Thailand: The Looming Crackdown

5 MINS READApr 20, 2010 | 18:02 GMT
Thailand's military took steps April 20 to harden its policy on the opposition Red Shirt protesters. The move includes permission for soldiers to fire rubber bullets — and live ammunition, in some circumstances. It appears that both sides intend to escalate the conflict in the near term. However, even when the protests are eventually resolved, the enduring tensions between the military and civilian government, the rural and urban regions and their political patrons, and the loss of the Thai monarch as a pillar of stability will prevent long-term stability from taking root in the country.
The Royal Thai Army is preparing to undertake a new operation to disperse remaining protesters — United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) or Red Shirts — from their main rallying point at Rajprasong Intersection in the heart of Bangkok, army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said April 20. Sansern said the army is adopting new tactics that will involve the use of rubber bullets — and live ammunition in cases of self-defense — to drive away the protesters without putting soldiers at risk. As a result, the Red Shirts canceled a planned march to a financial district. But the Red Shirts have not shown any inclination to back down from their demonstrations calling for the dissolution of the government, and the army appears prepared for further bloodshed. The army has not announced a timetable for the "anti-riot" operation, but the crackdown looms. With the April 16 appointment of army chief Gen. Anupong Paochinda as the government's director of security operations, the army signaled its willingness to use greater force. According to the army, the Red Shirts are stockpiling weapons, including guns, grenades, makeshift bombs, bamboo spears and nail-spiked clubs to prepare for a final battle with security forces — corroborating the Red Shirts' own claims of having stepped up security in their ranks. This decision follows the government and security forces' failure to shut down the now-monthlong protests, which included clashes on April 10, leading to 25 deaths and around 800 injuries, and a botched April 16 attempt to arrest Red Shirt leaders. Pressure is rising on the government from all sides: the army, political parties within the ruling parliamentary coalition, and even the royalist People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), or "Yellow Shirts," who claim they will launch massive counterprotests if the Red Shirts are not dealt with in the coming weeks. The Red Shirts have called for the dismissal of the parliament and new elections, which the ruling Democrats are attempting to delay until a more advantageous time. The leading figures in the army also want to delay elections until after the annual shuffling of army personnel in September, which will see Anupong retire, likely to be replaced by his deputy, Prayuth Chan-Ocha. The army does not want this transition to be disrupted by political controversy or to have a different political party rise to power — namely the proxies of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the Red Shirts' father figure — as pro-Thaksin forces could appoint their own favored generals. However, the protests have taken their toll on the regime. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is not required to call elections until December 2011, but has offered to do so in late 2010. The Election Commission has asked the attorney general to consider a case against the Democrat Party that could see the Constitutional Court order it to disband, regardless of whether elections are called. Meanwhile, cracks in army unity have appeared, with hardliners blaming Anupong for mishandling the April 10 clashes and not bringing protests to a finish sooner. Accusations are also rife about army personnel supplying Red Shirts with intelligence and support. Military disagreements in turn raise the omnipresent question in Thailand of whether there could be a military coup in the event that the political crisis is perceived as having no end. At the moment, however, the government and military appear to be working together as they prepare a final operation against the protesters. In Thai society, the use of violence tends to weaken one's cause in the popular mind, but the army is presenting an argument to the public that force is necessary as the protesters themselves are using violence, and that "terrorists" (militant radical sub-groups led by rogue army officers) are operating within the protesters' ranks. There may be opportunities for protest leaders to back down — they have signaled they will surrender in mid-May. But, at present, a showdown looks inevitable. And while a violent crackdown may bring the latest protests to a close, it will inevitably sow the seeds for further unrest, either in the form of popular revulsion to heavy-handed military tactics (as happened after the 1992 crackdown), or a stronger central government clampdown on dissent (as happened after student unrest in the 1970s). A major question is whether Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej is capable of playing his historic role of reconciler during times of crisis. He has been called on to intervene, but not only has the king historically refused to intervene in the midst of contingencies, preferring to assist with reconciliation, he is debilitated due to old age and illness. All of Thailand's powerful groups are attempting to secure their interests and gain the advantage as the country prepares for an exceedingly uncertain transition with the impending death of the king and weakening of the monarchy as a pillar of Thai stability. This context, and the regional divisions behind the unrest, will not change, which means that even in the unlikely event that a crackdown is avoided in the coming week, the underlying causes of the country's political turmoil will persist.

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