Tuesday, 25 May 2010
The Burmese option...
The government does not want to negotiate, so I think many more people will die," said "Red Shirt" leader Sean Boonpracong in Bangkok. "This will end as our Tiananmen Square." Or more precisely, it may end up as Thailand's "8888": the massacre by the Burmese army of thousands of civilians demanding democracy on August 8, 1988.
The army still rules Burma today, and commits further massacres whenever the citizens show resistance (most recently in 2007). The Burmese army's successful resort to violence in 1988, after so many Asian dictatorships had been overthrown by non-violent demonstrations, may have even emboldened the Chinese Communists to use extreme violence on Tiananmen Square in 1989. But I would never have put Thailand in the same category.
Even two months ago, I would have said that Thailand is a flawed but genuine democracy, and I would have pointed to the non-violent behaviour of the pro-democracy "Red Shirts" who took over central Bangkok in mid-March as evidence that the Thais would sort it out peacefully in the end. But a lot of people have been killed by the Thai army since then, and now I'm not so sure that there will be a happy ending in Thailand.
It's quite possible that there will be a massacre in Bangkok, and that the military will end up back in control permanently, riding a tiger from which they cannot dismount. Then the whole country would start down the road to Burmese-style tyranny, isolation and poverty.
Thailand wouldn't get there right away, of course. It took 40 years of repression to transform Burma from the richest country in South-East Asia to the poorest, and Thai generals are not ill-educated thugs like their Burmese counterparts. But they would find themselves in essentially the same position: Condemned to hold the whole country hostage at the point of a gun forever.
The roots of this crisis are in the military coup of 2006, when the Thai army overthrew the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin, an ex-policeman who became a telecommunications billionaire, was not an ideal prime minister: His "war on drugs" involved thousands of illegal killings of dealers and addicts. But he endeared himself to Thailand's poor.
Thailand has been a democracy since 1992, but Thaksin was the first politician to appeal directly to the interests of the rural poor. He promised them debt relief, cheap loans, better health care, and he delivered - but that was not how the urban elite wanted their tax money spent.
A "Yellow Shirt" movement seized control of the streets of Bangkok, seeking Thaksin's removal and demanding strict curbs on the voting rights of peasants. After months of confrontation on the streets, the army took control in 2006, ejecting Thaksin from office - but it was not unequivocally on the side of the "Yellow Shirts" either.
The soldiers allowed a new election in late 2007 - and Thaksin's supporters won again, of course. His opponents used the courts to dismiss two prime ministers drawn from the pro-Thaksin party for "conflict of interest" (in one case because the prime minister appeared on a television cooking show), and ultimately simply had the whole party banned and its members ejected from parliament.
Thai army officers are not usually from the privileged Bangkok elite that sponsored the "Yellow Shirts". Many are from humble backgrounds, and most of their troops are country people, just like the "Red Shirts" behind the barricades.
There is still some hope, but the situation is very grave. People are being killed every day, and there are predictions of civil war if the protesters in Bangkok are massacred. Nobody knows for sure which way the army will jump, but if it "restores order" in the way that the elite wants, then a long, dark night will fall on Thailand.