In the graphic you can see the results of a recent opinion poll run by the Bangkok Post.
To the question, “Do you agree with the opinion piece that having armed soldiers on Bangkok streets conveys the wrong message? The soldiers are there as part of the government plans to keep Bangkok safer,” 76.8% of respondents said YES they agreed that it sent the wrong message.
Here are some key excerpts from the opinion piece published last week:
“Security authorities from the government on down have taken many wrong steps in their effort to make Bangkok safer. Seeing armed soldiers on seemingly every street corner and public place is not at all reassuring for Bangkokians or visitors. The troops convey almost every wrong image, while failing to address the problem of the continuing bomb and grenade attacks.
Creating an armed camp in the capital will heighten fear without affecting the odious group behind the serial bomb attacks.
One must credit Deputy PM Suthep Thaugsuban and his military-controlled Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES) with one thing: when they said last week they would keep 464 Bangkok locations under 24-hour military surveillance, they were entirely truthful. By Saturday, Bangkok was figuratively a sea of green. Groups of soldiers in combat gear, rifles unshouldered and ready, were seemingly everywhere. Head for the skytrain station, walk warily past heavily armed troops. Go to the mall, edge by the soldiers.
The reason for this overkill (pardon the expression), is to divert attention. The unnecessary CRES and the long outdated state of emergency have failed to prevent bomb explosions and grenade attacks. They have also failed to identify any suspects in these deadly incidents.
This is the reasoning of the public statements by the army, police, CRES and Mr Suthep, who is in charge of all security matters: since the military-directed state of emergency and curtailing civil rights have failed to prevent violence, it is necessary to increase military control and further erode public confidence.
Clearly, this goes against common sense. Soldiers on every corner, ready to fire, is the worst possible image this country and its capital can send abroad. It inhibits public movement and harms business. It may even send the wrong message to the terrorist group behind the bombs and grenade attacks, daring them to defy the massive security with yet more explosives. Furthermore, the past attacks have all been standoff assaults, not the sort of offence which directly challenges any guards _military or otherwise.
Mr Suthep, the CRES and the army also have failed to think through this unprecedented show of military force on an almost entirely peaceful capital. If there is another attack such as the one at NBT television station last week, what next? A curfew? A checkpoint on every corner, demanding identity papers?”
In case you don’t know the background here, let me touch on a few key points. Back in April, May and June there were large scale protests by the anti-government “red shirts” who eventually took over control of the Ratchaprasong commercial shopping area of Bangkok. The two-month long protest ended in a bloody dispersal, with act of arson and vandalism that caused massive damage to the area; the most notable being the destruction by fire of Central World Shopping Center.
During the protests the government instituted a State of Emergency in Bangkok and nearly two dozen other provinces, which creates special rules for control of civil order. For a short time curfews were in effect in the capital city, though they were lifted rather quickly.
The state of emergency decree, however, has not been lifted, although relative calm has been restored (many people would say that you don’t need the word “relative” – that, in fact, things have returned to normal).
Some people argue that the State of Emergency is no longer needed; that the current government is behaving in an oppressive manner by not lifting it. The government defends itself, saying that the powers of civil control that are allowed under the Emergency decree are the reason for the generally good order in Bangkok, that threats to the security and peace of Thailand generally and Bangkok specificially are still very real, and that maintaining order in the near future means continuing the 5-month old state of emergency.
Here are a few of the key issues that relate to the Emergency Decree:
1. Some Normal Civil Rights are suspended
Several red shirt leaders (newspapers commonly estimate about 100 people) are being detained (jailed or imprisoned) indefinitely. Without the State of Emergency decree, this would be illegal, but under the special rules for maintaining civil order the police are allowed to hold suspects without the normal requirements of evidence, charge or arraignment.
Anti-government critics say that the government is extending the State of Emergency to facilitate the suppression of its political opposition.
2. Recent bombings and attempted bombings
Over the past several weeks there have been at least three bombs or rocket launched grenades which have exploded in the streets of Bangkok, with the focal point of the attacks being the Victory Monument area, which is always a hotspot for political activity. Two men, a garbage collector and a security guard, have been seriously wounded, and one person has died.
There was a recent explosion that resulted in minor property damage but no injuries outside of a Thai TV station.
Last week the news was full of reports that three bombs, all made by the same source, had been discovered and defused. One was in a central area of Bangkok, while the other two were in the nearby province of Nonthaburi.
The government says that the bombings make it clear that the state of emergency is necessary to maintaining civil order. Critics point to the bombings as evidence that the state of emergency, having been in place for so long, is ineffective. There are even voices that suggest that the attacks are part of a program backed by pro-government or pro-army elements designed to demonstrate a lack of stability in order to justify the continuing state of emergency.
The government was very clear that it believed that the most recent bomb plot was foiled due to the powers provided under the emergency decree.
3. Soldiers in the streets
On Saturday the 5th of September soldiers appeared in a number of key areas around Bangkok, on the streets and, notably, at many BTS stations. The government said that, following the bombing incidents, it was stepping up security in key areas.
The editorial and poll at the top of this blog appeared in response to the deployment of armed soldiers in full combat fatigues around Bangkok.
I have to say, it doesn’t quite look like an armed state. On Monday this week we saw about a dozen soldier – primarily bored looking conscripts with rifles – standing in small groups at the Victory Monument BTS station. It was mildly unnerving, but not overly so.
By Wednesday the soldiers had a table at one end of the station, topped with a green, black and brown camouflage table cloth, and they were sitting on plastic chairs looking very relaxed, and not much like they were ready to instantly stop any act of terrorism.
Personally it seems to me that armed soldiers on the streets and in train stations aren’t the most effective way to combat terrorism. It seems more like a PR measure; and especially in a country that has been battling a series of obstacles in the tourism industry from the closure of the airport to riots in the streets to a dramatically strengthened baht, armed soldiers in the streets doesn’t do much to reinforce the image of the Land of Smiles. A group of better trained and lower profile professionals seems to be a superior option.
4. September 19
If you work in Thailand or you are planning a vacation in Thailand, you may want to be aware that Sunday, 19 September, will mark the fourth anniversary of the military coup that ousted the then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The government is warning that anti-government groups will try to cause disruptions on that day. They warn of possible protests, bombs or other acts of violence, and say that the State of Emergency is necessary to maintain order in the face of these anticipated protests.
They may be right. The red-shirts are angry. They are angry about the suppression of their protests in April, May and June, and they remain angry about the military coup of 2006. They are angry that, having prevailed in the elections of 2007, they saw two successive Prime Ministers removed from office, to be replaced by K. Abhisit, whom they see as a puppet of the military. They are angry at what they call “double standards” – the imprisonment of red-shirt leaders for protests this year while no action has been taken against the yellow shirt leaders for the airport closure two years ago, as well as their allegations of widespread corruption in the current government, and the seeming protection and privilege offered to the wealthy upper class in contrast to the oppression of the working class.
The red shirts are angry about a lot of things, so September 19th may, indeed, prove to be a flashpoint for that anger.
So, should the State of Emergency remain in place?
My opinion doesn’t really matter at this point. The Prime Minister has made it clear that it will remain in place for the time being, and that Bangkok will be the last province where it is lifted.
For now, circle September 19th on your calendars. The simmering discontent in Thailand may not boil over on that day, but if it does, you may want to be close to home.