After two months of anti-government mass demonstrations in Bangkok, the ongoing stalemate between the Thai authorities and red-shirt protestors ended in violence on May 19. The beginning of the end started at dawn when Thai security forces broke through makeshift barriers in APCs to enter the sprawling downtown protest area. Firing live rounds at militant protestors, combat soldiers advanced on the main protest camp where a few thousand defiant protestors remained.
At the brink of an intense violent confrontation, red-shirt leaders announced their surrender to the authorities “in order to save lives.” Protestors fled the camp reportedly dismayed with the decision. Targeted arson attacks and vandalism followed, mainly against public buildings and a number of banks in Bangkok and in some provinces the following day. The brinkmanship of the red-shirt leaders resulted in eight deaths that day. The loss of life was low considering how dangerously close the red-shirts, and perhaps the army, came to enduring massive losses as the security forces descended into the main protest camp.
The Thai army would presumably view the minimal loss of life in the operation with relief. After violent clashes in recent weeks, the Army Commander was reported to have controversially disapproved of Government demands for security operations to close down the camp due to the potential for the heavy loss of civilian lives. When Government negotiations with the red-shirts again failed last week, the security forces were forced to act. Apparently, there had also been concerns within the higher ranks of the security forces that so-called “watermelon” soldiers and police (green outside and red inside) would be unwilling to act against the red-shirts due to individual regional affinity and political affiliation.
In the days leading up to the operation, the Thai authorities had estimated that around 500 armed “terrorists” were present among the unarmed red-shirt protestors. The fact that five military personnel, including a colonel, were among the 21 killed during clashes on 10 April in addition to multiple incidents involving M79 grenades and automatic weapons confirmed to the Thai authorities that armed militants were providing direct and indirect support to the red-shirt protest group.
It is significant that organized armed militants did not surface to seriously counter or attempt to disrupt the advancing military operation. Such actions would have irrevocably escalated clashes with protestors in the face of overwhelming military fire-power. In fact, as protestors fled the scene, any so-called black-shirted “terrorists” disappeared into the Bangkok streets perhaps to engage in arson attacks and other acts of sabotage. Of concern is the probability that while some M16s and explosives have been found at the protest site, other military weapons and grenades remain with extreme factions within the red shirt movement.
At this early stage, it is unclear what will immediately happen to the red-shirt movement as its surrendering leaders look set to be prosecuted on charges of terrorism. Overnight, however, some violent reactions to the military intervention occurred and continue to occur in the north and northeast of Thailand, the main areas of red-shirt support. It is clear, however, that the red-shirt movement will continue to significantly impact on Thai politics and security in any efforts towards reconciliation and the forthcoming general elections. Indeed, recent events may be best characterized less in terms of an end but more as the end of the beginning.