Thailand Steps into the Unknown

  • photo courtesy of LightOnDude
    May 17, 2010

    Near-term hopes for reconciliation in Thailand exploded as a sniper’s bullet tore through the forehead of a former major general in the Thai army while he gave an interview to the International Herald Tribune on May 13. That gut-wrenching moment is an analogy for the political crisis that is sending Thailand into the political equivalent of the unknown. Thais are witnessing frustration and intrigue among layers of competing parties, culminating in deadly violence without regard for the nation’s standing in the world. The Thais are deadlocked. They are playing for keeps. And they don’t care who is watching.
    Understanding how Thailand got to this point and possible scenarios will be vital for policymakers. The escalating violence this week underlines the fact that this is not a crisis likely to be resolved in the near term.

    The fact is that Thailand will never be the same again. The key actors—described in some detail in our last Critical Questions on Thailand—know this, and they are positioning for future power. In lieu of well-established institutions they are reaching for the blunt instruments they need to attain their objective—guns and money.

    Q1: What happened to the apparent deal for elections and some near-term hope for reconciliation last week?

    A1: The short answer is that reconciliation remains elusive because there are not two sides to bring together. Each is dividing among layers of competing interests. On May 3, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva announced that his government would hold elections on November 14, more than a year earlier than originally planned, if the “Red Shirt” protesters agreed to end their protests and move out of the business district in downtown Bangkok. In addition, the prime minister agreed to implement reforms to address the growing inequality among Thais, the need for constitutional reform, the establishment of a body to ensure an impartial media, and an inquiry into the incident on April 10 that claimed the lives of 26 people. His proposals were agreed to “in principle” by the Red Shirt leaders but opposed by the Yellow Shirts and more conservative elements of Thai society who felt that early elections were a capitulation to “mob rule” and that a fair election was not possible under current conditions.

    As the week progressed and it became clear that Abhisit might not be able to implement his commitments, the Red Shirts tabled new demands and conditions. One of their leaders, Veera Musikapong, announced that the Red Shirts would not disband until the military withdrew from around the protest area and a clear time frame for the dissolution of the lower house of parliament was announced. Abhisit replied two days later by calling for the dissolution of parliament between September 15 and September 30. As many of the Red Shirts were beginning to prepare for an end to the two-month-long standoff, divisions emerged within their ranks, with hardliners vowing to continue the protest and demanding a new set of conditions, including requiring Prime Minister Abhisit and Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban to report to the Department for Special Investigation (DSI) and the police to answer questions about their role in the April 10 crackdown. The hardliners also stated that agreements for lenient treatment of the Red Shirts needed to be reached before they would leave the area.

    When the prime minister and deputy prime minister agreed to additional new conditions, the Red Shirts added the condition that the government leaders not only had to report to the DSI but also had to be officially charged. The Red Shirts had originally agreed to disband on Friday, May 7. They then bumped up the date to Monday, May 10. In response, the government issued the ultimatum that they had to abandon the protest site by Wednesday, May 12, or risk increased involvement by the military.

    On May 12, after demanding a clear answer from the Red Shirts as to when they would disband and receiving none, Prime Minister Abhisit rescinded his offer for an early election, the dissolution of parliament in September, and the Reconciliation Plan as a whole. At 6:00 p.m. on Thursday evening, May 13, security forces surrounded the protesters’ encampment, cut off their supply channels for food, water, and electricity, and halted transportation to and from the area. The government issued a state of emergency, with more than 70 hospitals and 22 provinces now put on alert. The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok closed Thursday evening, and it was reported that four Red Shirt leaders fled the scene but remained close by. Those leaders were Veera Musikhapong, Adisorn Piangket, Paijit Aksornnarong, and Visa Khantap. Violence erupted that evening and through today, with exchanges of gunfire from within and outside the protest area bringing the latest death toll since the conflict began in March to 66 and number of people injured to 1,700. It was reported that soon after the military siege began Thursday, renegade Major General Khattiya Sawasdipol, also known as “Seh Daeng,” had been shot in the head while giving an interview to the International Herald Tribune. He was in a coma through the weekend and died early Monday morning.

    Q2: Is further violence expected?

    A2: Unfortunately, the answer is yes. The battle lines have been drawn and crossed. Near-term hope for resolution has dwindled and the government has been pressured to act and follow through on clearing the protest area. The spokesman for the government-appointed Committee for Resolution for the Emergency Situation (CRES), Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd, said that 500 “terrorists” had infiltrated the protest area and that the military were armed with M16s and prepared to defend themselves. Despite the involvement of Australia, Britain, France, and the United States, all of whom have expressed deep concern for the situation and are quietly trying to bring parties together to find areas for cooperation as steps toward reconciliation, the crisis is escalating. Early on the morning of May 14, the military opened fire on the protesters, bringing the total number of dead to 37 and those injured to 266 over the weekend.  It was reported Sunday that the Red Shirts asked the United Nations to mediate a resolution; however, the government rejected that proposal. A deadline to vacate the protest zone by 3:00 p.m. May 17 has come and gone.  At the time of this writing, the police estimated that 5,000 protesters still remained while troops began moving closer from the Pathumwan and Rajthevi intersections.

    Q3: What can the United States do to support Thailand—and what are other international partners doing?

    A3: Thailand is the oldest treaty ally of the United States in Asia. The United States and Thailand are very close in terms of trade and investment, security cooperation, and people-to-people ties, and they are close partners on transnational issues such as humanitarian assistance and disaster response, drug interdiction, and nonproliferation.

    Accordingly, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell visited Bangkok last week taking the opportunity to meet with all key actors and encourage resolution of the dispute and steps toward reconciliation. He also spoke about America’s strong support for the Thai people, reassuring friends that the United States cares deeply about them and wants to help.

    On May 9, Campbell met with Red Shirt leaders—Jaturon Chaisaeng and Noppadon Pattama—over breakfast. The government also had been invited but pulled out of the discussion at the last minute. It was later reported that the U.S. ambassador to Thailand, Eric John, was rebuked by Thai foreign minister Kasit Piromya over “Washington's perceived intervention in Thai domestic politics.” On the other side, Red Shirt activists have indicated that they believe the United States has been pro-government in its actions, such as following through with the annual “Cobra Gold” joint military exercises with the Thais.

    This proves the point that it is very difficult for the United States, ASEAN, or any international partner to proactively try to mediate the conflict. It is likely that the U.S. government will continue to reach out to the Thai people and ensure they understand that the United States supports them at this time of crisis. Programs focused on health care, education, and other basic needs will be deeply appreciated.
    The role of China is less clear. The Chinese government’s response to the situation in Thailand has been muted. As history shows, the Chinese got an enormous boost in bilateral relations with Thailand during the Asian financial crisis in 1998–2001. The U.S. response to that crisis was seen as aligned with the IMF’s perceived cold and unsympathetic prescriptions for harsh cutbacks and belt tightening, a gut blow as many Thais lost their jobs and life savings and had to pull their children out of school. On the other hand, the Chinese, for the first time in modern history, brought financial aid to the table for the Thais and an “Asian values” mantra that hit the mark.

    It is quite possible that the Chinese are once again seeking to find a diplomatic victory within a Thai tragedy. Clearly, the move toward open societies and democracy among Southeast Asian countries has not been perceived as a positive trend by Beijing. To have one of the region’s most high-profile democracies crash and burn, as Thailand is doing, could be used by China to demonstrate deficiencies in the democratic model of governance. What’s even more worrisome is the fact that if indeed Thai parties are lining up to grab power as they see a vacuum about to be created, brinksmanship and violence, along with divisions in society, politics, and even the military, are likely to remain for the near to mid-term. In such a zero-sum environment, if parties collide and fight for control, stability may come only from a military solution.

    Would it be in China’s interest to promote a strong player that could consolidate power in such a scenario? Chinese actions in Burma and Cambodia certainly don’t argue otherwise.

    Q4: What is the best-case scenario?

    A4: Due to the nature of the conflict, the situation is one that must be resolved by Thais. Unfortunately, there may no longer be many Thais who all other Thais believe are neutral enough to intercede without bias.

    Analysts suggest that most Thais want to see reconciliation and a return to peace and prosperity. If true, it may be possible for Thailand’s king or a respected person appointed by him to appeal to all parties to cease the confrontation and violence, and to develop an imperfect governance body or council to prepare for and move toward elections. In such a scenario, a Friends of Thailand group could support the effort through election preparation and monitoring.

    In any case, the crisis in Thailand is not an issue that will be resolved in the short term. Thais are redefining themselves and their country, and the journey has started out to be a bloody one. Good friends can only support them as they make the journey.

    Ernest Bower is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

    Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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