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.
“They’re hunting us down,” Jakrapob said in a phone interview with GlobalPost. He would not reveal his location. “I left the place I deemed to be risky and dangerous.”
Though reconciliation is still possible, he said, Jakrapob would not rule out future violence. “After the military shot people … I would say all options are on the table.”
6) WHAT HAPPENED TO THOSE PROTESTERS WHO SEIZED THE AIRPORT LAST FALL?
They remain free despite pending charges. That protest faction, which claims yellow as its signature hue, is pro-establishment and insists Red Shirts and their favored politicians are uneducated and corrupt. The “Yellow Shirts” rallied last year to drive out Red Shirt-friendly politicians. It worked, which is one reason why the Red Shirts staged the attempted takeover.
Though the two protest factions typically view one another with disgust, the recent attempted killing of the Yellow Shirts’ chief has actually chilled their fighting words.
After last week’s Bangkok revolt, Sondhi Limthongkul, a Yellow Shirt figurehead and cheerleader for the establishment, was nearly killed when gunmen sprayed his van with nearly 100 AK-47 and M-16 bullets.
Most expected his camp to blame the Red Shirts. Instead, in a TV address, the targeted leader’s son warned that a secret cabal of military and police were stirring up violence between the pro- and anti-establishment street mobs — planning to rush in amidst the turmoil, save the day and achieve power.
“For the (Yellow Shirts) to say that, we have to take it seriously,” said Thitinan, the political analyst. “He’s drawing a common victimization. He’s saying there is a conspiracy by powers that be to have yellows and reds fight it out and create conditions for unsaid forces to intervene in their favor.”
Even Jakrapob, the Red Shirts leader, said the accusation “makes a lot of sense. The two colors are going to be brought together in a most strange way.” But no one has offered proof and the government insists it’s just a “conspiracy theory.”
7) WHAT CAN BE DONE?
This week, Thailand’s prime minister is convening parliament to discuss reconciliation. Amnesty for Red Shirt-friendly politicians banned under corruption charges is a possibility. So is altering a constitutional clause — hated by Red Shirts — that can shut down entire political parties for fraud and ban politicians for five years.
“Hopefully, the next constitution will be one that will be able to reunite the country,” Buranaj said. “Then Thailand can go back to what it was, a harmonious country where people are tolerant of dissent and differing views.”
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