2010 : Crackdown in Thailand

BANGKOK, May 20, 2010 — Two months of tension and violence ended with a whimper on Thursday as the last exhausted group of protesters filed out of a Buddhist temple where they had taken refuge, bewildered and frightened, some in tears.

As they shuffled past a smear of blood on the ground that told of the recent fighting, a line of female police officers in black berets comforted them, touching their shoulders and murmuring: “Don’t be afraid. You’re safe now. Have a safe journey home.”

But it felt, on this morning after a political convulsion unlike anything anyone here has seen, that Thailand’s future was anything but safe.

“It was tragic,” said Anusart Suwanmongkol, a senator who supports the government. “Yesterday was the most tragic day in my memory, in Thai history. Nobody gained anything. Nobody won. The country lost.”

After weeks of stalemate, the military on Wednesday forcibly dispersed the protesters, known as red shirts, who had occupied the city’s commercial center since early March, setting off an eruption of violence and arson that took at least 15 lives.

The clashes on Wednesday, along with four years of acrimonious political combat, have exposed rifts and resentments in Thailand that have smoldered under a surface of smiles and a virtue the Thais call “cool heart.”

The country’s divisions and enmities have only deepened. Nothing has been resolved. The battle for power between social classes and between the politicians who manipulate them continues.


Photo by Paula Bronstein

An early election promised by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is off the table after protest leaders rejected it last week and vowed to fight on. The leaders were arrested Wednesday as the final battle for the protest site began, and there seemed to be no one left with whom the government could negotiate.

As the last of the protesters boarded buses to their homes in the countryside, leaving behind the ruins of their rally site and the smoking shell of a burned-out mall beside it, an antigovernment Web site urged them to fight on, saying, “You are your own leaders now.”

Hopes for a peaceful election, whenever it comes, seem faint, and in an increasingly polarized and violent political arena, it seems unlikely that the loser will accept the results.

Antigovernment sentiment has hardened in the northeast and north of the country, to where many of the protesters were returning Thursday.

Political opportunists have harnessed their yearnings into a powerful political movement, indoctrinating government opponents on community radio and in the amplified speeches of the protest stage, with a new vocabulary of exploitation about “serfs” and “aristocracy.”

The frightened protesters, who had cowered in the temple amid gunfire and explosions, were heading home with new grievances and hatreds.

“We have been poor for hundreds of years, even thousands of years, and they are living in fancy resorts and mansions,” said Srirasa Reungrat, a middle-aged woman from Chiang Rai in the north, as she stood at the back of the temple Thursday morning. “They have been doing this to us for a long time.”

The bodies of six people killed the day before were laid out on mats beside her, with small offerings of noodles, cups of water and incense sticks at their feet, as a coroner with rubber gloves poked and prodded at their wounds.

In fact, the social conflict in Thailand is more complex than a simple uprising of the poor. This is a society built on harmony, and until politicians hardened the divisions, the pressure for change was less confrontational.

Thailand’s rural people are not serfs. They have been called some of the most comfortable poor people in the world. The economic boom of the 1980s brought them paved roads, electricity, brick houses, television sets, motorbikes, cellphones and factory jobs. Political analysts now call them “post-peasants” and “middle-income peasants.”

But as their standard of living rose, the wealth of the well-to-do in Bangkok rose faster, and the aspirations and resentments of the lower classes grew.

They underwent a process known here as ta sawang, or a “brightening of the eyes” — an awakening, a realization of a truth they had not recognized.

When their eyes brightened, they focused in many cases on Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister, whose genius was to recognize this untapped electoral bloc, to answer some of its needs with low-cost health care and financial assistance, and to secure its support.

Mr. Thaksin was ousted in a coup in 2006 and lives abroad, evading a conviction for corruption. But he stays in touch with supporters throughaudio and video messages and a flow of fatherly messages on Twitter. He remains the single most influential political personality in Thailand; many see him as the master manipulator of the protests.

“Don’t forget that the two most important weapons in modern-day politics are money and the media, and unfortunately the other side are the masters of both,” said Mr. Anusart, the senator.

The confrontations and overt animosities, the open divisions and the sustained current of violence that reached its peak on Wednesday have produced a new Thailand that is unrecognizable to many who love the nation. This has become an angry nation, ready to fight.

“This is the worst crisis Thailand has had, ever, probably — maybe World War II — and where we go from here I don’t think anybody knows,” said Charles Keyes, an anthropologist at the University of Washington, Seattle, who has devoted much of his life to the study of Thailand.

“My understanding of what I have learned over the years here has really come into question,” he said. “I question all the things I’ve learned about this country.”

Copyright The New York Times