Red Shirts in Bangkok – Penfold’s assessment

Thailand is not known for its gentle handling of protesters and those who voice dissent and this has been clearly displayed during the recent political unrest.

The inability, of government and Red Shirt leaders, to reach a peaceful conclusion to the whole sorry affair has largely been to do with the fact that they are unwilling to compromise or change their stance, for fear of losing “face” among their respective supporters.

In Thailand, as with many Asian cultures, the concept of face is deeply ingrained in society. In terms of Western values, face is similar to the notion of reputation or your standing within society. It equates to your social value and is a dynamic that occurs in both personal and business relationships.

The concept of “face” is not hard to understand because, even in the West, everyone likes to be seen in a positive light. Although many Westerners in Thailand do find it difficult to understand the lengths Thai people go to save face. Rather than admit to a mistake or seek a compromise they will do everything within their power to ensure they are not the ones who lose face.

I recently read that one of the stumbling blocks to securing an agreement to end the violence was that nobody wanted to accept responsibility for the deaths of protestors. This is a prime example of how “face” can be a serious problem. The violence could have been stopped, if certain individuals accepted culpability, but Prime Minister Abhisit didn’t want his government’s reputation tarnished and the Red Shirts refused to drop the matter for fear of looking weak.

So, the two sides remained at loggerheads and all the while the Red Shirts were occupying central Bangkok, government security force were engaging in indiscriminate violence and people continued to die.

Instead of diffusing the tension by diplomacy and negotiations both sides resorted to violence and what started as a political protest risked becoming a full blown insurrection.

But, as many observers will tell you, this is not the first time that a political dispute has caused death and bloodshed and it certainly won’t be the last, until Thailand’s deep-seated divisions and social inequalities are tackled.

Whilst Thailand is far from being a failed state it is on the edge of a very slippery slope and needs to take a step back and reflect. The violence does little help the country’s economy, with tourists staying away in droves, businesses and factories being forced to close and investors rapidly losing confidence. Any further damage, to the already weakened economy, will add to the woes of Thailand’s impoverished masses and could be a catalyst for future hostility.


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