Last Spring, Thailand’s pro-democracy movement became the latest symbol of resistance to authoritarianism. Known as the Red Shirts, it followed the lead of movement leaders in Iran, Burma and elsewhere. Red Shirt protesters brought Bangkok to a standstill, in what was, in effect, a short-term, concentrated civil conflict. After eight weeks of political violence and 85 deaths, government security forces drove the protesters out of the city.
Four months after the Thai military regime’s violent suppression of the Red Shirt demonstrations in Bangkok, its leaders are reinvigorating the group’s activism. The movement has regained much of its critical mass through a substantial underground, rural network in Isaan, an impoverished region in northeastern Thailand. It will hold a rally this week in Bangkok during which, according to the Red Shirt leaders, will call for the release of political prisoners arrested for terrorism during last May’s protest. The movement, which is driven at the grassroots level by rural peasants, has an admirable goal: the establishment of Thai democracy, which existed structurally (if not in actuality) for a brief period at the beginning of the millennium.
Thailand’s pro-democracy protesters, however, cannot drive political reform and democratization without increased international attention and pressure on Thailand’s military regime. In order to successfully contribute to Thailand’s democratization, the Red Shirt leaders must reform the movement itself, with particular regard to its relationship with former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and its tolerance for political violence.
Thaksin’s regime, which was nominally democratic, was rife with concerns over human rights and governance, including the forced repatriation of refugees from Burma and Laos, various violations associated with counterinsurgency and anti-drug violence, as well as the repression of political dissent. Thaksin has adopted the mantle of Red Shirt leadership, despite his fugitive status in Thailand. Before being deposed in a 2006 military coup, Thaksin led a wave of popular social and economic policies, including poverty alleviation campaigns and the establishment of Thailand’s universal health care system. Were the Red Shirts successful, it is conceivable, even likely, that Thaksin would return to office as Thailand’s prime minister.
Any national reconciliation process, therefore, would need to address the likelihood of this occurrence, and facilitate the establishment of transparency and accountability systems within the Thai government to ensure that the aforementioned human rights and governance abuses do not occur with impunity.
The Red Shirt movement’s tolerance for political violence as a tactic of protest is also problematic. As a guiding force for democracy in Thailand, the movement must adopt a principled and tactical commitment to nonviolence. If the Red Shirt movement is to become the arbiter of democratic politics in post-conflict Thailand, the movement cannot display the willingness for vandalism and destruction on display in its spring protests.
There is certainly no moral equivalence between the blatant repressiveness of Thailand’s security forces and the vandalism of the Red Shirt movement, but democratic social movements are never about the equivalence of political action. The movement must look to oft-referenced models of nonviolent pro-democracy resistance in Burma and Iran for guidance on the moral and tactical dominance of nonviolence activism.
The ultimate onus for political change, however, rests on Thailand’s military regime. The international community can play a productive role in encouraging the process of democratization and national reconciliation in Thailand. Diplomatic representatives from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the United States will meet in New York next week to discuss multilateral relations. ASEAN has been notoriously inept in its treatment of human rights in Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and elsewhere. It is clear, however, that Thailand’s political instability has security implications for the United States and its partners in the region.
In addition, China, through commercial and diplomatic engagement, has rapidly increased its clout among ASEAN countries. China’s security concerns in Burma have driven the rising Asian power to play a (marginally) more productive role in conflict resolution and human rights there. The United States, China and ASEAN all have vested security and economic interests in promoting reconciliation in Thailand. The three regional partners should use upcoming bilateral and multilateral fora to address Thailand’s conflict, and ensure that the impunity of last spring’s political violence does not continue.
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