Bangkok: the future of urban war

Watching  Bangkok burn 1 over the last few days has been both disturbing and upsetting. The use of  heavy armour against a predominantly civilian protest movement (segments of which have latterly turned to small arms and improvised weapons in its stand off with the government) has been a timely reminder of the forms of violence that could mark our urban future.  In some ways it has exemplified dynamics already identified in the literature on urban warfare. The cycle of occupation, displacement and reoccupation that the army and redshirts have been engaged in looks a lot like the ‘pop-up armies and spatial chess‘ that Robert Warren detailed in 2002. Protesters make use of the urban environment as a leveller that frustrates military forces, using the infrastructure (especially roads and communications) to maintain a mobile presence that when it is dispersed from one point of conflict, resurfaces in another. This dynamic of dispersal and reappearance encourages the military to engage in a cycle of escalation, seeking ever more substantial forces to incapacitate the protest movement – either to liquidate (arrest, detain, kill) its leadership or to diminish its mobility. When this escalation coincided with an attempt by redshirts to fortify and hold a segment of the urban terrain, the protesters felt the full force of an asymmetry of forces. The city can help level this asymmetry in favour of those weaker in arms or numbers, but only as long as they exploit the characteristics of the urban terrain that thwart the traditional deployment of force – i.e., only so long as they remain mobile enough to avoid a traditional confrontation with armoured forces at a front-line.

Those who hold the city as a kind of normative ideal often view the principle armed threat to urban life to come from rural dwellers. The countryside, it is thought, is mired in ignorance and a resentment of the cosmopolitan modernity of the city. These kinds of thoughts were regularly aired in relation to the destruction of Bosnian towns and cities, carefully misunderstanding that the men behind the guns were often urbanites. The Bangkok violence has shown us something else regarding the urban-rural dynamic. Far from seeking to destroy the city, protesters – whose power base is often said to lie in the more rural north of the country – have seen the city as both a space in which to elaborate political aspirations and a resource with which to level the asymmetry that exists between civilian political groups and armed, militarised governments. As such they have not attempted to destroy the city, but rather have seen it as  a place and resource in and through which to enunciate a distinctive politics. This is a dynamic that will be common in the urban millennium. Far from wanting to kill the city, rural dwellers are moving to the city in greater numbers. It is the terrain and resource that they will draw upon – not destroy – in elaborating novel politics. As such then, far from seeking to destroy the city the redshirts were an example of an urbanised politics.

Ranged against such political movements are the forces of the state. Through representations in the news media and popular culture, we are accustomed to thinking of urban warfare as a high-tech form of violence, fought with drones and robots by small, mobile teams. But Bangkok shows us a very different face of urban warfare: small arms and light armour used as a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The urban terrain blunts the manoeuvrability and effectiveness of armed forces. Armour and heavy weapons do not have the agility to engage with anything other than straightforward head-on force in the urban environment. More importantly, tanks and heavy weapons cannot stand off at the range they would like in order to achieve effective targeting. Given such constraints the force wielded by the state becomes blunted by an environment that all but prevents agility and precision. Bangkok shows us that while we talk of various complex technological assemblages for surveying and decomposing the urban environment, the most obvious way for the state to deal with urban threats is through the establishment of free fire zones and the deployment of overwhelming force.

Overall, then Bangkok has been both instructive and sobering. On the one hand it confirms the manner in which conflict is increasingly urbanised in the contemporary period. On the other, however, it shows us a face of war that is horrifyingly blunt and violent. I suspect that, faced with enemies exploiting the levelling characteristics of urban terrain, governments will increasingly resort to the kind of brute force witnessed in Thailand.

  1. Thanks to Kyle Grayson for this link

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