The Rageh Omaar Report

Thailand: Living dangerously

The Rageh Omaar Report examines the issues behind Bangkok’s political crisis.

After a violent end to the most recent protests, Thailand, a country of over 60 million people, is facing its worst political crisis in decades.

For two months since March of 2010, anti-government protestors, the so-called red shirts, had taken over key parts of downtown Bangkok, demanding for Abhisit Vejjajiva, the country’s current prime minister, to step down, dissolve parliament, and call fresh elections.

The sit-ins had paralysed Bangkok and threatened to rock the Thai economy, which is the second largest in Southeast Asia.

The red shirts have been calling for Abhisit’s resignation since he came to power in 2009 – after Thaksin Shinawatra, the country’s populist prime minister, was ousted in a bloodless military coup in 2006.

In 2008 Thaksin was sentenced in absentia to two years in jail after being found guilty of abuse of power in a land acquisition deal during his time in office. He was charged with corruption, and subsequent governments also fell under fraud charges.

Abhisit came to power through a parliamentary vote, rather than a popular vote. And that is the major bone of contention for the red shirts, largely rural and working class people from Thailand’s north and northeast.

They are staunch supporters of Thaksin, and feel robbed of their vote ever since he was removed from power.

Far-reaching consequences

The clashes have disrupted the lives of many of Bangkok’s 12 million residents [Reuters]

Political upheaval is nothing new in Thailand.

This country has been through 18 coups and about as many constitutional changes in the last 80 years.

But it is the coup that removed Thaksin, that could have far-reaching consequences for the country, especially after how the government chose to deal with the latest demonstrations: They send in the army to remove the red shirts from Bangkok’s streets with brute force.

More than 80 people were killed and over 1800 were injured with most of the victims being civilians.

The crackdown left a destroyed city – 37 buildings were badly burned or completely gutted as the retreating red shirts vented their rage at symbols of the prosperity of Bangkok’s economic elite: Banks, the stock exchange, and shopping malls, including the iconic Central World shopping center.

Sukhumbandh Paribatra, the governor of Bangkok, says the political divisions in Thai society have deepened and hardened like never before.

He says the divisions go right down to the family level, where spouses and siblings find themselves on opposite sides of the political fence – one of the red shirts, and the other of Abhisit.

What further complicates this situation is the silence of Thailand’s monarchy.

In the past, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-serving monarch who is revered by all Thais, has traditionally stepped in to diffuse political tensions and persuade political rivals to find non-violent solutions to their conflicts.

This time, however, the 83-year-old king is in poor health and is convalescing in a Bangkok hospital.

He has chosen to remain silent and his devotees say it is better this way, since the king should not be seen as taking sides in an already tense situation.

After the protests ended, many red shirt leaders were arrested and charged with terrorism. A warrant was also issued against Thaksin Sinawatrs on terrorism charges.

When the red shirts had protested in 2009, they were dispersed by the army.

But one year later, they were back in larger numbers. After their most recent defeat, they are determined to return…

Rageh Omaar travels to the scarred city of Bangkok to find out what happened the day the protests ended, and what will happen to Thailand now.

The Rageh Omaar Report: Thailand: A year of living dangerously can be seen from Wednesday, June 16, at the following times GMT: Wednesday: 1900; Thursday: 0300, 1400; Friday: 0600; Saturday: 1900; Sunday: 0300.