Sacrifices in Bangkok

21 May 2010

The violence leading up to the burning of central Bangkok on Wednesday is the worst moment in Thailand's modern history. More people killed and injured over the last six weeks than in any of the many prior incidents. More property damaged. More dismay and despair. More of the future destroyed.

This terrible week will further harden the already brittle divisions in Thai society. On one side, the antigovernment red shirts have a new pantheon of martyrs, a thousand stories about the government and army as brutal killers, and a million reasons for resentment and revenge. On the other, the government and its supporters can point to the fires and looting as proof that the red shirts were just savages all along, and don't deserve to be taken seriously or accorded any mercy. These two refrains are already gaining currency, confirming prejudices and fanning hatred.

Both sides have their stories of perfidy. Pro-government forces claim the arson shows signs of prior planning. They seize on former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's comment that a military crackdown might spark a guerrilla war as proof that he is the orchestrating hand. Pro-red sympathizers argue that the fires were deliberately set to discredit the reds.

This kind of mutual recrimination is the easy route. And a fatal one.

Those who unconditionally condemn the red shirts need to ask themselves a few questions. Why did this protest attract so many people and stretch on for so long with relatively little violence until the end? Why, as the soldiers approached, were 5,000 people willing to remain in the encampment, announcing they were ready to die?

Yes, perhaps camaraderie and a siege mentality helped keep many protesters behind the barricades until the bitter end. But one still has to ask, why do so many ordinary Thais feel so desperate about the situation that they're willing to sacrifice their lives? Why, even in the final days, were people on the roadsides cheering on the red shirts and jeering the security forces? Why are people in so many provincial towns now destroying government property?

The easy answer traded among those who oppose the red shirts is that they are stupid, uneducated and paid by Mr. Thaksin. This thinking is a way of avoiding questions about what has been happening in Thai society over the past generation, a way of plugging one's own eyes and ears. But it leads nowhere—or to another May 19, sooner or later.

Wednesday's events threw two key facts about Thailand into sharp relief. First, because the Thai economy is so integrated with the world, the country's internal conflicts are played out in the full glare of international publicity, and the economy will be badly burned too. Second, a lot of ordinary, reasonable people are very angry about what has happened to the political system. If they are not soothed by real changes, then the frustrations will keep spilling into violence of one sort or another. Thailand needs to bring its politics into line with its economy.

This could be the moment for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to show true statesmanship. The path toward social peace at such a terrible moment requires mercy, a readiness to compromise and some steel to persuade one's own followers to show compassion.

Several recent opinion surveys have shown that the overwhelming majority of Thais believe a fair judicial system, open press and electoral democracy are the best tools for resolving social conflict. Mr. Abhisit needs to ensure that the pro-government yellow-shirt leaders responsible for the airport occupations in late 2008 when they were in opposition are subject to the same judicial accounting as the red shirts. He also needs to remove the repression on red media, and give no covert government support for yellow-shirt reprisals against the reds.

He also needs to put an early election back on the table, and remove all the conditionality that made the earlier offer unconvincing. Since it is very likely that Mr. Abhisit's Democrat Party would lose that poll, this would amount to an act of sacrifice. The alternative is hiding behind the military and invoking more repression.

This could also be a great moment for Mr. Thaksin. The movement he helped foment has now become a raging tiger. Were he to return and ride this beast, it would probably devour him. In his heart, he probably knows that. So this is an opportune moment to get down from the tiger's back. In a Buddhist society like Thailand, renunciation of one's personal interests is very highly valued. Were he publicly to renounce any intent to recover his seized assets and return to Thailand to serve his two years in jail, that would be seen as a heroic gesture.

Many Thais have made sacrifices or had sacrifices forced upon them this week. Thailand's future hinges on whether these two men are big enough for the personal sacrifices that such an awful moment demands.