Thailand’s Conflict Still Burns Red a Year After Bangkok Burned

Thaksin ShirtFrom the balcony of my apartment, on Petchaburi Road near the intersection with Ratchadamri, I can see the Red Shirts gathering in front of Central World Plaza. They’re here, May 19th, for a peaceful rally to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the bloody confrontation between them and the Thai military that brought two months of tense anti-government protests to a devastating end.

All told, during those two months 92 people were killed, nearly 2,000 were injured, and hundreds (thousands?) of innocent non-participators working in the Ratchaprasong, Siam, and Pratunam areas either lost their jobs or had them suspended when arson attacks temporarily–in some cases permanently–closed down hotels, banks, shopping centers, restaurants, and shops. Street vendors suffered from the sharp decline in foot traffic of both foreigners and locals, and many were forced to move elsewhere. Tourism fell. The flames of long-lingering classism issues flared brightly.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for that awful May 19th disaster. The fuse of that powder keg explosion had been lit years before, slowly burning its way through government corruption, a bloodless military coup, and protests by the Yellow Shirts that begat reactionary protests by the Red Shirts. It’s a convoluted and beyond complicated conflict, one that’s since simmered down but, unfortunately, one I have my doubts will be resolved by the upcoming elections on July 3. That’s the hope, but I can already hear the losing party crying foul.

I watched Bangkok burn on a television at Colombo Airport in Sri Lanka. My Bangkok; my neighborhood; my home. The one I love so dearly, the one I’d left behind some 10 months prior after moving back to New York. I lived in Pratunam, as I do now, around the corner from where the Red Shirt protests began in earnest and steadily ratcheted up into sporadic bouts of destruction. Still, in a country where 95% of the population are peaceful Buddhists, I was convinced it’d never come to such a violent end. I was obviously wrong. The footage of gunfire and of burning buildings and of human loss that streamed across BBC that night brought me to tears. I was as sad as I was angry.

Shame on everybody involved in this mess. That day’s blood stains many hands; unfortunately neither side has really owned up or taken responsibility (much less admitted blame) for the events of May 19th. That certainly hasn’t helped facilitate any so-called reconciliation, but it feels too late for that anyway.

I’m not a Thai political commentator, nor somebody particularly well-educated on the nuances of this conflict. I feel like the Reds have a legitimate point; as corrupt and manipulative as Thaksin was and probably still is, he did accomplish quite a bit while in office. That doesn’t mean I’m a Red sympathizer: I don’t particularly care which politician or which party wins the election on July 3. Politics are politics are politics, especially in Thailand; there’s never a side that’s right and a side that’s wrong, one that’s good and one that’s bad. Like most expat observers, I simply want some measure of non-violent closure come July, for the sake of the Thai people.

Political strife is nothing new to this country, but this one conflict has festered for far too long. Enough. I know it’s not this simple, but it’s time to move on and make a color-coded Thailand nothing more than a painful memory.

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