March 12, 2011 marks the one-year anniversary of the start of Thailand's anti-government Red Shirt protests, which saw some of the deadliest political violence in modern Thai history.
Two Asia Society commentators reflect on the anniversary, and what has or has not changed in the country's political situation in the intervening year.
"The Thais appear to have lost their traditional—and remarkable—ability to find a compromise even in the most dire of situations," says Asia Society Associate Fellow Bertil Lintner. "The confrontational nature of Thai politics began with massive demonstrations in early 2006 against the then-government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. A coup in September that year, in which Thaksin was ousted, was meant to solve the crisis—but it just sharpened the polarization of Thai society: for or against Thaksin.
"Last year, more than 90 people were killed and hundreds wounded when pro-Thaksin demonstrators clashed with security forces. The vast majority of them were demonstrators—but among the fatalities were also soldiers and policemen, shot by black-clad men armed with automatic rifles and grenade launchers. While usually referred to as an 'extreme' or 'militant' faction of the pro-Thaksin camp, they were, in fact, security guards for the so-called Red Shirts. I saw them myself and talked to them before the mayhem began. And despite all talk about the movement having moved 'beyond Thaksin,' they're still wearing T-shirts with a picture of Thaksin, or even Thaksin masks.
"Not a major gathering is held without a video-linked address to the demonstrators by Thaksin, now exile in Dubai. And when Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in early May last year promised to hold elections 'by November,' the local Red Shirt leaders first agreed. But instead of declaring victory (an election was their main demand) and dispersing, they suddenly changed their minds—after a phone call from Thaksin, Western diplomats assert. He urged them to fight on, and a bloody confrontation ensued.
"So what will happen now, when the government once again has promised to hold elections within the next few months, especially since the equally confrontational and uncompromising Yellow Shirts have re-emerged? It is clear that the powerful military is as eager to keep Thaksin out of politics as he is to return to power. Therefore, if the Democrats appear to be winning the election, the pro-Thaksin forces could disrupt the process and create a new crisis.
"On the other hand, if the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai party is ahead in the polls, the military could intervene and make sure it does not come to power. There seems to be no compromise in sight, which does not bode well for the future of Thai democracy."
Meanwhile, Asia Society Associate Fellow Duncan McCargo cautions against accepting all of the commonly purveyed characterizations of the Red Shirt movement.
"The Red Shirts were widely depicted in the media as 'poor farmers' animated by poverty and deprivation, and lacking formal education; they were also portrayed, especially in the Bangkok press, as a 'mob for hire' who received financial incentives to take part in demonstrations.
"Many Red Shirt activists are lower middle class, self-employed traders who were economically and politically empowered during the Thaksin period (2001-06), but have since seen their social standing and their livelihoods threatened by new government policies and priorities. Most of them did not need to be paid to take part in the anti-government demonstrations, though they were often mobilized and organized by political networks in their home provinces."