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Yellow Shirts Gaining Ground in Thai Protests


The protests in Thailand have just entered their eighth day, and it’s beginning to look like the anti-government “yellow shirts” are gaining momentum in the struggle. Over the past few days, yellow shirt protestors have stormed a number of Government buildings, taken over a TV station, and forced the Prime Minister to go into hiding to avoid the violence. And as the BBC reports, the army is now slowly beginning to get involved:

The worst violence occurred when students attacked vehicles bringing pro-government activists to a Bangkok stadium on Saturday.

Early on Sunday, pro-government “red shirt” leaders said they were ending their mass rally at the stadium to allow security forces to police rival demonstrations. […]

Soldiers were then called in to help the riot police.

Our correspondent says military commanders have been reluctant to get involved but agreed to deploy the troops on condition they would carry no weapons and would stand behind riot police ringing the main government offices.

The army leadership does not necessarily want violence and disorder, but if push comes to shove the army brass backs the yellow forces rather than the pro-government red shirts.

This means that if the protests get so out of hand that the army has to get involved in keeping the peace, the government becomes dependent on its political enemies for survival. That’s a very risky position in Thailand, a country whose modern history has been largely shaped by a succession of coups.

So the yellow shirt forces have a strategy. Though yellow shirts are in a minority nation-wide, they are strong in and around Bangkok where the government is. By mobilizing demonstrations in Bangkok, creating disorder and an atmosphere of crisis, the opposition hopes to create a situation in which the government can’t maintain order without getting the army engaged. The use of tactics like storming government buildings seems to be moving things in that direction. With the Prime Minister at least temporarily dropping out of public view, it appears that the government is on the defensive and is badly shaken. Advantage to the yellow shirts, for now.

The risk for the yellow shirts is that the red shirt majority—based largely outside the capital and especially in the northeast and north of the country—will mobilize to protect the elected government. If large numbers of pro-government demonstrators enter Bangkok, the potential for serious street violence and a more profound political crisis significantly increases.

As the life of Thailand’s revered, 85 year old king moves toward its natural conclusion, the country is increasingly consumed in a high stakes battle between the old establishment and its mostly urban middle class allies on one side and the rural majority who support the current government and the shadowy billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra whose sister is the current Prime Minister on the other. Thaksin is feared by many of the advisors of the current king and viewed with hostility and suspicion by both the traditional Thai establishment and much of its rising middle class.

While strict lèse-majesté laws make candid discussion of the subject difficult in Thailand, there are unflattering whispers about the Crown Prince who is said to be a very different person from his father and, as some yellow shirt leaders apparently suspect, would be prepared as king to throw his support behind Thaksin. With backing from the Palace, a majority in Parliament and a large personal fortune, Thaksin would face very few limits on his power in Thailand. That prospect unnerves both the traditional Thai elite who have supported the present King throughout his long reign and the reforming, modernizing liberal middle classes. The old elite fears that Thaksin would challenge both its political dominance and its economic interests; the middle classes fear the emergence of a corrupt personalistic, populist regime that would set back their hopes of living in a modernizing, democratizing country increasingly under the impartial rule of law.

To the degree that the current political crisis reflects a struggle to control the transition to a new era in the history of the Thai monarchy, both the yellow and the red shirt movements will see themselves as fighting for the highest stakes. That will make compromise difficult; this struggle may still be in its early stages.

[Photo courtesy of Getty Images]

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  • Anthony

    New York Times carries supporting article in today’s paper (world).

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