The Bangkok Massacre Sparks Déjà-vu for Samy

Samy doesn't live near the Thai capital of Bangkok, but his fate rests largely on the government that resides there-and that government has recently been plunged into utter chaos. Dozens have been killed and hundreds injured in the past weeks, as negotiations between political factions failed and the army resorted to force to quell a long-standing protest.

So before we delve deeper into one Canadian's plan to save Samy, it makes sense to look at the current turmoil in Thailand, through Samy's eyes. After all, he lives in Thailand, and his prospects of finding a new home are intimately bound to the Thai government's decision-making power. And a state caught in the midst of violent crisis tends not to put refugee affairs on the top of the agenda. Yet the immediate impact on Samy has been so great, not just because the clash disrupted government operations, but because it's something he's seen before.

Samy tells me that what's happening in Thailand reminds him of life in Burma: He's again seeing a military-backed, authoritarian leadership use military might to crush protesters calling for democracy. The military junta in Burma has routinely used violence to shatter pro-democracy movements for the last two decades.

"In Burma, it's the same thing: The army has been killing people, scaring people. And when I got here, I thought this country was freedom, and that people had a power," he says. "But they're killing people."

Though the story behind the deadly standoff is long and complex, an abridged version goes something like this: A huge populist grassroots organization, made up largely of the poor and champions of the poor, took to Bangkok en masse two months ago. Known as the "Red Shirts," the faction consists of followers of Thaksin Shinawatra, the democratically elected prime minister who was deposed in a military coup in 2006. (He's been living in exile ever since.)

The Red Shirts occupied Bangkok's posh commercial districts, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiv. According to the L.A. Times, they claim his "government is illegitimate, that it came to power by manipulating the courts and cozying up to the military, and that it embodies an elite indifferent to the plight of the poor." Negotiators sought a democratic solution, and Abhisit eventually promised new elections. But talks broke down around two weeks ago, and the military moved in to quell the uprising: 35 were left dead, and hundreds injured. Most were Red Shirts.

Now, even though the Red Shirts have retreated, pronounced fears of a greater conflict remain. Some have voiced concern that a full-on civil war might break out. Others murmur about totalitarian rule and economic collapse. To be sure, incalculable damage has been done to Thailand's tourism-heavy economy.

Samy mentions all of this, and though he says civil war seems possible, he's characteristically optimistic: "I think that they'll fix the problem. But it's still a big problem, and if they don't fix it now, it will become bigger and bigger. I think they have to fix it very soon."

He says there are only a few Red Shirts in Mae Sot, the city he frequents, and that there hasn't been much trouble. But he does wonder whether the tumult will delay his hearing with the PAB-the important meeting in which the Thai government could finally officially label him a displaced person.

"They say next month, but because of the political situation is very bad, I think maybe longer," Samy says. He's received no further word on the subject.

Most of all, Samy is disturbed by the military's use of force, and the fears he sees stirred in the Thai people. While commentators thousands of miles away may be relieved it wasn't as bad as Tiananmen Square, the magnitude of the tragedy is still resonating in Thailand.

"I will show you one video-you can watch that one. I was really, really mad," Samy tells me. He later emailed me the video, made by English-speaking journalists, and told me to share it.


I can't pretend to understand what it's like to be someone who's fled one eminently hostile government, only to watch his sanctuary country erupt in violent conflict. But I imagine news of the Thai army turning its guns on its own citizens must have been gut-wrenching. Nonetheless, Samy believes things haven't gotten as dire as they are in his home country, and that democracy will eventually win the day.

"It's not like in Burma. There, tthey can talk. And they can fix it with dialogue, and not with a gun anymore."

via Michael Belanger / Flickr

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