Curfews across Thailand anticipate further unrest

Curfew extended in Bangkok after Red Shirts dispersed. International investigation reports South Korean Cheonan sunk by North Korean torpedo. State of emergency imposed in southern Kygyzstan. Pakistan prepares for offensive in North Waziristan. Maoist attacks prompt strategy rethink in India. All this and more in today's briefing.
Josephine Whitaker
20 May 2010

The first curfew imposed in Bangkok in fifteen years ended this morning with the announcement that it will be extended in the city and 23 futher provinces for the next three days, military sources said.

The curfew was announced after government troops stormed the camp of anti-government Red Shirt protestors, who have been occupying parts of central Bangkok for the last six weeks. The military crackdown on protestors yesterday led to the surrender of six key protest leaders, and left at least fourteen people dead. Since troops encircled the protestors’ camp last week, approximately forty people have been killed. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva pledged to restore peace to the country, after Thailand’s worst violence in over twenty years.

During yesterday’s operation, angry protestors set fire to buildings across the city, including Bangkok’s stock exchange and a large shopping mall. According to witnesses, over thirty buildings were still ablaze in Bangkok this morning.

Violence was also reported in the rural north and northeast, seen as Red Shirt strongholds. Protestors set fire to government offices in the northern towns of Udon Thani and Khon Kaen.

The Red Shirt protestors, who are mainly rural poor and generally support ousted former prime minister Thanskin Shinawatra, have been protesting in the capital since 14th March. They question the incumbent government’s legitimacy as it came to power through a parliamentary deal, rather than an election, in 2006. Protestors had been demanding that the prime minister call fresh elections, a demand that Abhisit has been unwilling to meet while protestors were still camped out in Bangkok.

The openSecurity verdict: It is difficult to know what will happen next in Thailand. The Abhisit government has dispersed the Red Shirts, destroyed their encampment in central Bangkok, and several key leaders yesterday surrendered. But the protestors’ demands – chiefly that Abhisit bring national elections forward – have gone largely unmet. While the government offered new polls last week, this offer was withdrawn when protestors failed to leave their camp. Many protestors refused to surrender yesterday. It is expected that large numbers have dispersed across the capital and the provinces, taking their unmet grievances with them.

The weeks of protest and intermittent clashes between protestors and government security forces have revealed deep-seated divisions in Thailand that the simple clearing of central Bangkok will not address. While it is true that many Thais opposed the Red Shirts' tactics and the violence that their protests brought to the country, the fact remains that the protests represented views that are widely held in poor urban and rural Thailand. The spread of unrest outside Bangkok, not only in the last week but also in previous weeks, confirms that the Red Shirts’ demands resonated outside the barriers of their camp.

Many analysts fear that Abhisit’s heavy handed tactics over the last weeks and months, and his government’s failure to bring about a peaceful resolution to the crisis, will lead to a spread in unrest. At the end of April, the International Crisis Group warned that the situation in Thailand could develop into “undeclared civil war”  if the government failed to engage in peaceful negotiations with the protestors. Former premier Shinawatra, suspected by the government of bankrolling the protests from his exile, has warned of the dangers of a crackdown. He reportedly told Reuters news agency that “there is a theory saying a military crackdown can spread resentment and resentful people will becomE guerrillas.”

The government’s suspicions that Shinawatra has been masterminding the Red Shirt protests seem increasingly improbable, as the protests have spiralled out of control. Factionalism has been a feature of the protests since they began in March, and some commentators believe that Shinawatra has lost any control he once had of the protests. That the protests were likely not controlled by Shinawatra himself, and instead have a momentum of their own, makes it all the more imperative that the government heeds the protestors’ demands. It is suggested that the protestors’ demands stem from a long-standing disillusionment with the Thai political elite, which has long denied poor Thais access to the fruits of economic development.

Thailand’s neighbours have urged the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which traditionally refrains from involvement in its members’ internal matters, to take a common stand on the Thai crisis. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is the latest member to urge Abhisit to ensure that the situation is peacefully resolved. Cambodia and Singapore have also urged the two sides to reach a peaceful political settlement. ASEAN members fear the situation in Thailand may tarnish the region’s reputation, and may damage investor confidence. Financial and political stability will depend on whether the government intends to tackle the causes of Thailand’s crisis, or whether it is content merely to tackle the symptoms.

N Korean torpedo sunk Cheonan says international report

A North Korean torpedo caused the sinking of the South Korean navy ship Cheonan last month, according to an international report published today. The report confirms what South Korea and its international allies have long suspected, and will serve to ratchet up tensions between the two Koreas.

According to the team of investigators from Britain, Australia, Sweden and the United States, parts of a torpedo discovered on the sea floor near the sunken ship are a “perfect match” for a North Korean design. The report, which was announced in a nationally-televised press conference, states that “the evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine”, and that there is “no other plausible explanation”. The Cheonan, which was sunk on 26 March near the disputed Korean maritime boundary, led to the deaths of 46 South Korean sailors.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said his government would take “stern action” against the north. North Korea, which has always denied its involvement in the sinking described the report as “fabricated”. Pyongyang has also threatened to respond with “tough measures including an all-out war” if the South moves to impose sanctions, according South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

Allies of the South have been quick to support the report’s findings, with the US describing the sinking of the Cheonan as an “act of aggression”. The UN Secretary General described the report’s findings as “deeply troubling”. China has, however, remained almost silent on the report, stating that the sinking was merely “unfortunate”.

State of emergency imposed in southern Kyrgyzstan

Ethnic clashes that left two dead and over sixty wounded in the southern Kyrgyz city Jalalabad, led the interim government of Kyrgyzstan to declare a state of emergency yesterday. The deadly clashes saw ethnic Uzbeks, a significant minority in southern Kyrgyzstan, pitted against ethnic Kyrgyz, after an attack on a local Uzbek-owned university. However, according to Bakyt Seyitov, spokesman for the interior ministry, there was calm in Jalalabad last night.

Normally peaceful relations between the two communities have been strained in recent weeks, particularly in Osh, the traditional powerbase of former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Bakiyev was ousted in a political uprising last month, which led to the installation of an interim government. While Bakiyev fled first to his native south, and later to Belarus, the interim government has struggled to retain control of Kyrgyzstan.

Ethnic violence over the last few weeks is largely thought to have taken place between supporters of the former president and the Uzbek community. There are unconfirmed suspicions emanating from the interim government that Bakiyev is behind this unrest.

Blast kills twelve in Dera Ismail Khan as Pakistan agrees to new offensive in Waziristan

A bomb blast in the north-western Pakistani town of Dera Ismail Khan has left at least twelve people dead and countless others wounded, Pakistani officials said on Wednesday. According to local security forces, the bomb – planted on a bicycle and detonated remotely – was targeted at the town’s deputy police superintendent, Iqbal Khan. Khan was killed by the blast, along with his guard and driver.

Dera Ismail Khan is close to South Waziristan, where the Pakistan army launched an anti-Taliban offensive late last year. Although many people fled the town, there has been relative peace since the offensive began. However, there have been suggestions that this is simply because militants have relocated to other areas such as Orakzai and Khyber. So far, no-one has claimed responsibility for yesteday’s attack.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani government yesterday agreed in principle to launch a military offensive against the Taliban in North Waziristan, although it insisted the timing of the offensive must be left to government discretion. The announcement comes in the wake of increased US pressure on Islamabad after the recent bombing attempt in New York’s Times Square. The government has previously been reluctant to move into North Waziristan, arguing that it must first consolidate gains made in other areas. However, it is believed that US emissaries visiting the country this week delivered a blunt message on the consequences of further attempted terrorist attacks emanating from Pakistani soil.

Although both sides report that the meeting was amicable, it is clear that Pakistan, which wants an increase in the $1.5 billion of non-military aid promised under last year’s Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act, is not in a position to withstand US pressure.

Maoist attacks force India to rethink strategy

A series of Maoist attacks across north-eastern India this week have left dozens dead and disrupted train services across Bihar state. Earlier this morning, suspected Maoists derailed a goods train and set fire to fifteen diesel tankers in Bihar’s Motihari district. According to local officials, the fire is still raging. Meanwhile, train services across the state have been disrupted.

On Monday, at least 35 people were killed when Maoist militants are thought to have detonated a landmine underneath a bus in the state of Chhattisgarh. According to the chief minister of Chhattisgarh, “24 civilians and eleven policemen have died, and fifteen persons including fourteen police personnel were injured in the blast.” Monday’s attack came just one month after another Maoist attack left over 75 police dead.

Analysts suggested that this week’s attacks may be a Maoist retaliation against the government’s ‘Operation Green Hunt’, that has targeted Maoists across north and eastern India since last year, employing 56,000 paramilitary forces in addition to local police.

Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram has said that a surge of Maoist attacks in recent weeks may prompt the government to rethink its strategy. The forty-year-old Maoist insurgency is now active in roughly one third of the country, and although the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh claims it is winning the war against Maoist militants, the spate of attacks this year undermines the government’s confidence.

The government has been previously reluctant to use military force against the insurgency, due to widespread support for the Maoists in certain parts of the country. There are fears that a military operation may cut into the Congress party’s grass roots support, as well as leading to significant losses of civilian lives. However, recent attacks may well lead to greater support for a military option.

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