Reconciliation or Retribution in Thailand

The present phase of unrest centered on Bangkok has ended under the guns of the military with another five dead including another foreign journalist, Six days of fighting have left 39 people dead and at least 329 wounded.

The deployment of troops backed by armored vehicles and water cannon has been inevitable ever since it became obvious that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's fractious government was unable to meet any of the demands of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) Red Shirts for new elections it would not win.

The reoccupation of the last fixed Red Shirt bastion at the Ratchaprasong Intersection in Bangkok's commercial core amidst heavy gunfire marks the transformation of the UDD from a patronized gaggle of provincials camping out in the center of the metropolis into a formidable and resilient political force.

The fall of Ratchaprasong, however, is likely to be a brief hiatus in a contest that will test Prime Minister Abhisit's ability to end the revolt without setting the charges for what could be an even greater upheaval.

Central to this will be whether the government's decision to confront the Red Shirts on the capital's streets serves as an opportunity to demonstrate magnanimity and reconciliation or if the full weight of state retribution is deployed against the defeated protestors. If the results of three previous revolts in 1972, 1976 and 1992 are considered, the defeated can expect little comfort.

Thailand has experienced three major violent political upheavals in the 35 or so years before the present crisis began. All can be linked, and while each offers a differing insight into how the state has responded to being challenge, context makes them unreliable indicators of the country's direction in the coming days and weeks.

  • On 13 October 1973, months of anti-government protests against the armed forces' dominant role in government culminated in a huge demonstration in Bangkok. The following day troops attacked the protestors, killing at least 75 people and wounding hundreds of others. King Bhumibol directly intervened, superficial order was restored and the three politicians seen as largely responsible went into exile overseas.

  • On 5 October 1976, leftist students at Bangkok's Thammasat University protesting against the killing of two students by rightists a few weeks earlier were attacked by well-organised militia personnel. The official death toll among the students, many of them the children of the elite, was 45 but hundreds more were widely believed to have subsequently murdered. Many fled into the bemused arms of the then revolutionary Communist Party of Thailand, whose fighting strength was drawn from the same northern rural communities that remain the hinterland of today's reds. The subsequent anti-communist campaign by the Thai military was accompanied by a wave of extrajudicial killings that have been largely forgotten outside these communities.

  • Between 17 and 20 May 1992, at least 44 people were killed and hundreds injured when troops fired at demonstrators protesting against efforts to make a prime minister of a military leader who had seized power in a coup the previous year. In addition to acknowledged casualties, many of them drawn from the higher social classes, at least 100 people were presumed killed by the security forces after the immediate unrest. When containers were found on the seabed off the Sattahip naval base at the head of the Gulf of Thailand in 2009, there was widespread speculation that they might contain the remains of the missing of 'Black May.' The fact that they did not has not diminished the belief that the state is capable of killing its opponents.

These precedents, rather than vague talk of compromise and national unity, are likely to guide the actions of the Red Shirt activists and their countless thousands of supporters across the country as they prepare for the aftermath of the loss of their key redoubts in Bangkok. For them, any outcome to the crisis that erodes their present strength will be resisted.

The problem for Abhisit and his allies is as much cultural as political. While democratic institutions are developing roots across the region, the concept of 'loyal opposition' is still regarded as an oxymoron by many local politicians. It is within this context that an overly soft line against the Red Shirts will be interpreted by UDD activists, Abhisit's opponents within government, the military and pro-establishment People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) Yellow Shirts as a sign of weakness rather than a display of pragmatism.

Nevertheless, an effort is likely to be made to re-emphasise the narrative that distinguishes the Red Shirt leadership from the 'misguided misled.' In this model, the red rank-and -file would be allowed – even helped – to return to their communities, accompanied by a chorus extolling their virtues as loyal but unwitting dupes of toppled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his clique.

The reconciliation process may also be the last opportunity King Bhumibol Adulyadej has to demonstrate his traditional role as final mediator by using his monarchical and semi-divine authority to end their quarrel and unite under the crown. His silence, either self-imposed or managed during what may be the defining national event of his long reign, has amplified the perception of the great changes now face Thailand.

There is speculation that the 82-year old king, confined to hospital since September 2009, is reluctant to risk his legacy by engineering what would amount to a truce rather than settlement between the government and its military patrons against a broad front opposed to its lack of democratic legitimacy and fearful of its future intentions. If the monarchy cannot offer benediction and protection at such a time, then doubts over its future utility as a final arbiter between narrow, unbridled authority and the marginalized majority are certain to grow.

At a more material level the government could introduce measures to entrench Thaksin's health and debt reforms – his opponents would say bribes – that garnered him such a following among the nation's poor majority.

Thai history, however, rarely supports such an outcome and attempts at reconciliation are likely to be resisted by hardliners within the government, some sections of the military and among the yellows of the PAD.

As the three episodes of the past have shown, once cohesion is lost the red leadership at all levels will be targeted for judicial punishment and extra-judicial disposal. The death of the Red Shirt 'ultra' General Khattiya Sawasdipol after being shot by an expert sniper has been widely interpreted as a warning from the state apparatus that no one is immune from the consequences of their action.

The Red Shirt script is now being literally written in blood. Few who remained at the Bangkok barricades could doubt their fate when the military began to move against in strength on 18 May against their flimsy defences. The result of such an operation - which the army command at least appears to recognize as they seek to ensure it is the civilian government that bears responsibility for their actions - is that while the state will restore a measure of dignity at a high cost in popular support, the reds will write the history.

The determination, resilience and courage of the Red Shirt core, confronting heavily armed troops with makeshift weapons, has already created a mythic narrative that will ensure that however the May 2010 confrontation in Bangkok ends, their actions will be recalled and recounted in their home villages for years, further adding to the kindling that fuels Thailand's slowly unfolding revolution.

G.M. Greenwood is an Associate with Allan & Associates, a Hong Kong-based political and security risk consultancy.