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What's Happening In Thailand?
An Interview with Patrick Winn ­ American journalist in Bangkok
By Kourosh Ziabari
Thailand is currently witness to one of its bloodiest civil wars...the worst since the 2006 military coup which ousted the popular Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from office. The supporters of former Prime Minister are calling for the dissolution of parliament and a new round of general elections. The "Red Shirts" are middle-urban and rural Thais who benefited from the socialistic policies of former Prime Minister and are now risking their lives for the reappearance of freedom and democracy in Thailand. According to the official stats, 24 people have been killed and 1000 other wounded since the eruption of demonstrations and street clashes in which the Thai police has relentlessly opened fire on the angry demonstrators.
Having seen 15 military coups and 27 changes of Prime Ministers during his 64 years of kingdom, the 82-year-old Thai monarch Bhumibol Adulyadej is the world's longest-serving head of state and has kept a low profile regarding the current political crisis in his country. The military loyalists of Mr. Adulyadej who deposed the popular government in a bloodless September 2006 coup had resorted to a number of excuses, including several charges of lèse majesté, to depose Thaksin and bring into power the chief of army General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, a close ally of the king.
Now, Thailand is facing a paralyzing political crisis once again and stability has departed from Bangkok. I've interviewed Patrick Winn, the American journalist and Thailand correspondent of the Global Post news service to discuss the movement of Red Shirts and the intensive chaos in the South Asian country.
Kourosh Ziabari: What caused the dissolution of Thailand's Thai Rak Thai party in 2007 by the Constitutional Court of Thailand? Did the West endorse this movement which was preceded by the 2006 coup?
Patrick Winn: The defunct Thai Rak Thai, like other parties affiliated with Thaksin Shinawatra, was dissolved under fraud accusations. The West has largely taken a hands-off approach to steering Thailand's political development. America, which counts Thailand as its oldest Asian ally, has distanced itself from censure of any Thai political movements. U.S. leaders like to vaguely encourage democracy, but they've shown no interest in direct interference.
KZ: It's said that the 2006 coup was endorsed by the Thai Monarch humibol Adulyadej. He was the one who gave the green light to the Commander of Army Sonthi Boonyaratglin to depose the popular Prime Minister Thaksin; however, the international reactions to the unconstitutional movement were not that severe and decisive. Did the West implicitly endorse the coup?
PW: The U.S., by law, has to cut military funding to any nation that stages a coup. But while the U.S. temporarily halted funding, it made few other moves to weaken ties with Thailand's army. In fact, just months after the coup, the U.S. legitimized the Thai military by going ahead with massive military exercises, the largest in Asia. Basically, America treated the coup as an embarrassing annoyance but not a horrible catastrophe worthy of open condemnation.
KZ: Is the movement of Red Shirts, those who proclaim themselves as the supporters of former Prime Miniser Thaksin Shinawatra, going to bear fruit? They're seemingly calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, dissolution of the parliament and a new round of general elecions. What's going to happen next?
PW: The Red Shirts movement has already proven quasi-successful. They've overcome a battalion of soldiers intent on dispersing them, pried guns from soldiers' hands and captured military vehicles. Despite weeks of daily government suggestions that a crackdown on their encampment is nigh, they remain in control of parts of Bangkok. Many from Bangkok's working class openly support the movement by flying red flags.
At this point, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has two options. He could bend to protesters' demands, which would satisfy many working-class Thais and likely send them home. Many pundits in the Western media have suggested this is the best way forward. But in Thailand, Abhisit's urban, middle-class support base would likely turn on him and cut short his political career.
The other option is a crackdown. This would quite likely degenerate into dozens of injuries and possibly deaths in an area filled with elderly women and children. Red Shirt protesters have even threatened to flee into the glitzy Central World mall nearby -- Asia's second shopping center -- if troops push into their encampment. Even if troops secured the area, protesters would likely regroup elsewhere in Bangkok and continue their fight in the upcountry provinces.
KZ: It was the 2006 coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin. Why should the large-scale protests take place four years later? Would you please explain for us the course of events which led to the current political turmoil in Thailand?
PW: The Red Shirts trace this conflict directly to the 2006 coup. Thaksin is a political folk hero among many in Thailand's laboring classes and many are still bitter over his ouster. Moreover, they're angry that subsequent parties allied to Thaksin were also dismantled for fraud and corruption. Essentially, a huge portion of Thai voters feel shafted, as if their votes are overturned no matter who they vote for.
The Red Shirts initially tried to drive out the government last year, but failed following brief riots and a military crackdown. What we're seeing now is a re-grouping with more money, more people and a more cohesive strategy. The timing is tied in part to the farming season, which experiences a lull starting in March. This break allows more Thais connected to the agriculture industries -- many of them Red Shirt sympathizers - to join the rallies.
KZ: Unfortunately, it's usually the influence of White House which determines the destiny of revolutionary movements in the third world countries. Which side is the U.S. taking in the current political unrest?
PW: The U.S. isn't taking sides. America is mostly interested in stability and business friendly policies in Thailand and neither side is proposing a radical overhaul of U.S.-Thai policy. Thailand remains strategically important to the U.S. as a trustworthy ally in China's backyard and Thailand likes having the support of the world's most powerful nation. As long as that arrangement sticks, the U.S. will keep softly promoting democracy in Thailand but won't interfere.
KZ: Some analysts believe that what's taking place in the stage of Thailand's political developments is more of a social class conflict between those who had gotten hold of Thailand's socialistic economy under Prime Minister Thaksin and the old, elite class of Yellow Shirts who are benefiting from the economic policies of the current government. What's your view about that?
PW: The Red Shirts have definitely tapped into class frustration among Thailand's working poor. That many protesters are somehow paid to attend rallies is widely believed in Thailand, but the sentiment of being shafted by powers they call "aristocrats" and "elites" is very real among protesters. Many are convinced that life was better under Thaksin. This is true to an extent: Thailand's economy was rapidly recovering during his reign and the number of Thais living in poverty plummeted. There's debate, however, as to how much Thaksin influenced this. But he was definitely successful in selling himself as the force steering poor Thais towards a better future.
But it's unclear whether a new Thaksin-style government could really lift up the poor once again. Many have observed that the current government is copying successful Thaksin social policies in a bid to sway the poor. Abhisit has repeatedly insisted that he's devoted to stimulus packages aimed at the working class.
Regardless, the ruling party has failed to shake off its image as a faction of elites. Nor have Red Shirts shaken their image as violence-prone, uneducated hooligans among Thailand's right-wing Yellow Shirts. This fight is definitely a power struggle, but it's also about pent-up anger and vendettas.
KZ: Those who believe that the administration of Thaksin was a democratically-elected government, confess at the same time that his freedom of press and human rights records were disappointing. What's the truthful reality about Thailand's status of press freedom and human rights?
PW: Both Thaksin's government and the current ruling party have attempted to pressure the media into promoting their agenda. Neither can claim a clean record of press freedom.
Neither Abhisit nor Thaksin has been able to avoid embarrassment stemming from military blunders that have taken place under their rule. Thaksin was roundly scorned when the army rounded up Muslim protesters into a sweltering paddy wagon, which led to dozens of suffocation deaths. Abhisit was also censured when the military found Muslims from the Rohingya tribe escaping Burma by boat, cut their engines and turned them loose on the sea.
These embarrassments and others have long been pinned on prime ministers from rival parties. But it's unclear how much any political leader can reign in Thailand's military, which remains a powerful political force that all premiers must appease.

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