Get Ready for a Bloody End Game in Thailand

Thai soldiers inspecting the site of a bomb blast near an anti-government rally in Bangkok Photograph by Pornchai Kittwongsakul/AFP via Getty Images

Clashes in Thailand between anti-government protestors and security forces have intensified. Over the past weekend, unidentified gunmen sprayed bullets at anti-government protestors in eastern Thailand, killing a five-year-old girl, and someone apparently launched two grenade attacks in Bangkok. Since the current round of demonstrations started last November, 21 people have been killed and hundreds injured in Thailand. The country has basically functioned without an effective government for months, the once-teflon economy is sputtering, and Thais are preparing for the violence to get worse. The leader of the demonstrations has vowed to hunt down Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the protestors have been electrified by the turn of events in Ukraine, and all sides appear to be taking more confrontational positions.

Although Thailand’s cycle of political instability seems to have gone on forever—the genesis of the unrest dates back roughly a decade—the chaos in Bangkok is likely to end soon. The government has appointed hard-line ministers to the top security positions, the powerful army chief has for the first time issued a warning to the demonstrators, and the protestors have upped their violent rhetoric and seemingly armed themselves with heavier weapons. The denouement in Bangkok, coming shortly, is not likely to be pretty.

The divide in Thai society dates to the early 2000s, when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother, became the nation’s first leader to unite the rural poor and use their combined votes to dominate Parliament. Protests in 2005 and 2006 by members of the Bangkok elite, worried at their loss of power and also furious at Thaksin’s venal and at times brutal rule, led to a coup in 2006. Since then the country has been caught in a never-ending cycle of protest by elites, toppling of pro-Thaksin governments, brief installations of pro-elite governments, and then counter-protests by Thaksin supporters and the election of pro-Thaksin governments.

None of the cycles of protest and counter-protest have ended in solutions that resolved Thailand’s class and regional divides; the protests led to temporary fixes that only emboldened the other side to fight harder. Worse, none of the cycles of protest have ended without serious violence.

The Yingluck government has been reticent to crack down on the protests, even when demonstrators have taken over government ministries. Yingluck feared that any crackdown could spark a coup because the military’s leaders seemed to side with the conservative and royalist demonstrators and against the more populist government. In addition, other powerful elements of Thailand’s conservative and royalist “deep state” warned against a crackdown. The country’s courts have ruled that the government cannot block demonstrators from entering state property and cannot use any force against demonstrations, even though protestors have attacked police. Yingluck also faces a controversial impeachment case before the courts and a national anti-corruption commission.

Now the government’s fear of a coup is fading. Although the army commander is a staunch conservative and probably supports the demonstrators, the army’s ranks and mid-level officers have, behind the scenes, applied enormous pressure on military leaders not to intervene and to publicly rebuke protestors for using violent tactics. Under intense pressure, the army commander this week issued such a rebuke.

Buoyed by the army’s public stance—and by every Western country’s tacit support of the government, in sharp contrast to the situation in Ukraine or Venezuela—Yingluck has appointed hard-line ministers to run the public order campaign. Chalerm Yubamrung, director of the government’s Center for Maintaining Peace and Order (CMPO), is known as one of the toughest political operators. And this week, retired general Panlop Pinmanee said the government has approached him about possibly joining the CMPO; Panlop masterminded a harsh crackdown on insurgents in southern Thailand a decade ago.

Meanwhile, the demonstrators’ own story has become increasingly divorced from reality as their leaders feed activists a paranoid and fantastic narrative full of hateful invective. One Thai commentator, Merisa Skulsuthavong, has compared the protestors’ rhetoric to a magical realism Thai soap opera in which a hero swoops in with no warning and rescues the day. Some protestors think Thailand’s aged and ailing king will play the heroic role, stepping into the fray to dismiss the government. But the royal family is divided and the king has made no public moves.

Though fantastic, this narrative has become accepted by large portions of the Bangkok middle class because the demonstrators have media outlets that essentially echo their message. The echo chamber encourages ever more violent tactics. It also seems likely that in recent weeks, some military men unhappy with the armed forces’ decision to stay on the sidelines have quietly joined the demonstrations, or may have provided protestors with arms.

How will Thailand’s stand-off end? Not like Ukraine, where protestors enjoyed the support of the West and the government foolishly employed extreme violence, undermining ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s own support base and his democratic credentials. Although Western countries do not openly support Yingluck, every Western embassy has called for respect for the democratic process. This essentially supports the government’s current position because protestors want to block elections and halt democracy. And though the government has put hard-liners in place, the history of the past 10 years shows that Shinawatra governments, though often venal, do not employ the harshest possible crackdown tactics in Bangkok. They are more attuned to their fragile prospects for survival than, say, Yanukovych or previous elite-led Thai governments such as the one that oversaw the killing of at least 90 people during pro-Thaksin protests in Bangkok in 2010.

Instead, Yingluck’s government probably will slowly strangle the protest movement. It will do so by closing one protest location after the next while peeling off some of the more moderate supporters of the protests in Bangkok’s business and political communities. Without support from the king and the leaders of the army, and lacking the broad base of demonstrations in places like Venezuela, the protests will eventually dwindle. Ultimately, some demonstrators may join in a new round of elections designed to replace the recent flawed elections Yingluck called. Even if the courts and other agencies of Thailand’s deep state successfully remove Yingluck and other top members of her party, it has a deep bench of potential replacements.

Before any such ending, bloodshed will increase. The leaders of the protest and the government, per Thai tradition, probably will remain untouched, even if they oversee violence and outright executions. As the police and some troops close protest sites, expect the demonstrators to increasingly open fire on security forces—some protestors now openly carry assault rifles inside sacks of grain and corn—and to utilize grenades and other homemade explosives. Some policemen will be unable to restrain themselves as well—renegade policemen seem to have already attacked protestors with brutal force. As the standoff mounts, police leaders with limited control over their men in ordinary times will be unable to stop renegade policemen from beating or shooting protestors.

Instead of one massive, bloody battle such as took place on the last day of the 2010 Bangkok violence, when parts of the central business district burned to the ground and the army peppered demonstrators with thousands of rounds of live fire, the city is more likely to see the equivalent of a low-level insurgency for months as protests are squeezed. Such an insurgency—though once unimaginable in a cosmopolitan and normally peaceful capital like Bangkok, as if Damascus popped up central Paris—is already occurring. Armed men linked to the demonstrators are stockpiling weapons for a prolonged campaign that will continue, even if the protestors’ main rally sites are cleared.

In addition, both pro- and anti-Thaksin groups seem to be assembling lists of targeted politicians and activists to be wiped out through targeted, Beirut-style executions, a trend that’s likely to continue, even as the large demonstrations recede. It will be a long time before Bangkok can again be truly called the City of Angels, its traditional Thai name.

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