May 17, 2010

Stopping Thailand's Bleeding

At least two questions have been answered in the short-term: Bangkok is boiling and the Red Shirts have issued a call for international mediation. The next question: will Thailand wait for the conflict to go international?

“We want the UN because we don't trust we will receive justice from organizations in Thailand," Nattawut Saikuar, a protest leader, said in the wake of mounting casualties. "What's urgent is to stop the deaths of people. Political demands can wait.”

Rejecting the Red Shirts’ demands, government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn told reporters, "no governments allow any organizations to intervene in their internal affairs.”

“We cannot retreat now,” vowed Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva,

Maybe Thailand is half way out of its crisis; the Red Shirts weren’t any likelier to accept outside intervention. But now that only the government stands in the way of international mediation, Bangkok would be wise to extinguish the crisis rather than detonate it. A drop in morale among Red Shirts isn’t visible in the several thousand hard-core members still waging street battles with Thai troops.

Defying the latest 3 PM ultimatum is probable, as the death of rebel general Seh Daeng is more likely to provoke silence than instill fear. Conspiracy theories are even floating that he was targeted by dissenting Red Shirts, and his death has created an ideal flash point.

Sean Boonpracong, a red shirt spokesman, told Al Jazeera, "the situation is deteriorating to a point that if the government is smart, it's best they call off the dogs and push the army back to the base - it's getting to be a civil war.”

But our advice to the Thai government goes beyond preventing a potential rural, guerrilla-civil war; such a trend is already developing. We’re concerned with what’s yet to occur.

History and logic assume that the Red Shirts won’t back down without having their demands sincerely considered or fulfilled. Total suppression is impossible and attempts will backfire. While the government has been accused of failing to uphold its ultimatums, Thai troops haven’t gone easy on the Red Shirts either.

More conflict is inevitable as both sides prove they’re dead serious of their actions.

Thus Thailand appears poised to descend into low-intensity guerrilla warfare in the absence of internal compromise or international mediation. Foreign diplomats are active in Bangkok but a more hands on approach is necessary. Red Shirt protests will be wielded as the primary weapon and a shield for violent acts, and Bangkok could see urban warfare unlike the present battles.

It makes sense - the Red Shirts must be considering the possibility - to launch attacks outside the normal battle ground. Sporadic attacks throughout the city would knock the government on its heels and possibly force negotiations. But it could also spawn a deadly crackdown, which in turn would fuel another cycle of violence and increase the odds of a real civil war.

At that point would the conflict remain internal?

While the criteria may already be met for international mediation, the conflict is also in danger of becoming truly international. If we were the Patani United Liberation Organization - and we know they’re watching closely - a civil war would provide perfect cover to declare independence from Thailand.

At this point the PULO, along with the many pieces that compose the Patani insurgency in southern Thailand, doesn’t appear in the position to make such a bold move. The insurgency, while rooted in a deep history, only took off in the last decade. It would likely need its own international support in Malaysia.

Yet PULO makes no secret of its desire to secede from Thailand, whether as an independent state or autonomous region of Malaysia. Force hasn’t worked against the PULO and it won’t against the Red Shirts. If the core issues of Thailand’s crisis stay unresolved and the country enters a protracted state of low-intensity warfare, the conditions may be ripe for PULO to move next year and beyond.

PULO has remained dormant to the outside world because it wisely refuses foreign militants, fearing a crackdown from Thailand and America. Its patience has waited for an opportunity like now. Though Thailand might be able to handle the Red Shirts and PULO simultaneously, every precaution should be taken to prevent an internal crisis from morphing into an international conflict.

Even if that paradoxically requires involving the international community.

1 comment:

  1. Any thoughts?