Nakhonratchasima, Thailand — Red Shirt protesters bent on unseating Thailand’s government took a break on Wednesday as people poured into the streets to celebrate the annual Thai water festival of Songkran. The group’s leaders said protests would be postponed to allow the celebrations. But it is only a momentary lull.
Just a few days prior to the festival, where water cannons are used to cool down hot temperatures, Bangkok found itself facing a different type of cannon. The Thai military were once again back in action, using foreign-supplied military hardware – much of it from the United States – to combat democracy advocates and supporters of ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Although the use of lethal force was evident, with a body count of 21 killed in clashes on Saturday, security cameras in the area were offline and Thai authorities denied that live rounds were fired at demonstrators. As well, the Thai government has claimed that a pro-Red Shirt force had infiltrated the demonstrators carrying machine guns and using them against the military.
In fact, at least 11 of the dead were killed by army-issue rubber bullets fired at long distance, emergency services personnel have revealed.
Foreign tourists are hiding. Even Thai military conscripts found themselves seeking shelter when they were pelted with bricks and their commanding officer was injured – and no one replaced him. Embassies have warned their citizens to avoid travel to Bangkok, and the Japanese government, which has sensitive financial investments in Thailand, is asking why a Japanese journalist for Reuters was shot in the chest and killed.
Not far from the hue and cry and the deaths, and threat of more deaths, the revered Thai monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej is convalescing, or at least holding his own against age-related ill health. The latest violence must surely cause him considerable pain. Throughout his many decades as head of state he has often cautioned the Thai people, society and leadership to avoid double standards, be understanding and tolerant, not to overuse lèse majesté accusations, and to practice Buddhism.
Most Thais pay lip service to these teachings but in real life pay little heed. Double standards are dejure in all disciplines, and if you think Thais have learned to be tolerant just ask a question about the role of the monarchy in a public forum.
This writer has temporarily fled to the United States because of that lack of tolerance, combined with harsh criminal defamation laws that Thailand uses to keep silence in the public ranks. Police in Bangkok called me while still in Nakhonratchasima last week to state that Thai Pol. Lt. Colonel Wattanasak Mungkitkarndee was considering adding to his previous criminal charges against me one or more charges of violating the country’s 2007 Computer Crimes Act. Section 16 of the Act may apply, which assigns a possible three-year prison sentence and US$2,000 fine against anyone who posts information online that embarrasses a Thai!
The same police who called me with this threat also indicated that my three criminal filings against Wattanasak and his U.K. friend Akbar Khan, both lèse majesté accusation advocates, would not be investigated because they were “not detailed enough.”
Ironically, this is precisely the problem with Thai government reports related to the latest violence. Just who killed whom and how it happened will remain a mystery and a point of contention as long as the victims remain dead – which is forever.
The U.S. State Department has issued a note of concern over the violence, treading a narrow non-offensive path so as not to endanger U.S. military sales and other commercial interests in the country. But they are already at huge risk, with the danger escalating. However, Washington may choose to overlook this as it has the major clashes of April 10 – hoping that the blood can be wiped up and streets cleared for more business.
It’s a harsh overview of U.S. involvement in Thailand, but having been in two other countries in the past where the U.S. administration missed the boat by a long shot – Iran and Saudi Arabia – it is impossible to ignore the warning signs here; that is, if you are not a diplomat.
While in the Thai attorney general’s offices last Friday, I overheard a short conversation between two prosecutors. One asked the other, “Are you taking Chinese lessons?” She replied in the affirmative in Thai, but then switched to Chinese to prove the point.
That Thai officials are so solidly behind China politically and culturally should be one of the warning signs that U.S. interests in Thailand need to be weighed against those of China. When the two diverge, the United States will lose. Of that there is no doubt. And it will happen with increasing frequency.
(Frank G. Anderson is the Thailand representative of American Citizens Abroad. He was a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer to Thailand from 1965-67, working in community development. A freelance writer and founder of northeast Thailand’s first local English language newspaper, the Korat Post – http://www.thekoratpost.com – he has spent over eight years in Thailand “embedded” with the local media. He has an MBA in information management and an associate degree in construction technology. ©Copyright Frank G. Anderson.)