Experts: Bangkok crackdown no replay of Tiananmen
BEIJING—Before the military crackdown on Red Shirts in Bangkok this week, one Thai protester ominously claimed: "This will end as our Tiananmen Square."
It was a dire warning that did not come true. The clashes Tuesday between the Thai military and the so-called Red Shirt protesters left at least 15 people dead -- compared with the hundreds or more believed killed when People's Liberation Army troops stormed into central Beijing in June 1989 to break up student-led pro-democracy demonstrations.
For some, images of Thai armored personnel carriers breaking through makeshift barriers this week to end an anti-government protest brought back memories of China's crackdown in Tiananmen Square two decades ago.
Both were military missions to clear entrenched protestors who had paralyzed a key downtown area in the capital -- but the political realities behind the two incidents have little in common, analysts say.
Thailand is a democracy, albeit one now in crisis and long prone to military coups, while China was and is staunchly authoritarian.
"Tiananmen in China in 1989 was really a black-and-white story, a black-and-white confrontation, the authoritarian government with the People's Liberation Army crushing the pro-democracy movement," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
Thailand's protesters are angry because they see their democratic rights are being frustrated: the parties they voted for won the election but were then ordered dissolved and the politicians they voted for were banned from politics.
"In Tiananmen, they didn't have rights. In Thailand, the rights have been usurped, manipulated and disenfranchised," Thitinan said.
The Chinese military's bloody crackdown brought an end to weeks of largely peaceful demonstrations that at their height drew a million people to Tiananmen and saw students erecting a makeshift statue of liberty. In one famous moment of resistance, a lone man holding shopping bags defiantly stood in front of a column of tanks on a street near the square.
Tiananmen's resonance as a clear fight between good and evil was invoked this week by Sean Boonpracong, a spokesman for the Red Shirts.
"The people are defiant," the Guardian newspaper quoted him as saying. "They do not trust the government. They don't want violence, but they are prepared to fight with their bare hands. The government does not want to negotiate, so I think many more people will die. This will end as our Tiananmen Square."
Huang Shan, the international editor of one of China's most daring news publications, Caixin Weekly, said Chinese who grew up during the Tiananmen era would likely have the same associations.
He said he thought immediately of Tiananmen when he heard how the Thai military was clearing the Red Shirts out of downtown Bangkok.
"It's like how they cleared Tiananmen Square in the late 1980s," he said.
Beyond the superficial similarities however lies a world of difference. Tiananmen was a clear battle between dictatorship and democracy, but what's happening in Thailand today is more nuanced and less radical, said William Callahan, professor of international politics at the University of Manchester in England and an expert on Asian politics.
He said the Red Shirts are opposed to the top-down authority of Thailand's "network monarchy," a system which favors wealthy elites with links to the Thai king, but they are not asking for a new political system. Instead they demand new elections, which they hope will bring their people back into power.
"Their stated goals are within the system," he said. "So, they are working within the system but they don't see the system as working very well."
Perhaps the clearest sign of how little the struggles have in common is the free rein Chinese media have been given to report on Thailand's political turmoil. Though Beijing routinely censors news and ideas it considers potentially destabilizing, there seems to be little concern that the chaos in Bangkok will revive the ideals that drove Tiananmen.
Huang, the Caixin Weekly international editor, said so far there's been no gag order from Chinese authorities on covering the Thai crisis. Like other Chinese television and print media, Caixin has reported extensively on the situation and plans to continue doing so, he said.
Li Datong, a veteran Chinese journalist who was forced from a top editing job at a national state-run newspaper for publishing reports that were too probing, said the government is probably allowing plentiful and objective coverage of Thai crisis "because it poses no threat to China."
Thailand today and Tiananmen 20 years ago "were very different situations. In fact, they have nothing to do with each other," Li said. He said the Chinese student demonstrations were spontaneous and largely peaceful while the Red Shirt protests have been relatively organized and sometimes violent.
If anything, he said, the situation in Thailand offers Chinese authorities another negative example, like the occasional fist-fights in Taiwan's rambunctiously democratic legislature, to fend off those clamoring for faster political reforms on the mainland.
"The mouthpieces of the Chinese Central Propaganda Department can point to democracy in Taiwan and democracy in Thailand as cautionary tales," Li said. "They can say: 'You think democracy is good, well have a look at Thailand, see what kind of trouble they've got there?'"