BANGKOK — To pacify a divided nation, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva — blamed for a military crackdown on protesters that left more than 80 dead and 1,500 injured over two months — says Thailand needs to “heal the mind.”
He could start with himself. Educated at Oxford, he has disappointed Thai intellectuals by acting like former U.S. President George W. Bush and slapping terrorism charges, which can carry the death penalty, against his opponents, including Red Shirt protest leaders and the exiled former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.
The European Union and Human Rights Watch, among others, have condemned his government and the Thai military for “secret detentions” and for shooting live rounds at Thai citizens.
In addition to defying Thailand’s unwritten social rule that a leader must step down if the government kills citizens, Abhisit is backtracking on his earlier promise to call a Nov. 14 election, using the excuse that his party can’t safely campaign in the northern strongholds of the Red Shirts.
The government has also unnecessarily extended overnight curfews till the end of the month, effectively shutting down Bangkok’s infamous night-life and slapping fines of 2,000 baht and possible jail sentences on more than 500 Thais such as taxi drivers unable to get home in time.
However, many analysts in Thailand feel that despite his fumbling of the political crisis, Abhisit is a safer alternative than the corruptionists waiting for him to falter. He is certainly more moderate and tolerant than rightwing elements in his government, such as Suthep Thaungsuban and Newin Chitchob, who many blame for orchestrating the military crackdown behind the scenes.
Abhisit, 43, is also more sensitive to domestic and international opinion than the Thai military, now depicting themselves as heroes during all-channel propaganda programs.
In addition to staging dozens of coups, the army’s record includes massacring protesters in 1976 and 1992, squeezing humans like sardines into a truck during the Tak Bai massacre, and now instigating clashes and wielding APCs and M16s against protesters mostly armed with slingshots, rocks and bottles of M150 energy drinks filled with gasoline.
The army’s conscripted troops, mostly young country boys lost in Bangkok and gasping for air under 10-kg armor in 40 C heat, often sprayed protesters, journalists and their own comrades alike with inaccurate gunfire. Reporters also saw them shoot at people around the safe haven of a Buddhist temple on May 19. Yet, they failed to stop arsonists from ransacking the city and burning down more than 30 major buildings that dreadful night.
Perhaps Abhisit’s biggest problem is the Bangkok police force, which seems loyal to their classmate and former boss, Thaksin, who was a police captain before becoming a billionaire telecoms tycoon. Instead of nipping the illegal Red Shirt occupation of downtown Bangkok in the bud, they typically read comics and newspapers, or took naps, and still can’t be trusted to thwart future protests.
Yet rather than publicly chastise the military or police force, Abhisit is focused on nailing Thaksin and his proxies in the Red Shirt leadership. The government, which has sent Thai soldiers to fight terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Sudan, wants Interpol and the international community to arrest Thaksin and extradite him to face terrorism charges in Thailand.
Although Thaksin denies instigating the violence and destruction in Thailand, his detractors aren’t likely to forgive him for buying elections, corrupting institutions, sanctioning the killing of hundreds of drug users, evading more than a billion dollars in taxes, and failing to save more than 5,000 Thais and tourists from the 2004 tsunami off Indonesia.
While peasants and urban workers spent months on scorching streets demanding democracy, Thaksin went on shopping and investing sprees around the world in Dubai, Montenegro, Uganda and now France, and was even seen at the Louis Vuitton store in Paris on the day his supporters were burning down hundreds of shops, banks and theaters in Bangkok.
Unable to catch Thaksin, the government is detaining his proxies such as Nattawut Saikua, who spewed incessant hate in speeches from the Red stage at the Rachaprasong intersection, brainwashing uneducated elderly ladies into believing that Abhisit was a dictator bent on killing them all.
Last week, the government has essentially dismissed the governors of four northeastern provinces where Red Shirts torched provincial halls such as a graceful old building in Ubon Ratchathani. While this purge is aimed at snuffing out the Red movement once and for all, it could also backfire and create martyrs and more Red supporters around the country.
Ordinary Red Shirts, such as my neighborhood cooks, barbers and motorcycle taxi drivers, got caught up in the mob hysteria that burned down my favorite old theater; dozens of indie clothing and music shops in Siam Square; and 300 mom-and-pop type shops employing 1,000 poor people at Center One near Victory Monument.
The mob attacked anything owned by Chinese-Thai business oligarchs, who support the government and military, including the massive Central World shopping center, the Stock Exchange and several Bangkok Bank branches and 7-Eleven outlets, all of which employ thousands of poor ordinary Red Shirts.
While accepting defeat for now, these rank-in-file Reds are vowing to protest again in coming months, and Abhisit’s purge of Reds is only bolstering their desire for revenge.
If Thaksin is arrested and extradited, the Reds would likely gather in greater numbers and possibly burn down more cities across the country.
Abhisit does have one factor in his favor. Thanks to idiotic TV programs, noxious traffic fumes, and now Twitter and Facebook, Thailand has a short communal attention span. As many authors and cross-cultural trainers have noted, people can forget anything here, and change their gender or names with ease.
Despite the worst days in the country’s history, many Thais are ready to rebuild and move on to the next distraction. Despite the rise of ideology and extremism, Thais still love gambling on football more than anything. The World Cup is only a few weeks away.
Christopher Johnson, author of “Siamese Dreams” (www.globalite.posterous.com), speaks Thai and has been covering Thailand since 1987.