Late last week, as street-cleaning trucks hosed debris and ashes away from what had been the opposition Red Shirts’ protest camp in the centre of Bangkok, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva addressed his country in a televised speech he hoped would reconcile a bitterly divided people. “Fellow citizens, we all live in the same house,” he said. “Now our house has been damaged. We have to help each other.”
Two months of anti-government protests ended on Wednesday, May 19, when the Thai army overran the Red Shirts’ downtown encampment. At least six protesters died in the assault, adding to the dozens killed in demonstrations and sporadic gunfights that began in March with opposition demands that Abhisit resign and new elections be held immediately. Most Red Shirts are urban and rural poor. Many come from the north and northeast of the country and support former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006 and now lives outside Thailand. He was convicted in absentia on conflict of interest charges and faces two years in jail should he return to the country. The Red Shirts are opposed by the so-called Yellow Shirts: middle-class royalists and Bangkok businessmen who shut down parts of Thailand in their own protests two years ago.
Duncan McCargo, professor of Southeast Asian politics at the University of Leeds in Britain, describes the two camps as “rival patronage networks” without strong ideological differences. “People have been mobilized by the support networks into being on one side or the other,” he says. “It’s really a matter of who they think cares most about them.” McCargo adds, however, that the alienation felt by Thais living outside of the capital is acute and well-founded. “The basic problem is an over-centralization of power and a lack of willingness on the part of the central government to acknowledge that other parts of the country have their own ideas, their own interests, their own policies. It’s almost a 19th-century colonial mentality that Bangkok knows best and everyone else should follow its lead.”
Abhisit said he would try to reduce the social and economic divisions that drove protesters into the streets. He stopped short of promising an early election, though, which is what many Red Shirts demand. And it’s unclear if there was anything at all he could have said to soothe the anger many feel because of the violence with which the standoff climaxed. Although some of the protesters were armed, most were not. Some without weapons, including Western journalists, were shot by Thai soldiers.
“The conflict does not end here,” says Andrew Harding, a law professor and director of the Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives at the University of Victoria. “It becomes a kind of grudge match because a number of people have died. There are already signs that it will result in a more generalized conflict across Thailand, taking place on different fronts, whereas up to now it’s been confined to that small area in the middle of the capital.”
Both sides have good reasons to avoid such an escalation. The economic damage already inflicted on Thailand has been severe, and continued unrest may dry up foreign tourism, on which Thailand heavily relies. So far, however, there is little evidence that compromise is likely.