Bangkok burns
May 19, 2010 11:20 PM   Subscribe

Bangkok is on fire. A good collection of links on the conflict with many on-the-ground reports (may not work well in Firefox). Video of the assault on the red shirt encampment. Now the violence is spreading beyond the capital into the northern and northeastern provinces. Is Thailand heading for civil war?
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese (50 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
This is a very, very sad day. I hope things cool down soon.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 11:22 PM on May 19, 2010

I've been watching this develop for the last two months, yesterday was really horrible.

A couple more links; Time Photos and Mark Mackinnon of Globe and Mail who was in the temple (Wat Pathum between Paragon & Centralworld) tweeting about the casualties there.
posted by selton at 11:43 PM on May 19, 2010

The restlessness of the "under classes" is disturbing, but perhaps overdue. The disproportionate allocation of assets has been noted frequently. Is there a parallel in the growth of the tea baggers?
posted by Cranberry at 11:44 PM on May 19, 2010

This makes me very sad, but thanks for posting this KAC; probably like many, I've only been vaguely aware of the situation and its background, so I'm glad to learn more.
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:51 PM on May 19, 2010

How dare the begger own a bowl!
posted by Goofyy at 11:53 PM on May 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

A good friend of mine from college is in Thailand right now, says it's dangerous, but he is downplaying the civil war talk as political pandering by the PM. He says:
The media allow themselves to be manipulated by the PM's comment. It benefits him for things to appear as dangerous as possible so that his crackdown so the people believe the crackdown is justified.
Which makes sense. The divisions seem pretty much isolated to the Bangkok region.
posted by spiderskull at 11:57 PM on May 19, 2010

Is Thailand heading for civil war?

Christ, I hope not. Surely the military would back down before it gets to that point? My (limited) understanding is that their support of the current government has never been rock-solid to-the-end proposition, more a best-for-the-moment kind of dealio (also I thought the Red Shirts are essentially unarmed in the running-a-war-not-a-riot sense?)?
posted by smoke at 11:58 PM on May 19, 2010

Whoops, apparently I need to work on my reading comprehension. I retract my comment re: isolation above.
posted by spiderskull at 11:58 PM on May 19, 2010

"Understanding what is going on" on the second link contains this:

"Having a strong and stable PM and government during a [redacted] was also thought to be a good thing to maintain political and social stability."

I don't know much about Thailand in general, but I assume the word "recession" was redacted? Does anyone know who redacted that? No snark or underlying comment, I'm just not used to seeing that sort of thing in journalism and want to know how 2Bangkok's coverage might be colored.
posted by maus at 12:03 AM on May 20, 2010

Maus, the only reason I can think of for that kind of self-censorship would involve mentioning the royal family, but I can't figure out how it would fit in that context.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 12:18 AM on May 20, 2010

This is personally distressing to me.

Thailand was the first country outside the US that I ever visited, and lived there for 18 months in a village called Non Sung, a few km south of Udon Thani on Route 2. While I was there, I grew very enamored of the people and culture, and spent a lot of time trying to learn the language and customs. I at one point considered staying there and becoming an expat.

I was pretty politically naive then, at the seasoned old age of 20, I had little idea of the undercurrents of tension, etc. In 1974-5, it was an awfully pleasant place to live and work.

When I see the violence and animosity there now, I wonder if it's the same place I remember so fondly. I am also wondering about past friends and their children whom I know are still there- and worry about what's happening to them. In any case, it's a tragedy, and something I fear may yet lie in our future here, as I look at the increasing political polarization that some people here are creating.
posted by pjern at 12:19 AM on May 20, 2010

My girlfriend and I were in Bangkok about a month ago and happened to run into the occupied protest zone. We walked through it for a number of blocks. It was calm but tense, with many people selling refreshments, food and trinkets, but others setting up sharpened bamboo barricades and searching people entering the area. The red shirts were mostly friendly towards us even though there were few westerners. They didn't want their faces in photographs. The next night someone threw a grenade in the protest zone

From my cursory understanding of the Thai political situation, there's a lot of blame to go around, but I wish the red shirts luck
posted by crayz at 12:31 AM on May 20, 2010

As posted earlier today, The Empire Strikes Back, and it is sad.
posted by caddis at 12:34 AM on May 20, 2010

I knew someone who claimed to have been in thailand a long time ago during a riot when a fire truck was seized filled, with gasoline and used as a flamethrower against an army barricade. I hope it's not that bad
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:36 AM on May 20, 2010

posted by bardic at 1:04 AM on May 20, 2010

I don't like seeing this at all, but I suspect the demonstrators support for exiled billionaire ex-prime minister indicate it is a bit more complex than a class war.
Regardless, the Thai junta is clueless.
posted by bystander at 2:00 AM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Giles Ji Ungapakorn is worth reading.
posted by the cuban at 2:57 AM on May 20, 2010

Google Earth shows lots of smoke in Lumpini Park. Lumpini Park was mentioned as a place where conflict was happening. Is Google Earth updating satellite photos on the fly these days?!?
posted by Goofyy at 3:50 AM on May 20, 2010

Clouds, more likely.
posted by the cuban at 4:07 AM on May 20, 2010

Bangkok back in the day
posted by gman at 4:08 AM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

...and for contrast. Warning: not for the squeamish
posted by gman at 4:40 AM on May 20, 2010

Maus, the only reason I can think of for that kind of self-censorship would involve mentioning the royal family, but I can't figure out how it would fit in that context.

I guess that the secret word is "succession" then, don't you think?Isn't King Bhumibol quite old (and the crown heir rather less popular)? Wasn't at least "The Economist" already banned once from Thai newsstands for daring to run an article on the perils of a Thai royal succession?
posted by Skeptic at 4:47 AM on May 20, 2010

the cuban's link up above is indeed worth reading. There is nuance here that is really difficult to communicate in a news broadcast.
A quote from the 'worth reading link' from Phillip Cunningham, a western Thai observer, debating Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a Thai dissident living in exile in Britain who supports the Red Shirts, "I just feel like you’re so hungry for the left to do something that you’re seeing a false dawn, and you’re mistaking it for the real thing. This is a false dawn; this is not the real thing. "
I lean left, and wish for a fair democracy in Thailand, but I suspect this might a fair reading of the Red Shirts.
posted by bystander at 4:59 AM on May 20, 2010

Ah, thanks for this. I've been following what's happening as best I can. This is better.
posted by rtha at 6:05 AM on May 20, 2010

Sad. I had been hoping for some kind of negotiated solution, so seeing the army get sent in was very disappointing.
posted by Forktine at 6:24 AM on May 20, 2010

Half my family lives in Bangkok, and they are all staunchly pro-government and anti-redshirt. From what they've been saying, the redshirts are terrorists bent on destruction. From the photos I've seen, it sure looks that way. They are destroying theaters and stuff. Sad.
posted by statolith at 6:43 AM on May 20, 2010

I wish the King would come out and say something to quell the violence.
posted by josher71 at 6:51 AM on May 20, 2010

> The divisions seem pretty much isolated to the Bangkok region.

And in 1917 the disturbances were pretty much isolated to Petrograd... and then Moscow... and then they spread...

There's no knowing whether this will turn into a full-fledged civil war, but massive popular unrest combined with a brutal government determined to repress all resistance doesn't bode well. My heart aches for this beautiful country in which I spent some happy childhood years; I hope they can find a way out of this, and I would urge everyone to avoid taking sides too quickly. It's an extremely complicated situation, and there are no good guys, just rulers, manipulators, and victims.

> Bangkok back in the day

Thanks very much for that; the city looked just like that when we were there a little over twenty years later. (And now it's a little over fifty years after we arrived. "Time is the evil.")
posted by languagehat at 7:04 AM on May 20, 2010

the cuban's link up above is indeed worth reading.

Seconding that. Interesting, and differing, points of view in that transcript.
posted by gimonca at 7:24 AM on May 20, 2010

A colleague of mine is an expatriate poker blogger living in Bangkok -- who has been documenting events there for some weeks -- here's his latest: Bangkok on Fire. You can see more of his Bangkok posts by browsing his "travel" category.

His coverage and point of view have been so different from general coverage I was considering posting as a MeFi post, this saves me doing that.

I hope there's not too much loss of life. Ugly, ugly stuff.
posted by artlung at 7:31 AM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Is there a parallel in the growth of the tea baggers?

posted by furiousxgeorge at 7:33 AM on May 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

In this modern age of the internet and cellular phones, I can't believe there are still places on earth where a king is tolerated.
posted by fuq at 7:41 AM on May 20, 2010

I can't condone buying a Subway sandwich in place of roasted beef and sticky rice, but thanks for that piece, artlung.

I was only recently assuring someone that things didn't look that bad. How quickly things change.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:46 AM on May 20, 2010

fuq: Ahhh, I love it when someone starts off my day with a non sequitur. In this modern age of the internet, please go Google for yourself how the Thai king has held together the country and historically protected it from colonization and anarchy.
posted by shii at 7:52 AM on May 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

Oh please, if there's anything anachronistic about Thailand, it's the king. For instance, rule#1 of travelling there is never bad mouth the king. Really, as a tourist you could get away with practically anything --- but whatever you do, don't talk shit about the king.

Of course, this fight has been brewing for years, but usually the king says something to stop it. This time, not so much.

Looking at pictures, I marvel at how the red shirts all go to battle in their flip-flops. How Thai is that.
posted by fungible at 8:22 AM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't think that's a good argument at all; lese-majeste was not instituted by the king himself but by the royalist side of an intense political argument. The royalists simply happen to hold political power at this time.

As you said, the king usually stops this kind of civil conflict, and again, the reason this has turned violent is precisely because he is on his deathbed, too sick and confused to break it up! This article in The Economist may help clear up why this is so nerve-wracking to many Thais.
posted by shii at 8:41 AM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

In Bangkok currently.

What's blown me away is the complete sense of disconnect from what is happening. This has been such a slowly unfolding situation, that by the time things started escalating, most people were treating the red shirts like a curious part of Bangkok geography.

For the last few months, this activity has been more of a nuisance than anything. It amounted to fewer open shopping malls and reduced subway hours. When things began to kick off, the mood among some people felt more like kids morbidly looking forward to the excitement of an impending hurricane or blizzard. Even though the situation has gotten worse, there is still a feeling akin to what I imagine the last days of the Third Reich felt like. People are still going about their days, some people are partying harder, others are planning to leave.

I spent the day on the 25th floor of my friend's apartment lazily drinking Singha beer and spotting new smoke plumes in the Bangkok skyline. Most of the twitter pages and facebook profiles my Thai friends had been silent until it was announced that Central World (A big, high class mall.) had burnt down. Now the rumors are going around so quickly, nobody knows what is true.

In the last few days, I've been told with certainty that:
The Army is shooting journalists on purpose.
The protestors are shooting journalists on purpose.
Random snipers are picking off pedestrians.
People are riding around on motorbikes throwing grenades at bystanders.
A huge mob of rural guerrillas is converging on Bangkok.

I don't think any of these things are actually true, but it's incredibly hard to get a sense of what is happening in the city. As chaotic as things are, the international news is even less coherent. I've been very unimpressed with the quality and depth of coverage from BBC/CNN. I'm not sure why modern news agencies need to run the same 15 minute loop, 6 hours after the information has become obsolete. The information has been too vague and often too sensationalist.

I think we have to stop referring to the belligerents as "Red Shirts" as there are too many disparate factions operating now. There are small pockets of anarchrists/antimonarchists, populists, pro-Thaksin supporters, possibly even Muslim Separtists. (I doubt that, but it's been mentioned.)

It's curfew now. Everything is closed, even the 7-11s, which are an unofficial symbol of modern Thailand. Most major buildings were closed down today. We're at a tipping point. Maybe things will get better and everything will reopen tomorrow. Maybe things will disintegrate. It'll be interesting.
posted by Telf at 8:47 AM on May 20, 2010 [9 favorites]

That article posted by Shii is excellent.
posted by Telf at 9:00 AM on May 20, 2010

What does the pink symbolize in this culture?

I noticed pink on both police/army and the protesters, and the pink triangle on the APC was unexpected.
posted by stevis23 at 9:09 AM on May 20, 2010

Interesting to note Mr. Obama's response to this issue - which is to say, none at all - and compare it to his response to very similar events in Iran.

Why isn't he calling for a peaceful solution on both sides? Pointing out that the eyes of the world are on Thailand? Talking about the right to peacefully protest? I agree that not all the protestors by any means are peaceful - but many of them are and they are being stamped out with tanks and the Army.

Fact is that the West and the repressive Thai government are buddy-buddy - so these protests are and will continue to be suppressed with a lot of bloodshed, and Western governments aren't going to say anything except perhaps some platitudes at the end.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:10 AM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

While we're all throwing out article about this, this London Review of Books article, while two months old, gives great background in a very sucint way on contempoary Thai politics, what's going on now, and also reminds everyone that there is essentially a Buddist vs. Muslim Thai civil war already underway in the South. If you're new to following what's happening now in Bangkok, I would recommend this article to get up to speed about why people are angry, how things have been building up to this point, and what the differences between the two sides are.

Regarding the Muslim insurgency in South Thailand, it's still there, it's still bad, and it isn't going away. Right now, the activity of the Red Shirts and the Army in Bangkok are capturing the headlines, but my guess is that it will take far longer for peace to come to the South then the current crisis in Bangkok to be (temporarily) resolved.
posted by SeanOfTheHillPeople at 9:22 AM on May 20, 2010

Fact is that the West and the repressive Thai government are buddy-buddy - so these protests are and will continue to be suppressed with a lot of bloodshed, and Western governments aren't going to say anything except perhaps some platitudes at the end.

It's a bit more complicated than that, you know. The problem here is that it's really difficult to pick a "good" side. The yellow shirts currently in government have revealed themselves as violent bullies, but the red shirts are followers of former billionaire PM Thaksin Shinawatra, aka the "Asian Berlusconi", who in Western terms would be considered a right-wing populist and certainly had a less-than-spotless human rights record.
posted by Skeptic at 9:29 AM on May 20, 2010 [5 favorites]

I love Thailand and have very happy memories from traveling around the Chang Mai region in the north 20 years ago.

I thought this was an interesting article from the FT the other day about what they are describing as the armed wing of the red shirts, linked to the assassinated general.

Since they require registration I will quote liberally below:
'Black shirts' cast shadow on Bangkok protests

By Tim Johnston in Bangkok

In Thailand's colour-coded tribal war, they are called the black shirts, a shadowy and violent force that has been photographed on the fly but has never come out openly.

They are the men with guns, apparently the armed wing of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship - known as the red shirts - a protest movement that bases much of its legitimacy on its claim to be a peaceful organisation.

The vast majority of the 5,000 or so protesters who remain behind the barricades of tyres and sharpened bamboo staves in central Bangkok are still dedicated to the ideal of peaceful and disciplined protest: for five weeks the demonstrators, mostly drawn from the poorer end of society, have camped out in the country's richest shopping precinct, but none of the stores has been broken into.

However, militancy is on the rise. In the protesters' sprawling encampment around the Ratchaprasong intersection, young men high on a toxic mix of testosterone and methamphetamine swagger around in dark glasses, their preferred wardrobe consisting of black shoes, black trousers and black T-shirts, preferably displaying the logo of a pistol manufacturer; Glock or Heckler and Koch are particularly popular.

"It is a problem. It is a thing I don't want to see. Like most of the leaders I want to keep our movement peaceful and to go on like this for ever, but the anger of the people has accumulated," Karkaew Pikulthong, one of the leaders of the red movement, said. "This operation has exposed their feelings," he added, referring to the government offensive , in which 35 people, only one of them a soldier, have so far died.

The pacifists among the red-shirt movement's leadership seem to have lost out to hardliners. Many of the 20 or so men who lead the organisation wanted to accept the government's offer two weeks ago of elections in November, but they were over-ruled.
Many people believe that Major General Khattya Sawas-dipol , a renegade army officer regarded as an extremist even by his political allies, was behind the black shirts. A confidant of Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister who was ousted four years ago and who remains the godfather of the red-shirt movement, Maj Gen Khattya was the first casualty of the latest round of violence.
One of the central fears of analysts like Mr Thitinan is that the violence will spread to the countryside, where most of Mr Thaksin's supporters are based.

There have already been demonstrations in towns such as Chiang Mai, Ubon Ratchatani and Khon Kaen, and security could deteriorate, possibly by design.

"They are looking beyond Ratchaprasong, they are looking at armed resistance to the Abhisit administration," Mr Thitinan says of the black shirts.

posted by shothotbot at 9:30 AM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's a bit more complicated than that, you know.

I absolutely do know, but that doesn't change the fact that the Thai government is and will continue to use the military to suppress the protestors far above and beyond any rights they have to do so because of criminal activity, and the West will continue to say basically nothing.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:13 AM on May 20, 2010

please go Google for yourself how the Thai king has held together the country and historically protected it from colonization and anarchy.

This is the perception put forth by the palace and cemented into "fact" in the minds of most Thais by decades of strict censorship and utter intolerance for any dissenting point of view. It is of course almost impossible to know exactly what goes on inside the palace, but I think the truth is much more complicated and that the King has been far more involved in empowering the successive regimes that have kept most of Thailand as backwards and as impoverished as it is.

This extremely well crafted image of him as the benevolent patriarch struggling valiantly but silently to fend off so many evil, shadowy opposing forces is, many experts suspect, a lot of bullshit. All those military assholes who ruled the country to serve themselves and their patrons were doing so under the thumb of the Privy Council -- meaning, the King. Let's not forget that the King is by far the wealthiest man in the region. Far, far richer than Thaksin. Even if he did spend a few baht on a few development projects upcountry. But eventually, despite his best efforts, Thailand's democracy was finally mature enough that a PM like Thaksin could buy himself into power without the King's blessing.

And look what happened next.

The King shares a huge portion of the blame in what is going on here right now.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 10:18 AM on May 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

*cough* Red vs Yellow.
posted by adamvasco at 2:29 PM on May 20, 2010

fwiw, this seemed like a pretty comprehensive overview of the situation...
posted by kliuless at 4:28 PM on May 20, 2010

I found this piece by Danielle Sabaï to be a very worthwhile overview of the situation. I do think that despite the contradictions of Thaksin (who sounds like a schemer, which along with his populist policies including low-cost healthcare and microloans-debt reduction probably helped him keep power) that the Red Shirts are in the right. I'm disgusted by the images from Bangkok.
posted by Gnatcho at 5:35 PM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Even as gunshots reverberate through the streets of central Bangkok and the city’s glittering buildings are gutted by fire, the people of Thailand have a new cause for worry. Their beloved but ailing king may soon be replaced by his son, the eccentric crown prince, who has given his pet poodle military status and had his wife filmed in a G-string, feeding birthday cake to the dog.
posted by adamvasco at 1:54 PM on May 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

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