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April 13, 2009
Escalating political violence in Thailand shuts down summit

Anti-government protesters mass in Bangkok.

Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, is in a state of chaos after a major escalation of political violence and the cancellation of an Asian summit meeting over the weekend because of protests.

The fighting took place across the city as thousands of troops fired warning shots and tear gas at anti-government protesters. At least two people were reported killed and at least 79 were injured.

There are two primary factions of civilians involved — one that supports a former prime minister and wants his successor out (the “Red Shirts”), and another that supports the current govement.

Though current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was elected by parliament just five months ago, he faces lingering public discontent, largely from Thailand’s rural poor.

The “New Mandala” blog posts an email received from a reader in Bangkok, describing the crackdown on protesters:

Around 4.19 am. I was woken up by the sound of something like gunshots but I wasn’t sure. I live near the junction between Rachavithi and Rachaprarop Roads – not far from the Dindaeng triangle. So I went out to have a look. I saw many taxi drivers taking their cars to block the roads and a number of red group protesters around. Some of them told me that the sound I heard was that of the soldiers throwing tear gas at the red protesters at the triangle. I saw two ambulances went in and not long later they came out with some people inside. The people there seemed to be very angry and when one of them shouted “‘one of us is dead, brothers”, the rest ran along shouting with anger. Someone came along with something that looked like a container of fuel and not long after I saw a fire being lit not far in front.

But it didn’t look like the news of death was true. It was clarified later that the soldiers used tear gas but still people did not back off. One of the taxi drivers got off his car parked in front of me and opened up the rear, took out a baton and a piece of cloth then wrapped it around his face and then walked up to the frontline. Another taxi driver told me soldiers fired tear gas at people protesting in other parts of town too. People asked each other was there any members of the media around and got no answer. Then something happened in the front and people started to run. I did too – back to my room. More gunshot-like sound was heard again and again – just now – in fact- but I stayed inside feeling all ashamed that may be people are killing each other out there but I can’t do anything.

The Thailand-based “ShamelessMack” blog comments on the colorful array of protesters, from the “Yellow Shirts” of recent months to the “Red Shirts” and “Blue Shirts” of current protests:

The situation is becoming more and more unpredictable. The red shirts are able to move their forces from place to place. While the yellow shirts — the ones who closed the airport last November/December — have not yet re-appeared, the emergence of the blue shirts cannot bode well. It is even more troubling that on their very first appearance, the blue shirts provoked violence. Do not go out on the streets wearing solid-colour T-shirts. Yellow and red already indicate political affinity, and now dark blue is another group. Who knows what new colours may become too “hot” to wear tomorrow. What to do? Pack only floral shirts.

Watch a video of pedestrians driving away some Red Shirts from YouTube user Macromode:

Another blogger in Bangkok describes the shutdown of one of the city’s major malls, adding that the protests will hurt tourism and the Thai economy:

So after going to the church for Easter Sunday Mass, my friends and I troop to Central World Mall to have lunch and watch movie. Then the screen stopped…my friends and I thought it was a technical problem. Suddenly, a lady popped out and is speaking in very fast Thai something that seemed urgent. Finally, all the people in the cinema stood up and headed to the nearest exit. Naturally, since no announcement was made in English, I had to ask someone what happened. The moviegoer said they announced that the entire mall will be closed in a while because there was a mob between the  Red Shirt demonstrators and the police only a short distance away from where we are located and there were some army tanks nearby. There was a sense of panic from all people as they rushed out of the mall. Suddenly, in a supposed busy Easter Sunday and pre-Songkran (Thai New Year Festival) Holidays, the Central World Mall,  the biggest in Bangkok– is like a ghost town.

It’s so sad these recent incidents happened to Thailand, a country known to have peace-loving, kind hearted and joyful citizens. What’s even disheartening is the long term effect to the economy and tourism industry of these events.

Tim Meisburger, a regional director with The Asia Foundation, writes at the “In Asia” blog about the implications of ongoing instability and possible solutions to the country’s political failures:

As red-shirted protesters continue to block access to the Government House, just as their yellow-shirted foes did a few months ago, one wonders where democracy is headed in Thailand. A dozen years ago, Thailand drafted a constitution through a participatory process seen as a model for other emerging democracies. Thailand was a rising star, the standard for democratic development that other Asian nations sought to emulate. Now, 12 years later, Thailand’s democracy looks tarnished and tattered.

[…]Although the political conflict in Thailand has been personalized to a large extent, there are real issues that underlie the political divide. Prior to Thaksin’s election, many rural and urban poor people felt exploited, and believed the government was too focused on the interests of a middle-class and wealthy Bangkok-based academic and commercial elite. After Thaksin’s election there was a marked shift in policy, and people in the city felt slighted. They resented being forced to pay for his populist programs aimed at rural areas, and complained of a tyranny of the majority.

One means to reduce this tension could be political decentralization. If people in a local area have control over, and pay for, their own services, there will be no reason for conflict with other areas, while democracy and accountability will be enhanced. Political decentralization might also help resolve the separatist conflict in the south.

Another way to reduce tension and improve democratic representation would be to allow people to vote where they live. Currently, many people who live in Bangkok are counted for representation in their home village or town, meaning that those areas are over-represented in national government, while Bangkok is under-represented. If representation and voting were based on where people actually live, Bangkok people would not feel under-represented, and everyone would enjoy better representation and improved political accountability.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user adaptorplug under a Creative Commons license.

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[…] Tim Meisburger’s April 8 In Asia post “Whither Democracy in Thailand?” is excerpted by PBS’s Worldfocus website in a long feature about the situation in Thailand. Meisburger is The Asia Foundation’s Regional Director for Elections and Political Processes. Read the full Worldfocus story, “Escalating political violence in Thailand shuts down summit.” […]



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