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The Battle of Bangkok is won, but the War for Thailand’s Future is far from Over

Commentary, 1 June 2010
Central and South Asia
The two month standoff between ‘red shirt’ protestors and the Thai Army has, for now, culminated in violence in the heart of Bangkok. With no hope of resolving the conflict, how long will the violent forces behind the protest movement remain silent?

The two month standoff between 'red shirt' protestors and the Thai Army has, for now, culminated in violence in the heart of Bangkok. With no hope of resolving the conflict, how long will the violent forces behind the protest movement remain silent?

By Brijesh Khemlani for RUSI.org

As the smoke clears from the raging fires in Bangkok, a long-drawn out war between the government and the protesting United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), also known as the 'red shirts', is still likely to continue. On 19 May, the two-month protests were brutally crushed by the Thai military as armoured cars overran the command and control centre of the 'red-shirts' in Ratchaprasong. The protestors did not go down without stiff resistance. In fierce armed clashes that lasted several hours, the rally site erupted with the crackling of M-16 rifles and 40mm grenades. The fighting culminated in arson attacks as several prominent buildings were set on fire, including the national stock exchange, the headquarters of a television channel, government offices and the up-scale Central World, the second-largest mall in Southeast Asia. Several UDD leaders were arrested in the chaos that followed and reports of clashes in Thailand's Northern provinces started to come in. Following the military operations, a curfew was declared in Bangkok and twenty-three other provinces, to curb the spreading unrest.

The death toll stands at fifty two and 399 people have been injured according to the emergency services. The rally-site has been emptied of protestors and clean-up operations have commenced to clear surrounding areas of piles of debris. The government can claim to have won the Battle of Bangkok. Although the crack down on the 'red shirts'  successfully restored order after two months of paralysis, the violence displayed on both sides of the conflict is likely to have major ramifications for years to come. In the medium and long-term, Thailand is likely to grapple with a future threat from the black-clad armed wing of the UDD, further unrest in the Thai countryside and a fall-out of investor confidence as a result of the ongoing political crisis.

The shadowy Black-clad 'Rangers'

The majority of the international press has portrayed the 'red shirts' as a peaceful, non-violent movement, without mention of the violence that clearly lurked, and occasionally lashed out from, beneath the surface of the protest. The organised and brutal nature of the violence perpetrated by the 'red shirts', suggests that the UDD has formed a shadowy armed-wing to protect itself from government retaliation. The black-clad men armed with pistols, assault rifles and grenade launchers had first made their presence felt during the April 10 crackdown when they gunned down a top Thai military commander in a sophisticated military-style operation. Such commando-style tactics and training have been attributed to the paramilitary group tahahn prahn, or Rangers, the brainchild of Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, the former supreme commander of the Thai Armed Forces and the present chairman of the opposition Puea Thai Party (PTP). The Rangers were created by General Chavalit in 1978 as a para-military force to hunt down and clear out the Communist Party of Thailand from their mountain strongholds in the Northeast, a region from where much of the protestors originate.

The presence of a renegade army officer Major General Khattiya Sawasdipol - better known as Seh Daeng - within UDD ranks seems to confirm the involvement of former soldiers and the rangers with the 'red shirts'. Daeng was not only a public supporter of former Prime Minister Thaksin but claimed to have trained the Rangers to protect the 'red shirts'. The trigger for the new round of violence was the targeted assassination of Seh Daeng on 13 May by an alleged army sniper as he was giving an interview to foreign journalists. Shot in the head, he died five days later after suffering from a coma. This tactical manoeuvre designed to sow confusion and fear in the ranks of the UDD was followed by the bloody climax on 19 May. The black-clad 'rangers', at the forefront of the UDD resistance, defied army troops for several hours before melting away in the black smoke. The Abhisit administration is unlikely to see the last of the black 'rangers' who could see their ranks flooded with new recruits from the countryside after the crackdown in Bangkok. A reorganisation and regrouping of these battle-hardened combatants would lead to further violence especially in the major urban zones of Thailand. The most likely outcome of such a regrouping would see an increase of shootings and bombing similar to those witnessed in Bangkok in recent months. The likely base of operations for such type of activities would be the Northeast which has traditionally been a Thaksin stronghold and supplied many of the volunteers for the UDD during the protests.

Unrest in the Thai countryside

In the aftermath of the final crackdown, unrest spread in the Thai countryside. Government offices were attacked by UDD supporters in Udon Thani, Khon Kaen and Ubon Ratchathani. The hard-line approach of the government has taken towards the 'red shirts' has fuelled concerns that more violence could erupt in the North and Northeast of Thailand. Thaksin told Reuters on the day of the crackdown, 'There is a theory saying a military crackdown can spread resentment and these resentful people will become guerrillas.' While Thaksin has denied being the hand behind the 'red shirts', it is clear that the movement could not sustain itself without his generous funding and political muscle. The exiled former leader commands significant loyalty among the rural underclasses and has arguably most to gain from the fall of the current government and the call for new elections.

However, the bloody events of recent days are likely to be a major blow to Thaksin's efforts in galvanising the UDD. After the collapse of demonstrations in Pattaya and Bangkok last year, he must mark yet another failure in his alleged attempts to overthrow the current regime. On the other hand, the brutal nature of the crackdown and the increasing alienation and disenfranchisement of the rural poor, is likely to invite a backlash. Many 'red shirts' returning from Bangkok have been greeted with cheers and applause by their rural counter-parts. While a full-scale uprising of the rural poor in the North and Northeast is unlikely, the coming days and weeks could witness pockets of violence and unrest as 'red-shirts' and their supporters vent their ire at the government for its militaristic approach to the protests in Bangkok. A more long-term development could be the political reorganisation of the UDD which has still not met its objectives in achieving new elections. The Abhisit government has defeated another challenge but in doing so violently has widened the polarising gulf in Thai society which means that this is unlikely to be end of the protracted political crisis that has gripped Thailand for several years.

Fall-out of investor confidence

The political instability has rattled investor confidence in Southeast Asia's second-largest economy. Formerly a rising star among the roaring East Asian tiger economies, Thailand is increasingly losing its sheen to neighbours such as Vietnam as businesses are forced to rethink their investment priorities. Jacob Ramsay, Southeast Asia analyst at Control Risks, a political risk consultancy in Singapore says 'Companies across the board from manufacturing to heavy industry are now studying really hard whether to make new investments in Thailand. They are seriously doing their due diligence and wanting to see what unfolds in the next couple of months.' While many Japanese and Korean industrial giants have invested billion of dollars in the eastern seaboard industrial zone and are unlikely to pack up and leave soon, further investment is likely to be stalled in the near future. Finance companies and banks in Bangkok are likely to scale down operations and hunt for greener pastures elsewhere. Already, Vietnam is emerging as an attractive alternative destination for Japanese investors due to its political stability, low-labour costs and big market opportunities. The political instability in Thailand is only going to increase the flight of capital and investment to neighbouring rivals such as Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam.

Tourism, one of the biggest foreign currency generators in Thailand, has taken a nosedive as protestors occupied one of the swankiest entertainment and lifestyle districts in Bangkok. It is no secret that Thailand is surrounded by rivals looking to grab a piece of the tourism pie, with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia all experiencing double-digit growth in arrivals. While the resilient Thai tourism industry is likely to stage a comeback in the event of political stabilisation, the short and medium-term is likely to have a toll on employment as hotels and travel operators slash jobs to account for low tourist numbers.

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