What Will Rise from the Ashes of Bangkok?
There were no winners in Wednesday’s showdown in Bangkok. The Reds’ supposed people’s movement had long shown signs of extreme rogue elements, and was tainted from the beginning as being motored by a supremely corrupt, bitter, and vindictive – albeit “illegally” deposed – ex-prime minister. There is no question that there were some sincere ‘simple folk’ amongst them, but it is also clear that they had been duped, and then utterly betrayed in the crimson, blood stained retreat.
The deliberate and professional torching of Bangkok’s business center wiped out whatever little remaining sympathy there was for this people’s movement. The sheer brigandry of it has left a very bad taste in everyone’s mouth, and for now these ‘simple folk’ couldn’t be any further away from getting a better deal – anyone associated with the Red movement has been branded.
For the other side there really isn’t much of a victory either. The current government might be led by intelligent figures (looking back over the last few years, this is easily the most credible bunch yet), but it could not muster enough control over its admittedly divided army to crack down firmly and quickly on the early stages of a disruptive movement in the heart of its own capital. A ragtag mob, fed by the dirty money of a deposed leader, was allowed to stay for weeks after the initial outrage of taking over the retail heart of the city. Early on the government, even after losing face in front of all its ASEAN neighbors in that embarrassing helicopter evacuation in Pattaya last year, seemed unwilling to take any serious action to break the back of a clearly escalating chaos.
The end result? The entire world staring at distressing images of mayhem in downtown Bangkok. Central World blazing. People facedown on the ground, humiliated and cuffed. Bloodied bodies and corpses. Strangely disturbing too, the image of a monk cuffed to a plastic chair, his face twisted in emotion – everyone knows how privileged and revered monks supposedly are in Thailand. After a couple of days the world will tire of the news in Thailand and move on. Nonetheless, their memories of the country will be those images. They will take time to fade.
Abhisit’s government has had an unfortunate track record from its early months: its perceived unwillingness to come down in court on leaders of the Yellow shirt movement, who so blithely flaunted the law and took over the airport a couple of years ago, crippling all international air traffic to Bangkok for a week. Court proceedings seemed to trail off into vapor along with any moral authority that the government might have had. Political will was hardly evident. Worse yet, it opened the doors to escalation. Granted the airport occupation was a fun fair compared to the Reds’ occupation downtown, and that there was no shortage of people duped into the Yellow movement as well; but there is no question that to the Reds it became: “Hey, if they can get away with it, so can we”.
It is perhaps a little unfair to criticize the current Thai government for just simple indecisiveness. Amongst all the squabbling factions, royalists or not, there are two very real powers in Thailand: money and military. For much of Southeast Asia, that’s nothing new. Perhaps somewhere in the hearts of many there is a craving for a moral leadership, yet even that moral leadership in the end would have to negotiate those two minefields.
And what has become clear in this debacle is that in today’s Thailand both money and military can go any way they damn well please. General Anupong, military commander–in-chief due to retire, most likely had little stomach for a career blemishing finale, and it is well known the military is split. Undoubtedly it will be a few years before we hear what really went on in the backrooms of the military barracks when Abhisit himself was quartered there for protection. On the other hand, a billion baht still buys as much as a billion baht will, even if it comes from the coffers of one of the most viciously vindictive of corrupt politicians. In this case money blind-sided a whole government.
Abhisit’s government did appear to dither in the early stages of this debacle. Coming into power in a controversial way himself, Abhisit has never been really been able to get even his own party behind him, let alone a whole electorate. He allowed the army to send in green recruits for weeks when a one-day sweep with the crack troops would have nipped it in the bud. When they were finally sent in it was clear that bloodshed and mayhem would be inevitable. He has displayed a dismal lack of political savoir-faire in dealing with the Reds, offering practically no graceful way out for their leaders to compromise without being seen as sell-outs.
The world at large may try to depict this as simply a class struggle or a country versus city conflict. But it is far more complicated, a story of manipulation and counter-manipulation, with many duped on both sides. And the speed at which Bangkok’s once vibrant economy spiralled into chaos was alarming.
Now amongst the ashes and the impending knock-on effects on the Thai economy, Abhisit’s government has to be decisive and bold. Whether there will be elections or not, the bitterness that is dividing Thailand is not going away; it will continue to fester. Whether he will continue much longer in office or not, Abhisit needs to display extraordinary leadership and reach out to all sides evenhandedly. And he needs to do this very soon. A witch hunt will make it worse. It is a daunting task, given the vengefulness which has reared its ugly face, but for the future of Thailand there is little choice.
It is a Thai problem, and only Thai leadership can bring the country back together. Now the question is, can Abhisit lead an effective civilian government to bring reconciliation to this torn nation? Or will General Anupong’s successors push for yet another military ‘solution’?