Saturday, April 17, 2010

Reds Have Surrendered Moral High Ground

In the beginning of this entire conflict, it could be reasonably argued that the red shirts held the moral high ground.  The man they helped elect Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was deposed from power in a military coup.  After the restoration of democracy, the red shirts won the most seats in Parliament and were able to form a government.  The courts dissolved two consecutive red led governments, and neither the police nor military seemed inclined to deal with the yellow shirted protesters who occupied not only the government buldings, but shut down international travel.  To add insult to injury, Thaksin was sentence to two years in prison and over a billion dollars of his assets were forfeited to the government.

So I can understand why the red shirts neither like nor respect the current government.  I can see how it must have appeared that the military and the courts were going to keep striking down red shirt governments until eventually the medium and small sized political parties realized that it was in their interest to form a government with the democrats and their yellow shirt allies.

The red shirts have portrayed themselves as the peasants against the Bangkok elite.  Its a pretty sympathetic argument, and probably one that has some merit.

When the red shirts were peacefully protesting at Phan Fa bridge, they were exercising their right to express their disapproval of the government.  I thought that their call for snap elections to be an exercise in futility, but certainly something within the framework of democratic protest.  I didn't see why the government would bow to their wishes.  What did it have to gain?  So long as the coalition partners remained together with the apparent support of the military, I didn't see how the red shirts would accomplish their goals.

I clearly underestimated the extent that the red shirt movement will go to try to accomplish its goals. It expanded its protest to the Ratchaprasong intersection, and shut down a major retail shopping area in central Bangkok.  Gunmen, believed by many observers to be associated with the red shirts, opened fired on protesters and soldiers alike.  This left twenty-four dead with another seventeen in critical condition.  The bombing of a power plant serving northern Bangkok may also be related to the red shirt movement.

The red shirt protests have already had an impact on the economy.  While there have been many different reports, most agree its cost over a billion dollars. The finance ministry estimates that this could actually reduce economic growth by a percentage or two.  That is enormous.  A lot of it comes from its impact on tourism.  People simply aren't coming to Thailand.  One hundred chartered planes from China to bring tourists to celebrate Songklon in Thailand were canceled at the last minute.

While I'm not the biggest fan of the Abhisit government, they have appeared willing to compromise.  They have offered to have new elections within six months.  While this does not meet the goal of the red shirt's call for immediate new elections, it gives them what they asked for, just not when they want it.

So I have to wonder how many more people are going to die, and how much more damage to the economy will occur so that the elections can occur a few months earlier?  Why is that six months so important?  I think the reason is that this movement is not at all about the poor peasants against the elite.  This entire movement is for the benefit of one man; Thaksin Shinawatra.  For him, those five months are crucial, because the government is likely to continue to pursue civil and criminal charges against him until the next election.  If elections are held immediately, and the red shirts prevail, then all those additional charges will disappear.

Thaksin vacations in Europe, putting on weight while indulging on Russian caviar and Swedish pastries, while people here in Bangkok are dying and the economy is hurting.  While the red shirt leaders may whip up support of their followers by telling them that by bringing the economy down they will hurt the elite, it is the poor who will be hurt the most.  The wealthy will be hurt, that is certain.  When business close, however, the people that work for those businesses lose their jobs.  And believe me, Thailand doesn't have the same safety nets that unemployed workers in the U.S. and Europe enjoy.

Before the violence erupted last week, I think a reasonable compromise would have been to have elections in six months, and the current government agree to not file any additional civil or criminal charges against Thaksin.  They could investigate if they desired, but leave the decision to pursue those charges to the next government.  That could still work, but now I think someone needs to be held responsible for the deaths of the soldiers and protesters alike.

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