Thailand's Military Doesn't Look Good on Home Video

Videos of the Army crackdown give Thais what they could not see on TV, and may transform nation's politics - a letter from Bangkok

SOON after Thai troops gunned down protesters in central Bangkok last month, small-time vendors returned to sidewalks near the site to resume selling old Buddhist amulets which, they claim, ward off bad things.

Several vendors, however, decided to sell something new that has helped to ward off the military: video cassettes depicting scenes of the May 18-20 massacre.

The videos, entitled "Civil War in Thailand," are a mix of private recordings by hand-held cameras and broadcasts from CNN, NBC, BBC, and other news organizations. They have been a big hit among the Thais, who did not see the graphic scenes of soldiers shooting unarmed civilians on military-controlled local television.

"I sell about 50 tapes a day," says one woman, who lures passers-by with a free showing of the violence on her battery-driven TV, which sits on a sidewalk near Thammassat University.

About a dozen people stare at the show, even though most have seen it many times.

Depending on how well one bargains, a tape of the "War" sells for about $8. A complete set of four tapes - if you can stomach that much - is available at a discount.

The videos have so disgraced the military leadership and enraged people that Thai politics may never be the same, in the way Los Angeles was changed by the Rodney King tape.

If the tapes reach rural Thai voters, they could make a big difference in an election that was mandated after the king forced out a military ruler and installed a temporary civilian prime minister.

The power of small video cameras proves that the Thai military, for all the money it has spent on American-made weapons, could not ultimately defeat the Japanese consumer electronics that the protesters used in their fight for democracy. The proof of the military's lost legitimacy was in the viewing.

Just as effective as video cameras during the crisis were new mobile phones and fax machines. Such items have been more of a status symbol than a necessity for Thailand's new middle-class until now, but they proved their worth during the hail of bullets.

Quick communications helped protesters to keep in touch with each other, organize more demonstrations, and get help for the wounded and dying. Anywhere from 52 to several hundred people were killed by the troops.

Some Western embassies now are enlarging images in the videotapes to see if they can identify military officers who were firing at the crowds. Such information might determine whether Western countries would be willing to deal with those officers.

And presumably, young military officers who did not take part in the massacre have seen the tapes, laying the foundation for a possible backlash against top brass.

The tapes have also created new heroes. People who stood their ground against the troops or remained to help the wounded are held up as role models in the next battle for democracy. The camera is a sure witness.

The downside for Thailand, however, is that the videotaped violence was seen by the rest of the world, too. Bangkok hotels are empty of tourists. A booming economy has suddenly been deflated.

Like guns, the cameras merely amplify the power of one side in disputes between humans. In a "war" between cameras and guns, the guns won the battle but the cameras may yet win the war.

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