From a distance the volatile political situation appears completely confusing and chaotic.
Upon closer inspection it only becomes more so.
It’s about democracy, corruption, traditional power structures, money, and guns. Worse yet, nobody is quite sure who is on the same team, even within the military, and many thousands of people have been killed or injured.
Here we attempt to peel back some of the layers.
We have included many videos in the following slides as supplements, feel free to skim through them as needed, they can be skimmed without losing the essence of what’s going on.
colour-themed groups whether they be red, yellow, or 'multi-coloured' shirts have roamed the Thai capital Bangkok over last few years demanding political changes.
These range from the red shirts' recent demand for fresh elections, to the pro-government yellow-shirt mob's current goal of not having an election in order to protect the political party in control right now.
The red and yellow shirts have clashed on frequent occasions with both each other and security forces, causing thousands of casualties along the way and interrupting Thailand's usual calm with sharp and sudden bouts of violence over the last couple years.
Yet oddly, most of the time life in Bangkok goes on as usual. Bars, malls, and restaurants are still packed. Most people won't even mention the politics in your every day life.
Still, clashes and tension has become particularly severe ever since one month ago when the red shirts took over one of central Bangkok's main shopping areas filled with five star hotels and designer brands.
Reds have been particularly enraged over an April 10th attempted crackdown by the military in another part of the city that resulted in 25 deaths including some soldiers.
The government has turned down requests for a broad multi-party investigation into the incident. We'll touch on this complex situation further later because it says much about the entire situation, but here is a video of the event we posted previously, below. If you haven't seen it before, beware that it gets quite graphic at the end.
Just yesterday, police and red shirts clashed again.
Red shirt protesters attempted to reinforce a new rally site beyond their main central Bangkok encampment, but were met by hundreds of soldiers who were reported to have fired both rubber and live ammunition.
Eighteen people were injured and one soldier was killed in what appeared to be a friendly fire incident.
Behind all the mayhem are two primary, yet potentially fragile, alliances between opposing military, business, and political interests....
The red shirts are the 'United Front For Democracy Against Dictatorship' (UDD).
They were originally Thais rallying around Thailand's previous prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his political party, who were ousted in a coup during 2006. The UDD is mostly made up of lower-income Thais from both the up-country provinces outside of Bangkok and Bangkok itself.
Thaksin's previous sweep to power was the result of the substantial attention he paid to developing and meeting the needs of Thailand's oft-forgotten provinces. Yet despite the red's mostly low-income origins, make no mistake of the fact that they are backed by wealthy business and military interests centering around Thaksin's political party which has reincarnated itself as 'Peu Thai', which can be translated as 'For Thais/Thailand'.
The reds recently switched to wearing non-red clothing in order to escape police and military checkpoints and make any government crack-down much more difficult. Thus they sometimes refer to themselves as 'multi-coloured' now.
The red shirts are opposed primarily by the pro-government yellow shirts, know as the 'People's Alliance for Democracy'. Note they use the term 'democracy' despite the fact they are trying to avoid elections right now. They essentially back the 'Democrat Party' who is currently in power, yet it is important to note that this party has never won an election since Thaksin was ousted, and they are closely aligned with military elements who instigated the 2006 coup.
The yellows are comprised mostly of middle and upper class royalist Thais, and infamously took over the Bangkok international airport with a huge sit-in in 2008. They are backed by business people and elites who were none too happy with the previous prime minister Thaksin's rapid rise to wealth and fame.
Note the yellow's have recently tried to ditch their yellow shirts and appear 'multi-coloured', in a similar fashion to the red's, in a bid to appear as if they represent 'all Thais'. Thus the colours lines are becoming blurred, visibly at least, as each side tried to appear as the voice of the majority.
This is from when yellow shirts took over the Bangkok international airport, pressing for the red-shirt friendly and elected government to step down. The key moment, in terms of understanding the current conflict over holding fresh elections, is at about 1:00 where the man says he is against holding elections.
Many thousands of 'red shirt' protesters have created an enormous bunker zone in the commercial centre of Bangkok.
This bunker zone is compete with multiple tire walls reinforced with wooden stakes and lines of red shirt 'guards.' Inside is an encampment sustained by all kinds of daily amenities maintained by red shirt organisers. Protesters never have to leave the site, and as a whole have already been there for weeks.
The graphic below, from the BBC, gives a sense of how large the bunkered zone is. Note the scale on the graphic. The longest red zone is about 3 kilometers long. Each main entry point has barricades and red shirt-manned checkpoints.
Despite looking rather crude in photos, this is actually a highly sophisticated operation, with substantial logistics in place, in-house television broadcast capabilities, and even security features such as red-shirt monitored surveillance cameras.
Government sources might say the crowd is only a few thousand, while sources within the zone might say it is many tens of thousands. Perhaps at times it has hit 100,000 since the crowd is reported to swell at certain times of night as more supporters stream in.
There are also countless more red-shirt supporters all over the country, who have recently shown their strength by blocking military and police convoys bound for Bangkok.
Both sides are inevitably distorting the true number of red shirts in Bangkok right now, but the red shirts are undoubtedly a massive group.
If one includes their silent supporters they could easily represent the largest political constituency in Thailand since the red shirt-backed Peu Thai party has won the most votes of any party in every elections going back to Thaksin. Yellow shirts have been able to turn out in very large numbers as well, though it seems that the reds are ultimately a larger group.
One of the peculiar aspects of Thailand's political turmoil is the way that its political protests maintain a positive, carnival-like atmosphere. Key leaders sing songs to dancing crowds and perform the equivalent of stand-up comic routines before delivering vitriolic attacks against their opposition. Bands are invited to play and it is usually a big party.
Many foreigners speak very positively about their times with the red shirts, for example, saying how friendly, caring, and festive everyone is.
This is true for vast majority of the time. Unfortunately, both sides, red and yellow, have a thuggish minority who has engaged in extreme forms of violence. There have been clashes between rival supporters as well as mysterious bomb attacks some even blame on a 'third hand' hidden group trying to foment instability.
Yet it can also get very nasty. Go to 0:45 in this video. Nevertheless, please note that both sides have resorted to extreme violence, even though this video only shows one.
While the red shirts may have begun as a group simply backing the previous ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and wanting his return, one shouldn't be so quick as to write off the current conflict as simply a battle between business interests. The red shirt movement as of late has grown into something far larger.
Its rallying call has moved away from simply Thaksin Shinawatra's past leadership and has tapped a longstanding sense of injustice felt by Thailand's lower class citizens, especially after the 2006 coup and successive post-coup elections rendered their votes meaningless.
Thus the pro-Thaksin supporters have expanded their mandate into a broader push for democracy, and by doing so, have been joined by pro-democracy advocates and simply disenfranchised Thais as well.
So, at the risk of over-simplifying things, it's now a conflict between the red shirts asking for an election and the pro-government yellow shirts trying to block fresh elections due to concerns that the current political party can't win an election. Yet neither side is squeaky clean, both have a minority which has resorted to violence, and both are backed by a nebulous alliance of business, military, and political interests....
The media has also progressively been censored over the last few years since the 2006 coup, most recently in an extreme fashion whereby the views of the current protesters, the 'red shirts' are now almost exclusively distributed through rebellious methods. The internet has been a substantial challenge for the government as the red shirts are well organised online with multiple redundant video channel sites the government censors can't keep up with, twitter feeds, and even their own UDD media team. Speeches from their central Bangkok protest zone are broadcast with the video-editing quality of a well-funded television show. They appear far more tech-savvy than their pro-government competitors, perhaps because they must be due to massive Thai government censorship of most positive views towards their movement.
Here's where things start to become particularly convoluted. The conflict isn't simply about people vs. the military, but also involves a back-door power struggle between military leaders.
For example, the current government has said that it would consider elections in one year, which might sound reasonable from afar. Yet within the context of Thailand's military politics it is unacceptable to the red shirt protesters due to the fact that in September of this year, if the current government stays in power, a perceived hard-line Thai general, Prayuth Ocha, could take the top slot from the more moderate current military leader Anupong Paochinda.
Red shirts worry that Prayuth would be more willing to use force against protesters in the future, while Anupong has tried to avoid a large violent crackdown on the main protest site so far. Prayuth would also be a long-term problem for the ousted Thaksin to deal with. Yet Anupong has to keep Prayuth happy to some extent despite being his superior, since he'll require protection once forced to retire in September...
Here's one video below that has been used to allege that a mysterious third party (referred to as a 'the third hand' in Thai) was involved on April 10th, obviously we can't verify any of this. Suffice to say the situation is far more complicated than it seems and the closer you get the more layers of intrigue you unearth. What we've shown is just the tip of the iceberg even. The behind the scenes machinations are vast in Thailand, probably more so than in most countries' politics.
We don't justify any violence that has happened, but we would like to merely point out that Thailand is another example of how the political evolution towards democracy is rarely the simple affair many think it to be.
Even if new elections are held and the current situation ends peacefully, Thailand still has a very long way to go. The yellow shirts might even come out in force to argue against new elections just as the reds are arguing for them.
Let's just hope at least that the country's political development keeps moving forward rather than backward.
There are a lot of good intentions involved, on both sides. In fact, from our experience with people on both sides, most of the people involved, are indeed well-intentioned. We feel they just need a free media to protect them from disinformation and representative political institutions that allow people to feel they have a say and can choose their leaders in a peaceful way.
Unfortunately, neither of these things exist in abundance right now, and the current violence is the inevitable outcome.
Just back in 1992, the military opened fire on masses of protesters. The preceding situation sounds eerily similar to what's happening right now. Hopefully this never repeats itself.
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