The May 19 Bangkok Crackdown, One Year On – Some Personal Thoughts

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 19, 2011

Note: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and not of Asian Correspondent and of the other Siam Voices authors

I’ve been blogging about Thai current affairs and politics for over a year and my writing debut coincided with the start of the protests by the red shirts in March 2010. Over the next nine weeks, I was trying to grasp this potentially crucial moment in the recent history of the Kingdom not by documenting each and every minute of what was happening on the ground (since I was and am still based in Hamburg), but more from a different meta-level by providing context and backgrounds on the persons, motives and other backgrounds.

I was in shock after the violent clashes on April 10, 2010. I was angry about the knee-jerk reactions against foreign opinions and international media, which wasn’t perfect – but still better than the domestic coverage. I was doubtful if the leadership of the red shirt was too big and indecisive. I was baffled by the ignorance of many people who couldn’t see the roots of the problems. There were many stories during the two and a half months that became my daily routine.

And then came May 19, 2010: I was about to go to bed shortly before midnight, when I received first words from Bangkok (where it was already about 5 AM) about a potential troop movement closing in on the under-siege Ratchaprasong intersection and about to strike. Already exhausted I decided to follow that lead and to stay up for a few more hours to see if something actually happened. The rest was, well, not only another 16-hours-streak of live-blogging but also the definitive destruction of a national myth, that Thailand is a unified and peaceful country.

One week after the violent crackdown on the red shirt protests, I wrote a column on my personal blog, stating that the mess had just only begun and a radicalization of all factions could occur. I doubted that there would be any serious attempts at reconciliation since nobody seems to get that understanding is crucial to harmony. I condemned the democratic institutions including the courts and the media for failing to effectively solve or even address problems that had been boiling for years. I feared we Thais would just preach to move on and forget by just putting a blanket over the ever-increasing rift. I hoped that everyone would sincerely think for a moment why we got to this point and does not forget this at the next best diversion.

Unfortunately, one year on, I don’t see much has changed.

Of course, one might have a different observation from the one I have and that’s totally fine – but this is more an attempt to describe the despair and anger I have when looking at the current state of Thailand from outside – and I’d argue that this distance creates a vastly differently picture than from the inside.

First off, there’s the utter lack of even acknowledging that mistakes have been made and the deaths have been caused by the Thai military. Instead, we get the perfect denials and a blatant white-wash by the authorities that not a single soldier could possibly have killed (not even accidentally) a civilian. Of course not, “they all ran into the bullets!” And they wonder why nobody believes them and there’s dissatisfaction over their findings?

The problem with reconciliation is that it isn’t enough just to give out amnesty to everyone (as the opposition Pheu Thai Party plans, more on them later) and appease both sides. More and more people, especially the red shirt protesters are demanding justice and accountability! But getting a ‘mea culpa’ from anybody in the higher echelons of power is very unlikely.

It’s almost ludicrous to see the ‘attempts’ at reconciliation when comparing the authorities trying to seize control over the main national narrative of the current state of affairs. It cannot be denied that that there’s at least a perceived increase in restrictions of freedom of expressions, especially online. Hundreds of thousands of web pages have been blocked in recent years, cyber-dissidents have been either intimidated, prosecuted or jailed for saying things out of the norm, a subversive ‘Cyber-Scout’ programme has been created – one cannot help but feel paranoid while giving their views anywhere on the web. But these attempts will ultimately backfire sooner or later and have already created unwanted international attention, as seen in the case of Prachatai webmaster Chiranuch Premchaiporn.

Where does the sudden urge to protect everything that defines ‘Thai-ness’ come from? Why do the knee-jerk reactions from self-proclaimed heralds of ‘Thai Culture’ – whatever that is – grow stronger and stronger? Does it seem almost desperate to cling to a constructed ideal and shove it down the throat of the people? What are they afraid of?

It’s change!

The perceived threat of many in power may be embodied by a large angry mob, lured in by sweet promises of a capitalist who doesn’t play by the old rules (more on him later as well) – but in reality it is the possibility of change that might threaten the status quo even just a bit. So instead of embracing it, they try to push it back as hard as they can. The need for reform is greater than ever, but what many don’t (or won’t) realize is that reform and long-lasting change is hard and painful for everybody. Instead, many are just looking for quick fixes and instant satisfactions.

Speaking of which, the upcoming election is a chance to give Thailand some normalcy back but on the other hand it is also the return of campaigning, which is a whole other reality than after the elections. The opposition Pheu Thai Party (PT) is banking all their campaign on their leader who isn’t there. The fact that Thaksin is the only campaign program they have and that his sister is running as PM candidate shows that Thaksin himself has missed the moment to make room for a new fresh start. But it cannot be denied as well that Thaksin still draws in a big electorate, so a PT victory is not unlikely.

The bigger tragedy in my opinion though is that the red shirts have missed the opportunity for a fresh new start and to emancipate from PT and Thaksin. There was a void one year ago, with most of the red shirt leaders jailed, that could have been filled with a progressive leader that leads a real democratic movement. But ever since seeing Thaksin calling-in again repeatedly and also battling their enemies with means they don’t endorse in the first place, the red shirts have not moved forward.

The big question of course is what the military will do after the elections? This question alone shows how far we have fallen back. It is poisonous to democracy to have the armed forces as an unpredictable faction in current affairs, fearing that they could sweep in at any time. The 2006 coup has re-politicized the army and they are more present than ever. I cannot remember a commander-in-chief who has been that vocal and over-emphasized the loyalty to the royal institution. They have a very clear image of what the country should look like, but they cannot expect anybody to agree with them.

Yes, the situation seems to be very desperate – one might even agree with the royalist yellow shirts, who recently demanded to close down the country for a few years and let an appointed government ‘cleanse’ the political system. But as mentioned before, we should not give in to quick fixes and cathartic moments of making more wrongs to eventually get a right. Change needs time and sacrifices, two things many Thais are unwilling to give, apparently.

The list of problems the country faces is very long and many are debating how to fix them. But even more problems are (willingly or not) left in the dark and are just slowly emerging to the surface. I can’t help but feel that Thailand is falling back in many regards and at every opportunity it digs a deeper hole into descending, into insignificance. Yet at the same time I’m confident that the world sees the kingdom in a different light now than the glitzy travel brochures and Thailand cannot hide itself anymore in this day and age.

As I said, these are just my feelings about a country I call my origin, but in recent years became so much more alien to me. I’m not hoping that the Thailand I know will come back, but I hope that the Thailand that will emerge in the future will be a free, thinking and mature one – until that I will not stop doing my part for this hope!