Tackling Thailand's troubles.
"Mr Abhisit.....a mature leadership, with his fist in a velvet glove"... Nattaya Chetchotiros in today's Bangkok Post.
The enduring image I shall hold of Thailand's New Year this week will not be of the battles between the redshirts and the security forces. It will be the hoards of Thai teenagers bounding up the MRT Lumpini Subway late last night to join in the fun. All they wanted to do was to enter the fray with their water pistols! Over the last day, all of Bangkok has been awash with water battles, celebrating Songkran. Prime Minister Abhisit must be thanking his lucky stars that it turned out so well. After all, the week had started out bad and then turned violent in just two days.
The mayhem began in Bangkok as taxi-drivers caused gridlock on a crucial roundabout. An ominous show of strength. Then came the trashing of the ASEAN Summit in Pattaya over the weekend: a complete humiliation for Abhisit. OK: he is still a bit 'wet around the ears'. Promising to be gentle with the redshirts: a big mistake. The pictures of a dithering army tumbling after triumphant red shirts as they smashed through the glass front of the Pattaya hotel? What a fiasco! Followed by a hasty helicopter retreat of 16 world leaders. Surely, a world first! To top it all, the army 'allowed' pictures of amoured vehicles parked outside Paragon, Bangkok's premier superstore, with laughing redshirts dancing on top. A delighted international audience watched from the walkways above! This was a textbook public relations disaster.
But it was an equal disaster for the redshirts. Forget non-violence. What were they thinking? Traffic jams, violence inside the hotel, attacking government cars, scenes of ten buses burning on Bangkok streets. This was pure hooliganism : thug violence. Not at all what Thai people expected.
Was this the kind of 'revolution' that Thaksin was recommending in his speeches? Suddenly the redshirts had given up the moral high ground. Sanitsuda Ekachai, writing in today's Bangkok Post, writes of people saying to her: "We are fed up with seemingly endless protests. We want our normal life back. And we feel sorry for the King, who must be deeply saddened by all this". Yes, a week is a short time in politics!
Then Abhisit made a sensible move. He appeared, flanked by his senior army officers, commanding anti-riot war-room operations, telling the country he would restore law and order. And he did. The following morning, the violence had stopped and the redshirts outside Government House were packing up their bags. The Bangkok Post reckons his standing after the riots has risen eight points to 58%, while Thaksin's is in free fall at 15%.
I may be wrong. But I estimate the teens carrying water pistols on Bangok's streets outnumbered the redshirts fifty to one! It was only the international media that gave more weight to the redshirts. That's because journalists enjoy formal politics rather than the reality of the streets. So my judgement: the game did not go to a penalty shootout. Plenty of red cards. But the game was over: one-nil to Abhisit even before injury time. Abhisit had a lot going for him. He was resolute, had the security forces well under his control, knew what joe public wanted and has shown he can deliver. The redshirts, on the other hand, only had these holidays in which to prove themselves. They blew it and had to go back home. They cannot keep bussing down to Bangkok: it costs too much when money is so scarce.
The redshirts' fiasco this week must have damaged Thaksin's credibility enormously. After all, if you talk about "revolution" and your foot soldiers mess up big time, where does that leave you? I've also lost any little faith I might have had in Thaksin's kids! After all, if their father's creed was so significant, wouldn't one of them want to keep the light burning for him? But they've disappeared along with their parents. It's can't be easy to sell your brand as being the solution for Thailand's poor when all you have to carry on your message is a bunch of discredited redshirts. And very little money left in the bank, as well as being judged as a corrupt criminal by the Courts. It's not very likely he will manage to climb back out of this pit. At least, that's my opinion.
Into the sunset: Where does this leave the Prime Minister? Riding into the sunset? Not quite yet. Abhisit has a lot to do yet to convince his largely rural electorate that they are as significant as the supposed Bangkok elite. He has to tackle their sense of injustice and inequality head on. He needs to show he too wants a more open and a less corrupt society. He's not finshed by a long shot. If he convinces ordinary people he knows what they want, then he will probably survive.