The endgame appears to have begun for the protests in Bangkok, as security forces take an increasingly hard line and casualties are mounting. There is no doubt that the government had to take action, as the impact of the protests has started to cause real damage to the Thai economy. With some estimates forecasting a drop of up to 3 percent in the GDP this year and up to $6 million a day lost by the businesses in the city center alone, the government feels their actions are necessary to protect the economy. But the tactics being used may cause even more lasting damage.
Tourism makes up 6 percent of the Thai GDP, and scenes of serious disorder and soldiers firing live rounds in central Bangkok are currently being seen in the homes of potential tourists all over the world. This may deter people from travelling to Thailand for years to come. The unfortunate fact is that the Thai Police and Army have had the equipment and manpower required to end the commercial district occupation since it was occupied on April 3 without the loss of life we are now seeing. The only thing they have been missing is the appropriate tactics and training to conduct the mission.
Following the failed attempt to clear Phan Fah Bridge on April 10 and the resulting casualties, the Army in particular appears to have abandoned the U.S. police-style tactics they had been using to that point. They resorted to the tactics they were widely criticized for using in April 2009. The numbers now being killed and injured are a direct result of this incident. That failure resulted from U.S.-style tactics not being appropriate for the level of violence they faced and in particular the mix of peaceful protesters, violent rioters and those prepared to use lethal force, such as firearms and hand grenades.
There are few organizations that have faced this type of mixed lethal and nonlethal threat, but in Western democracies, those that have faced it have been capable of designing tactics and procedures that enabled them to deal with this form of rioting without resorting to an indiscriminate use of lethal force. The appropriate use of vehicles, faster, more dynamic tactics and better use of their water cannon could have prevented most of the injuries and deaths we have seen and many of those that are still to occur.
The lessons here are that the training and tactics for dealing with disorder must be designed to suit the type of threat you face in your country or city – the organizational culture, political environment, equipment and other factors. Using tactics simply copied from elsewhere will create more problems than it solves and place not only the police officers at risk but also protesters and bystanders. All police departments must be able to manage the escalation and de-escalation of the crowd, and keep their own actions from causing or escalating violence. Thailand’s failure to learn that lesson after last year’s protests is proving costly in terms of lives, and it is likely to be equally costly economically in the future.