Downtown Bangkok was experiencing an uneasy calm Thursday after the Thai military cleared a protest camp in the capital's Lumpini Park on Wednesday. Hours of street battles Wednesday ended with seven leaders of the so-called Red Shirts, or anti-government protesters, arrested and at least 14 people dead. Red Shirt leaders called for an end to over two months of street demonstrations -- though it wasn't clear if the rank-and-file would listen.
The Red Shirts, formally known as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, represent Thailand's rural majority, the normally impoverished class of farmers and villagers who saw their living standards rise under former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In 2006, a different round of protests by the country's elites and middle class against what they saw as corruption in the Thaksin regime ended in a military coup. Thaksin was removed by force, and the Red Shirt movement has called for new elections ever since.
In March, tens of thousands of Red Shirt protesters flooded Bangkok to protest the legitimacy of the current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva. By April, Abhisit had declared a state of emergency. But the protesters remained, and tension mounted, with bombings and skirmishes around the capital. On May 13, an unknown sniper shot a renegade general named Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdiphol -- better known as Seh Daeng, or Red Commander -- while he spoke to a reporter for The New York Times.
The violence has shattered the image of Thailand as a placid tourist paradise. The small kingdom has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932, with a respected but now-elderly figurehead, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, on the throne since 1946. But the current unrest is just a new manifestation of decades of social tension between Thailand's rural majority and its ruling elite.
German commentators on Thursday see a threat of civil war. Most of them call for new elections, as well as more sympathetic attention from the West.
The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:
"Thailand is supposed to be our 'Land of Smiles.' We associate it with beaches, palm trees and excellent service. 'Wherever you meet people in Thailand,' says the travel magazine Geo, 'you see people smiling.' Most of this is lies and self-deception. The fact that Bangkok is burning should surprise (the international community) no more than it should surprise the current Thai government. We've ignored the true situation in Thailand for too long."
"When an election in 2001 brought the first democratic transfer of power since World War II, the new leader seemed unpalatable: Thaksin Shinawatra was a Chinese-descended arriviste, somewhat corrupt, populist and uncongenial. When the old monarchic elites removed him in a military putsch, no one (in the West) complained."
"We should be ashamed of that now. It must be clear that (the international community) can't bestow a democratic system on the smiling Thai people, only to let it collapse after they elect the wrong man. Thaksin supporters have nevertheless demonstrated since March for new elections without international support. When the military started to shoot, Human Rights Watch raised its voice -- but no Western government did so."
The conservative daily Die Welt argues:
"The 'Land of the Free,' as Thailand sometimes refers to itself, has lost its innocence. The people have been lured into sacrificing their essentially peaceful, Buddhist worldview to a near-anarchic struggle for power."
"The problem lies in the social divide between rich and poor, between the rural masses and the old Bangkok elite. The billionaire Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, toppled in 2006, had managed to recruit the poor masses to his side through a combination of free health care and microcredit loans; now they've carried him back (into the political process) from exile. The current regime is in power thanks to the old elites. It must step back, and new elections must decide who will take on the job of stabilizing the nation. Even if Red Shirt leaders have capitulated, Thailand can still slip into civil war. A coalition between representatives of both camps could form a credible government. Perhaps then Thailand can begin to smile again."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The months-long crisis in Bangkok is not over because the Red Shirt position has been stormed. The crisis may, in fact, have just started. Violence hasn't broken out yet in the provinces, and the military is still holding back in a way that suggests a conflict within its leadership. So far, the country still lacks a political figure with enough authority to show a clear way out of the chaos. The royal house shows its impotence with every passing day. King Bhumibol has had plenty of chances to prove his influence. But his court has been silent over the last several months, and the heirs to the throne seem paralyzed. The nation's last symbolic figurehead has given up the last of his power and offered a glimpse of the vacuum that will overwhelm Thailand after he dies."
"The Thai people seem to have no power, on their own, to hold back the latest destructive developments. They need outside help. It's time for a mediator from the region to step in, or else from the United Nations."
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"The hopes of the government to end the popular uprising with a relatively moderate show of military force, without much bloodshed, have failed."
"Negotiation will also be difficult now. The government no longer has a credible opposition leader to talk to. No one knows whether the current Red Shirt leaders are even in a position to stop the protests. A broadly radicalized movement, fed by deep frustration on the part of the rural masses against the Bangkok elite, can further destabilize the country."
"In this context, even if the government agrees to hold new elections, it will change nothing. On the contrary: The more the protest movement grows, the more the establishment and the military will resist. Over the past few years they have proved their readiness to ignore election results to keep the Red Shirts out of power ... (And) after the latest developments, Thailand has moved closer to civil war."