Over the past two years, royalists in Thailand have filed hundreds of charges of lèse majesté against their political opponents. As many as 100,00 websites have been banned for insulting the king and the royal family. The country, once hailed as a beacon of democracy for the region, is now ranked 153 out of 178 in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, just above Belarus.
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.
As the situation in Bangkok worsens, why hasn’t King Bhumibhol Adulyadej stepped in to mediate between the protestors and government? During ‘Black May’ in 1992, after the army fired on demonstrators and killed at least fifty people, the king called the protest leader, Chamlong Srimuang, and the military dictator, Suchinda Kraprayoon, to his palace. Shortly afterwards Kraprayoon resigned, paving the way for elections. The semi-official explanation for the 82-year-old king’s absence this time around is his ill-health. He’s hardly left the hospital in months, though officials are cagey about what’s wrong with him. And he is well enough to have received the prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, at his hospital wing. More likely, the king has realised that if he tried to intervene this time around, the demonstrators wouldn’t listen to him.
The situation in Thailand is rapidly deteriorating. This past weekend, fighting between protestors and the security forces killed at least 20 people and wounded hundreds, leaving parts of Bangkok, including a prominent tourist area, strewn with shell casings and blood. Thailand has witnessed its share of unrest and protest – major demonstrations in 1973, 1976, 1992, 2006 and 2008 – but most Thais have always assumed it could be contained: the country, which had avoided being colonised, destroyed by the Second World War, ravaged by the Indochina wars or wrecked by civil conflict, would always find some last-minute solution to a crisis. ‘That’s the Thai way,’ a friend in Bangkok told me. ‘We’ll always figure something out.’
The anti-government protests in Bangkok, which have drawn at least 100,000 red-shirted protestors from across rural Thailand, have attracted a lot of attention from the global media. This is in large part down to the gore: demonstrators have been donating litres of their blood to be poured on government buildings. The United States government, however, Thailand’s longtime foreign patron and ally, has said almost nothing about the red demonstrations. During a brief visit to the country shortly before the current protests, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell issued a bland statement:
Last week, Sondhi Limthongkul became leader of Thailand’s New Politics Party. Sondhi, a former media mogul, is one of the men behind the ongoing demonstrations that precipitated the military coup overthrowing Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, and which since then have given the military and the judiciary a pretext to bar Thaksin’s proxies from holding office.