Apr 12th 2010 | BANGKOK | From The Economist online
IT WAS the bloody showdown that many Thais had feared was coming. On the night of April 10th, the war of attrition between a shaky government and its red-shirted protesters became an all-out shooting war, briefly but with lethal consequences. At least 21 people died in the worst political violence Bangkok has seen since May 1992, when combat troops fired on demonstrators on the exact same streets. This time several hundred were injured, some seriously.
The government and the protesters each accuse the other of starting the firefight and neither is minded to compromise. But a negotiated settlement that includes the promise of fresh elections—in exchange for some withdrawal by the protesters—seems the only way the cycle of violence might be stopped.
For the past month, demonstrators dressed in red and waving red banners have occupied a symbolic swath of Bangkok’s old city. The “red shirts” have succeeded in whipping up public support for their drive to force an early election. But the prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, who will face elections next year, has not buckled. While the protests themselves had been peaceful, the capital was shaken by a string of unsolved bombings: small explosions that did not kill anyone.
On April 7th, when protesters seized a second site, in a posh shopping area, and then briefly invaded Parliament, Mr Abhisit found a pretext to declare a state of emergency in Bangkok and the surrounding provinces. For two days, the emergency was in name only. Red shirts were encouraged by signs of divided loyalties among rank-and-file security forces on the streets, whose working-class and rural backgrounds mirror those of the protesters.
Finally, on the afternoon of April 10th, the army began to advance along the tree-lined streets that lead to the red shirts’ main encampment, on one of the city’s canal bridges, below a watchtower. In their initial skirmishes, troops used rubber bullets and tear gas against the protesters, whose numbers swelled later in the day as reinforcements arrived by car and motorbike. As the sun sank low, a queasy calm prevailed. Riot troops slumped by their shields. In a surreal turn, an army negotiator used a loudspeaker to play soothing disco classics—and even John Lennon’s “Imagine”—to the becalmed protesters.
What happened next is unclear, and hotly disputed. Government and military officers say that troops came under fire as they were retreating along narrow streets near Bangkok’s backpacker hub. When they returned fire they provoked a furious response from protesters on the other side of the barricades. The battle lasted only an hour or so. But the casualties came in thick and fast, as did the ambulances that carried them away. Some soldiers fired live rounds into the air and, it seems, towards the crowds in the darkened streets.
Red-shirt leaders say the army committed a massacre. Those red shirts that were armed bore only rocks and sharpened sticks. One confusing element is that the rogue firepower appeared to consist of a number of black-clad men who emerged from the shadows bearing assault rifles and explosives. Similar agents provocateurs played walk-on roles in May 1992 and in other eruptions of violence in Bangkok. Your correspondent watched a gunman step into a street where red shirts had taken cover and calmly aim a burst of automatic fire towards the army lines. On a parallel street, protesters overran a column of armoured personnel carriers; the crewmen were captured and later paraded on a rally stage. So were the corpses of two protesters, martyrs to a cause that has shaken Thailand to its conservative core.
That the military operation was botched seems beyond dispute. The army lost four of its men and an alarming amount of equipment while failing to disperse the protest. Instead it exacerbated an intractable social and ideological conflict.
Mr Abhisit’s political career may be over, but it would be better for Thailand for him to stay on, for now, and drag protest leaders back to the negotiating table. The provision of a timetable for new elections, of three months or so, is essential. The red-shirt protests must be brought to a halt and some kind of peace must be brought to the streets of Bangkok. Mr Abhisit’s coalition has so far resisted. The alternative—an even more bloody military assault—would tip Thailand further towards chaos.