By AUNG ZAW
The countries of Southeast Asia followed with special interest the dramatic Songkran events in Thailand, where red-shirted anti-government protesters rampaged through Bangkok and the resort town of Pattaya. But probably none of Thailand’s neighbors displayed more interest than Burma—even though the regime and its official media acted as if nothing had happened.
Burma’s generals, who insisted they were practicing “disciplined democracy” when they suppressed protesters in Rangoon, must have trained keen eyes on how Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his government handled the rioting.
Here’s the question I’d like to put to those generals and the oppressed people of Burma: which side did you support during the crisis? I think we all know the answer.
As Burma’s Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein was whisked away to safety by helicopter from the disrupted Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) meeting in Pattaya, some exiled Burmese speculated in whispered tones that junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe might be gleefully thinking how his vision of “disciplined democracy” would be enhanced because of the mayhem in Thailand. But that can’t really be true.
Many dissident Burmese living in Thailand were astonished to witness such lax security at the Asean ministerial meeting. They said Burma would never allow a rowdy crowd to go that far.
In Burma’s 1988 uprising the regime itself created anarchy—at one point provoking some monks and students to attack security forces. The anarchy and provocation were excuses for the military to stage a bloody coup in September 1988, killing hundreds on the streets. For the following two decades they have jealously held on to power, and there is no sign of them relinquishing it.
In Thailand’s case, Abhisit emerged the winner, with his leadership strengthened. In the face of red-shirted rioters baying for his blood, the young prime minister kept his cool and the troops under control—probably a major factor in avoiding widespread carnage.
It was a baptism of fire for Abhisit and he came through unscathed.
Soldiers called out to keep order were widely supported by Bangkok residents shocked and angered by the actions of the mob.
Casualties were surprisingly low—the official toll was two dead and 135 injured. By a morbid irony, the road accident over the Songkran holiday was more than 300 dead and nearly 4,000 injured.
For Burmese, there’s another statistical comparison to be made: how many monks and civilians were killed in the September 2007 clashes with government security forces claiming to be firing only “rubber bullets”?
Abhisit deserves recognition not only for his handling of the crisis but for the open way he kept an anxious world and his own people informed about the events as they occurred.
He remains open, too, to reconciliation with his opponents, telling a meeting of foreign ambassadors and diplomats that his government would consider an amnesty for those convicted of political offences. Such a conciliatory tone is bound to win public support.
However, that doesn’t mean that the battle is over. The Bangkok Post warned in an editorial: “One battle has ended but the war is not over. Several leaders of the red shirt movement have made it clear that their decision to call off the protest was just a tactical retreat, before launching another offensive to bring down the administration of PM Abhisit Vejjajiva.”
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the institute of security and international studies at Chulalongkorn University’s faculty of political science, wrote in the same paper: “The red’s miscalculated gamble has made their months-long movement futile. What is needed is willingness of the establishment forces to accept, address and accommodate the reds’ sense of injustice and inequality.”
But the Thai scholar warned that one could not underestimate the undercurrents against establishment forces. A lack of recognition and accommodation would make these undercurrents pent-up and dangerous, he said.
If Abhisit cannot fix it and ignores society’s demands for greater justice and a larger share of the pie, the opposition may well reappear in other shapes, forms and colors farther on down the road, Thitinan warned.
It will be an uphill task for Thailand to emerge stronger from this crisis and to build an open society based on democratic values.
The question is: who wants Thailand to fail? Burmese colleagues inside and outside certainly don’t—they want to see a strong Thailand, a country of inclusive political reconciliation, ruled by the kind of calmness displayed by Abhisit. At least, any version of “disciplined democracy” has disappeared from the scene.