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Thailand's Escalating Violence

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
May 15, 2010

Thailand's Escalating Violence - thailands-escalating-violence


Over the past two days, Thai security forces seem to be moving in for a final crackdown on red-shirted protesters occupying the central business district. Earlier in the week a sniper critically wounded rogue general Khattiya Sawasdiphol, allied with the red shirts, and security forces now reportedly are firing live ammunition at protesters to force them to leave. As of late Friday afternoon, four people had been reported killed and eighty-one wounded. This crackdown comes on the heels of a bloody clash on April 10 that left at least twenty dead and hundreds wounded.

Thailand's government certainly has the right to maintain law and order. And continued unrest in Thailand could have ramifications for the United States. Thailand is a formal treaty ally, a partner in counterterrorism, and previously a dependable leader of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But the nature of the crackdown and the underlying political tensions show that the crisis is far from resolved, even if security forces succeed in ending the protests.

For one, the violent tactics of the security forces reveal real weakness. The army has been unable to prevent leaks in its planning, probably because some of its officers are sympathetic to the red shirts. In the April 10 clashes, the military's movements seemed to be known in advance by armed men among the protesters. Unable to trust its forces for a commando raid or a thorough nonviolent removal of demonstrators, the military has turned to brute force, which is actually easier to apply than sophisticated crowd control.

The red shirt protesters, pushing for the devolution of economic and political power to average Thais, also have made mistakes. Though they originally presented their demonstrations as a nonviolent populist protest, by allowing armed men to infiltrate the demonstrations and attack the security forces and civilians, the red shirts ceded some of the moral high ground and made it easier for the government to claim they were “terrorists.”

Most important, the causes of the demonstrations have not been resolved. The crisis has not made it any easier for average Thais to discuss the royal institution. In fact, the Thai government shamefully tarred the demonstrators as anti-monarchists--and has increased the use of lese majeste laws to stifle debate. The crackdown will not resolve the schisms in the army. The government and the demonstrators have not reached any resolution on the future of Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist former prime minister, deposed in a 2006 coup, who remains an inspiration for many red shirts.

Most critically, there has been a fundamental change in Thai politics, in which the poor and those alienated from institutions like the army, civil service, and palace finally have demanded their rights. If the middle class and elites do not recognize that Thai politics has changed, and that they must change along with it, more demonstrations will break out, perhaps in the run-up to the next election--set for the fall, but still uncertain. Further bloodletting of red shirt demonstrators is not likely to calm the situation.

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