Published online by Cambridge University Press: 21 October 2015
For those who are not familiar with the history of modern Thai society and politics, the images of the Thai military's brutal dispersal of the Red Shirt protestors in the heart of Bangkok's business district on 19 May 2010 — resulting in scores dead, nearly 2,000 injured, further scores of missing persons, and general unrest in the city as a consequence of such a disgraceful action — might appear shocking and unthinkable, to say the least. However, May 2010 was not the first time that a civilian government asked the Thai armed forces to suppress the Red Shirt protestors. A similar incident took place a year earlier, in the bloody events of April 2009, when the military also moved in to crush the Red Shirt demonstrators, though with fewer fatalities than during the riots of the following year.
Thailand's armed forces have long been known for their brutal suppression of dissidents, be they communist instigators during the Cold War years, student activists in the 1970s, demonstrators for democracy in the 1990s, or southern separatists and Red Shirts in the most recent period. Furthermore, the military's role in staging countless coups d’état to usurp power from civilian governments represents a hallmark in the historical record of modern Thai politics. What is so different about the most recent rounds of events in Thailand is the changing role and image of the Thai military from yesterday's usurper of power to today's force for stability, a force necessary for the survival of a sitting civilian government. The role of the military in Thai politics has, then, become increasingly sophisticated. The military is now much more effective in accomplishing its aims. These circumstances leave the future of Thai democracy overshadowed by a cloud of doom.
The suppression of the Thai people's desire for democracy, equality, and justice — whether in the form of violent military crackdowns, of legal threats including charges of lèse majesté or involvement in the alleged current “anti-monarchy movement,” or of vigorous and misguided campaigns on behalf of a distorted ideology of national unity — has long been a prominent feature of the activity of Thailand's ruling elites. Violent crackdowns on the Red Shirt demonstrators in April 2009 and May 2010 are just two recent manifestations of an old-style politics of desire.