Noam Chomsky once noted that when the Soviet Union sent troops into Afghanistan that at least one Soviet radio station announcer characterized the action as an invasion. He was courageous for making such a reasonable depiction of things. But for saying so, Soviet authorities promptly placed him into a psychiatric hospital. Chomsky argues that people in the Soviet Union could recognize an invasion when they saw one, but risked being put away for saying so publicly.
In contrast, no mainstream US media outlet in the 1960s ever suggested US involvement in Vietnam was an “invasion.” The thought was unimaginable.
The inability to use such an unpleasant term led to the death of at least a few million Vietnamese and more than 50,000 American soldiers. Necessarily coupled with the inability to imagine the act as an invasion was the construction of the North Vietnamese “communist terrorist.”
The same failure of courage and imagination now faces Thai society. Previously, the killing of at least 40 student protesters in October 6, 1976 was considered a “massacre,” as was the estimated 40 killed in May 1992 military suppression of protesters calling for the coup leader-cum-prime minister to step down.
Since 10 April , more than 50 Thai protesters, many bare-handed or armed with bamboo sticks, have been killed. A number of prominent international journalists in Bangkok have themselves witnessed unarmed protesters shot by Thai security forces, both on 10 April or over the past few days, especially in the “live-ammunition zones” established by the government.
It is true that there was a mysterious black-clad force shooting back at the Thai military on 10 April 2010, leading to the death of five soldiers. And there may be other forces at play in the killings of the past few days. But these factors do not change the basic contours of this struggle: the main body of protesters adhere to non-violence, are unarmed or dramatically under-armed against military and police forces that have been using live ammunition against them. If the red shirts are armed and dangerous, you wouldn’t know it from the number of casualties: in the last two days, 29 protesters have been killed, and zero army and police personnel. This suggests disproportionate, excessive, and deadly force used by security forces in dispersing the protesters. But this skewing of numbers can’t last long: the situation created by the government has created has opened the doors wide to extremists on both sides.
The definition of massacre is: “The act or an instance of killing a large number of humans indiscriminately and cruelly.” Let’s be clear about what is happening on the streets of Bangkok: this is a massacre. Perhaps not a single act or instance, but when taken as a whole, the military and police operations against the red shirt protesters have killed up to this point more than any crackdown by previous Thai military regimes in the past 50 years. It is a slowly unfurling, staggered massacre that promises to soar. The Thai government has promised to bring an end to the crisis by escalating this slow-motion massacre.
If this is not a massacre, then when will it be? At 80 killings? At 100?
This massacre, though, differs from previous Thai massacres in a number of ways. First, there has been no outrage over the deaths. Governments have hesitated condemning the Thai government. Human rights organizations have urged both sides not to use violence and return to the negotiating table. In 1976, it was largely urban students killed. There was an international outcry. In 1992, it was urban populations killed. There was a domestic and international outcry. But this time, there is no outrage, but rather a grim celebration of a show of force and getting those rural people and terrorists out of Bangkok, at any cost.
Regardless there are Thai citizens being killed indiscriminately. If one believes that the conduct of the Thai government is acceptable, then at least call it for what it is: a massacre. One should not console ourselves by saying that the red shirts had been warned by the government of their impending doom, or that there are certain factions of the red shirts killing other red shirts, or that these people are “terrorists.” Understand and accept that it will be a continuing massacre.
For those who cannot accept the possibility of a massacre, for those who choose to error on the side of caution on the chance that much of the killing is a slaughter of the innocents, then it is time to show express outrage and moral revulsion. It is time to focus on the responsibility of the Abhisit Vejjajiva government. Whether intentional or due to the carelessness or lack of intelligence on the part of the government in deciding to move against protesters on 10 April 2010, the Abhisit government is ultimately morally and legally responsible. The dead deserve their day in court to confront their killer. If the Abhisit government cannot begin to figure out who was responsible for these deaths, it should resign so that a non-interested one can.
The deaths of score protesters that night somehow were presented as proof of “terrorists” and justified their killings. In the last few days, the indiscriminate killing is justified because there are supposedly “500 terrorists” hiding within the main body of protesters. As a protest leader has said, such a statement is tantamount to the advance issuing of 500 death certificates of protesters, “terrorists” or not.
This state of affairs, this eager acceptance of massacre, should and cannot be acceptable to any dignified and democratic society.