising and crackdown first hand. I also lived in Thailand for many years. This is a fat load of nonsense. The red shirts are a few thousand people with a grievance fueled by partisan politics. They are hardly representative of the feelings of the majority of Thais. Burma in 88 was completely shut down by a massive upheaval and the crackdown was brutal and indiscriminate with thousands killed. This woman does not understand the differences and only muddies the situation. What is happening in Thailand is horrible but it is neither Tienanmen nor Rangoon. The protesters in both China and Burma, for example, were peaceful. Some red shirts have been armed and willing to use deadly force, which they did on April 10.

      May 18, 2010 at 7:37pm

      The root of the coup was that "Thaksin's war on drugs” illegally killed dealers and addicts. Isn't that bad enough?


      May 18, 2010 at 7:52pm

      As i understand, since i live here, the drugs problems were almost gone.
      And now its do u support the drug dealers since you feel the war on drug was bad.... if a dealer shoot at the police and they shoot back, wrong ?.... and to make a coup because of that, so maybe someone high up in the military are the main people for the dealings and would benefit from the coup...

      norris hall

      May 18, 2010 at 9:18pm

      Things have gotten so polarized in Thailand that perhaps a divided country would be the best solution. Sad because they all share the same religion , same language, same culture.

      LIke the US Thailand has suffered from too much "hate" radio and television