- Thailand is currently witness to one of its bloodiest
civil wars...the worst since the 2006 military coup which ousted the popular
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from office. The supporters of former
Prime Minister are calling for the dissolution of parliament and a new
round of general elections. The "Red Shirts" are middle-urban
and rural Thais who benefited from the socialistic policies of former Prime
Minister and are now risking their lives for the reappearance of freedom
and democracy in Thailand. According to the official stats, 24 people have
been killed and 1000 other wounded since the eruption of demonstrations
and street clashes in which the Thai police has relentlessly opened fire
on the angry demonstrators.
- Having seen 15 military coups and 27 changes of Prime
Ministers during his 64 years of kingdom, the 82-year-old Thai monarch
Bhumibol Adulyadej is the world's longest-serving head of state and has
kept a low profile regarding the current political crisis in his country.
The military loyalists of Mr. Adulyadej who deposed the popular government
in a bloodless September 2006 coup had resorted to a number of excuses,
including several charges of lèse majesté, to depose Thaksin
and bring into power the chief of army General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, a
close ally of the king.
- Now, Thailand is facing a paralyzing political crisis
once again and stability has departed from Bangkok. I've interviewed Patrick
Winn, the American journalist and Thailand correspondent of the Global
Post news service to discuss the movement of Red Shirts and the intensive
chaos in the South Asian country.
- Kourosh Ziabari: What caused the dissolution of Thailand's
Thai Rak Thai party in 2007 by the Constitutional Court of Thailand? Did
the West endorse this movement which was preceded by the 2006 coup?
- Patrick Winn: The defunct Thai Rak Thai, like other parties
affiliated with Thaksin Shinawatra, was dissolved under fraud accusations.
The West has largely taken a hands-off approach to steering Thailand's
political development. America, which counts Thailand as its oldest Asian
ally, has distanced itself from censure of any Thai political movements.
U.S. leaders like to vaguely encourage democracy, but they've shown no
interest in direct interference.
- KZ: It's said that the 2006 coup was endorsed by the
Thai Monarch humibol Adulyadej. He was the one who gave the green light
to the Commander of Army Sonthi Boonyaratglin to depose the popular Prime
Minister Thaksin; however, the international reactions to the unconstitutional
movement were not that severe and decisive. Did the West implicitly endorse
- PW: The U.S., by law, has to cut military funding to
any nation that stages a coup. But while the U.S. temporarily halted funding,
it made few other moves to weaken ties with Thailand's army. In fact, just
months after the coup, the U.S. legitimized the Thai military by going
ahead with massive military exercises, the largest in Asia. Basically,
America treated the coup as an embarrassing annoyance but not a horrible
catastrophe worthy of open condemnation.
- KZ: Is the movement of Red Shirts, those who proclaim
themselves as the supporters of former Prime Miniser Thaksin Shinawatra,
going to bear fruit? They're seemingly calling for the resignation of Prime
Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, dissolution of the parliament and a new round
of general elecions. What's going to happen next?
- PW: The Red Shirts movement has already proven quasi-successful.
They've overcome a battalion of soldiers intent on dispersing them, pried
guns from soldiers' hands and captured military vehicles. Despite weeks
of daily government suggestions that a crackdown on their encampment is
nigh, they remain in control of parts of Bangkok. Many from Bangkok's working
class openly support the movement by flying red flags.
- At this point, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has two
options. He could bend to protesters' demands, which would satisfy many
working-class Thais and likely send them home. Many pundits in the Western
media have suggested this is the best way forward. But in Thailand, Abhisit's
urban, middle-class support base would likely turn on him and cut short
his political career.
- The other option is a crackdown. This would quite likely
degenerate into dozens of injuries and possibly deaths in an area filled
with elderly women and children. Red Shirt protesters have even threatened
to flee into the glitzy Central World mall nearby -- Asia's second shopping
center -- if troops push into their encampment. Even if troops secured
the area, protesters would likely regroup elsewhere in Bangkok and continue
their fight in the upcountry provinces.
- KZ: It was the 2006 coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin.
Why should the large-scale protests take place four years later? Would
you please explain for us the course of events which led to the current
political turmoil in Thailand?
- PW: The Red Shirts trace this conflict directly to the
2006 coup. Thaksin is a political folk hero among many in Thailand's laboring
classes and many are still bitter over his ouster. Moreover, they're angry
that subsequent parties allied to Thaksin were also dismantled for fraud
and corruption. Essentially, a huge portion of Thai voters feel shafted,
as if their votes are overturned no matter who they vote for.
- The Red Shirts initially tried to drive out the government
last year, but failed following brief riots and a military crackdown. What
we're seeing now is a re-grouping with more money, more people and a more
cohesive strategy. The timing is tied in part to the farming season, which
experiences a lull starting in March. This break allows more Thais connected
to the agriculture industries -- many of them Red Shirt sympathizers -
to join the rallies.
- KZ: Unfortunately, it's usually the influence of White
House which determines the destiny of revolutionary movements in the third
world countries. Which side is the U.S. taking in the current political
- PW: The U.S. isn't taking sides. America is mostly interested
in stability and business friendly policies in Thailand and neither side
is proposing a radical overhaul of U.S.-Thai policy. Thailand remains strategically
important to the U.S. as a trustworthy ally in China's backyard and Thailand
likes having the support of the world's most powerful nation. As long as
that arrangement sticks, the U.S. will keep softly promoting democracy
in Thailand but won't interfere.
- KZ: Some analysts believe that what's taking place in
the stage of Thailand's political developments is more of a social class
conflict between those who had gotten hold of Thailand's socialistic economy
under Prime Minister Thaksin and the old, elite class of Yellow Shirts
who are benefiting from the economic policies of the current government.
What's your view about that?
- PW: The Red Shirts have definitely tapped into class
frustration among Thailand's working poor. That many protesters are somehow
paid to attend rallies is widely believed in Thailand, but the sentiment
of being shafted by powers they call "aristocrats" and "elites"
is very real among protesters. Many are convinced that life was better
under Thaksin. This is true to an extent: Thailand's economy was rapidly
recovering during his reign and the number of Thais living in poverty plummeted.
There's debate, however, as to how much Thaksin influenced this. But he
was definitely successful in selling himself as the force steering poor
Thais towards a better future.
- But it's unclear whether a new Thaksin-style government
could really lift up the poor once again. Many have observed that the current
government is copying successful Thaksin social policies in a bid to sway
the poor. Abhisit has repeatedly insisted that he's devoted to stimulus
packages aimed at the working class.
- Regardless, the ruling party has failed to shake off
its image as a faction of elites. Nor have Red Shirts shaken their image
as violence-prone, uneducated hooligans among Thailand's right-wing Yellow
Shirts. This fight is definitely a power struggle, but it's also about
pent-up anger and vendettas.
- KZ: Those who believe that the administration of Thaksin
was a democratically-elected government, confess at the same time that
his freedom of press and human rights records were disappointing. What's
the truthful reality about Thailand's status of press freedom and human
- PW: Both Thaksin's government and the current ruling
party have attempted to pressure the media into promoting their agenda.
Neither can claim a clean record of press freedom.
- Neither Abhisit nor Thaksin has been able to avoid embarrassment
stemming from military blunders that have taken place under their rule.
Thaksin was roundly scorned when the army rounded up Muslim protesters
into a sweltering paddy wagon, which led to dozens of suffocation deaths.
Abhisit was also censured when the military found Muslims from the Rohingya
tribe escaping Burma by boat, cut their engines and turned them loose on
- These embarrassments and others have long been pinned
on prime ministers from rival parties. But it's unclear how much any political
leader can reign in Thailand's military, which remains a powerful political
force that all premiers must appease.