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Peace or War in Thailand?

Eric Herter

A dire situation exists in Thailand. The country awaits a likely massacre of a throng of demonstrators, part of the many thousands of "Red Shirt" protestors who've camped out in Bangkok for more than three months. This group of ready-to-die Red Shirts is barricaded in the heart of the capitol's high-end shopping district and the Prime Minister says the military will start shooting any minute now.

The Red Shirts contend that the Prime Minister, brought to power by questionable judicial decisions following a military coup, was not popularly elected. They're calling for national elections. Some of them hope for the re-election of the former PM, who was charged with corruption but who was moving to improve medical care, education and quality of life for Thailand's poor majority.

The massacre of the demonstrators by an overwhelming force of heavily-armed soldiers and pro-military counter-demonstrators would make a downward spiral of unhappy events very possible:

  1. rebellion throughout Thailand by outraged supporters of the martyred demonstrators
  2. violent repression by the military and police, creating more outrage and rebellion
  3. polarization as extremists dominate each side's decision-making process and each side seeks to avenge atrocities committed by the other
  4. martial law and the establishment of a harsh a police state enforcing itself through surveillance, violence, fear, torture, etc.
  5. the rise terrorist attacks on the resort industry, corporate offices, industrial zones, military recruiting lines and other structures of prosperity and power
  6. economic decline, more military repression -- perhaps with assistance and training from foreign allies
  7. more terrorism. Etc.

Sound familiar?

This massacre-repression-terrorism scenario would not only benefit both the Thai military and populist extremists wielding the instruments of violence, but also the Islamic fundamentalist separatists in southern Thailand who'd be happy to have Thailand's security forces pinned down elsewhere. It would harm nearly everyone else in Thailand by scaring away tourism and investment, and making life violent, brutal and frightening. Peace or war? Thailand's poised at the brink.

Where's the King of Thailand? Isn't he a decent man who loves his people? Doesn't he still have a commanding voice in the affairs of state? In the 1970s, when reform-minded university students and the military were killing each other, he reined in the army and defused the situation. But, as a Thai friend points out, the confrontation in 1975 was between the King's "two pets" -- the students and the army -- and the current one is between his one "pet" -- the army -- and a group of democracy-seeking populists who might like to trim the powers of the military, the elite that runs Thai politics, and possibly the monarchy itself, if they're elected into power. Therefore the King's not intervening as the massacre looms.

President Obama could move this situation back from the brink by strongly urging the King of Thailand to intervene, restrain the military, and call for meaningful negotiation and compromise between the Red Shirts and the current Prime Minister. This would pave the way for democratic elections and, quite possibly, some reforms that benefit Thailand's rural poor. Most importantly, it would stop the country's slide into a violence, repression, extremism and war.

For the sake of the better world we hope for, we should urge our president to do what he can to prevent this massacre. Very soon.

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Eric Herter was a military advisor in Vietnam, then in Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and the Peace Corps in Thailand. In the 1990s he was bureau chief for Associated Press Television in Vietnam. He lives in Brunswick, Maine.

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