Tensions Grow In Thailand As Protests Turn Bloody The latest outburst of violence in Thailand has its roots in the growing gap between haves and have-nots. But many protesters also support a billionaire ex-prime minister who was ousted by the military. A look at the two sides and the issues.
NPR logo Tensions Grow In Thailand As Protests Turn Bloody

Tensions Grow In Thailand As Protests Turn Bloody

An anti-government protester holds a Thai flag near a barricade of burning tires in Bangkok. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images hide caption

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Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

An anti-government protester holds a Thai flag near a barricade of burning tires in Bangkok.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

The crisis in Thailand has erupted into running battles between the military and anti-government demonstrators in the streets of Bangkok. Soldiers opened fire on Friday in a drive to force protesters, known as red shirts, from an upscale area where they've been camped for weeks.

The latest violence left at least 10 people dead and more than 100 injured.

Here are some key elements in the conflict:

Who Are The 'Red Shirts' And What Do They Want?

The demonstrators are members of several different opposition factions who came together in March to protest what they say is the growing gap between the country's wealthy elite and the vast majority who are poor.

"The red shirts have a significant support base in the countryside in the north and northeast," says Philip Robertson of Human Rights Watch. "It's not just the urban poor in Bangkok, but a very wide stratum" of the society, he says.

Joshua Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the red shirts include many "people who feel alienated from the powerful institutions in Thailand, like the palace and the army, and this is a way they can make their voices heard."

Some red shirts are supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a controversial figure who was ousted in a military coup in 2006. Thaksin, a telecommunications billionaire, is reported to be bankrolling some of the protesters' activities, but he lives in exile and has had little public connection with the latest protests.

What Can The United States Do?

The U.S. has long-standing military and economic ties with Thailand. On Thursday, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley urged the Thai government to "continue to have a dialogue with the demonstrators."

Kurlantzick says the Obama administration shouldn't "condone a coup or other crackdown, as the U.S. essentially did in 2006." Instead, he says, the U.S. should "push the sides to work for real reconciliation, which means on the government/elite side, understanding that Thai politics has changed, and if they want real democracy, they're going to have to allow some greater powers for the rural poor."

Is Reconciliation Possible?

It seems unlikely in the current circumstances. On Thursday, a renegade Thai general who was part of the opposition was shot and critically wound by a sniper's bullet.

The incident seems to have escalated the violence between government forces and demonstrators on Friday.

It's significant that the red shirts are occupying a part of Bangkok that's known for trendy shopping malls and hotels. "There's been a sense of deepening grievance," says Robertson. "People see ostentatious displays of wealth — women carrying Gucci purses that cost the equivalent of a month's wages" for most Thais.

How Long Has The Crisis Been Going On?

The latest demonstrations began in March, when protesters massed in Bangkok to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who was put into power by Thailand's military. Abhisit is seen by many as an unelected representative of Thailand's ruling elite. The red shirts' dramatic protests included throwing jars filled with their own blood into the prime minister's home and office compounds.

Abhisit met with protesters in late March but failed to reach an agreement. In early April, police tried to move the protesters from a camp in Bangkok, prompting clashes that left more than two dozen people dead and hundreds injured.

Earlier this month, it seemed that a settlement might be near: Abhisit offered an early election in November, and the demonstrators agreed, but the deal fell apart when the red shirts insisted that the deputy minister be tried for ordering the April shootings.

"Like all entities in Thailand, the government has factions and the red shirt leadership has factions," Robertson says, making it difficult to speak with one voice in negotiations.

Where Does Thailand's King Stand?

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, and its highly respected King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the world's longest-serving head of state. At 82, though, the king's health has been fragile, and he has not been able to mediate among the country's many factions.

"There's no longer any referee," says Robertson. "In a previous time, it was expected that His Majesty would come out and say 'everybody to their corners,' but that's not happening."

Bhumibol was hospitalized for several months in late 2009 and early 2010, and he hasn't been active in the country's politics.

But Kurlantzick speculates that the king's health may not be the reason he hasn't taken action this time. "I think it's more likely that the red shirts would be less inclined to listen to him than the groups with whom he intervened in the past, and if he intervenes and it doesn't work, he has wasted his capital and degraded his reputation," Kurlantzick says.