Is Thailand an Exception or an Unsettling Precedent for Military Crackdown Against Street Demonstrations?


Ho Chi Minh City, VIETNAM

What ultimately sets Thailand apart or folds it into the norm of Southeast Asia’s all too familiar past with the violent quelling of popular uprisings is the relationship between Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s parliamentary democracy and the Thai military.¹ Thailand’s King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, is the nominal Head of the Royal Thai Armed Forces by title and monarchical right. Moreover, the Thai government has announced that it will shoot arsonists and looters on the spot. However, the military has long been one of the least predictable factors in Thai politics.²

In a relatively balanced, power sharing coalition like that of Thailand (a constitutional monarchy), the parties concerned are accountable for their actions. The military showed great reluctance to act in the initial days after Abhisit’s declaration of emergency rule in the first week of April. This was both a promising sign and one of looming danger. For it showed that perhaps a bloody suppression of the Red Shirt protests was not an act the military wanted to repeat, as it had in “Black May” 1992, when a middle class uprising against then ruling General Suchinda Kraprayoon was met with swift and violent military action. In the end, it was King Bhumibol who resolved the political standoff, and the military seemed to fade into the sidelines, shirking a more publicly visible role as a forcible agent in Thai politics.

On the other hand, the more recent inaction of the Thai military suggested that perhaps another successful coup was not far off from replacing Abhisit with former PM Thaksin Shinawatra supported by the Red Shirts. Moreover, a number of Thai military personnel are said to be sympathetic to the protesters’ cause and supportive of Thaksin’s return. They are, rather humorously, referred to as “watermelon soldiers”. The 2006 coup that overthrew Thaksin was a surprise to most viewers, after 14 years without one. However, the Royal Thai Armed Forces have been responsible for 18 military coups since the bloodless revolution by the People’s Party in 1932 that established an elected legislative body and constitutional monarchy. Hardly a hollow precedent for the army’s direct intervention in Thai politics.

The decisive confrontations between the military and the resistance that have taken place in the intervening weeks paints a different picture, however. It seems that the Armed Forces ultimately answer to PM Abhisit’s command, and they have rather successfully managed to section of large quadrants of central Bangkok in order to route out violence and negotiate the surrender of three protest leaders. This has come at a great cost, however, with the death toll rising to 53 and 399 wounded.³ As the flames died down from the fires that raged through nearly 40 buildings, including Bangkok’s stock exchange and one of the city’s largest shopping malls, a relative calm appears to have settled on this shaky battle zone. Only time will tell whether this intermittent peace will last. If it does, it will be a long time before a new precedent of order and peaceful resolution comes about.

¹Since Corzon Aquino’s People Power Revolution in the Philippines in 1986, Burma’s 1988 widespread student demonstrations, through Tiananmen Square in China in 1989, Southeast Asia has been rife with political tension and populist movements across the region.

²For more on the autonomy of Thailand’s Armed Forces, see Horn, Robert, “Does Thailand’s Military Answer to the Government?”, Time, 8 April, 2010. <http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1978994,00.html>.

³These numbers are cited by Fuller, Thomas, “Bangkok Is Tense as Order Returns,” in The New York Times, 20 May, 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/21/world/asia/21thai.html?ref=asia>.

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