Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Thai Round Four: Reds in Retreat

By Tulsathit Taptim

The red-shirted movement and government crackdown have put Thailand on a crucial juncture. How will the country emerge from the Black Songkran?

The red shirts are retreating politically as much as logistically and strategically. It has been a day when the movement risks shrinking back to its very core. Public sympathy, which has been on a decline since the collapse of the Asean summit, is apparently at its lowest on Monday, underlined by a brief but telling scene at the Din Daeng flat community. Fearful and angry following the protesters' threat to blow up a hijacked gas truck to counter troops' advance, the flat residents sided with the security forces and formed a human shield to protect the soldiers.

Burnt buses, gunshots, thick smoke in many spots and shouts of abuses make it Bangkok's blackest Songkran ever. But resentment against the red shirted protesters was not caused by the forced absence of festivity. It is the traffic turmoil, the fear and anxiety, intimidation of press members, and the general feelings that the protesters have gone too far that is chipping away at their credibility and respectability.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, under siege politically, may have problems with his command and clout. But he has never wavered when it comes to the right principles which have been reflected throughout the first day of the crackdown. Reports coming in from various scenes confirm the government's insistence that force has been used discreetly. Given the magnitude of the protesters' aggression, things could have become much worse than October 7 last year, when several yellow-shirted protesters were killed and many lost their limbs in a clash with security forces. As it turned out, there has been less violence, although what the troops' relative leniency will lead to in the next hours remains to be seen.

If anything, the fact that the crackdown operations so far seem to still be going Abhisit's way underscores his statement on Sunday night that his government, police and the military remained united. After all, there are so many things rebellious police or soldiers can do to turn today's fragile events into something a lot worse.

In an interview with CNN, red-shirted leader and fugitive Thaksin Shinawatra claimed force was being used indiscriminately against innocent people. It will be his words against Abhisit's now. One thing is rather certain, if Thaksin has got the ears of the international media, what the local Thai media have seen so far does not back up the ousted prime minister's claim of rampant state aggression against innocent, unarmed citizens fighting for democracy.

There was one scene Monday evening showing some female red-shirted protesters giving flowers to soldiers, begging them not to push them back further. This might be a one-off, or it may reflect a change in the movement's strategy after being dealt major logistical and political blows in one day.

The tide can still change, as the red-shirted protesters have dispersed into unorganised, virtually rudderless pockets of unruly mobs who have burned dozens of vehicles and kept on provocative activities. It will be up to the troops and their commanders to keep their cool heads. Supreme Commander Songkitti Jakkrabat seemed to mirror Abhisit's principles when he announced that the bottom line of the crackdown operation was "Everyone is Thai". How long that can hold will determine not who wins this showdown, but how Thailand will emerge from this very black Songkran.

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