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Final assault

Print edition : Jun 18, 2010 T+T-
Army Chief General Anupong Paojinda listens as Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva speaks during a pre-recorded weekly television address in Bangkok on April 24. Abhisit said in the address that the authorities would retake the anti-government protest site in Bangkok.-HANDOUT/AFP

Army Chief General Anupong Paojinda listens as Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva speaks during a pre-recorded weekly television address in Bangkok on April 24. Abhisit said in the address that the authorities would retake the anti-government protest site in Bangkok.-HANDOUT/AFP

Does political dissent, resonant in a prolonged protest movement, pose an existential threat to a democratic order? The answer is yes, if one goes by Thailand's May 19 military crackdown, supported by civilian Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, on thousands of unarmed protesters at their main campsite in the fashionable commercial district of Bangkok.

The protesters, who were evidently joined by some armed militants, were agitating against Abhisit's military-backed rule. The banner of protest was, and remains, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD). Encouraged and inspired by the duly elected and military-deposed leader Thaksin Shinawatra, now a proclaimed fugitive in self-imposed exile, the UDD had occupied Bangkok's commercial hub for 45 days when the Army and other security forces cracked down on May 19.

No firm figures of deaths and injuries were announced immediately after the tragedy. Abhisit, while regretting the casualties among the protesters, did not go into specifics. The security operation was punctuated and followed by an unprecedented arson spree across several parts of Bangkok, particularly in the commercial district. Government and private buildings, including huge shopping malls, were gutted. The authorities blamed the fires on rogue protesters and armed militants, who were said to have somehow escaped the Army's professional operation, which was carried out according to international standards of riot control.

The authorities also reported a gruesome episode of mass murder at a Buddhist temple inside the UDD's heavily barricaded campsite. The massacre was said to have occurred before the security forces reached the temple site and before an overnight curfew was imposed on Bangkok and 23 of the 76 Thai provinces. The night curfew was later extended for several days. With the Thai Army categorically disowning any responsibility for the temple massacre, speculation centred on whether the UDD protesters or their armed political opponents were to blame.

One Minister noted that at least 60 persons were killed as a result of the UDD protest and the responses it elicited from different quarters since mid-March. An Italian photojournalist was among the dead and three other international journalists were injured. Non-official estimates, however, placed the death at over 80 in the context of the latest crackdown and the widespread violence that preceded it. Unofficially, at least 1,800 people are said to have been injured since the UDD campaign began last year.

Several specific events sparked off different episodes of protest during the prolonged campaign for democracy and for a fair political rehabilitation of Thaksin. The UDD, as emphasised by a South-East Asian political analyst, militated against the perceived Hitlerisation of Thaksin.

Of all the specific flashpoints at various stages of this pro-democracy campaign, the killing of a renegade Army officer who had become the militant strategist of the UDD sparked the chain reaction that culminated in the crackdown. The former major-general was shot at when he was talking to a few people, including journalists, at the inner perimeter of the barricaded campsite. No person or group claimed responsibility for the sniper fire. The UDD guru died a few days later.

Long before that sharp-shooting incident, the UDD had converted its sprawling campsite into a live-in facility for thousands of protesters, who included a number of women, children and senior citizens. The facility, complete with a conventional platform for political speeches and cultural shows, was heavily fortified with assorted materials, including tyres.

Days prior to the fall of the UDD bastion, the area was abuzz with peace-time entertainment. Activities aimed at caricaturing Abhisit or hero-worshipping Thaksin interspersed the inevitable political speeches and other forms of protest such as slogan-raising and a variety of gesticulations. Towards what turned out to be the final stages of the pre-crackdown protest, the focus increasingly shifted towards democracy as a demand at stake, without undue reference to the personalities on the scene or behind the scenes.

The UDD activists, often dubbed the Red Shirts after the colour of their chosen attire, were drawn mostly from the poorer sections and the rural regions. In contrast, some leaders of the movement none among them became a political hero or a household name were almost as sophisticated in their ways as the main players in the camp of Abhisit's loyalists and the military's cheerleaders.

Inconsistent with the ferocious display of military might on May 19, the authorities had earlier turned the other way when the UDD organisers meticulously took over the roads and fields in Bangkok. This act of lenience or dereliction of duty on the part of the authorities was later used to project the current military-civilian establishment as a benign force friendly towards constitutionally permitted peaceful protests.

Making sense, in the context of such an image-peddling exercise, was the assertion of the authorities on May 19 that the security forces moved into the UDD's main campsite only after raiding a nearby park and capturing arms stored there by the front's terrorist elements. Officials fought shy of using the term crackdown to describe the operations inside the UDD's nucleus zone of protest. The operations followed a resistance-free entry into the zone by heavily armed troops in armoured vehicles. Unsurprisingly, these vehicles sliced their way through the UDD's barricades like a knife through butter.

The Thai Foreign Ministry later took issue with some international human rights groups for criticising what they portrayed as targeted firing at unarmed protesters on May 19 in Bangkok and elsewhere on a few other days. Independent accounts of what really happened during the May 19 operations are not authentic, given that almost all observers had, for reasons of safety, vacated the UDD's campsite.

At the start of the crackdown, with a few independent observers still on the scene, some UDD leaders urged the protesters, estimated to have numbered between 3,000 and 4,000 at that time, to call off their campaign by dispersing peacefully from the venue. The authorities had by then promised safe exit for those unarmed protesters who might not wish to offer resistance in any way to the marching column of soldiers. In the event, the Thai Army did keep its word. As it transpired, an unspecified number of UDD leaders, non-militant in their demeanour, quickly surrendered after urging the protesters to disperse.

Official accounts later stated that some protesters, however, did challenge the soldiers and other security personnel. An arson spree and curfews followed the main crackdown.

By May 24, Abhisit, widely seen as a sophisticated intellectual with no great political knack for feeling the people's pulse, was busy trying to live down his image as the military's suave but unpopular proxy. Even as he raised the tone and tenor of his appeals for national reconciliation, political controversies over the crackdown and Thaksin's looming presence in the background showed no immediate signs of disappearing. For that, Abhisit could only blame the manner in which he allowed the crisis to balloon for well over a year. Of particular importance was the montage of events that preceded the crackdown. The UDD launched the latest phase of its protest movement on March 12.

The UDD is an umbrella group of pro-democracy thought-leaders and Thaksin-loyalists besides some left-of-centre social conscience votaries. It is no surprise, therefore, that the UDD has often spoken in many voices, depending primarily on the core views of one leader or another at the movement's frontlines. No UDD leader does, of course, command the recognition or political stature of Thaksin or Abhisit or the Thai Army chief, Anupong Paochinda. Ranged against the UDD is the so-named People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), besides, of course, Abhisit and the armed forces.

Of these anti-UDD forces, Abhisit and the military leaders are, as this is written, eager to win over the pro-democracy and pro-Thaksin activists through a charm offensive or two. However, the PAD, a group of elitist leaders and also pro-status quo activists from various social strata, remains totally opposed to the UDD.

Throughout March, the UDD leaders were mobilising support from across the country for street rallies in Bangkok from time to time. The objective was to keep Abhisit under sustained political pressure through a mass movement. The protest venues ranged from the Government House in Bangkok to the perimeter of a military facility where Abhisit would retreat to for a hassle-free ambience.

At one stage, the UDD even collected considerable quantities of blood donated by the protesters and splashed much of that at select venues associated with Abhisit's movements. This unusual action, bizarre by international standards, was explained as a social practice of symbolic expression of rivalry. As the UDD's protest intensified in varied ways, Abhisit proclaimed a state of emergency in Bangkok and later in some provinces as well.

Two instances of serious violence, involving the UDD and the security forces, broke out in April. In one case, the two sides clashed directly, while the UDD and its rivals in the civilian political domain were said to have had a proximate engagement in the other instance. There were fatalities and injuries, and a few soldiers, too, lost their lives.

As a result, and at one stage prior to the crackdown, the Army chief did suggest that fresh general elections could perhaps be considered as a way of ending the UDD-catalysed political crisis and civil unrest. Following such a significant suggestion, Abhisit held two sessions of televised talks with some UDD leaders, who picked themselves up for the dialogue. Those talks ended in stalemates, and Abhisit refused to resume the dialogue although some proactive Senators tried to broker it even as the crackdown appeared imminent.

Regardless of this episode of failed dialogue, Abhisit made an election offer before deciding whether or not to request the Army to quell the UDD's seemingly interminable protest. He set a November 14 timeline for the election and suggested that he might dissolve the existing House of Representatives in the second half of September. The UDD promptly rejected the offer, viewing it as a political ruse and insisting that the House be dissolved without any time-lag for a quick round of general elections. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Abhisit lost no time to withdraw his offer.

Abhisit's constant political refrain, during this entire crisis, is noteworthy for the argument that time is needed to reform the present military-drafted Constitution. Such a reform is one of the UDD's key demands, although it is willing to settle for fresh elections under the present statute. Obviously, the UDD leaders hope, or even believe, that a new government, emerging from such a poll exercise, will make common cause with them and carry out constitutional reforms to keep the political process free of undue military influence.

For Abhisit, though, his stormy political equation with the UDD is not a simple matter of ideas about constitutional reforms and poll schedules. It is difficult for him or anyone in his position to forget how he was humiliated by the UDD in April last year, not long after he became Prime Minister. UDD activists, then simply known as Red Shirts, prevented him from hosting the East Asian regional summit. The protesters first gained access to the heavily guarded conference venue by posing as civilian service staff, concealing their red shirts under their outer garments. As the Red Shirts swung into protest action at the venue, without targeting the assembled foreign dignitaries, Abhisit quickly called off the summit. Most foreign leaders, including an Indian Minister deputising for the Prime Minister, were evacuated by helicopter. Following the postponement of the summit, the UDD intensified its protest for some more time. The military was called out to quell the protest.

The UDD's protest movement was first launched well over a year ago, shortly after Abhisit came to power with the backing of the military in a parliamentary vote for a change of government. The preceding two governments, which were toppled one after another through judicial pronouncements, were politically allied to Thaksin. Both those governments were formed on the basis of the results of democracy-restoring general elections, which Thailand's military coup masters held over a year after they deposed Thaksin in September 2006.

Those polls were, of course, conducted under the military-crafted Constitution, still in vogue as this is written. However, the UDD's arguments against Abhisit flow from the perceived political difference between his rise to power and the formation of the two pro-Thaksin governments. Abhisit, who did not win an outright popular mandate to govern in his own right, is seen by the UDD protagonists as the Thai military's proxy. This impression, shared by some leaders and observers outside Thailand in the South-East Asian region, is based on the fact that he rose to power entirely on the basis of parliamentary permutations and combinations.

This happened after the two pro-Thaksin governments were obliged to bow out of office for reasons unrelated to their political legitimacy of commanding clear governing majorities in the House of Representatives. The UDD has not tired of arguing that Abhisit owes his position to a military-engineered parliamentary coup against pro-Thaksin parliamentarians.