Tens of thousands of antigovernment “red-shirt” protesters rallied in Bangkok Sunday in their largest show of force since Thai troops violently broke up protests last May.
Rally leaders demanded justice for those killed in May and vowed to keep pressing the government.
The boisterous rally, which drew at least 30,000 people, came as Thailand braces for an election that must be called by the end of this year and will be bitterly contested. Last year's bloodshed, the worst in a generation, has left a highly-polarized political landscape and calls for national reconciliation have faltered.
A rival royalist group is preparing to rally on Jan. 25 and has stirred up tensions on the disputed Thai-Cambodia border, where seven Thais, including a ruling party lawmaker, were recently arrested for illegal entry. The group shut down Bangkok’s international airports in late 2008, helping to topple an elected government loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
“The underlying conflict is still not resolved,” says Kan Yuenyong, director of Siam Intelligence Unit, a research center in Bangkok.
Hours before Sunday’s rally, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva used a televised speech to unveil new policies for low-income families. His aides say that the government is trying to reduce tensions by reaching out to disaffected voters on both economic issues and social justice, a rallying cry of the red shirts. These reforms include constitutional changes and new media regulations.
“This is part of reconciliation. The broader aim is to reduce injustice,” says Panitan Wattanyagorn, a spokesman for Mr. Abhisit.
In the aftermath of the May protests, in which 91 people died, mostly red-shirt protesters shot in street clashes, the government promised a full investigation.
But the powerful military has stonewalled an independent inquiry, to the frustration of victims’ families. Investigators have also struggled to identify masked gunmen who fought alongside the red shirts.
At Sunday’s rally, protesters held aloft gilt-framed photos of the dead and pinned up gruesome pictures of corpses. Candles were lit in their memory at a makeshift altar with a collection box stuffed with donations. A woman with horror movie make-up daubed on her face held a sign that read in Thai
and English: “Abhisit is the great PRETENDER. One Land, Double Standard.”
Patama Thooppae, a cashier in a nightclub, said any reconciliation was “impossible” while Abhisit holds power. “We want democracy,” she says, indicating the swelling crowd in the shadow of a shopping mall torched last May.
Abhisit has promised to call elections once the situation calms down. Last month, he lifted a state of emergency imposed during the protests. Some analysts have predicted a poll by mid year to take advantage of strong economic growth and higher public spending.
Mr. Panitan says the government is already in “campaign mode” and this will ease political tension. “By shortening our term in office and
giving the power to the people to decide on their parliament, this can contribute to reconciliation,” he says.
Having survived last year’s upheaval, the ruling Democrat Party appears confident of reelection, say analysts. But it has lost the last three elections to parties led by or allied with Mr. Thaksin, who continues to pull strings from afar and has plenty of supporters. He made a brief phone-in to Sunday’s rally, promising to help Thailand recover its democracy.
“The Democrat Party and its allies have persuaded themselves that the (red-shirt) threat is diminished. But we’ve yet to see whether that’s true or not,” says
Chris Baker, a historian of Thailand and coauthor of a critical biography of Thaksin.
A peaceful election that returned the current government with a democratic mandate could tamp down protests though the red-shirt movement is likely to endure in some form. But a victory for the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai party would set the stage for further confrontation, particularly if Abhisit’s military backers refuse to accept the result. This could mean a repeat of the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin and exposed the fault lines in Thai politics.
Last May, hundreds of red shirts were arrested under the state of emergency. Human rights groups say that many were jailed arbitrarily on flimsy evidence.
The government has agreed to release some detainees. But courts have refused to grant bail to protest leaders held on terrorism charges. In contrast,
prosecutors have repeatedly postponed an indictment of the royalists who seized the airports in 2008, fuelling red-shirt complaints of double standards.
Frederico Ferrara, an assistant professor at Hong Kong’s City University and author of "Siam Unhinged," a series of critical essays, argues reconciliation has become a hollow slogan. “A better word for what the government has been trying to do is something like "restoration"– to re-educate the skeptical, terrorize the reticent, and crush the undaunted,” he writes in an e-mail.