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Behind Bangkok’s Wave of Popular Dissent
Behind Bangkok’s Wave of Popular Dissent
Thai EOD personnel inspect the site of a bomb attack in Thailand's troubled southern province of Pattani, on 5 July 2016. REUTERS/Surapan Boonthamon
Briefing 148 / Asia

泰国南部的和平对话:缺乏牵引力

发生在泰国七个旅游城镇的八月爆炸事件预示了冲突区域的扩散。与此同时,和平对话的进程也失去了势头。若要令和谈重返正轨,分散的武装分子必须放弃企图通过暴力获胜,且政府必须承诺提供一个全面的解决方案,包括分权制度和认可深南地区作为马来穆斯林的身份。

概述

泰国军政府和部分流亡中的马来穆斯林分离主义领袖之间的和平对话陷入了僵局。2016年8月,几个地处深南的旅游区遭到了协调式的爆炸袭击,且其都并非发生在此前就动乱频繁的区域。这些爆炸事件带有分离主义分子的特征,还意味着政府对暴乱的控制手段并无效果。在2014年政变中得权的(NCPO)声称,其支持但不承诺通过对话结束暴乱;泰国总理曾就谈判提出质疑,且主要的暴力团伙也拒绝对话。该团伙是2015年为与政府谈判而建立的联盟,其究竟控制了多少成员却是不得而知。建立分权式政体不仅可以为马来穆斯林带来民族认同感和志向,还能以此缓和冲突并维护国家统一。然而,政府和反动武装分子都保持敌对而不妥协的态度,双方的谈判僵局也因此难以打破。八月发生在深南地区的爆炸事件则应督促政府为达成全面协议而寻求对话。

自夺权以来,国家和平秩序委员会便为了治理这个政治分歧的国家而费尽心思,随着国王普密蓬•阿杜德七十年的统治即将结束,泰国也渐临着不确定因素。尽管军方反对由英拉·西瓦拉政府于2013年开启的对话进程,但国家和平秩序委员会仍应允了会重新促成对话,并邀请了马来西亚为此进行协调。然而,国家和平秩序委员会也面临着矛盾:一方面,其需要向当地人民和国际社会证明它在做正事,另一方面,其也担心和平对话会予以分裂主义分子合法地位,并为国际介入和最终国家分裂铺路。

2016年3月,在经过两次全体会议和三轮技术洽谈后,国家和平秩序委员会的谈判队伍与“马拉北大年”(MARA Patani)——“北大年舒拉议会”(Majlis Syura Patani)是反动者为与曼谷当局进行谈判而于2015年建立的联盟——初步达成一致,并同意在八项条例(ToR)的基础上,开启正式对话的通道。但仅一个月之后,泰国军方便突然调走了谈判队伍的干事,而八项条例正是在此干事领导下达成的。在四月二十七日于吉隆坡召开的会议中,泰方谈判队伍以需要重审文件为由拒绝签字,并质疑马拉北大年参加正式对话的资格。尽管双方在9月2日再次举行了会议,但和平对话的进程仍停留在非正式的初级阶段。

在措施采取上,国家和平秩序委员会更倾向于说服武装分子投降,而不是与其流亡领导人达成协议。政府在全国范围内抑制了政治参与、暂停了选举并剥夺了公民自由。另外,国家和平秩序委员会照承诺应在2017年后期举行大选,因此上述举措亦是在为选后的长期持政奠定基础。而其对政治活动的禁止也使政府就反动分子应放弃暴力、为和平变革努力的论调变成了空话。随着当地的公民社会受到更多压制,依靠民众意愿来推动坦诚对话的前景也愈加渺茫。

武装分子内部的分裂和狭隘主义也限制了两方展开实质对话。支持对话的成员认为一旦该进程展现出好势头,那其它派系自会参加。但亦由很多观察者质疑了马拉北大年当下代表大规模武装分子的能力。“民族革命阵线”(Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani, BRN)是其中主要的反动组织,一些马拉北大年的高层声虽称隶属于该组织,但却未得到组织领导层的认可。民族革命阵线质疑了国家和平秩序委员会的诚意,并明确坚持和谈必须要有外国观察员在场。这也进而加深了泰国当局对国际介入的顾虑。另外,目前尚无迹象表明,伊斯兰国(IS)或国际圣战主义者与泰国的马来民族独立主义武装分子之间存在勾结。

分裂的局势和谈判能力受限虽对和谈造成了重大的障碍,但更迫切的挑战却是双方缺乏协商的决心。国家和平秩序委员会看似仅仅有意做出一副对话的姿态,并反对任何涉及分权的解决办法;民族革命阵线尚未进化成一个可作为对话基础的政治平台;而马拉北大年则还未展示出其在地面的影响力。目前困境的严峻程度尚且不足以令各方求和心切,并诉诸于紧急谈判;然而8月11日到12日发生的爆炸事件却显示出武装分子在对人命、财产和经济造成更大损害上的能力。政府应当认识到这种威胁并重新考虑对话模式。而武装分子则应意识到,若任战火蔓延并继续针对旅游区,那他们不仅将面对曼谷当局不余遗力的武力回应,还会备受国际社会的谴责。

曼谷/布鲁塞尔,2016年9月21日

Pro-democracy protesters show the three-finger salute as they gather demanding the government to resign and to release detained leaders in Bangkok, Thailand 15 October 2020. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Q&A / Asia

Behind Bangkok’s Wave of Popular Dissent

Anti-government protests and popular demands for reform, including of the once-sacrosanct monarchy, have accelerated in Thailand. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for South East Asia, Matt Wheeler, explains how this crisis over political legitimacy has now reached a dangerous impasse.

Why are this week’s protests significant?

On the evening of 16 October, riot police used water cannons in central Bangkok to break up a crowd of several thousand mostly young protesters who were assembling for the second day in defiance of a ban on public gatherings. The episode marked a violent escalation in a series of pro-democracy protests that has been gaining momentum over the past three months and intensifying further over the past three days.

A day earlier, more than 10,000 demonstrators had gathered a few blocks away, defying measures announced the same morning under a “serious state of emergency”, which prohibits gatherings of over four people in the capital. The government put the extraordinary measures in place to “maintain peace and order” after marchers reached the prime minister’s office and held a large rally the day before. Despite threats that anyone attending or even promoting the protest online would be arrested, thousands flooded the Rachaprasong intersection, in the heart of the city’s shopping centre district, soon overwhelming the sizeable police deployment. The protesters occupied the area all evening, cheering a succession of speakers before dispersing peacefully. Rachaprasong is a place redolent with symbolism: it was the locus of 2010 protests demanding a new election, which were suppressed in a deadly crackdown by Thai army troops that May. 

Protesters called for the release of more than twenty activist leaders who had been arrested earlier in the day. Soon after authorities announced the new emergency decree, in the pre-dawn hours, the police had also chased hundreds of protesters away from the streets around Government House, where they had set up camp following a day-long march on 14 October. Much better attended than the government had expected, that march was also of symbolic significance as it coincided with the anniversary of the 1973 student-led uprising that toppled a military dictatorship.

The enhanced state of emergency failed to quash the popular movement.

The large turnout at Rachaprasong – on short notice and in defiance of authorities’ threats to arrest anyone joining – signalled that the enhanced state of emergency had failed to quash the popular movement. While most recent protests appeared to include a representative sample of the young, middle-aged and old, the crowd on 15 and 16 October was decidedly youthful, with most demonstrators appearing to be in their early twenties. Some in the crowd were high school students and first-time protesters, driven to join by what they saw as an unjust emergency decree clamping down on any expression of dissent.

Who are the protesters and what do they want? 

Street protests are a regular feature of Thai politics, but the 2020 gatherings are different from earlier rounds of collective action in two ways. First, students and young people, who were largely absent from the Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt movements that shook the country between 2006 and 2014, are the driving force of the present mobilisation. The youth accuse the current government of being a reincarnation of the junta that ruled between 2014 and 2019, laundered by the 2017 constitution and a slanted general election in March 2019. They insist that the government – particularly the (unelected) prime minister and ex-junta leader, Prayuth Chan-ocha – resign. Other demands include dissolution of parliament and a new constitution drafted with public consultation. 

Secondly, and more strikingly, activists are calling for reform of the monarchy – namely, that it be brought under the constitution. Anon Nampa, a human rights lawyer, thrust the country into a new era on 3 August when he called for palace reform at a small demonstration in Bangkok. On 10 August, at a rally at a university campus north of the capital, a young student activist, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, read a ten-point manifesto on reforming the monarchy, including an end to royal endorsement of coups d’état. Both of them were arrested on 15 October, along with other prominent and vocal students.

Activists are calling for reform of the monarchy – namely, that it be brought under the constitution.

Since these controversial speeches, protesters have criticised King Maha Vajiralongkorn, or Rama X, with unprecedented candour – for residing in Germany while the country faces the COVID-19 pandemic and for squandering the people’s taxes, among other issues. Until recently, such open criticism of the monarchy was unheard of in Thailand. It is punishable by up to fifteen years of prison. But while the harsh lèse-majesté law remains on the books, in practice, the longstanding taboo on public discussion of the monarchy has eroded surprisingly quickly over the last two months. Some protesters now openly lampoon the king, who acceded to the throne three years ago after his father, who had reigned for 70 years, died.

Despite this unprecedented criticism, which distresses many Thais, the government had refrained until 15 October from using the lèse-majesté law to curtail the protests. Police had arrested some student leaders for violating an earlier emergency decree imposed to support public health measures amid the pandemic and other laws, but then released them on bail. The students immediately returned to giving fiery speeches, and protests proliferated across the country, including a series of rallies by high school students demanding reform of the country’s stodgy and outmoded educational system. 

The government’s tolerance now appears exhausted.

The government’s tolerance now appears exhausted. The immediate pretext for the imposition of the “serious state of emergency” was alleged threats to Queen Suthida, whose motorcade passed anti-government protesters on 14 October, after apparently diverging from a planned route earlier cleared by police. Protesters raised three-finger salutes inspired by the popular Hunger Games film series – in which oppressed masses adopt the gesture as a symbol of defiance of tyranny – and jeered as the royal convoy passed, but there was no violence or obvious threat thereof. Two activists have since been arrested and charged with endangering the queen, which carries a potential sentence of life in prison. 

Why now?

Rallies calling for far-reaching political change started to escalate earlier this year, particularly on university campuses, after the Constitutional Court dissolved the upstart Future Forward Party in February. Established in 2018, the party had surprisingly come in third in last year’s general election, proving to be extremely popular with young voters. The COVID-19 pandemic stifled burgeoning demonstrations, but rallies resumed as the lockdown eased. The abduction of exiled activist Wanchalerm Satsakit in Cambodia in June – following the unexplained disappearance of at least eight others since 2016 – also sparked public outrage and galvanised a new generation of activists.

Faced with growing protests, the government seemed to relent on amending the 2017 constitution, a document drafted by junta appointees primarily to facilitate continued junta rule with a sheen of electoral legitimacy. But on 24 September, a two-day parliamentary debate on six amendment bills proposed by various parties ended without a vote, as the legislature went into recess until November. Any move to amend the constitution requires support from two thirds of the 250 appointed senators, which did not materialise. Instead, the governing Phalang Pracharat Party proposed a committee to study the bills for 30 days. Opposition parties walked out, denouncing what they viewed as a delaying tactic. Government officials have since hinted that charter amendment could take years, leading many to believe nothing will happen until the next general election in 2023. Protesters have little confidence in the government’s willingness to revise its bespoke political order.

What are the risks of a government crackdown? 

Thailand holds the world record for number of military coups, and its history is checkered with political violence. Many observers thus fear that the government – run largely by ex-generals – could opt for repression to quell the rising protests. The 15 October state of emergency, arrests of activists, and deployment of riot police against peaceful protesters mark a clear shift in the government’s response. With protesters emboldened by the 15 October rally’s success, they are likely to stage further demonstrations in Bangkok, in spite of warnings from senior government officials that all who participate face arrest and charges of violating the emergency decree. In view of the scale of recent rallies, more stringent government actions present a risk of violence greater than at any point since the April-May 2010 army crackdown that killed more than 90 people. 

The stakes of the conflict, including the monarchy’s role in Thai society, and the terms in which both sides are speaking about it, are elemental and fraught. For many Thais, the current moment evokes memories of 6 October 1976, when police and right-wing paramilitaries – set off by an alleged insult to Vajiralongkorn, who was then crown prince –massacred dozens of pro-democracy students at Thammasat University. 

What can be done to reduce tensions?

The conflict between proponents of popular sovereignty, on one hand, and a hierarchical order underpinned by the monarchy, on the other, is swiftly coming into sharp relief. There is no evident mechanism in Thai society for addressing this conflict, but there are actions that each side can take now to reduce tensions and move toward consensus. First, the protesters should continue to adhere to their pledge of non-violence. Secondly, the government should refrain from using force to disperse peaceful crowds, lift the state of emergency, and protect rights of assembly and free speech. Thirdly, the government should publicly commit to a brisk timetable for amending the constitution and paving the way for a constitutional drafting assembly. 

More daunting is the need for a fresh concord on the monarchy’s changing role. Government officials and royalists insist that public discussion of this role is off limits, but their position is, in light of recent events, anachronistic. The degree of repression necessary to effectively reinstate the prohibition, including online, would tarnish both the government and the monarchy. Given the propensity of the army to abrogate charters, a new constitution alone will not resolve Thailand’s crisis of political legitimacy, but it could be a starting point in the search for a new consensus on how political power should be acquired, exercised and held to account.