April 13, 2009

Yellow Shirts vs. Red Shirts

The ASEAN Summit in Bangkok has been shut down with mass protests and clashes between pro-government groups, supporters of the previous government, and the military/police forces. How should the government respond?

(Carlos won't suggest SEALs, and ninjas are closer to being culturally appropriate than pirates here, but what about cowboys? The leader of the Redshirts--seen above--would fit...I mean, if the cowboys were the ones from the village people....)

Carlos was looking for a scorecard for the various players for the readership rather than trying to type it all up himself. The most concise one he found was here. More in-depth profiles can be found on the BBC site.

There's no real irony, despite the reportage, that the "Red Shirt" supporters of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra are using the same tactics that were used against Thaksin when he was in office. Good tactics is good tactics. Enlisting the aid of taxi drivers to block roads, pushing mass amounts of people to clog the airport, all great protest tactics. State of emergency has been declared, and the military is out firing weapons in the air. Tensions are, needless to say, very high, and a little slip could really push the situation over the top. The declaration is probably necessary (the Royal Thai Police do not have the manpower to deal with this size of protests), and more importantly, the Thai Police have had even *less* training on quelling riots than the military (though this has been shifting).

The regional and international implications are big here. Beyond the actual meetings, the ASEAN Summits have always been (attempted) showcases for the host country. With the turmoil in Thailand the last three years, this was going to be a big deal. This meeting was also meant to take advantage of the relatively good press of the G-20 summit The heads of government of 10+ countries (not just ASEAN members, but major dialogue partners Japan, China, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand)getting run out of town isn't the best tourism/commerce campaign.

Whether Thaksin himself is orchestrating the Redshirt protests to destabilize the current government is interesting, but in the end is not critical. Thailand's internal stability holds larger ramifications and while the Abhisit government currently has the military's support, increasing chaos could see that change.

Carlos cannot say this "obscures" the problem of tensions in the South, but the Pattani movement over the last 4-5 years has been showing increasing levels of violence. Many in Thailand (government officials and others) had blamed Thaksin while he as PM for stirring tensions in the South for political purposes. True or not (the Pattani movement obviously predates Thaksin), he hasn't been the only player. Regional groups like Jemaah Islamiyah have long wanted a tie-in to the Southern Thailand issue, and their influence may be growing there (see the International Crisis Group reports on Southern Thailand--the website is currently down or flooded with requests (Carlos suspects the latter)--I'll re-edit later with links). With the Thai government having to deal with the protests, efforts to deal with the South will inevitably be on the backburner. The long-term impacts of this unfortunate fact could (will) be troubling.

EDIT: ICG site is still down, but the links are in a previous post here. I suspect that a more current ICG report will be hitting their site very soon.