Sunday, April 25, 2010

No Exit Seen from Thailand's Very Un-Thai Crisis

BANGKOK – Whether keeping rapacious colonial powers at bay, averting political violence or settling family squabbles, Thais have earned a reputation for deft diplomacy, thwarting confrontation and achieving compromise, or as they proudly say, "bending with the wind like bamboo."

Until now, it seems.

The latest iteration of Thailand's political crisis, which pits a largely rural movement against the government, is in its seventh week. There is no end in sight and seemingly no one able to break the deadlock that has seen protesters occupying key areas of Bangkok for weeks. Individuals and institutions, including the monarchy, that once played key mediating roles, are either powerless or silent. Confrontations have so far taken the lives of 26 people and paralyzed central Bangkok, where the protesters, known as the Red Shirts, occupy a square-mile (half-kilometer) of some of the capital's most glamorous shopping areas. Almost everyone agrees that old-fashioned give-and-take is the best way out of the stalemate, which has crippled Thailand's golden tourist industry and shaken investor confidence.

But three rounds of talks have already failed, and the seemingly intractable standoff even has some worrying publicly about the potential for civil war. "Every night, the country is sitting on a time bomb, waiting for chaos to occur," says Surichai Wun-gaeo, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. The latest talks broke down Saturday after Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva rejected a Red Shirt proposal that Parliament be dissolved in 30 days, a softening of earlier demands for immediate dissolution to be followed by elections. The Red Shirts consist mainly of rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military coup that ousted him in 2006. They believe Abhisit's government is illegitimate because it came to power under military pressure through a parliamentary vote after disputed court rulings ousted two elected pro-Thaksin governments.

But what really fuels the protesters, and makes reconciliation difficult, are not legal decisions and political wrangling, but deep-seated anger at a Bangkok-based elite they say treats the rural poor as second-class citizens while it fails to alleviate their poverty. Compromise is hard even for past masters of the art, given the "intensification of polarization" in Thai society, says Surat Horachaikul, another political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. "This time it involves a change of the system. Never before has the nation been polarized this way," he says. Some protest leaders and academics have called into question past compromises, which they say merely involved the hoodwinking of the have-nots by power brokers who made empty promises, suggesting they underscore exactly what's wrong with the system.

"Different people see history differently. Thai society is made to think that we're a compromising people and the Land of Smiles. That's not true," says Chulalongkorn's Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee. Third parties who in the past have helped pull the country back from the edge of chaos have so far played little role in the
crisis. Someone like Anand Panyarachun, a former prime minister and highly regarded peacemaker who warns that Thailand was on the "verge of catastrophe," is seen by the protesters as too close to the power elite.

The much-revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, perhaps the pivotal figure in modern Thai history, has been hospitalized since Sept. 19 and remains silent. Last week, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a former prime minister, petitioned the 82-year-old king, saying "I can see that there is no other institution that can stop this except the monarchy." The U.S.-born Bhumibol, the world's longest reigning monarch, stepped in to stop bloodshed during a student uprising in 1973 and again during antimilitary street protests in 1992. Both events lasted just days. Bhumibol's predecessors are credited with cleverly playing Great Britain and France against each other in the 19th century, insuring that Thailand remained a rare exception, a country in the non-Western world that was never colonized.

But Paul Handley, who authored a biography of the king, says that Bhumibol's "health problems may have left him without the energy to hash out a deal personally." The king, he says, has the constitutional right to order a dissolution, but he has never done so without the agreement of the government in power, so it is still the government that must strike a deal with the protesters. "For the king?or the palace to step in publicly, they have to have first crafted a compromise they know will succeed in defusing the situation. If the king makes a public move and it doesn't work, then everyone will see him as weak," says the author of "The King Never Smiles." Still, Handley and others say it is still not too late for a
peaceful resolution since both sides have already agreed that Parliament would be dissolved and have narrowed their disagreements over when this should occur.

Other crises in the past, they note, have been defused through new elections, although the government and its allies presently fear balloting would simply bring pro-Thaksin leaders. That, in turn, could spark fresh demonstrations and possible violence if the legions of anti-Thaksin "Yellow Shirt" protesters, whose mass rallies preceded the 2006 coup and sought the ouster of subsequent pro-Thaksin administrations, including shutting the capital's airports for a week, take to the streets once again.

Some hold out hope for another round of talks. But for the moment, many echo a recent editorial in the English-language Bangkok Post, warning that the opposing camps have "reached a perfect stalemate where neither side can secure an all-out victory without suffering extensive losses. "A concession has to be made by both sides and soon, or the much-feared specter of civil war could become a new reality." The Associated Press By DENIS D. GRAY

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