BANGKOK, Thailand — Wild battles and torched malls now light up Bangkok, currently suffering one of its most unruly chapters ever.
After occupying sectors of Bangkok for 10 weeks, protesters demanding the ruling party’s downfall finally dispersed when soldiers overran their encampment. But while most protesters from the so-called “Red Shirts” faction have returned home, a faceless band of hardliners has remained to wage an arson campaign.
As Thailand slips further into chaos, and the struggle’s death toll ticks towards 70, here are the five things you need to know about the current crisis:
1) Who are the Red Shirts?
A self-proclaimed faction of “commoners” embittered that their favored political parties have been dissolved for fraud. Though comprised largely of working-class Thais, they are loyal to a billionaire: cop-turned-telecom mogul Thaksin Shinawatra, who reigned as premier before the military ousted him in a 2006 coup.
Their main stated goal has been new elections, an outcome many leading media outlets and academics have suggested is the best way forward. But they also seek to end the “rule of the elites,” a call to action interpreted peacefully by some and violently by others.
The Red Shirts, calling themselves “Asia’s largest democracy movement,” have embraced the rhetoric of peaceful disobedience. But they have also threatened bloody reprisals; one hardline leader prophetically warned Bangkok would become a “sea of fire” if the government would not yield.
2) Who’s burning down Bangkok?
A masked mob detached from any visible leadership. But recent military crackdowns against anti-government protesters, including assault rifle strikes that have killed dozens, are clearly their inspiration.
The movement’s “fight to the death” speechmaking, and failure to contain its militant streak, appears responsible for the current mayhem waged in its name. As fires consumed parts of the Thai capital, a radical splinter group known as “Red Siam” sent an email to reporters claiming that “any attempt of ‘democratic reform’ has now ended. From today, we begin the journey of democratic revolution of Thailand until we achieve one.”
3) Is this civil war?
Not yet. But both protesters and the government have claimed excesses from the other side — killing protesters with sniper rifles; killing soldiers with grenade launchers — are pushing Thailand in that direction.
These grim forewarnings of civil war misleadingly conjure images of Rwandan genocide or the North vs. South separatism of the American Civil War. But many foresee this “civil war” scenario playing out more like the Basque separatist movement in Spain: an underground movement of sporadic bombings and other attacks that destabilize but don’t destroy the country.
“They could go underground, basing themselves in the provinces,” said Prateep Ungsongtham Hata, an activist sympathetic to the Red Shirts who decries the current shift towards militancy. “When you can’t fight openly, you become unseen.”
4) Why does America care?
Thailand and the U.S. are old Vietnam War buddies, bonded decades ago by a common fear of communism’s Southeast Asian spread. Thailand is also America’s oldest Asian treaty ally, a major exporter to the U.S. and a tourist destination for more than 660,000 Americans each year.
But as China’s influence rises, particularly in Southeast Asia, Thailand is strategically important as a counterweight to Chinese influence. Each year, the U.S. and Thailand stage the world’s largest war games on Thai soil — a projection of American strength in China’s backyard. A stable, America-friendly Thailand is a big priority for the State Department.
5) Is Thailand still safe for tourists?
More so than it appears. Its beaches are still among the world’s most beautiful and its jungles are still lush and enchanting. These tourist draws are accessible without coming anywhere near Bangkok’s conflicts, largely contained to a 2.5-square mile area. Most incoming flights land in Suvarnabhumi Airport, located in Greater Bangkok, and connection flights to peaceful tourist cities have been unaffected.
And though the images from Bangkok appear hellish, few bystanders and work-a-day Thais have been injured. Even in conflict zones, foreigners are not singled out for violence. Quite the opposite: protesters have been desperate for international approval and the government has fretted over a plunge in tourist arrivals.
The crisis has affected most in Bangkok through inconvenience. The city’s commuter trains have shut down, its office towers have been temporarily shuttered and several of its nightlife districts have gone quiet.