Twilight of the Idols
In the end, they just packed their bags and left. Clutching water bottles, walking slowly towards the buses aboard which they would begin the journey home, the red shirts streaming out of the besieged Government House looked more like a football team’s vanquished supporters than revolutionaries forced to surrender by a violent government crackdown. Dejected and emotionally spent, to be sure, but still walking away from it with their lives, their limbs, and their freedom. Earlier threats to the contrary notwithstanding, when their backs were against the wall their leaders simply asked them to leave. It was the right thing to do. For themselves and for the cause.
The recent wave of demonstrations had started as a stunning success for the red shirts. The series of coordinated actions that led to the spectacular debacle in Pattaya revealed an unexpected measure of discipline and organizational prowess for a movement often thought of as rudderless and unruly. Important goals were achieved. The country’s piteous Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, was humiliated and exposed as the puppet that he is — at once so powerless as to fail to afford his illustrious guests the security civilized countries routinely guarantee them and so cowardly as to rely on a private armed militia, the blue shirts, to ambush protesters he could not get the army or the police to keep out of the area.
When the military did step in, following Sunday’s emergency decree, even the incipient crackdown appeared to bolster the red shirts. The reaction of the authorities, in particular, clearly evidenced the “double standard” their leaders had lamented all along. Reactionaries can shoot their opponents, run police officers over with their trucks, riot in front of Parliament, trash Government House, and occupy the airports for a week with the impunity characteristically accorded in Thailand to the champions of the establishment. But if you are against the bureaucrats, the aristocrats, and the generals who have run the country for the last 75 years, shattering the glass doors of a five-star hotel is all it takes to be branded an “enemy of the state.”
The luck of the red shirts turned in a mere matter of hours. By Monday afternoon, the movement’s once-buoyant leadership had effectively lost control of the situation. Supporters scattered all over Bangkok resorted to desperate measures to halt the army’s methodical advance through the capital. The height of irresponsibility was reached as red shirts commandeered LPG tankers and drove them into highly populated areas such as the Din Daeng triangle and Soi Rangnam, as if to threaten the annihilation of entire neighborhoods should the army dare to move in. To protect themselves, at least some of the red shirts had proven willing to endanger the lives of regular people — those whose interests and aspirations they ostensibly advance, those whose support is indispensable to the success of their movement. In the process, the red shirts squandered any good will the local population might have harbored towards them — reducing, for the time being, the prospects of a popular uprising to mere fancy.
As they increasingly lost control of their own supporters, the red shirts quickly succumbed to the mediatic onslaught that accompanied the regime’s crackdown. Given the military’s shameful history of repression and mass murder, it is hard to think anyone would believe a word that comes out of a Thai general’s mouth. But the government successfully disseminated its self-serving narrative nonetheless, portraying its actions as deliberate, orderly, and restrained in the face of an unwieldy terrorist mob. The servile local media eagerly obliged; the facile foreign press swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. Of course, the official version of the events was the usual pack of lies and half-truths. Photographs and video already contradict the preposterous notion that soldiers merely fired warning shots in the air, or that the weapons seen firing directly into the crowds had only been loaded with blank rounds. In the next days and weeks, we will find out just how many red shirts those blank rounds injured or killed.
By Monday afternoon, nonetheless, the red shirts had lost much of their support, their message, and their claim to “democratic” legitimacy. Their numbers vastly diminished, their resources depleted, their credibility in tatters, it would have been suicidal to lead the remaining protesters at Government House into a showdown with the army. Under the circumstances, to beat an orderly retreat was not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do. Thanks to its guns, its money, and whatever remains of its traditional stranglehold on the media, the old order lives on. The military and bureaucratic elites are still in charge. But, as wiser and more illustrious colleagues have noted (see here and here), it increasingly looks as if God is dead in Thailand (in the Nietzschean sense of that expression). And so those who yearn for real democratic change — those whose ideals transcend the restoration of Thaksin to an office he occupied legitimately and abused shamefully — should take heart in the recognition that the events of the last few months may have already undone decades of establishment propaganda. Old taboos are being shattered. Old myths are being destroyed. And, at long last, the iniquity of old untouchables is now being increasingly exposed to well-deserved public disgust.
The garbage removal process has only just begun.