Image: Bangkok violence
Paula Bronstein  /  Getty Images
Members of the Thai military police fire at motorcycles coming towards them causing the death of a soldier by friendly fire during a gun battle with protestors outside the city on April 28, in Bangkok.
By Associated Press Writer
updated 5/18/2010 12:28:56 AM ET 2010-05-18T04:28:56

Soldiers have been hit by their own tear gas. Riot police scattered in fear when a party balloon popped. An anti-government protester, surrounded by security forces, escaped down a rope from a hotel balcony to the cheers of supporters.

In the two-month standoff between Thai security forces and protesters in Bangkok, there have been times when the demonstrators have seemed more organized and the troops hobbled by incompetence, divided loyalties and dangerous infighting.

Some troops have seemed unwilling to obey government orders. Others openly fraternized with the Red Shirt demonstrators — a motley alliance of rural and urban poor.

Rather than quash the protest movement while it was vulnerable, these actions have allowed the number of demonstrators to mushroom and fortify themselves.

"If Red Shirt organization and staying power has proved surprising, the performance of the security forces has been nothing less than alarming," said Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based security analyst. "A remarkable display of incompetence and inaction has seen swaths of the capital city calmly surrendered to mob rule."

Authorities are trying to choke off a 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) area of downtown Bangkok where several thousand die-hard protesters remain entrenched behind barricades of bamboo spikes and tires.

Bloody operation
The government hopes that will end the crippling demonstration in which at least 66 people have been killed and more than 1,600 wounded.

There are signs that the government plan is working. Authorities say the numbers inside the protest zone have shrunk to some 3,000 from 10,000 or more a week ago.

But the operation is proving both ineffective and bloody. After the government trumpeted the deployment of overwhelming force — more than 30,000 men and columns of armored personnel carriers — there are inadequate numbers of troops, without any armored vehicles, actually laying siege to the Red Shirt encampment.

And even with their diminished numbers, the Red Shirts have been able to punch out of their enclave and fight running gunbattles with sometimes confused military units in several districts of the city.

"Despite all the violence so far, it is still unclear if the army would be willing to launch a full-on assault to break up the main protest site," said Andrew Walker, a Thailand expert at The Australian National University.

Many within the police, especially in lower echelons, are supporters of the Red Shirts and their hero, ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who began his career in the force.

They and sympathizers within the ranks of the army are popularly called "watermelons" — referring to green uniforms but hidden support of the Red Shirt protesters. Several former army officers are serving as military advisers to the anti-government demonstrators. Among them was Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdiphol, who was shot by an apparent sniper last week and died of his wounds Monday.

The debilitating divisions within the Royal Thai Army are more complex.

In contrast to other Asian nations such as South Korea, Indonesia and even Pakistan, which have tamed their once-powerful militaries, Thailand has had a potent, sometimes decisive force in the political arena. Modern Thai history bristles with 18 military coups and military strongmen, with the army commander often exercising more clout than the prime minister.

The current commander in chief, Gen. Anupong Paojinda, has insisted that the army remains united behind "the nation, the people and His Majesty," King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Early in the crisis, Anupong signaled his reluctance to use force and reportedly is anxious about becoming a possible scapegoat with blood on his hands before his planned retirement in September.

Clearly his troops made halfhearted attempts at best to enforce the emergency decrees and other orders from the weak coalition government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

The lackluster efforts may have stemmed in part from mixed signals to the troops because Anupong's deputy and likely successor, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, is known as a proponent of aggressive action.

"The military is divided within, with many senior officers seeking advantage over intraservice rivals, while doubting the willingness of enlisted personnel to act decisively against their own class," said G.M. Greenwood of Allan and Associates, a Hong Kong-based risk consultancy.

Jockeying for position
Amid the crisis, senior officers are engaging in the high-stakes jockeying for position that precedes every year's fall military reshuffle, when some retire and others are promoted or sidelined. Loyalties are often divided along military academy graduating classes.

Speculation persists that during the worst violence on April 10, when 25 people were killed and more than 800 wounded, a faction of the military itself was involved in the killing of a colonel and wounding of two senior officers, all close to Prayuth and slated for promotion.

Other theories say the black-clad killers, caught on film and video, were former pro-Red Shirt army rangers or a military-style unit within the protest movement.

Many Thais and expatriates untutored in military matters are baffled by the lack of grit displayed by many soldiers and police.

"Given that the prospect of civil unrest has been growing steadily since 2006, the failure to develop dedicated units in either the police or military capable of a calibrated response is remarkable," said Davis, who also writes for Jane's Intelligence Review, a security publication. Lacking skills in non-lethal methods, the options narrowed to using deadly force or being overwhelmed by protesters.

The prime minister has defended the army's performance and maintained that the military and government are unified.

"I think it would be unfair to say the military have been unsuccessful in what they tried to do," Abhisit told The Associated Press.

But to date, the record has been unimpressive.

Military authorities have telegraphed operations before they were launched. When Red Shirt leaders left encampments with relatively small numbers of followers, authorities failed to muster enough force to arrest them.

In the most recent clashes, troops seem to be violating a basic military doctrine by taking ground from the protesters and then just pulling back to their original positions. On April 10, soldiers abandoned armored vehicles to protesters armed with little more than stones and bamboo spears.

Actions by police and troops have on occasion smacked of slapstick comedy. A Red Shirt leader, Arisman Pongruangrong, was surrounded by police but eluded them by climbing down a rope from a hotel balcony to rousing cheers from supporters. Soldiers guarding a TV station failed to wear masks when they threw tear gas canisters at onrushing protesters — only to be overcome themselves when the wind changed.

A balloon being festooned for a restaurant's Cinco de Mayo celebration burst unexpectedly and sent armed police positioned outside scurrying for cover in panic. The restaurant owner thought it best to remove the balloons.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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