Scoundrels at Preah Vihear

That Asean is nothing at all like the European Union was demonstrated this week when gunfire was exchanged between two Asean member states, Thailand and Cambodia. Once again, the lofty rhetoric that usually accompanies any Asean project is reduced to a joke.

Preah Vihear (a small part of which is shown above) is reputed to be the largest Hindu complex in Southeast Asia, built by the Khmers in the Eleventh Century CE. Declared by Unesco to be a World Heritage site, it lies near the border between Thailand and Cambodia. A World Court judgement 50 years ago declared it to be Cambodian.

And there the matter should have rested until the domestic politics of Thailand of the last few years threw up the necessary number of scoundrels that want to resurface the issue, leading to war if necessary, in order to achieve their domestic objectives. I use the “s” word deliberately, for in this whole affair I am constantly reminded of the saying, “Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels”.

* * * * *

I had a bad feeling when I opened a Thai newspaper on the morning of 24 January 2011 and saw a report about Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva making a TV presentation about what his government was doing regarding the Preah Vihear issue. I had seen that program on TV the night before, though at the time, I had no idea it was about Preah Vihear. He was speaking in Thai and the map behind him was not one that I recognised. I thought that he was talking about the Red Shirts and how his government would maintain order and work for the benefit of the people.

Why did I think the prime minister’s speech to the country was about the Red Shirts? Because just a few hours earlier on that same afternoon, the Red Shirts had mounted a huge demonstration, with a reported 30,000 participants. Here is one of several photos I took:

Surely, the Red Shirts’ show of strength must be the main agenda item of the day for the prime minister? Surely the prime minister would try to steal the thunder from the Red Shirts by reassuring the disgruntled Thais that his government had their interests at heart? Or so I thought.

But apparently, I was wrong. Abhisit went on television not to address the issues raised by the Red Shirts, but to shore up his defence of his government’s policies regarding Preah Vihear. In anticipation of what? Why was Preah Vihear more on his mind than 30,000 Red Shirts on the streets of Bangkok?

Monday morning, seeing the press report, I could read between the lines. Abhisit was more concerned about the Yellow Shirts than the Red Shirts. And that seemed to be a bad sign. Not a bad sign about Abhisit, but a bad sign about what the Yellow Shirts would be up to next.

And sure enough, another report in the same edition of the newspaper said the Yellow Shirts would begin occupying key locations in the government district of Bangkok the following day to pressure the government to get more aggressive about taking back Preah Vihear from Cambodia. Over the last few months, several Thais, including a member of parliament, crossed illegally into Cambodia to provoke diplomatic incidents. See this report for example. They all seem to belong to the Thai Patriots Network, but just about everybody in Thailand knows that they are an offshoot of the Yellow Shirts — the same people who occupied Suvarnabhumi Airport for over a week in November 2008 in their attempt to bring down an elected government.

What are the Yellow Shirts trying to achieve this time? I asked a few political observers in Thailand. Opinions differ.  The less suspicious think the Yellow Shirts are merely trying to remind Abhisit of their clout and not try to appease the Red Shirts. The more suspicious observers believe the Yellow Shirts are trying to make it seem like Abhisit is unable to control events and incapable of defending Thailand’s interests, thereby provoking another military coup.

Why might they want another coup? Because an election is due in Thailand by the end of this year and most political observers think the Puea Thai Party, which the Red Shirts support, will likely win the most seats and becoming the largest party in Parliament even if they do not gain an outright majority. They will be in a position to form a coalition government, perhaps even with Abhisit and the Democratic Party.

This is an outcome the Yellow Shirts thoroughly detest, and there must be many among them that would prefer a military takeover and a cancellation of elections. If instigating soldiers on the border to start shooting is what it takes to create an emergency that compels the military to step into Government House again, the crazier ones among them would say it’s a necessary evil.

At this point, it should be said, there are conflicting reports about how the firing started at Preah Vihear each time it occurred. The Cambodians claim the Thais fired first. The Thai army tends to say that they had to respond to Cambodian “provocation” at the border. It seems however to be common knowledge among political observers that the Thai Patriots Network must have a hand in it. Suspicions are that either they are the ones creating the provocations, or the local commander is sympathetic to them and escalating every little incident into a fire-fight.

Abhisit is probably right to be more worried about the mischief they will make than the Red Shirts.

* * * * *

What about the Red Shirts’ demonstration? That I freely mingled among them taking pictures would tell you I didn’t feel unsafe. Here are some more photos that capture the mood:

The women above were singing as their ute slowly made its way through the motorised procession. On the sidewalk, supporters wore their sloganned shirts or otherwise did what they could to dramatise their message:

This other guy below probably had a strong message too, but it was lost on me since I couldn’t read Thai:

While there were the fun elements, it was hard not to take the demonstration seriously. The procession stretched as far as the eye could see and went on for hours:

* * * * *

Here’s where I turn to Singapore, where political demonstrations are routinely disallowed. We are fed images and arguments that any political demonstration, no matter how small, poses an unacceptable risk of violence and disorder. This is the justification employed to deny us a basic political right.

A political demonstration is a legitimate means for showing the powers that be how much support (either in numbers or in intensity of feeling) a cause has. It reminds those in power where their attention should be focussed on, and in that sense, it is a highly democratic tool. In a mature society, the cause-leaders who organise demonstrations would also take care to keep it peaceful, like the Red Shirts did that Sunday, though I hasten to add that it has not been the case with previous Red Shirt actions in 2009 and 2010. But the point is: to instinctively cast those who would want to hold a demonstration as trouble-makers and violence-instigators is just too simplistic.

Yes, there are some who would incite more militant tactics, but generally speaking, it is those who believe in the ballot box who would keep it peaceful, for they have nothing to gain by making themselves such a threat that the democratic process is suspended or they lose public sympathy. It is those who want the democratic process overturned that would resort to more nefarious means. Rather than ban all demonstrations, we need to make this distinction.

The Singapore government also argues that demonstrations inconvenience commuters and can cause losses to retailers along the route. Indeed, the Red Shirts’ massive demonstrations have led to complaints by shopkeepers. In a way, inconvenience is inescapable. However, a democratic movement would want to use demonstrations as a political tool sparingly; it does not serve their purpose to antagonise too many commuters and shopkeepers whose votes are also needed.

But I’ve always thought the Singapore government’s reliance on this inconvenience argument disingenuous. Every September a good part of our city centre is half shut down for over a week, fences and barricades erected along miles of streets, for the F1 motor race. How many demonstrations are large enough to occupy this much area and go on for a week?

2 Responses to “Scoundrels at Preah Vihear”

  1. 1 evozero 8 February 2011 at 22:46

    Interestingly, CASE is organising its “Walk with CASE” again to promote consumer rights.

    a freedom fighter or an insurgent? a walk or a demonstration?

  2. 2 Roy 9 February 2011 at 18:26

    Nice one Alex. As someone living in Bangkok within a block of the demonstrations, I have to say I will support their right to protest every time.

    I had to move out for 2 weeks during last year’s May protest as power and water were being cut in the final stage. But before that I was living in the lock-down area for over a month, and I never saw any red shirts armed during that time, they were always very polite and helpful, removing the barricades so I could drive through to my Soi every day. It is possible that agitators of uncertain persuation were in their midst to provoke a violent end.

    As for Singapore, a truly accountable government has nothing to fear from the free expression of those whom they work for.

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