TRAVEL IMPACT NEWSWIRE – Edition 28 (2010) - May 19, 2010
1. BANGKOK CURFEW AS RED-SHIRTS GO ON LAST-DITCH RAMPAGEBangkok has been placed under a 2000 hrs to 0600 hours curfew tonight to facilitate additional security measures and flesh out remnants of the red-shirts who have gone on a burning and looting rampage in the aftermath of the surrender of their anti-government protest leaders. A number of department stores, shopping complexes, movie theatres and other public buildings are among 12 spots where arson has been attempted allegedly by the rogue elements amongst the red-shirts as they seek to do last minute damage to compensate for the heavy political and military defeat they have suffered earlier today.
The city still remains extremely dangerous, with much anger being vented at journalists and media. Journalists at The Nation newspaper, for example, have been told to go home early today. The Bangkok Post evacuated its staff at 3 pm after red-shirts gathered and began advancing towards the building. Sporadic gunfire is still being heard in many parts of the city. The Thai government, seeking an early return to normalcy, is using its official media channels to repeatedly urge all residents to stay indoors tonight to facilitate a clean-up, which is presently under way with a mass dismantling of all the red-shirt barricades. Security checkpoints are to be set up at various points of the city tonight. Those who have to travel will be asked to provide proof. Many institutions and public transport facilities are to remain closed on May 20, including the Skytrain and the subway, as well as the Stock Exchange of Thailand.
Although media worldwide is carrying saturation coverage about developments in Bangkok, this editor has been asked to provide some context and background of the developments. The following is a report that was prepared by the Royal Thai Embassy in Washington D.C., on May 18, before today’s military move against the protestors. It reflects largely an official view, and hence may be subject to a different interpretation and viewpoint, but the facts are 100% accurate.
Begin report: Background and Analysis of the Political Situation in ThailandEditor's Note: The following report was issued by the Royal Thai Embassy in Washington D.C. and is being circulated among the Thai media.
BackgroundFor more than seven decades since becoming a democracy with a constitutional monarchy, Thailand has been going through the process of becoming a full-fledged democracy. In recent years, this process of democratisation has focused on overcoming the vestiges and legacies not only of military authoritarianism marked by intermittent coups - the latest being in September 2006. Thai society has also strived to get rid of the influence of money politics and abuses of power by political office holders, as could be seen during the time of the Thaksin Shinawatra administration. It was this which led to widespread street protests in 2005 and 2006, culminating in a coup and a period of protests and counter-protests by opposing sides, even after elections were held in December 2007.
Against this backdrop, since 12 March 2010, demonstrators from the group called the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) that is supportive of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, have been staging rallies in Bangkok, demanding the dissolution of the House of Representatives and holding of general elections. These demonstrators are composed of different groups with different underlying agendas.
First, there are those with legitimate grievances, including problems related to poverty, hardship, unfair treatment or economic and social disparities, which they want resolved. Like its predecessors, the present Government has been working to address these grievances through, among other things, implementation of various welfare and development schemes.
Second, there are those who want to bring down the present Government in order to bring back former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, without having him serve his prison terms as sentenced by the Court on the criminal charge of conflict of interest.
Third, there are those who are Marxist-Leninist ideologists who now work as strategists.
In addition, there are violent instigators, armed with weapons and ready to use them, apparently infiltrating among the demonstrators.
In their call for early elections, the protest leaders have accused the present Thai Government of being ‘illegitimate’ and focused on discrepancies in Thailand’s democracy and the current political regime as their rallying point - employing class-based terms and interpreting Thai society in a manner that does not reflect the present situation. While such political demands can be made through peaceful assembly, using violent means to force a legitimate government out of office cannot be accepted, as it would set a dangerous norm in the democratisation process of the country. Indeed, based on speeches and activities of the protest leaders, it is unclear if this is actually their only demands as there have also been talks about state power or the notion of ‘a new Thai state.’
The connection among these various different groups - who earlier seemed to work separately - have now become clearer. Moreover, some members of the opposition party have now joined the UDD protest leaders on the stage at their protest sites. In this regard, the moves made by various personalities - be they from opposition parties or protest leaders to draw attention from the local and foreign media or to appeal to the masses in other provinces or diplomatic corps - are not co-incidental or unplanned.
Meanwhile, there are links with networks operating through various means such as the internet and other media who conduct activities and disseminate messages or information variedly verging on subverting the country’s monarchical institution and calling for a change in Thailand’s present political regime. All these have to be further looked into.
Against the backdrop of these movements is former prime minister Thaksin, who has continuously provided them support, covertly and overtly, manoeuvring from overseas not least by linking in through video, phone calls or other electronic means inciting the crowds to carry on with their now unlawful rallies and attempting to undermine a legitimate government by violent means. He acted similarly during the riots in April 2009. More recently, he has hired an international legal counsel to conduct a global public relations campaign - on his behalf - using and spreading distorted information against the Government. Nevertheless, the fact that he was once an elected leader does not absolve him from accountability and responsibilities from his malicious behaviours and wrongdoings.
The former prime minister, despite his continued popularity, is by law a fugitive in a criminal case. Instead of accepting the legal system, which he himself continues to use against others, he has chosen to live abroad to avoid serving his sentence of two-year imprisonment, having fled Thailand just two months before the Thai Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Persons Holding Political Positions in October 2008 found him guilty of conflict of interest in accordance with the country’s anti-corruption laws. A number of other cases against him remain pending with the court or on-going investigation, involving charges of corruption, conflict of interest and abuse of power. In addition, in February 2010, the Court also found that, while in office, the former prime minister had committed acts that inappropriately benefited a company in which he, through various nominees and shell companies, was actually the main shareholder in contravention of the law. Consequently, the Court ordered the seizure of part of his assets (approximately US$ 1.4 billion). The verdict has also pointed to certain inappropriate acts which could lead to further legal and administrative actions.
Besides court cases, numerous allegations of human rights violation have been made against Mr. Thaksin, in connection with his policy in launching a war on drugs that resulted in cases of alleged extra-judicial killings, as well as in handling the situation in the Southern Border Provinces. Many also believe that he is hardly a true believer of democracy, given his tendencies towards parliamentary authoritarianism and widespread nepotism - putting those close to him in important position.
Developments during March - April 2010
At the beginning, the UDD rallies had been largely peaceful. The Government had allowed them to continue as part of the exercise of the people’s constitutional right to peaceful assembly, regarding this as a process through which people could participate in the country’s political life. At the same time, to enable police, military and civilian officers to take measures to prevent and contain the situation from escalating, the Government had to invoke the Internal Security Act (ISA), which - as evident from previous cases - did not affect the right of peaceful assembly.
Towards early April, however, the demonstrations escalated, with protesters occupying the business district around Ratchaprasong Intersection, blocking areas and roads and storming into the Parliament building, while defying efforts by the authorities to enforce the law. Their rallies thus transformed from what was peaceful assembly to unlawful action beyond the limit sanctioned by the Constitution, causing serious disruption to the daily life of the general public, as well as having a severe economic and social impact upon the country. This was reaffirmed by the Civil Court on 5 April 2010, which found - based on the Government’s petition and the objection submitted by the UDD, as well as other evidence and facts regarding the situation - that the UDD demonstrations are unlawful, and that the Government has the authority to resolve, prevent and restore the situation back to normalcy.
Given the continued escalation, the Government on 7 April 2010 declared a severe emergency situation pursuant to the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation B.E. 2548 (2005) in the areas of Bangkok and some districts in nearby provinces in order to empower officials concerned to restore normalcy and return the areas occupied by demonstrators to the general public.(1)
In discharging their duties, the security officers - military, police and civilian - have been provided with clear procedures governing their operations, undertaking measures only as necessary and proportionate to the situation. Due consideration have been given to people’s rights and safety. They also have established rules of engagement for crowd control in accordance with international standards,(2) including a strict rule on use of live bullets - which at the time was permitted only in two cases, namely, to shoot warning shots into the air and to defend themselves when their lives are threatened.(3) Their actions are also guided by the relevant rulings of the Administrative Court and the Civil Court, which do not prohibit dispersal of the demonstrations but state that any measure to be taken must be as necessary and appropriate to the situation and in accordance with international standards.
Incidents In April 2010
On 10 April 2010, while security officers were trying to enforce the law by asking the demonstrators to give back the areas they occupied around Phan Fah Bridge, they were met with strong resistance from the demonstrators in various forms, including the use of lethal weapon by unknown persons, leading to over 20 deaths and several hundred injured among both the security officers and demonstrators as well as innocent bystanders.
The Government regrets the losses that occurred. The Government also regrets underestimating, at the time, the readiness of some individuals and groups to use lethal weapon to harm fellow Thais - be they demonstrators, bystanders or security officers - to worsen the situation and instigate further violence.
Judging from evidence and video footage taken by both the local and international media, it is clear that there were terrorist elements infiltrating among the demonstrators, who used war weapons with indiscriminate effect, leading to loss of lives and injuries on both sides. Photographs and video footages show that tear gas launchers, M 67 hand grenades, M 79 grenade launchers, AK 47 machine guns as well as improvised weapons were used against security officers who were not equipped with these types of weapons.
As for the incident on 22 April 2010, while a group of people - comprising residents in the Silom area and those described by the media as ‘multi-coloured shirts’ - gathered on Silom Road at Saladang Intersection to express their opposition to the UDD, M79 grenades from unknown person(s) were fired into the former group, resulting in one death and injuring several others. Then on 29 April, beyond anyone’s expectations, a group of demonstrators blockaded and intruded into Chulalongkorn Hospital, which is next to the protest site, making it necessary for the hospital to move patients to farther buildings or transfer them to other hospitals.
Investigations are being conducted into what actually transpired in both incidents, as well as other incidents involving use of war weapons, including sporadic grenade attacks and the firing of an RPG rocket at an oil reserve tank. In addition to the investigation conducted by the authorities led by the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), the Prime Minister has established a fact finding commission to look into the incidents. The Government also stands ready to cooperate with similar efforts by independent agencies such as the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which has already initiated an inquiry process of its own.
Meanwhile, remedies have been given to those affected - on both security officers’ and demonstrators’ sides - by the unfortunate incidents. And although the UDD had left the Phan Fah area, they continue their rallies at Ratchaprasong Intersection, making it necessary for many businesses in the area to close. In this regard, the Government is also working - in close cooperation with the private sector concerned - on measures to help ease the effect of the prolonged protests, especially for employees who cannot earn their living due to closure of businesses, as well as for Thai and foreign businesses alike who may face difficulties, such as those relating to cash flows and payment of salaries.
Attempt to cordon off the Ratchaprasong Area from 13 May 2010 onwards
After the efforts at negotiation and compromise had failed - particularly with the UDD leaders’ rejection of the five-point roadmap for reconciliation proposed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on 3 May 2010, welcomed by the majority of Thais as a way forward with all legitimate concerns raised by the protesters taken into account - and given the increasingly adverse effect of the prolonged protests on Thai society and its economy, the Government decided on 13 May 2010 to seek the ending of the protests at Ratchaprasong Intersection by cordoning off the area so as to apply pressure for the protesters to leave. Measures include setting up of check points around the protest site to prevent people from joining the rallies, and suspending public utilities and transportation services in the area. There has been no instruction to disperse or ‘crack down’ on the protests, and no intention to cause harm to anyone, as misrepresented or alleged. The authorities have also been facilitating efforts by charity groups and NGOs to bring innocent protesters, particularly women, children and the elderly, out of the protest area or to safe locations. The opening of the new school term on 17 May 2010 has also been postponed.
Be that as it may, security officers sent in to set up and man the check points on the perimeter have been attacked - not just by sling shots and homemade bombs - but by live ammunition and war weapons, particularly hand grenades and M 79 grenades. From 13 to 17 May 2010, some 56 M 79 grenades were launched against the security officers. All these have affected people in the areas and compelling the officers to respond to defend themselves as well as innocent bystanders nearby - not least members of the media and emergency medical service personnel working in the areas. There is also visual evidence of these armed elements using innocent people, including children, as human shields. Furthermore, there have been instances of robberies against ATMs and convenience stores. It should be noted that all these incidents have taken place outside the protest area, and the security officers have been holding their ground without making any attempt to enter therein.
The government’s legitimacy and approaches to resolving the situation
The present Thai Government came to power through normal, parliamentary means under a democratic system. Although the protest leaders have tried to portray the present Thai Government as ‘illegitimate’, the fact is that Mr. Abhisit Vejjajiva - a seven-time member of parliament - was voted prime minister by a majority in the House of Representatives in exactly the same manner and by exactly the same House as his two predecessors, to whom Mr. Abhisit had earlier lost the contests to lead in forming a government, and who had subsequently been disqualified due to violation of relevant laws. That the House may decide to give a chance to form a government to a party other than the one which won the most seats but fell short of a clear majority, and that political parties may switch support from one party to another is not unusual in a democracy with a multi-party system, particularly when there is a hung parliament.
The overall objective of the Royal Thai Government in addressing the current political situation is not merely to return normalcy to the areas affected by the protests. It is also working to maintain the rule of law, return normalcy to the country and protect the country’s principal institution from being drawn into the political conflict. The Government has always maintained that both security and political solutions must be found and grievances addressed. Importantly, any solution must not result in creating a political norm which allows the use of terrorist means, violence, intimidation or threats to force or overthrow a legitimate government and achieve political ends, as this is related to the future of democracy.
First, with regards to the grievances of the demonstrators on such issues as poverty, injustice and unequal treatment, the present Government recognises its duty to tackle them, as successive Thai governments have endeavoured to do. Indeed, since taking office, it has implemented a number of measures, including through such schemes as income guarantee for farmers, free health care, free education, provision of subsistence support for the elderly, and measures to address the informal debt problems. which are problems that cannot be resolved within a short period of time,
Second, on the political demands, including Constitution amendments and the dissolution of the House of Representatives, the Government views that these must be resolved politically through consultations. On its part, the Government has not rejected these demands and has all along shown its readiness to engage in dialogue with the protest leaders. The Prime Minister himself met with them twice and indicated his readiness to dissolve the House of Representatives in nine months, providing sufficient time for crucial conditions to be met. First, various problematic provisions in the Constitution should be amended and put to the people through a referendum, so that mutually acceptable election rules will be in place. Second, a conducive environment has to be achieved so as to enable politicians of all parties to campaign freely without fear of threats. Third, the Government wishes to see through the passage of the budget to ensure continuity of the country’s economic recovery and on-going stimulus programmes. This proposal was rejected out of hand by the protest leaders.
The Prime Minister’s roadmap for reconciliation
In an effort to address the grievances and concerns not only of the protesters but also the majority of Thais in other sectors of society, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva put forward before the Thai public a five-point roadmap for reconciliation to restore peace and normalcy to Thai society. The said roadmap, which was formulated based on the views and grievances from all groups of people, be they the protesters, academics, civil society organizations or ordinary people, encompasses the need: 1) to uphold and protect the monarchy - which is a unifying force among Thai people - from being violated or drawn into the political conflict; 2) to resolve fundamental problems of social justice systematically and with participation by all sectors of society; 3) to ensure that the media can operate freely and constructively and not be misused to create conflict or hatred; 4) to establish facts about violent incidents through setting up of an independent fact-find committee with a view to ensuring justice for all concerned and seeking out the truth for society; and 5) to establish mutually acceptable political rules by putting issues, including certain provisions of the Constitution or laws seen as unfair, on the table and set up a mechanism to solicit views from all sides to bring about justice for those involved in the political conflict, so that these issues would no longer lead to rejection of the political process and conflict in the future. At the time, the Prime Minister also proposed that should his roadmap be acceptable to all sides, elections could be held as early as 14 November 2010.
The roadmap has been welcomed by people in various sectors of society, including key figures in the opposition party, as offering a way not only towards ending the demonstrations and restoring normalcy but also towards resolving some of the fundamental problems in Thai society in a longer run. The UDD leaders, in fact, had also accepted it in principle but after days of talks with the Government, they rejected it, refusing among others, to end their protests to join the process of reconciliation. With the UDD’s rejection, the Prime Minister had to drop his proposal on the election date, which would be determined later once the situation becomes conducive. Meanwhile, the Government has continued to work with the civil society sector and others concerned, including the media, to move forward on the five elements under the reconciliation plan.
On the issue of the breaking of the law and matters of security and the safety of the public, particularly acts of violence which can be considered ‘terrorist acts’ under Thai law and use of weapons in the afore-mentioned instances, the Government regards this as a pressing problem, and there is no alternative but for the authorities to enforce the law in accordance with the principle of the rule of law.
Despite the call for the Government to take more forceful measures to disperse the protesters and maintain law and order, the Government has all along exercised utmost restraint and avoided using force. This is not because it cannot enforce the law but because it wants to avoid unnecessary violence. And in cases where forces are involved, the officers have not been the first to use force. Meanwhile, in light of the demonstrators’ attempts to spread distorted and incisive information, some of which have also been picked up and spread by normal media, including international ones, the authorities are making efforts to disseminate facts so that people understand the situation, including the unlawful nature of the present demonstrations and the dangerous action taken by the armed elements.
The Prime Minister has noted that there are various groups of people among the demonstrators, with some being subject to arrest warrants, some using violence and some being innocent people. By law, they cannot be treated in the same manner. In this regard, the authorities are working towards separating innocent demonstrators from those who have broken the law and thus must be subject to legal proceedings. The authorities have also taken measures, as necessary and appropriate, to prevent the protesters from expanding their protests beyond their main site at Ratchaprasong Intersection, thereby threatening or causing further difficulty for the public.
Given the present turn of events, the best solution is for the UDD leaders to demonstrate their sincerity by helping to restore normalcy in society and ending the protests. They must also end attacks against security officers working to ensure public security and safety at various check points, as well as riots and attacks against innocent people. With these, talks could proceed, and the situation would return to normalcy enabling all sides to join in the process of reconciliation in accordance with the Prime Minister’s proposed plan.
· In addition, the Prime Minister has also urged the protest leaders and those with arrest warrants to enter the judicial process, affirming that everyone, including himself, is under the law, and no one, including former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, should be exempted from the judicial process. Meanwhile, a channel of communication with the UDD at the working level remains open.
Footnotes(1) On 13 and 16 May 2010, the Cabinet approved the use of the Emergency Decree in additional provinces, putting the total of provinces declared as having emergency situation at 22. This is in order to enable the officers - police, military and civilian - to ensure law and order and prevent any possible disturbances in those areas.
(2) The established rules of engagement of security officers stipulate that seven steps be taken in a graduated manner in the handling of the crowd situation, namely: 1) show of force by lining up the security officers holding riot shields and batons; 2) informing and warning the protesters that the officers are about to use force; 3) use of shields; 4) use of water cannon or high-powered amplifiers; 5) use of throw-type tear gas; 6) use of batons; and 7) use of rubber bullets.
(3) Following the incidents on 10 April 2010, during which use of weapons by armed elements among the protesters cost the lives of not just unarmed demonstrators but also a number of security officers, this rule has been revised for the operations to cordon off the Ratchaprasong Area in May to permit use of live bullets in one additional case, namely: to retaliate against clearly identified elements armed with weapons. Also, with a view to preventing casualties due to close confrontation as happened on 10 April, shotguns may be used against armed groups and terrorist elements approaching security units to prevent them from causing harm to others, and in this case, security forces would only aim below the knee level. The use of tear-gas launcher is also permitted in order to maintain distance between the officers and armed protesters. As a principle, security units would not use lethal weapons against unarmed demonstrators and in no circumstances would they be used against women and children.
Email and Source: Executive Editor: Imtiaz Muqbil, Travel Impact Newswire (firstname.lastname@example.org)
By: Executive Editor: Imtiaz Muqbil