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April 26, 2010 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Thailand: What’s the story?

On the weekend of 10 and 11 April, the world media was struck by a devastating plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, among many senior Polish politicians. Adding to what was fast becoming a huge weekend in world news, Thailand saw its worst violence in two decades, emerging out of clashes between Red Shirt protestors and government troops. While Google News indicated that over 6000 media outlets worldwide were covering the Thailand conflict, the New Zealand media failed to respond.

New Zealand’s ignorant media?

New Zealander and Bangkok resident Simon Grigg, who writes the blog The Opinionated Diner expressed his shock at the lack of coverage from the New Zealand media following the events of Black Saturday, stating he was both “appalled”, and “amazed” at what he describes as “New Zealanders… giving Americans a run in the global ignorance stakes these days.”

Writing on Sunday 11 April, Grigg recounted: “At about 6am New Zealand time, about 12 hours after the shit had hit the fan, if you will, and bodies had begun to fall in Bangkok, I’d see how the biggest news outlets in New Zealand were covering this.” Grigg then posted images of the front pages of the NZ Herald, TVNZ News and Stuff websites, none of which had anything pertaining to the conflict in Thailand. Furthermore, Grigg says he “was reliably informed that this was the news item that had gone through to the editors of TVNZ”.

Asia New Zealand Foundation (AsiaNZ) media advisor, Charles Mabbett also found the New Zealand media’s response “disappointing”.

“Hundreds of New Zealanders go there each year on holiday. There are quite a number of New Zealanders based in Bangkok, working as journalists, or in public relations, who might even be married to Thai partners.

“We have very visible and strong people-to-people links with Thailand. We also get a few Thai students coming here to study at our secondary schools and universities, not to mention the number of Thai nationals that now call New Zealand home. In the 2006 census, that was about 6000, so it is likely to be larger than that now.”
Further to this, New Zealand also has reasonably strong economic ties to the Southeast Asian nation. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) website, in July 2005 New Zealand signed a Closer Economic Partnership Agreement with Thailand, and the country is currently our 10th largest bilateral trading partner, and 14th largest export market. From a global perspective, Thailand also holds an important place in tourism, currently ranked the 18th most visited country in the world.

“It is a country that is important to Southeast Asia, and indeed the rest of the world, and it was just disappointing to see that the New Zealand news media didn’t identify that as a high priority story on that Sunday morning, and even on the Saturday actually, just before the killings happened.”

Although Mabbett concedes, “the story was competing with the death of the Polish President”, and he admits “the media caught up”, he calls attention to the fact that “It’s not a zero sum game. It’s not a matter of one story competing against another, although in the way news is prioritised, it often is. Both stories really deserved prominence.

“The news has been traditionally Anglo-centric, or Euro-centric in New Zealand because of our Anglo-centric roots and colonial ties, but I think news editors need to reconsider and have a look at where we are on a map, and start to realise that there are fantastic news stories happening much closer to home, which by and large are being ignored by the New Zealand media,” he says.

“I think there is a good case to be made for a slight re-orientation, pun not intended, in what we decide is news, and how to lay it out on a website or in a newspaper, to give these kinds of stories more prominence so New Zealanders are more closely in touch with what is happening in a region that is close to them.”

Black Saturday

Not to be confused with the Australian bushfire tragedy of February 2009, Black Saturday is the name being used to describe the escalation of violence on 10 April 2010, which saw 24 people killed, and hundreds injured in clashes between the military and Red Shirt protestors, in the worst violence in two decades in Thailand.

The violence erupted when soldiers attempted to clear one of the two protest sites. Both sides suffered casualties, with eyewitnesses saying protestors used makeshift weapons including molotov cocktails, rocks and plastic chairs, among other objects, to repel the army. The army retreated eventually, after the deaths of six soldiers, and capture of four others who were paraded in front of a Red Shirt rally before being released.

The military say their troops mostly used rubber bullets, which experts have said can be lethal, and claimed that live ammunition was only used in “self-defence”. Later, the Police General Hospital autopsies revealed that nine of the dead were shot with high velocity bullets, some at a range of less than a metre.

There have also been reports of mysterious black-clad men who fired assault rifles and are suspected to have fired grenade launchers. It remains unknown on which side these men fought, with Red Shirt leaders claiming the men were sent in by the government as provocateurs, while government officials have blamed the Red Shirts.

Understanding the conflict

It is almost impossible to truly delve into the origins of the current conflict taking into account Thailand’s complex recent political history. The current 2008­–2010 conflict in Thailand has its origins in the 2005–2006 Thai political crises, although from the moment Thailand reverted from an absolute monarchy, to a ‘democratic’ state in 1932, the country has been ruled by a number of authoritarian regimes, and the political stability of the country has been disrupted by countless military coups.

Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was democratically elected, winning by a landslide in 2001. He was widely supported by the rural poor for his policies, which saw poverty reduced hugely throughout his terms in office, as well as the introduction of universal healthcare. However, Thaksin was constantly thrown into the limelight, with opposition largely made up of the Bangkok elite alleging a number of conflicts of interests as well as claims that the prime minister consistently insulted the Thai monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. This opposition eventually led to a military coup in 2006 while Thaksin was attending a UN summit, and the billionaire former prime minister has remained in exile ever since.

Following the coup, the military junta thoroughly revised the constitution and eventually organised elections for December 2007, subsequently won by the People’s Power Party (PPP), which was made up of many politicians from Thaksin’s former Thai Rak Thai (TRT) Party.

Throughout 2008 until now, power has been precariously held and heavily contested respectively by both the PPP, and then the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). The PAD supporters usually dress in yellow (the ‘Yellow Shirts’), whereas followers of the cumbersomely named National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), who support the PPP, dress in red (the ‘Red Shirts’).

The 2010 series of events arose out of the seizure of assets worth over NZ$2 million from former Prime Minister Thaksin, and subsequent grenade attacks on three branches of the Bangkok Bank. Red Shirt protestors have since converged on Bangkok, calling for current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to both call new elections and officially stand down. The protests were relatively peaceful, until the situation escalated out of control on Black Saturday.

Thailand under the Red Shirt

Dr Pavin Chachavalpongpun, of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, recognises that in the face of this exceptional escalation in violence, “The position of power, long dominated by the Bangkok elite, is on the verge of collapsing.” Furthermore, he says that Prime Minister Abhisit’s “chances of surviving this brutal game are slim”. Despite the inevitable downfall of Thailand’s current government, however, he contends that the Red Shirt movement needs to clearly put forward its political ideologies in the view that many of its members “have passion but little direction”.

Dr Chachavalpongpun explains that it was former Prime Minister Thaksin who put in place the mechanisms which saw the majority of the Thai population begin to question their traditional exclusion from Thailand’s political system.

“Throughout the Thaksin Shinawatra period, the billionaire prime minister shifted the political consensus. He did this with a series of populist programmes, such as cheap universal health care, and ample village development funds… During his six-year administration, not only did (people) taste a more comfortable life, but they were also offered a chance to elect their favourite leader in a ballot box.”

He argues that as a result of this shift in the political consensus, the violence on Black Saturday proved that the rural poor are “no longer subservient” to the Bangkok elite and will continue to fight for a more equal society. Despite this, Thaksin’s role in encouraging equality, and the support he continues to enjoy from many of the Red Shirt protestors, Dr Chachavalpongpun is quick to point out that it is highly unlikely Thaksin could return to Thailand to govern.

“He is damaged goods. He was found guilty of abusing his power while serving in office. He might still be adored by millions of his supporters, but he has many millions of enemies too.” As a result of this abuse of power, he explains that the Red Shirt leadership “have claimed to battle against the social injustices and the double standards that have long prevailed in Thai society, and thus not really to protect Thaksin’s interest”.

Beyond the illustration of a refusal of subservience, a lack of clarity in the Red Shirt’s political ambitions have allowed the current government to accuse the Red Shirt leadership of simple thuggery. Furthermore, in the face of the violence that erupted on Black Saturday, Prime Minister Abhisit has gone so far as to brand the leaders as “terrorists”, mirroring the hyped rhetoric of many governments who hold power with questionable legitimacy.

The current demands of the Red Shirts are limited to a call for Prime Minister Abhisit to step down immediately, and call new elections, which has led Dr Chachavalpongpun to stress the exigent urgency of a full clarification in the Red Shirt political position and aspirations. “The Red Shirts need to transform themselves into an organised political party with a clearer political manifesto and long-term policy.” He explains that this is not only to “put across their political ideology and get rid of certain perceptions in the eyes of the Bangkok residents”, but also because some “of their followers from the rural regions, while endorsing the movement’s course to bring down the aristocratic rule in Bangkok, have a rather vague idea of how their lives would be improved after the election”.

At the end of the day, he emphasises that despite the Red Shirt’s predominantly rural support and their aims to see decentralisation of wealth and power, and increased equality, if and “when they come to power, they will undoubtedly have to deal with Bangkok, which after all, is the centre of political power. And the elitist class will never disappear. Classes are the main characteristic of Thai culture.”

Red Shirts

Worn by the National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD). They support the deposed Prime Minister Thaksin, and they claim that the current government is illegitimate. The are calling for fresh elections. The Red Shirts are the main group involved in current protests.

Yellow Shirts

Generally worn by the supporters of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). The PAD was originally formed in mobilisation against the former Thai President Thaksin Shinawatra. The yellow shirts have not been out in force in the latest round of protests.


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