The word had gotten out early that morning. Having spent nearly a month hunkered down at the 11th Regiment, protected by layers of razor wire and thousands of soldiers, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had taken enough humiliation. Assembled at two symbolically charged locations in downtown Bangkok — at Saphan Phan Fa and at the Rajprasong intersection, surrounded by some of the world’s most dazzling shopping malls — the Red Shirts had spent weeks force-feeding the hapless Prime Minister repeated samplings of his own medicine. They had defied the Internal Security Act as well as regulations issued pursuant to the Emergency Decree — invoked for no other reason than to allow the Prime Minister to continue his poor impersonation of a statesman, wholly dedicated to the rule of law, while simultaneously giving him the power to make up the law as he went along. They had performed transfixing Brahmanical cursing rituals, spilling human blood at the Prime Minister’s residence, at the Government House, and at Democrat Party headquarters. Time and time again, they had crossed every line in the sand that the government had drawn by declaring various locations in the city off-limits to their marches. They had entered the grounds of the National Assembly, forced their way into the building that houses the Election Commission, and stormed the Thaicom station in Patum Thani in an attempt to re-establish PTV’s satellite signal. Perhaps most vexing of all, for a government that had spent weeks warning of grave security threats, the Red Shirts had been overwhelmingly peaceful, charming, and good humored. Security forces were frequently seen fraternizing with the demonstrators, whose forays around the city regularly attracted the sympathy of throngs of local residents.
By April 10, the government had seen quite enough. The operations would be carried out by thousands of soldiers, armed to the teeth, seemingly better equipped for a battle with an invading army than the dispersal of a crowd of mostly unarmed protesters. As the soldiers advanced towards the demonstration site at Saphan Phan Fa, on foot and in armored personnel vehicles, Minister of Propaganda Panitan Wattanayagorn publicly boasted that “order” would be restored by nightfall.
But things would turn out quite differently this time. This time, the demonstrators — the vast majority armed with rocks, sticks, the occasional firebomb, and whatever they could find on the pavement that could be thrown at the security forces — refused to play along with the same script that similar incidents have followed since 1973. This time, the demonstrators failed to offer themselves as the inert victims of another state massacre. This time, the demonstrators fought back, with breathtaking courage, against the same kind of military regime that violently suppressed every democratic movement Thailand has ever known. As the street battles unfolded, thousands of people continued to stream into the Red Shirt rallies, laying down their lives before an advancing army. Red Shirt leaders, whom the government had so often dismissed as mere charlatans and opportunists, did not shirk from their responsibility to lead the resistance against the violent crackdown. Whether they were motivated by old intramural grudges or active support of the Red Shirts, perhaps not more than a handful of men dressed in black — suspected to have been themselves military officers — assassinated the operation’s commander, Col. Romklao Thuwatham, and some of his lieutenants before vanishing back into the shadows. Shockingly, for a regime that last updated its playbook in the 1970s, it quickly became clear that butchering a couple dozen people would not be enough to silence the Red Shirts. This time, there would be no taking it lying down. Ceasefire.
The botched crackdown left 26 people dead — 21 Red Shirts, four military officers, and a foreign journalist. A few days later, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD; Thailand is one of a growing number of countries where one can be for democracy without being against dictatorship, hence the redundancy) abandoned their encampment at Saphan Phan Fa and concentrated their forces at Rajprasong. The decision had its downsides. By retreating behind the barricades of a fortified compound in the heart of the city, the Red Shirts lost the mobility and adaptiveness that had enabled them to repeatedly embarrass the government over the previous weeks. But the upside was substantial. In a single move, the Red Shirts put the government in an impossible position — simultaneously making inaction untenable and action unthinkable. On the one hand, the occupation of an area of far greater commercial significance than Rachadamnoen Avenue placed Abhisit’s government under increased pressure from its own supporters to bring the demonstrations to a close. As the government wavered, coalition politicians grumbled, while the increasingly hysterical People’s Alliance for Democracy slammed the government’s failure to put down the Red Shirts whatever the cost. On the other hand, it would have been obvious to anyone who had ever taken a stroll across Red Shirt City at Rajprasong that their dispersal may not only have required a bloodbath evocative of the Paris Commune, but perhaps more importantly to lay waste to some of Bangkok’s most iconic developments. And the Red Shirts understood that, in this day and age, Louis Vuitton bags and Hermès foulards make for better shields than human shields.
Whether by choice or compelled by the military’s refusal to carry out his orders, in the end Abhisit had little option but to capitulate. He offered to dissolve the House in four months, a decision that would presumably have paved the way for an election in November. The offer, preceded by the usual platitudes about imaginary threats against the monarchy, was vintage Abhisit. Not confident enough in his ability to take action against people he had slandered as traitors and terrorists, at the same time the Prime Minister washed his hands of any responsibility for his miserable failure, prolonging his (and the country’s) agony for the sake of guaranteeing the long-awaited promotion of a handful of military men.
It might be worth asking how significant an accomplishment a November election might have been for the Red Shirts. Back in March, Abhisit himself had publicly stated his readiness to dissolve the House in nine months. Had it been worth holding out, at the cost of 30 additional lives, for a three-to-six-month discount on the proposed election timeline? This is a question that was no doubt spiritedly debated in the Red Shirt camp, as its leaders pondered a response. Since the breakdown of the televised “negotiations” with the Prime Minister, nonetheless, the Red Shirts had accomplished far more than an election to be held six months earlier than previously thought possible. Before the demonstrations even started, I noted that the Red Shirts’ goal was not merely to precipitate an early election, but rather to weaken the ancien régime to the extent that it would not be able to prevent the election from having any real consequence (see here; scroll down to the comments). Had the Red Shirts accepted to disperse, November’s vote would have take place in a context quite different from the situation the Red Shirts could have faced had they simply accepted Abhisit’s first offer and gone home.
For one thing, the myriad provocations that the Red Shirts had successfully carried out over the previous two months had not only exposed the dreadful incompetence of the country’s security forces, but also brought to the surface some troubling rifts within the military itself — damaging, one can only hope beyond repair, the credibility, confidence, and cohesiveness of the institution that remains the single biggest obstacle to Thailand’s democratization. The Red Shirts, moreover, had a chance to build an impressive organization and an identity of their own — decisively leading the movement out of the long shadow cast by Thaksin Shinawatra.
Perhaps most importantly, the Red Shirts had already all but destroyed Abhisit Vejjajiva’s political career — in the process, taking away the most handsome, mild-mannered, soft-spoken, and fiercely amoral facade available to this thuggish, unelected regime. To many among those who did not like him to begin with, Abhisit was now a murderer whose hands were covered in the people’s blood. To many among those who had no firm opinion, Abhisit was now just the last in a long series of weak Prime Ministers at the mercy of people and institutions he could never really hope to control. And, to many among those who enthusiastically supported his rise to power, Abhisit was now a coward whose failure to take decisive action bordered on treason. Under siege and seemingly in the throes of unharnessed desperation, the Prime Minister had played the “protect the monarchy” card from the bottom of the deck — alleging a fanciful conspiracy illustrated by the now infamous diagram that Colonel Sansern handed to reporters, with no sense of the ridiculous, in a gesture worthy of Inspector Clouseau. This could have been a blunder of potentially career-ending proportions. Manufacturing an existential threat to the nation might have served as a convenient excuse for mass murder. But if one is unable or unwilling to massacre hundreds of people, it is inevitable that those who believed the charges (or in any event found it convenient to hype the allegations) will judge the refusal to confront an existential threat head on as tantamount to dereliction of duty, if not out-and-out complicity.
Still, the offer placed the Red Shirts before a difficult dilemma. On the one hand, rejecting the deal was sure to make them appear unreasonable to many among those who had remained “neutral” throughout this fight — perhaps especially, those urban middle class voters the UDD had worked so hard to court ever since it set up camp on the streets of Bangkok. On the other hand, Abhisit’s offer came with no real guarantees. To accept it without conditions would have meant for the Red Shirts to suspend their rally in exchange for promises many suspected to be empty. For one thing, questions remained over whether Abhisit could credibly commit to keep up his own end of the bargain. Considerable uncertainty, in particular, surrounded the outcome of two Constitutional Court rulings that might yet dissolve the Democrat Party in the weeks to come. It was (and is) still unclear whether the timing of the Election Commission’s decision on the long-delayed cases was mere coincidence, whether it was designed to induce the Prime Minister to leave or remind him he answers to higher powers, or whether it was merely a cheap trick to deflate the Red Shirts’ outrage against perceived “double standards.” Considering, moreover, that Thailand was now under the worst censorship regime since the days of Tanin Kraivichien (of book-burning fame), there would not be anything like a “free and fair election” so long as this kind of government stayed in office — it mattered little whether Abhisit or Chuan Leekpai served as the executive’s titular head. And despite the lip service paid by the Prime Minister to the need to investigate the deaths on April 10, everyone knows that human rights abuses on this scale have never received any proper investigation in Thailand, much less any real justice.
The UDD leadership sought to thread the needle by outwardly embracing Abhisit’s so-called “roadmap to reconciliation” (or better still, to the restoration of the lumpenproletariat’s lost acquiescence) conditional upon being granted two guarantees one would be hard-pressed to describe as unreasonable — the relaxation of censorship and the launch of an independent investigation into the April 10 incidents. The third condition — that Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban turn himself him to acknowledge criminal charges the police had not yet filed — seemed more specifically designed to derail the entire process. In so doing, the Red Shirts effectively threw the ball back into Abhisit’s court. The Prime Minister, his escape routes now blocked, would now have to pick his poison. His options were limited to dissolving the House, and hence commit political suicide, or crack down so ruthlessly as to not only self-destruct, but possibly bring the entire regime he represents down with him.
A few days passed, more deadlines to comply with the last in the government’s long series of ultimatums came and went, but in the end operation murder-suicide was a go. Abhisit took his offer of an early election off the table, as troops and armored personnel carriers gradually encircled Rajprasong. The first shot, fired by a sniper, rang out on May 13, assassinating the rogue Major-General Khattiya Sawasdipol. In the following days, the carnage unfolded as battles raged at Din Daeng and along on the southern edge of Lumphini Park. Ever obsessed with the appearance of urbanity and bourgeois propriety, the government placed signs designating “Live Fire Zones” — more specifically, killing fields where the military had essentially been given carte blanche to shoot civilians, journalists, emergency medical personnel, and generally everything that moved. After days of fighting, the siege of Red Shirt City successfully softened the UDD’s resistance, while the savagery displayed by the regime against its own citizens depressed the number of protesters left at Rajprasong. On the morning of May 19, the army easily overrode the Red Shirt barricades and penetrated their encampment. Faced with the certainty of defeat, the movement’s leaders saved the lives of perhaps dozens of their followers, many apparently determined to fight to the death, by waving a white flag. The surrender had to be announced in haste. Before they could persuade the weeping, jeering crowds of the wisdom of retreating, shots rang out and the Red Shirts leaders ducked for cover, scrambling to leave the stage and reach the safety of the nearby police station. Now leaderless, some of those left in the streets took out their anger and disappointment on some targets of opportunity and a few others of symbolic significance, setting a number of buildings ablaze as they scattered throughout the city.
In a strictly tactical sense, the operation proved to be a success. Though it was never in doubt that a modern army, even one as incompetent, would eventually defeat a few thousand protesters protected by several dozen lightly armed men, the final push produced far fewer casualties than many had feared — “only” 54 people are officially said to had died since Seh Daeng’s assassination. But even the government could not bring itself to describe the operation’s relative success as a victory. No government has ever drawn much in the way of a long-term benefit from a carnage of this magnitude. Besides reclaiming 2-3 square kms of prime real estate, at the total cost of at least 85 lives, the operation solved none of the current regime’s fatal structural flaws. And the extreme measures that the government was forced to take by the Red Shirts — the Emergency Decree, the suspension of most civil and political rights, the suppression of most alternative sources of information, and the establishment of a new organ, the Center for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES), bearing an uncanny resemblance to a hurriedly cobbled-up junta in the mold of Burma’s SLORC — wrecked the democratic appearances Abhisit had once taken great care to keep up. To defeat a movement that objected to its illegitimacy and authoritarianism, the government had to fully reveal itself as such.
As least by the official estimates, the battle that just came to an end was the worst episode of repression of pro-democracy demonstrators in the history of Thailand. And if massacres always have their supporters at the time they take place, any such support tends to fizzle as the stern judgment of history gradually sets in. History has a way of transforming those who witnessed episodes of state violence as idle by-standers and cheerleaders into former freedom fighters. Once he completes his “duty,” falling on the sword for people more powerful than himself, Abhisit will ever since be known as the butcher of Bangkok. Quite possibly, that will be the only thing for which he will be remembered.
It must be said that the Red Shirts do not emerge from Rajprasong looking especially good either. Thanks to their leaders’ decision to surrender, their last stand did not turn out like the Paris Commune. Still, they lost more than 50 additional people. Their support among middle class voters in Bangkok and some of the surrounding provinces will be compromised by their intransigence as well as the property damage inflicted in the wake of their surrender. Their leaders were arrested and might conceivably face more serious charges as a result of having forced Abhisit to murder more of their people. In addition, the arson attacks committed by some of their followers provided the government — and Thailand’s eagerly compliant media — with just the sort of apocalyptic images it needed to further dehumanize the Red Shirts, ignore the pile of corpses sacrificed on the altar of smoother traffic and a more satisfying shopping experience, and at least in the short run provide retroactive justification for the killings.
Then again, nothing really is lost — only the latest victims of state violence and civilian complacency will never come back. The movement’s support remains strong. In the North and the Northeast as among the urban underclasses, their supporters are not likely to shed any tears over the fact that some rich punk in Bangkok can no longer shop at Central World, when dozens of people like them lay dead at the hands of the government. If anything, those who already sympathize with the Red Shirts will likely react with justifiable disgust at the sight of upper- and upper-middle-class citizens in Bangkok making such a scene out of mourning the loss of a shopping mall — whose burning was compared, laughably, to September 11, 2001 — while they continue to shrug off (and in many cases celebrate) the murder of so many people. And the support for the regime is quite likely to only go downhill from here, as the deluge of lies and repressive measures necessary for the government to keep its story straight prove increasingly unpopular, or as the government’s roadmap to “reconciliation” proves to be nothing other than a futile, clumsy attempt to shove the toothpaste back into the tube.
Earlier promises to the contrary notwithstanding, this was nothing close to a “final battle.” Indeed, given that the millions-strong crowds never materialized, this was a battle that would certainly not have been final even if the Red Shirts had ultimately won it. Nonetheless, Thailand seems to have reached a point of no return — perhaps more fittingly, the “end of the beginning” of what is still going to be a difficult transition. The road ahead remains long and uphill; along the way, it will no doubt be marked by victories as well as demoralizing setbacks and unsavory compromises. To borrow imagery from a stirring speech that Nattawut Saikua delivered in 2008 (EN, TH, video below), however, the sky is closer today than it has ever been. The old order is dead. Those who would seek to restore it are badly wounded. And while the star of its big-time players is fading fast, the establishment’s bench is not deep on charisma, competence, and legitimacy. Most important of all, the Red Shirts have already conquered that once-elusive “rightful place” where they can firmly “plant their feet,” having busted down the gates of a political system from which the masses have long been excluded. The Red Shirts have already seized for themselves the right to be “Thai” by colorfully rejecting their old status as second-class citizens. To those inhabiting both the earth and the sky, who so often described them as corruptible and unprincipled, they have already shown the strength of their hearts and the fortitude of their souls. Having now shattered a once impenetrable noise barrier of censorship and indifference, their deafening cries already fill the high heavens.