Sunday, April 12, 2009

"state of emergency"

Easter Day and the Thai New Year (Songkran) dawned with uncertainty today. My host mom emailed with a sorrowful note that the Songkran Festival may not be enjoyable this year because of the current political unrest. Everyone in Chiang Mai is glued to the main news channel-- even the guy who practically lives at the internet cafe playing video games for hours on end without a care in the world is now sitting quietly, watching the latest reports roll in. I'm trying to keep in mind that the media is controlled by the government, but the footage of protesters smashing cars and chucking stuff over fences is strangely gripping. Oh, propaganda!

Those I have spoken to (Thais and farang) seem convinced that although the protesters are a formidable threat because of their sheer numbers, they are not too terrifying because they are unarmed. The real threat is the military. Thus far, the military has stayed on the defense and there have been no casualties. But if the protests continue to escalate as Thaksin goads on his supporters, who knows what kind of tactics the government will resort to? This morning, PM Abhisit announced:
“In the current situation, what I have to do is bring peace to the country, bring back governance and have a process of political reform. The government will try every way to prevent further damage. I ask the people to support the government in order to restore order in the country.”

These words were part of his declaration of a "state of emergency" for Bangkok and surrounding provinces. In contradiction to his promises a few days ago, Abhisit also announced that police and military have been authorized to use force to bring the country "back to normalcy." An editorial in the Bangkok Post scorned the government for allowing "anarchy" by failing to keep the protests under control, but the writer did not share his ideas on the best way to go about this task. It is true that the constitution requires the government to look out for the safety and security of citizens, but the use of violence and force to crush the "red shirts" seems to be wrong-headed. Martyrs and fanned flames seem the only outcomes of such a tactic. What, then, is the government to do? Thais speak of unresolvable rifts within the citizenry. But the struggle will continue unless leaders truly address the issues raised by protesters rather than resorting to dictatorial, short-term solutions like military force.

I have to wonder how much Abhisit's comments and decrees are culturally motivated. At the heart of Thai society are the values of nonconfrontation and smooth interaction. The escalating demonstrations cause Abhisit to lose face, which translates into diminished power. But citizens of all walks of life are calling for the return of peace to the kingdom. The question is: what does peace look like? Is an honest airing of dirty laundry acceptable in a Thai cultural context? Or would it be more desirable for an outer semblance of peace though under the surface trouble continues to brew?

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