Thailand runs out of room for compromise

14 April 2010

The door is closing on the old order as the prospects for negotiation dim.

The violence that left 23 [25 as of 20 April] dead and over 800 injured in Bangkok last Saturday hardened the divisions within society. The possibility of far worse bloodletting has only increased.

The deaths and injuries came in street fighting between security forces and red shirt protesters that lasted around an hour. Many photos and videos show black-camouflaged figures using grenades and assault rifles at close range. Autopsies found that nine of the 18 dead protesters were killed by high-velocity fire at long range — probably snipers. Clearly somebody wanted a serious death toll, but was it the security forces, the protesters, or both?

Security units and right-wing vigilante groups have played a role in past incidents. The red shirts also have an extremist wing which has explicitly threatened such violence. Each side is blaming the other, and displaying photographic evidence. The only certainty now is that the bloodshed has totally changed the confrontation.

Both sides have martyrs and grounds for revenge. The red shirts are unbowed and defiant. They have fortified their occupied positions in central Bangkok and upped their demands for an immediate dissolution of parliament and exile of the prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva. Opponents of the red shirts are calling for a more severe crackdown.

Mr. Abhisit's government is sometimes pictured as a creature of the military, but its true position is more complex. Much of the business community, the professionals and the white-collar middle class in the capital are still fervent supporters. Among the die-hards, Saturday's violence offers proof that the red shirt movement is dangerous to the country. Opinion leaders have quickly resurrected the claim that the red shirts aim to overthrow the monarchy. Mr. Abhisit reflected these views by labeling the protesters as "terrorists" and accusing them of maneuvering for a "major change." These claims may be used to justify more decisive repression.

The true reason for the die-hards' fear is the depth and intensity of support for the red movement revealed over the past month. The size and stamina of the protest belied predictions. A wide spectrum of people joined the demonstrations, not just the rural poor. Many Bangkokians took part, to the surprise of those who saw this contest as village against city.

Moreover, the evident intensity of the protesters' commitment exploded any illusion that this was merely a paid mob. The organization was tight. Until last Saturday, the protest had a festival feel and was spectacularly nonviolent. Clearly this is a mass movement expressing a deeply felt demand for change. The government and military now face the prospect that any attempted coup or renewed violent oppression could trigger a far larger show of popular support for the protests.

Most worrying for the government and army has been the effect on monks and rank-and-file security personnel. Many monks joined the protests. Police stood aside. Late last week, more and more soldiers were showing signs of fraternization.

This is not surprising. Monks and privates are mostly drawn from the same social milieu as the core protesters — the lower rungs of rural and urban society. They are cousins and schoolfellows. The signs of defection among these agents of moral and physical authority seem to have panicked the government into the clumsy, failed operation last weekend.

What then are the prospects for negotiation? From the start the red shirts have been demanding a quick dissolution of parliament. The army chief seems to have accepted this as inevitable. The government has offered October. The red shirts demand tomorrow. The gap would seem to be bridgeable in a negotiated settlement.

But complexities lurk. Until this recent incident, the ruling Democrat Party and its coalition allies harbored some hope that they could survive an election if they had enough time and enough funds to spend in advance. This hope now seems forlorn. The demonstrations have shown the breadth and enthusiasm of support for the reds. Martyrdom will enhance this enthusiasm.

Electoral politicians are scrambling to shift ground in line with the voters on whom they depend. With a big election victory, the reds could reinstate the 1997 constitution scrapped by the 2006 coup, void the actions of the coup government, put the coup generals on trial, and bring back former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. In fear of these prospects, die-hard groups are howling for repression rather than negotiation. The conservative and royalist "yellow shirts" have called for martial law. Yet with every day of delay in restarting negotiations, the Democrats' electoral prospects slip still lower.

Since the 2006 coup, parliament has been battered and belittled. Two elected governments have been overthrown. More than 200 elected legislators have been banned from politics. A new constitution deliberately sets out to diminish parliament's role. The consequences are now clear. The country desperately needs to reinstate parliament as a national forum.

Thailand is running out of mechanisms for compromise. Various academic groups, business groups, peace advocates and elder statesmen have failed to gain any traction as potential conciliators. By loudly and repeatedly claiming to be defending the monarchy, the die-hard groups have eroded the institution's old role as mediator. There remains only a slim chance for Mr. Abhisit to play a positive role in the emergence of the new political Thailand, rather than being a casualty in the collapse of the old order.