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Here's what you need to know about Bangkok's latest political upheaval.
BANGKOK — Since the end of absolute royal rule in 1932, Thailand has tottered between military rule and democracy, often landing at points in between.
A faction of self-described have-nots — the Red Shirts — staged an uprising last week under the banner of restoring “real democracy” to the kingdom.
The still-simmering revolt threatens to replace postcard images of sugar-sand beaches and neon-drenched party spots with scenes of charred buses and club-wielding mobs. As uncertainty looms over Thailand, this much is clear: The anti-establishment movement appears to be growing more hardline — and the promise of reconciliation appears dim.
1) WHERE DOES THE RAGE COME FROM?
In a phrase, class resentment. The revolt largely draws from Thailand’s upcountry, rice-farming region and less affluent city dwellers. Many feel detached from Bangkok’s powerful triumvirate — the aristocracy, military and bureaucracy — and demand a stronger voice. Anger erupted after a 2006 military coup and only grew after politicized trials essentially banned the Red Shirts’ favored politicians.
“They’re a government of bandits,” said protester Thanapol Nichakul, who joined last week’s uprising. “This isn’t over.”
2) DID A MOB REALLY ALMOST ABDUCT THE PRIME MINISTER?
Yes. The government recently admitted that a luxury sedan with tinted windows, surrounded by protesters at the Ministry of the Interior last week, contained Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. They’ve now revealed it also carried his deputy — who fulfills a role comparable to chief of staff. The car, its paneling dented and windshield fractured, narrowly escaped.
The two were “nearly lynched,” according to Buranaj Smutharaks, the government spokesman. “There was a clear possibility that Prime Minister Abhisit and the deputy prime minister may have either been abducted or harmed.”
3) WHY DO SOLDIERS/POLICE LET THIS HAPPEN?
There’s little incentive to fire on a political mob — especially if you or your commander has mixed loyalties. Even using tear gas carries a deep stigma after Bangkok police fired cheap, Chinese-made tear gas into a sea of protesters last fall. The high-propulsion canister killed a young woman and wounded many others. The police were vilified as “murderers.”
“Since then, they’ve been head over heels reluctant to react,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University. “They’re afraid they’ll just further inflame the Red Shirts.”
This is partly why a blockade of soldiers and cops was so easily overrun by Red Shirts at a recent Asian world leaders summit in Pattaya, a Thai resort town. Thousands of protesters simply brushed past walls of soldiers, shouting “Excuse me, sir!” in Thai. Prime ministers, including China’s, were evacuated by helicopters, private jets and speedboats.
Red Shirts also claim to have many sympathizers within the Thai police force. Even Buranaj, the government spokesman, admits that “there was at least one instance (at the summit) where the police actually allowed for the Red Shirts to go up to the hill … and actually ordered the military to open the way.”
4) IF POLICE/SOLDIERS WON’T FIGHT, HOW DO AUTHORITIES PLAN TO STOP PROTESTERS?
To sidestep the unpopular image of soldiers or cops quelling protesters, authorities assembled their own plainclothes mob to do the dirty work, according to many experts. About 200 men in navy blue shirts — freshly printed with the words “Protect the Institution” — confronted 2,000-plus Pattaya protesters in the street with clubs and smoke bombs.
“The army was afraid of overreacting by harming the Red Shirts,” Thitinan said. “Instead, they went with these blue shirts … and got the overreaction they were afraid of.” After a brief melee, the men in blue shirts fled and the protesters stormed the hotel containing world leaders.
5) WILL THERE BE MORE VIOLENCE?
If you believe Red Shirts’ promises, it seems likely. Though most Red Shirt leaders are being held in prison, one of the faction’s more outspoken leaders, Jakrapob Penkair, has fled the country to rebuild the movement from abroad.