What's Driving the Violence in Thailand?

Tracing the origins of a violent conflict

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On Thursday, as the Red Shirt protesters who rallied in Thailand's capital for two months weighed the government's ultimatum to leave by midnight, a Red Shirt leader and dissident general was shot in the head while speaking to a New York Times reporter. The incident has brought Thailand's long-running conflict to a new level of violence. For those new to the story, what's happening and how did it get so violent?

  • 'Thailand's Scariest Bogeyman'  The Atlantic's Patrick Winn provides backstory on "Thailand's scariest bogeyman." He's "not the sort of man you want to make angry. General Khattiya maintains his own gun-toting militia. He accurately predicts grenade attacks against government targets. And though he's vowed to defend the anti-government 'Red Shirt' protesters encamped for nine weeks in downtown Bangkok, even their leadership has disavowed him for openly agitating violence."
  • Who's on Which Side  Newsweek's Joshua Kurlantzick dismisses the simple characterization that "it is a class war between wealthy Bangkokians, clad in yellow, and the poor rural masses, clad in red." In Truth, "the violence stems from multiple cleavages in Thai society: old elites against new elites; Thais hailing from the north and northeast against Thais from Bangkok and the south; and people close to the traditional levers of political power, such as the monarchy, against those who no longer trust these institutions."
  • Inside the Red-Shirt Camps  The Atlantic's Jessica Olien relates, "When I first went into the camp, I was surprised by the orderliness and the industriousness of the people inside, who'd set up shops to sell food and red-themed merchandise, pharmacies, and even a massage parlor within the tent city. But the area still resembles a refugee camp: dwellings made of plastic sheets and bamboo; garbage strewn across the ground; the smell of rotting food and unwashed bodies permeate the air. Conditions will only get worse, assuming the government shuts off the water and cuts off supplies after the Thursday deadline."
  • The Escalating Violence  Newsweek's David Graham writes, "Clashes between antigovernment protesters, who have taken red shirts as their symbol, and pro-government forces, clad in yellow, have been ongoing for months. On Thursday explosions and gunfire were heard around the capital, Bangkok, and Gen. Khattiya Sawatdiphol, known as Seh Daeng, was shot ... Despite deploying troops, the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva—which demonstrators argue came to power illegitimately with the help of courts and the military—has been unable to quell protests."
  • Govt's Plan for Peace  World Politics Review's Greg Lowe explains "Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's roadmap for national reconciliation." He says that "many analysts believe the proposed dissolution of Parliament in the second half of September followed by a general election on Nov. 14 will see the Red-Shirt United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) bring an end to its protests, which have lasted for more than two months now."

The protesters, known as the red shirts, started their mass demonstration two months ago seeking the dissolution of Parliament. But the movement has fractured, and the leaders’ ultimate aims have become less clear. In talks, the government recently agreed to allow early elections, but the breakthrough faltered as some protesters dug in, demanding that someone be held responsible for violence on April 10, when some 25 people were killed.

The general had been called a terrorist by the prime minister, who named him as the chief obstacle to the compromise plan.

Commanding his own paramilitary force of former rangers, General Khattiya was suspended without pay from the armed forces. A special committee was considering whether to strip him of his rank. His involvement with the protest movement underlines fractures within the military and more broadly in Thai society after four years of political turmoil.

  • Can The 'Demographic Time Bomb' Spread?  The Japan Times' Christopher Johnson worries, "After two decades of migration from northern provinces which doubled Bangkok's population, these poor dark-skinned laborers — and their city-bred offspring — have essentially held the government hostage and pushed it to call for November elections a year ahead of schedule. This demographic time bomb also exists in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Manila and other cities with huge migrant populations. If Thailand's red shirt uprising is a revolution of rising expectations among the servant class, then migrant laborers elsewhere might also demand a greater share of political power."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.