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The TNR Primer: Thailand

What’s with all the violence? And who wants what?

Bangkok is in chaos. Thousands of anti-government protesters (called "red shirts") have settled into the streets of the Thai capital and are living in an organized camp that offers free food, toilets, and even makeshift hair salons. On April 10, government forces attempted to disperse the crowds, spurring street clashes that killed 25 people. On April 22, grenade explosions rattled the city, wounding more than 80 people, including four foreigners. And, on Wednesday, clashes between protesters and Thai troops left one soldier dead. Protesters are now blocking traffic into Bangkok and forcing the closure of malls and hotels. And there are signs that a government crackdown might be imminent. "It is clear the protesters are not gathering peacefully. We will not be lenient with these people any more," deputy prime minister Suthep Thuangsuban said on Tuesday.

But the crisis isn't a simple dichotomy of government versus protesters. There are multiple factions involved—and it's hard to distinguish the good guys from the bad. "It's difficult to point the finger in any one direction. It's easy to point it in many directions," says Amnesty International's Benjamin Zawacki, who works in Thailand. What's more, there are rumors of a dangerous divide between the government and parts of its security forces, and some say terrorists have infiltrated the protests. And all of this is set against a backdrop in which the Thai monarchy, once a stabilizing force in national politics, is slowly deteriorating—raising fears about what's in store for the Southeast Asian country.

Here, TNR tries to make sense of the bedlam.

Who are the major players—and what do they want?

Thaksin Shinawatra was elected prime minister of Thailand in 2001. Following accusations of corruption, Thaksin was deposed in a military coup in September 2006. Although living in exile (often in Dubai, though he is technically now a citizen of Montenegro), he has remained influential in Thai politics. Considered the driving force behind the current protests, Thaksin would like to return to Thailand to regain the power and money he lost after the coup.

Red shirts are the protesters who have now been in Bangkok for almost seven weeks. Officially, they are part of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), a political party. Many are from rural, poor areas in Thailand's northeast, and they claim to be pro-democracy. Pointing to the 2006 coup and insisting the current government is illegitimate, they want parliament to dissolve and for new elections to be held. Many also profess loyalty to Thaksin—indeed, the former PM is reportedly paying red shirt leaders and regularly delivers encouraging messages to the protesters via satellite.

Abhisit Vejjajiva is the current prime minister of Thailand. He came to power in 2008, after court rulings banned Thaksin's allies—who regained power briefly after the coup—from politics. Abhisit enjoys support in Thailand's south and among its middle and upper economic classes. He has said he wants to compromise with protesters and restore order—but he has also said he won't give in to "threats, violence, intimidation, and weapons." Zawacki of Amnesty International says that, during the current crisis, Abhisit's government has shut down at least 400 websites deemed politically dangerous.

Yellow shirts are protesters who have gathered to oppose the red shirts. Officially, they are part of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), an anti-Thaksin political party. The protested against Thaksin in 2006, declared victory after the coup, and took to the streets again when the former PM's allies won new elections. Today, although they have gathered in Bangkok's historic district to contest the red shirts, they describe themselves as more pro-monarchy than pro-government. Indeed, they wear yellow in honor of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Bhumibol Adulyadej is the most revered person in Thailand—a father figure to his country during his 64 years on the throne. (You can end up in jail for saying anything negative about Bhumibol or his family.) While technically a figurehead, the king is crucial to national politics, playing an important role, for instance, in transitioning Thailand from a military dictatorship to a democracy in 1992. But the king is now 82, and he's been hospitalized for several months. He has spoken only once during this most recent crisis, addressing the nation on Monday night—but he did not mention the protests directly.

The military and police are also central to the crisis. Though technically loyal to Abhisit, there are factions that reportedly side with Thaksin (who used to be a police lieutenant) and the red shirts. Indeed, there have been reports of "watermelon soldiers" (who wear green uniforms but are "red on the inside") and "tomatoes" (red through and through) patrolling Bangkok.

And then, there are smaller groups: no colors, who call themselves Civilians Protecting the Country and want the government to restore order, and blue shirts, who have appeared recently in the southern city of Pattaya, armed with sticks and clubs and wearing shirts that say "Protect the Institution," which many people assume refers to the monarchy. Red shirts say blue shirts are military thugs, but the government denies the accusation.

What are the roots of the crisis?

The current protests are just the latest in a series of them that stems back to Thaksin's tenure as PM. Thaksin was elected in 2001 on a populist platform, promising cheap health care, debt relief, and a shift of power away from Thailand's elite. He was supported by people in poor, rural areas, but his opponents, including many in the old political guard, accused him of corruption, pointing to the massive wealth he had accumulated in the telecommunications sector. (He also restricted the country's media and permitted extrajudicial killings in a "war on drugs," among other human rights abuses he committed.) When his family claimed $1.9 billion in a 2006 telecom deal, street protests erupted—and, a few months later, while Thaksin was out of the country, the military seized control of the government. Today, if he returned to Thailand, Thaksin would face a two-year jail sentence.

His allies won post-coup elections, triggering more protests by yellow shirts, who even seized Bangkok's airports in 2008. Court rulings led to the ouster of two successive pro-Thaksin prime ministers (including Thaksin's brother-in-law) and paved the way for Abhisit's elevation. Yet Thaksin's supporters—many of whom he paid from afar—quickly regrouped. In April 2009, red shirts staged protests in Bangkok and even forced the cancellation of a summit of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which was set to be held in southern Thailand. They gained momentum in the following months, leading directly to the current crisis.

Other than a new government, what do the red shirts want?

On top of their calls for elections, the red shirts want a restoration of health and education polices that benefitted the poor under Thaksin. They also have grievances about the Thai judiciary, which moved against Thaksin and his supporters but has stalled on action against PAD leaders (such as those who seized the airports in 2008) and other pro-government figures who have reportedly broken national laws. And they have demanded investigations into violence and threats against protesters in 2009 and 2010.

But, on a base level, many red shirts, particularly among the leadership, would also like to see Thaksin return to his home country without retribution. "The leaders are just power-seeking," one human rights advocate in Thailand told me. "They want the economic spoils. They'd love to bring Thaksin back."

What's the king got to do with it?

In a word, everything. On the one hand, he is being used: The government and the yellow shirts are now accusing the red shirts of plotting against the monarchy (read: committing treason), which, considering Thailand's strict laws on defamation and threats to the king, could be used as a rationale for a crackdown. A government official has even provided journalists with a conspiracy diagram linking red shirt leaders, including Thaksin, with other opposition figures, media, and activists.

But, on a deeper level, there is widespread fear about the monarchy's line of succession—and it's influencing the current crisis. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn will become king when Bhumibol dies, and it's no secret that the Thais don't like him. He allegedly leads a lurid and bizarre personal life. (As The Economist reported in March, "A video circulated widely in 2007 showed his third wife, known as the 'royal consort', at a formal dinner with the prince in a titillating state of undress. Diplomats say Prince Vajiralongkorn is unpredictable to the point of eccentricity: lavishing attention on his pet poodle Fu Fu, for example, who has military rank and, on occasion, sits among guests at gala dinners.”) And, in 2002, there were reports that he had business ties with Thaksin. I was told in my interviews that Vajiralongkorn may now be cozying up to Thaksin and the red shirts. If there is a division of opinion within the monarchy over who should run the government, it could widen when Bhumibol is no longer on the throne.

With the king aging quickly and the Thai government simultaneously spiraling toward upheaval, the monarchy's stability is very much part of the political conversation about Thailand's future. "This is coming right at a time when there is a weakness," one Thailand analyst said. "There's not a sea anchor."

Are there really "terrorists" involved?

The government has said the April 10 violence and the April 22 grenade explosions were carried out by "terrorists that the government has always been wanting to get rid off," who mixed in among the protesters and wore black clothing. Meanwhile, red shirts have insisted that they are nonviolent—and certainly not supporters of terrorism.

Yet blaming terrorists for the situation could prove beneficial to either (or both) the government and the red shirts. On the one hand, the government could use the alleged involvement of terrorists as a pretext for a crackdown. On the other hand, the red shirts can deny responsibility for any violence—although reports indicate that rogue army officers who support Thaksin have trained para-military rangers to protect the protesters. "Behind the scenes, if you peeled it back, both sides are probably involved in some intimidation," one Thailand analyst told me.

Is civil war a real possibility?

I was in Thailand in the summer of 2006, teaching in the south, and I heard few rumblings of the anti-Thaksin movement, other than what I read in Bangkok newspapers. Similarly, people in Thailand—even in parts of Bangkok—said in recent weeks that life was moving along mostly as usual. Yet, as violence has flared and fears of a crackdown have grown, civil war has seemed increasingly plausible. And protests have spread from Bangkok to northern cities like Chiang Mai and Udon Thani, and to southern locales like Pattaya.

There is a red-yellow divide that already splits the country. "The Democrat Party [which controls the government] has traditionally been a party of the south and has a strong base in that region that is really wall-to-wall," says Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division. "Up in the northeast, we are seeing increasingly wall-to-wall red shirts." Yet sources I spoke to said all-out civil war is unlikely. After all, serious unrest would further threaten Thailand's people or economy, which could be bad for all sides of the conflict. (According to Reuters, the Federation of Thai Tourism Associations says the country's critical tourist industry lost more than $300 million in March, and it projected a steeper drop in April.) What's more, because Thailand has the region's second-largest economy and is a key member of ASEAN, neighboring countries will likely "close ranks behind the Thai government" and urge stability, according to Robertson. (Cambodia would be the likely exception; last year, Thaksin became an economic adviser to Thailand's eastern neighbor.)

So, if not civil war, what happens next?

It's impossible to say who the winner (or winners) of the crisis should be, considering that all sides have factions with less than good or democratic intentions. The government may try to forcibly end the protests, and the resulting bloodshed might deliver the wake-up call needed for the rivaling factions to negotiate a solution to the crisis. Such a compromise, sources said, whether arrived at peaceably or after violence, would need to involve a promise for new elections, as well as guarantees that both sides would shun intimidation during voting and respect the outcomes of the process.

Right now, though, any timetable for this happening is hazy. "It changes from day to day," one human rights advocate told me. "I've had to change my tune. … I thought, 'The government can't survive.' I thought it was only a matter of days." Yet the government remains in charge, even as the red shirts burrow deeper into Bangkok.

And, even if a compromise is finally reached, experts I spoke to said it would just be a Band-Aid on the broader problem of what happens as Thailand's customary political elite lose power and less traditional groups gain it. Most critically, when the king dies, a period of mourning will likely be followed by a political battle to determine who should control the country. "I don't hazard to guess how it will end," one source told me. "It's going to be a gradual process whereby they are going to lose—the yellows, the government, the monarchy. … I don't pretend that it's not going to be really ugly."

Seyward Darby is the assistant managing editor of The New Republic.

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