Just two years ago, Thailand was at war with itself. Rifle shots and exploding grenades rang out in Bangkok as troops crushed through barricades to disperse a nine-week-old insurrection. A retired nurse was the last to capitulate.
“I stood before the soldiers and asked if they wanted to shoot me, or arrest me,” said Phussadee Ngamkham, now 57, who became a hero of the Red Shirt protest movement by refusing to budge while others fled a final crackdown by soldiers on May 19, 2010, after weeks of deadly street fighting.
“At that time, I had made a promise with my Red Shirt brothers and sisters that if we didn’t get democracy, I wouldn’t go home,” she said.
Those days of mayhem, which pitted Thailand’s rural masses against a government they decried as elitist and which left at least 90 dead and almost 2,000 injured, now seem a world away.
An election has since given an overwhelming mandate to the party most closely allied with the protesters, and the normally peaceful Buddhist country has returned to its peaceful routines and tourists to its tropical beaches.
Much of the us-versus-them vitriol has dissipated, giving way — for now — to an apparent acceptance on both sides that while neither the current government nor its predecessors are perfect, elections may be better than street violence for deciding Thailand’s future.
Yesterday, Red Shirt supporters gathered in central Bangkok to peacefully mark the anniversary. Like most Red Shirt rallies it had planned to include an evening video appearance by ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra. He fled into exile after being ousted by a 2006 military coup, and was convicted of corruption in absentia.
The 2010 conflict was largely between supporters of Thaksin — whose populist policies made him the rural poor’s hero — and supporters of Thailand’s traditional powerholders in the royal palace and the military.
Part of the reason for the current state of peace is because Thaksin’s supporters have been appeased by the new prime minister, Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra. She won last year by a landslide, ending the premiership of Abhisit Vejjajiva, a staunch Thaksin opponent who ordered the May 19 crackdown on protesters who were demanding that his government immediately resign.
Still, deep divisions remain, and many wonder how long this phase will last.
“It’s stability on the surface. The conflicts are still there,” said Michael Nelson, a Thai studies lecturer at Walailak University in southern Thailand.
Yingluck has continued in the spirit of her brother’s populist policies, cementing her rural base and winning over others who were not initially supporters. She has increased the minimum wage, handed out ample tax refunds to the budding middle class and endeared rice farmers with a new program that pays them above market rates for rice.
Many Thais who oppose Thaksin have come to terms with his sister’s government, saying she has managed to maintain an uneasy but welcome calm. Also, Thai politics has not yet produced a viable alternative to the Thaksin camp.
“I’m not satisfied with this government, but to be honest the Abhisit government wasn’t any better,” said Siriluk Pornchaitipparat, an anti-Thaksin cafe owner who had to shut her central Bangkok shop for 10 days in 2010 when the Red Shirt rioting raged in her neighborhood.