Seeing through the tear gas mist

April 19, 2010

The right-wing government of Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is threatening a new crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators who have been protesting in the capital of Bangkok to demand free and fair elections.

The threat of a second military assault comes a little more than a week after the government ordered soldiers to open fire on the demonstrators--known as the "Red Shirts" because of their clothing. Bangkok exploded into street clashes, leaving at least 20 people dead. The government was forced to send the soldiers back to their barracks with the demonstrators not yet dispersed.

Abhisit's regime came to power in 2008 after a preceding government was driven out by mass demonstrations mobilized by the pro-royalist, right-wing People's Alliance for Democracy--known as the "Yellow Shirts." Now that government is being shaken.

Nevertheless, since the violence of April 10, not only the government and military, but supposedly independent observers have tried to cast all or at least some of the blame on the Red Shirts.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a Thai dissident who was accused of "lese majesty"--basically, not being loyal to Thailand's king--and forced to flee the country last year. Last week, he responded to the distortions of the battle that is taking place in Thailand with this essay.

AFTER THE recent bloodshed on the streets of Bangkok, the army, the government, and the media, academics and NGOs who have sided with the royalist elites--especially those who deceitfully call themselves "neutral"--are all trying to distort important facts about what is happening in Thailand.

Together with the blanket censorship ordered by the government, this distortion is like firing a second round of tear gas at the population in order to cause confusion. So let us just remind ourselves of the basics.

The first basic point is that any government that sends soldiers armed with M16 automatic weapons, live ammunition and tanks in order to disperse a peaceful and disciplined demonstration has already decided on the option of using lethal force against the demonstrators.

This is an undeniable fact, whether or not the soldiers also carry shields and rubber bullets, and whether or not the soldiers initially fire live rounds into the air. In the inevitable situation of stress and tension, the soldiers will start firing live ammunition against civilians, and they have indeed done this.

Red Shirt protesters outside Thailand's parliament complex in Bangkok
Red Shirt protesters outside Thailand's parliament complex in Bangkok

It is also true that this will occur whether or not there are some mysterious black-clad figures running around in video footage of the violence. These could be special military forces, people hoping to stimulate a bloody crackdown or some other group.

Whatever the case, these people had no connection with the National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (known by the acronym UDD), which has repeatedly restrained its supporters. The UDD stored captured weapons so that they would not be used, and in contrast to the behavior of the army, any captured soldiers were well-treated.

Let us be clear. When the army brings lethal weapons of war and stations snipers on high buildings, they are already intent on the option of killing civilians. Machine guns and tanks are not brought onto the streets to cook noodles, show off to tourists or repair the roads. In most civilized democracies, the streets are cleared of demonstrators, whether legitimately or not, through the use of riot police and mass arrests, not by systematic use of weapons of war.

THE ABHISIT government and its military backers were therefore intent on killing civilians. This is, of course, nothing new in Thailand. In the last 40 years, the Thai elites have gunned down and murdered unarmed civilian demonstrations six times. Five of these bloodbaths occurred in Bangkok in 1973, 1976, 1992 2009 and now in 2010. The sixth occasion was in the South, at Tak Bai in 2004.

It is a matter of great urgency that democratic and human rights standards are established in Thailand to deal with this. Elite figures, politicians and generals have to be publicly punished if found guilty. The entire military command needs to be retired, and the army has to be drastically reduced in terms of budgets, numbers and influence. Lese majesty and other draconian laws need to be abolished also in order to stop the specter of republicanism or communism being used as an excuse to murder civilians.

The deceitful, supposedly "neutral" academics and NGOs--including Focus on the Global South, which claims that "both sides should take responsibility for the bloodshed"--are merely reducing the responsibility of the government, the oppressor. It is like saying that both the elephant and the ant are "responsible" for the ant being crushed to death under the elephant's giant foot--just because the ant was in the wrong place.

On the one hand, we have the military-backed government and its armed forces trying to crush a democratic protest with lethal weapons. On the other hand, we have thousands of unarmed and disciplined protesters. It should not be hard to see the difference--unless, of course, you backed the 2006 coup (however reluctantly), and you backed the semi-fascist PAD Yellow Shirts in 2008. This is what nearly all these supposedly neutral observers did.

The Yellow Shirts used weapons and violence to wreck Government House, preventing the opening of an elected parliament, and seize Thailand's international airports in 2008. They have not been punished because the military and Abhisit's Democrat Party support them.

By contrast, the Red Shirts have occupied some roads in Bangkok. They have not shot anyone nor destroyed buildings. Yet the government is manufacturing lies about "Red Shirt terrorists." Previously, it lied about troops "not using lethal weapons on civilians."

The second basic point is that the Abhisit government was never democratically elected. It is in power because of a military coup in 2006, two coups carried out by the country's judiciary, the violence of the PAD and the maneuvering of the military.

Abhisit's Democrat Party can never hope to win an overall majority in any future election, and in the past, it has never won such an election. It can only cling to power by using the military and blanket censorship, which is turning Thailand into a police state.

So the Red Shirt demand for the government to resign and for immediate democratic elections is totally legitimate. Their lengthy protest in the streets is totally legitimate. The use of a state of emergency and the military to silence the Red Shirt protesters and to arrest their leaders is totally illegitimate. The military constitution and the "law" that Abhisit keeps talking about are totally illegitimate.

There are many people who say that democratic elections will not solve the crisis. They are probably right. But this is only because the elites, the military, the royalists, the middle classes, the PAD, the academics, the NGOs and the Democrat Party are not committed to respecting a majority vote and democracy. They firmly believe, like all supporters of dictatorship, that the Thai electorate is "unqualified to be given a free vote."

The third basic point is about the accusation that the Red Shirts are "committing treason" by revolting against the nation and the monarch.

Let us just remind ourselves who should hold sovereign and absolute power in a democracy. It is the people. The Red Shirts are defending that sovereign power. The government, the military and its royalist supporters are committing treason against the people. It is as simple as that.

The Abhisit government must resign now. The military must return to barracks, and the people should decide the future of Thai society.

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