Mass politics and military power

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Burning issue:An anti-government protester piles tyres on a fire at a shopping centre in Bangkok's commercial district on May 19. The Thai army stormed a barricaded protest camp on that day and the leadership surrendered, enraging demonstrators who fired grenades and set fires that cloaked the skyline in a black haze.
Burning issue:An anti-government protester piles tyres on a fire at a shopping centre in Bangkok's commercial district on May 19. The Thai army stormed a barricaded protest camp on that day and the leadership surrendered, enraging demonstrators who fired grenades and set fires that cloaked the skyline in a black haze.

P.S. Suryanarayana

The protest in Thailand has sustained itself on the political mystique of a pro-poor leader opposed to undemocratic military intervention in governance.

The latest military crackdown in Thailand against armed protesters has raised questions about the dividing line between political dissent and state-subversive terrorism. In a larger perspective, the different strokes of political dissent in the wider East Asian region have come into mild focus as a result of the current Thai crisis. However, the Association of South East Asian Nations and the East Asia Summit are far from looking at the differential forms of political dissent in the region.

By Sunday (May 23), as Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva sought to raise hopes of national reconciliation, political controversies over the May 19 crackdown in Bangkok were yet to recede from the public domain. It was emphasised, on behalf of Mr. Vejjajiva, that the crackdown was not the result of any breach of promise by his administration to allow some proactive Senators to mediate in its dispute with the protesting United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD).

The military-backed civilian Prime Minister himself had drawn a blank in his direct talks with a few UDD leaders several weeks earlier during the prolonged crisis, it was pointed out. Shortly before the May 19 denouement, however, the Senate Speaker informed the government about the UDD's readiness to negotiate one more time with the Prime Minister's men. At that stage, the government took the line that such talks would not be viable in the evolving context of terroristic violence from armed elements among the protesters. Moreover, Mr. Abhisit doubted the sincerity of the militant UDD leaders who began suing for peace in the face of an imminent army action against them.

Outwardly, such a political narrative may seem too trivial to merit attention now, after the UDD uprising in Bangkok's commercial district, the main campsite of the protesters, was quelled. But the march of events, as it unfolded before the May 19 crackdown, reveals the relevance of the government's portrayal of this episode as a sad but inevitable denouement.

The denouement

The most-recent phase in the UDD's over-a-year-long campaign against Mr. Abhisit began in various parts of the Thai capital on March 12. The UDD occupied the business hub itself for 45 days before the May 19 crackdown there. The UDD leaders had in fact converted the area into a barricaded live-in facility for thousands of protesters, including women, children, and the elderly. For most part, the protest was punctuated by a carnival-style political drama of fiery speeches and theatrical parodies and also patriotic cultural interludes. However, violence did erupt on occasions, notably twice in April, at places outside Bangkok's commercial hub. Later, especially on several days prior to the May 19 showdown, militants among the UDD leaders engaged the security forces outside the perimeter of the main barricaded protest site. And, finally, “weapons of war” greeted the Thai armed forces, as they moved in to crush the UDD rebellion at its “base” in the commercial hub. During and for several hours after the army's triumph over the UDD there, fleeing “rogue protesters” were blamed for the devastating fires that broke out at a number of government and private buildings in Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand.

Significantly, the flash-point for the military's final confrontation with the UDD, in the run-up to the May 19 crackdown, was the killing of a former army officer, who had turned into a protest leader. He came to be viewed as the UDD's militant-guru by the time he came under an apparent sniper-attack. No person or group claimed responsibility for that, but the shooting raised tensions to a new high. In a sense, this episode is now widely seen to epitomise the basic political conflict between the UDD and the military-backed Prime Minister.


The genesis of the UDD's political appeal can be traced to the Thai military's bloodless coup against Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006. He was a twice-elected civilian Prime Minister. But, when the Army struck against him, Mr. Thaksin was in fact facing massive political protest from many interest groups. At that time, his opponents were drawn from the civilian and military elite as also the royalists. They view him to this day as their larger-than-life adversary. Now a proclaimed fugitive in self-imposed exile, Mr. Thaksin continues to “inspire” or “instigate” the UDD, as seen from the standpoint of either his supporters or his opponents.

The UDD is an umbrella group of pro-democracy campaigners and the Thaksin-loyalists, most of them from the rural and poor sections of the country, besides some left-of-centre social-conscience activists. While the UDD has often spoken in different voices, depending on its chief protagonist at any given time, the group is invariably linked to Mr. Thaksin in the popular and official perceptions in Thailand. Regardless of his exact role in the creation of the UDD, he has kept it going, often against heavy odds, through his video-messages and phone-in exhortations from unspecified locations outside Thailand.

To a large extent, the UDD has in fact sustained itself on the political mystique of Mr. Thaksin's agenda as a pro-poor leader opposed to any undemocratic military intervention in Thai governance. While this image is obviously difficult for the elite to brush aside, the UDD's critics have often sought to blame it for overlooking Mr. Thaksin's alleged antipathy towards the royalists. Absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932, and the present constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is universally hailed across Thailand and among all social groups. ‘Network monarchy' is a term used by Duncan McCargo, a scholar on Thailand, to describe the role of the royalists and their links with other key interest groups in the general governance of the country in recent times. It is in such an ambience that the UDD has sometimes pleaded that the King direct M. Abhisit to dissolve the House of Representatives immediately and hold a snap general election.

Well known indeed is the UDD's charge against Mr. Abhisit that he rose to power without a popular mandate of his own and through the machinations of the military elite. In the process, he is alleged to have not only buried Mr. Thaksin's pro-poor legacy but also given the Thai military free rein over governance. Obviously, Mr. Abhisit does not see himself as any such political villain. Yet, he has dismayed many of his leader-colleagues in East Asia by being slow in setting the November 14 timeline for a snap poll in Thailand, just over a year ahead of schedule, and by quickly withdrawing that poll-offer in the context of the UDD's incremental demands.

In greater regional focus than this aspect of Mr. Abhisit's political acumen is his perceived dependence on the military to stay on in power. At one stage before the May 19 denouement, Thai Army Chief Anupong Paochinda did suggest that Mr. Abhisit seek a political resolution of the crisis. But the two later gravitated towards each other if only because the balance of current forces in Thai politics left them with no other choice. As a Thai scholar, Chairat Charoensin-o-larn, has pointed out, it is possible that “the political awakening of the Thai rural masses and the ascendancy of the military in Thai politics would be the two main contending forces” for now.



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