I stood on the roof of my seven-storey apartment building in central Bangkok on May 19 and took in a striking sight: Several parts of the Thai capital were in flames, having been targeted by arsonists.
To the south, smoke streamed out of the Channel 3 building, a TV station that anti-government “red shirt” protesters had torched because they said its coverage of their movement is biased.
But this was just the physical damage to the city’s infrastructure. Worse still was the human toll: some 85 people have died in two months of protests here, and approximately 1,800 people have been wounded in clashes between demonstrators and security forces.
The last two months has seen Thailand’s worst political violence in 18 years. How has Thailand come to this?
This chapter of Thailand’s political crisis began on March 14, when tens of thousands of red shirts streamed into Bangkok to protest what they say is an illegitimate government.
Many of the red shirts support ousted, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in a bloodless military coup in September 2006. Thaksin, a billionaire, now lives in exile to avoid corruption charges. He won the support of many of Thailand’s rural voters with his populist policies, such as cheap health care and lending programmes.
After Thaksin was removed by the military, fresh elections saw successive Thaksin-linked governments come to power. But two prime ministers were removed by a rival political faction: the “yellow shirts”.
This group, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), comprises mostly royalists and the Bangkok middle classes. The yellow shirts were determined to remove Thaksin’s proxies from power. Yellow shirt protesters I talked to at the time told me that Thaksin was corrupt, autocratic, and greedy.
The yellow shirts occupied a government compound in September 2008 and then — in a move that garnered international headlines — took over Bangkok’s international airport for a week in November 2008. After a court ruling disbanded the prime minister’s party, PAD-backed Abhisit Vejjajiva came to power.
He remains prime minister today. And that’s why the red shirts assembled in Bangkok.
“Abhisit is a tyrant,” red shirt protesters have told me. “We want democracy,” they say. They tell me that the elites in Bangkok look down on Thais like them who come from the countryside. Prime Minister Abhisit must go, the reds say.
But many Bangkok residents have told me that these protesters are simply Thaksin’s mercenaries. They say the reds shirts are uneducated simpletons who have been brainwashed into laying down their lives to help a twisted megalomaniac return to power.
Thailand is suffering. The country, home to Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, will likely continue to pull out of an economic recession, analysts say. But tourism, which accounts for 6.5 per cent of Thailand’s gross domestic product and employs two million people, will be severely dented. Similarly, experts say that foreign direct investment is likely to fall due to the ongoing political instability.
Political analysts say that what Thailand needs is for leaders to forge a new political consensus. The traditional pillars
of authority in Thailand — the monarchy, military, and bureaucracy — are being challenged by Thaksin and an allied underclass that feels disenfranchised, experts say. The government says that Thaksin must be brought to justice.
Meanwhile, many Thais are caught between two warring factions. And there is no clear way forward.