Most media coverage of the showdown in Bangkok has focused on the increasingly tough tactics of the security forces. On Thursday, a sniper shot and fatally wounded Khattiya Sawasdiphol, a rogue general who’d allied himself with the red shirts, while he was talking to a reporter. Following that shooting, security forces fired live rounds at some groups of protesters (who at times shot back with their own weapons). At least ten people were killed and scores wounded.
Yet the army’s show of force is evidence of serious underlying weaknesses. Firing live ammunition at protesters and massing large numbers of troops is a lot easier than non-violent crowd control and dispersal, which requires a highly trained force, effective planning and intelligence, co-ordination among units and a unified mission, all of which are lacking in the Thai security forces.
For months now, army commanders have feared, not without reason, that information about their plans is being leaked to the red shirts by officers sympathetic to the protesters’ demands for greater economic and political equality. In the clashes on 10 April, when at least 20 people were killed, armed protesters seemed to have advance knowledge of the military’s command structure and tactics. Days later, the security forces failed to arrest a red shirt leader holed up at a hotel because he got wind of the plan.
These leaks have undermined cohesion in the security forces, and various different units no longer trust each other or even their own commanders. Meanwhile, the army’s lack of training in crowd control was already obvious from the way they dealt with previous protests. In October 2004, for example, in the southern town of Tak Bai, they fired live ammunition at protesters and arrested hundreds of people, cramming them into airless trucks: at least 78 men suffocated to death.
After a coup in the early 1990s was overturned by demonstrators and a royal intervention, many Thais believed the army had left politics for good. But since the 2006 coup, the armed forces again have returned to the political scene, and the current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, depends on the army’s support for his survival. As a result, he has frequently ignored abuses in the armed forces – he didn’t punish senior officers after the navy turned Burmese refugees in rickety boats back to sea, where they drowned – and so given them the message that they can act with impunity. The security forces are not so much in control as out of it.