Mass uprising or just another struggle between elites

4 May 2010

For some, the red-shirt movement is a true popular uprising, a long overdue outburst of anger against the inequalities and injustices in Thai society. For others, the current stand-off is just another round of conflict among elites - Thaksin challenged the old guard, they got rid of him, and he's fighting back by using his money to stir trouble. For yet others, the deep reason behind the tensions of the last few years is anxiety over the succession. In truth, what makes the situation so intense, and the search for a solution so difficult, is that all these factors are in play. And you can't pull them apart.

From the moment the cavalcades came to Bangkok in early March and paraded around the city, it was clear that the numbers involved, the intensity of emotions, and the degree of organisation was different from anything seen before. The response from the sidewalk crowds in the capital was also unexpected and telling. The argument that this was a paid mob that would fade away when the funding ran out soon disappeared. As tensions in the capital rose, there were extra shows of support in the provinces, including unprecedented attempts to disrupt the movements of security forces. The prime minister has been in hiding for over a month. Other members of the government have disappeared down their burrows. When has that happened before? There is a mass uprising under way, probably the largest in modern Thai history.

But there is also an elite power struggle going on. Of course, we know about this only through rumour - Thaksin is wiring vast sums of money to finance the thing, and promises to call the whole thing off if he gets his money back and an amnesty to save him from prison. Of course such rumours are stoked by his enemies, and elaborated into fantasies of him plotting to return as president, as god, as the tooth fairy. But it's plausible that some such bargaining is in process. This time last year, immediately after the Songkran protest, Thaksin admitted to a French journalist that one of his aims was to get his frozen assets back. It was hardly a coincidence that the current upsurge started soon after those assets were finally seized. Because of its scale and length, this demonstration has cost a lot of money. Certainly participants have contributed, and many other sympathisers, both open and covert. But has Thaksin contributed nothing?

Who then is using who? There's no easy answer. Yes, Thaksin seems to be bargaining for his wealth and freedom, and seems prepared to put the lives of many ordinary people at risk to get what he wants. But equally, the red-shirt movement still needs Thaksin - as a focal point, as a martyr, as a figure that many reds still hope will return as a saviour, as a source of funds, as a thorn in the government's side. Maybe the movement is "moving beyond" Thaksin. But not yet conclusively. They still need each other. And that's why the resolution remains so vexed. It's not possible to "remove Thaksin from the equation". It's also not possible to imagine that a deal with Thaksin would make the anger and intensity of the movement disappear like a puff of smoke.

Resolution is also difficult because both sides have hawks and doves. The prime minister and other Democrats have been pushing for a firmer crackdown. Without any trace of shame or irony, the PAD has called for violence. Several journalists have been dipping their pens in blood. But so far General Anupong has insisted that any solution needs to be negotiated, not imposed by force. Possibly he and others in the security forces are nervous because of the sheer scale and intensity of the movement. A crackdown could provoke a much larger show of support. Besides, what would happen next?

Among the red shirts, support for non-violent strategy is very strong. Until April 10, the demonstration had been peaceful. But equally there is a faction among the reds who believe that no solution will ever come without violence. Weeks before the event began, Arisman explicitly urged a Chiang Mai crowd to go to Bangkok and burn it to the ground. Some believe the violence on the 10th was caused by mercenaries hired by Thaksin. Some point to a dissident faction within the Army. Some see a third or fourth or fifth hand. Each side blames the other, because it's good politics. But in truth, we don't know who was responsible, and both sides have hawks who could be the culprits.

On the key demand, the dissolution of Parliament, the gap between the sides now seems narrow. The red shirts have said three months. The government says the end of the year. In the long march of history, the difference between these two positions is no more than a blink. Two things seem to be in the way. The Democrats and the dominant Army faction won't risk an election until after the military reshuffle on October 1. The hardcore reds, and possibly Thaksin too, want the election before that key date. On top, there is the delicate matter of face. How to find a negotiated solution which both sides can claim as a victory?

In the short term, the dissolution question, the bigger issues raised by the red-shirt upsurge, and Thaksin's personal ambitions are still wrapped tightly together. But in a longer perspective, things may be different. The red-shirt movement has developed far beyond the predictions of many, including probably Thaksin himself. It has started to look like the sort of movement that often in history consumes its own leaders. The release of emotion has raised expectations for change that will be difficult for any leader to fulfil. Thaksin might not want to ride this tiger now he knows how big and fierce it is.