Thursday, May 20, 2010

Thailand faces uncertain future

After a long stand-off between demonstrators and Thai authorities, the military was finally ordered in to shift the Red Shirts yesterday. While not as bloody as some expected, there are still many challenges ahead for prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. 

Bangkok is under curfew as are several other parts of the country following Wednesday's crackdown. Soldiers cleared thousands of anti-government protesters from their fortified encampment in Thai capital but it may not end the movement against the Abhisit regime.

Around 40 people have died since troops ringed the protesters last week, with at least 14 more deaths on Wednesday. The government say they are confident that with protest leaders arrested and their main protest site demolished, stability will be restored. But by sending in troops to break up a largely civilian protest risks further inflaming a volatile situation. There are already reports from other parts of the country of protests and violence directed against the government. In the north-east protesters have attacked government buildings and the mood was said to be tense in the northern city of Chiang Mai.

Reporting dangers

As well as protesters, some journalists have also been caught up in the violence. Among the dead on Wednesday was a 45 year old Italian photojournalist Italian Fabio Polenghi, while three other reporters, a Dutch journalist, an American and a Canadian photographer, were among scores of people injured. Chandler Vandergrift [pictured above, lying with an injured soldier], a Canadian documentary-maker in his 20s working in Bangkok, suffered shrapnel injuries to his head, legs and arms after a grenade exploded less than 70 metres from him, said freelance photographer Nick Nostitz. "He needed brain surgery. Doctors don't really know yet, but they believe he might be handicapped," Nostitz said in an interview with Canwest News Service.

Vandergrift is the second Canadian to be injured in Bangkok in the last week. Calgary journalist Nelson Rand, 34, was seriously wounded last Friday when he was struck by three bullets in his leg, abdomen and wrist. Two journalists have been killed and several wounded while covering the political unrest. The Dutch man was identified as Michel Maas, who works for Dutch television and newspapers as well as Radio Netherlands Worldwide. He took a bullet in his right shoulder but was said to be in relatively good condition. An army bullet hit him from behind as he was running away according to reports. "I really had no time to be shocked. When the army attacked I started running. I felt a hard blow but didn't realise I had been hit by a bullet. I was given a lift to the hospital on the back of a scooter," Maas said. Last month Hiroyuki Muramoto, a Japanese cameraman working for the Reuters news agency, was fatally shot though the findings of the official investigation into his death have never been released.

Some journalists have said that they were being deliberately targeted and that in some cases attempts had been made to steal cameras from photographers. Thomas Fuller, a reporter for the International Herald Tribune, described how opposition figure Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol was shot in the head as Fuller was interviewing him. Fuller told CNN that he was standing only a few feet away from Sawasdipol when he was shot. Sawasdipol was transported to hospital but later died of his injuries. The attacks on media personnel has angered journalist organisations. "The right to information is more important than ever when a country is in crisis, as Thailand is at the moment," Reporters Without Borders said. "International law clearly states that journalists cannot be military targets. We are outraged to see the media being repeatedly targeted by both the army and demonstrators. We urge the Thai government to restore order without delay and to lift the media censorship." [Freemedia / RNW / Vancouver Sun / RSF].


Despite the curfew there are continuing attacks in Bangkok. Some protesters have fanned out across the city looting shops and setting fire to key financial targets, among them a bank and major shopping centre and the city's stock exchange. The curfew imposed across almost one-third of the country includes a block on cash dispensing machines and a temporary government takeover of some TV channels.

While such measures might be regarded as sensible in order to thwart violent retaliation from the Red-shirts, the move could also fan the flames of discontent. The government has offered a political solution, a road map that might take both sides into talks in dissolving parliament and calling fresh elections. But this dispute runs deeper, to the very nature of Thai democracy, and that debate has split opinion within families and the government, even within the army and the protesters themselves.


Speaking to those that travel to Thailand regularly or have a strong connection with the country brings some perspective of the divisions. One young man who has visited Thailand several times over the last decade and is currently learning the language, spoke to tvnewswatch. "I think that the problem with Thailand is that the Thais never like to lose because they feel insulted if they do not win.They always accuse the opposite party of being corrupt or fiddling the elections if their own party has lost, and yet they are so nationalistic that they would refuse to have international observers like the UN supervising the elections," Robin Chakrabarti said.

"Both of my [language] teachers are supporters of opposite sides, so they would probably not like each other if they met, but I like both of them," he said, "It is a pity that politics can divide people so much. I hope that the problems do not gradually spread to more areas otherwise it will be like the Roundheads and Cavaliers, but in a different century and place." One of his language teachers had returned to the UK recently and Robin talked of her reaction. "My Thai teacher had also been in the area near the Skytrain station and Ploenchit Plaza, which is where there are several huge shopping malls are, a couple of weeks ago and had to escape an invasion of the shopping centre by Red-shirts," he said.

Many tourists had also to escape the area. "One English guy who had just got back from Bangkok a few days ago said that the Skytrain was shut down and he found it hard to get a taxi because they had disappeared to avoid being shot at," Robin told tvnewswatch. "He could hear gunfire and at one point he saw barricades with burning tyres etc, but when he arrived in the area where all the cheap backpacker guesthouses are, everything was OK except it was not normal because whereas usually the place is swarming with tourists with their backpacks, there were very few people about and most places were nearly empty." 

Locals not involved in the protests were struggling to make a living, but the volatile situation was making things difficult. "The local people who rely on tourism had put on a street party in Khaosan Road, the main tourist ghetto in the Banglumphu area, to encourage foreigners to stay, but there were not many about," he said.

Fractured past

The politics behind the protests cannot be simplified. For news organisations it can be too easily described as a conflict of class or of ideology. "The BBC reporter the other day wrongly described it as a fight between the rich and poor, but it is a lot more complicated than that," Robin said. "Thaksin [Shinawatra] was the legally elected Prime Minister, but had gradually become more and more powerful and built up resentment due to his selling off of a Thai telecom satellite [company] to Singapore, and also making sure his own family controlled or owned a lot of things in the country," Robin explained. "He himself had become a billionaire from business and owning an airline etc. However, he was a strong leader, got rid of drug dealers, and tried to crush the Muslim separatists in the south, but many people thought he was corrupt."

"He was ousted in the military coup by the Yellow-shirts while he was on a trip to America, which was not democratic. There was a General Sonti who took over when the coup took place, but they didn't like him and so there was somebody else chosen. Even though General Sonti was Muslim he did not manage to stop the violence in the south and it got worse. From what I have heard, but it may not be correct, Abhisit [Vejjajiva] was elected, but some people claim that the election was rigged and that he was chosen by the people in the army who were already in charge."
Uncertain future

In the short term Thailand may quieten down, but whether confidence returns to a lucrative tourist industry is far from clear. Thailand relies heavily on tourism and Thaksin was seen as being far more open than his successor. "Some Thais thought that he [Thaksin] was selling out Thailand to foreigners and giving foreigners too many rights," Robin says, "However, without the foreign investment from one million Brits on holiday each year, the Thai economy would lose by at least ten percent [of its annual GDP]." 

Thailand has been gripped by a paralysing political crisis ever since Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted from office in the 2006 military coup. Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva was chosen as prime minister in December 2008, and some Thais hoped the protests had finally come to an end. But the political schism was far from over. In March 2010 the pro-Thaksin Red-shirts launched new protests aimed at bringing the government down.

Two months on, central Bangkok has been rocked by violence, bloodshed and destruction of key buildings. Analysts and some participants say the problem goes far beyond Thaksin, and is about how much say ordinary people are allowed to have in the formation of their government. The past 24 hours may have shown that the government can still impose its will. Whether it has quelled the anger or simply stoked it remains to be seen.

Thailand has had more than its fair share of crises. The SARS epidemic created panic in the country and the avian flu also affected the economy. "Nearly all chickens had to be slaughtered and you could only buy chips in KFC for a few months," Robin remembers. The tourist industry was also hit markedly by the military coup and the 2006 tsunami. The latest trouble does not bode well. "I hope Thailand gets over this present crisis and does not lose its charm as being a country of smiling friendly people," Robin said.

In a televised address late on Wednesday, Abhisit Vejjajiva said he was "confident and determined to end the problems and return the country to peace and order once again". Peace is what every Thai wants, but many also want fresh elections. Abhisit may not concede to this demand so readily however [Boston / BBC].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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