Friday, May 21, 2010

Thailand in flames -The battle of Bangkok

An all-out massacre in the capital has been avoided, but Thailand is not beyond the risk of civil war

THE best that can be said about this week’s bloody street battles in Bangkok is that they could have been so much bloodier. In the end, red-shirt protesters, after camping out in the Thai capital for more than two months, surrendered in the face of the overwhelming might of the Thai army (see article). Thanks to that last-ditch display of common sense and common humanity, the protests ended with dozens dead, not hundreds. That is still a catastrophe for a country that seemed to be rushing towards prosperity and pluralism.

Indeed, the fact that the scale of the disaster has so far been contained should not deflect attention from the dangers ahead. With the stock exchange and several other treasure palaces of Thailand’s globalised elite in flames, unrest spreading outside the capital and a curfew in effect in much of the country, it is not scaremongering to worry that civil war may ensue.

The government would pooh-pooh such a notion. It has all along played down the seriousness of the crisis, preferring to pin the blame on a few “terrorists”, a rent-a-mob—and, above all, on its supposed paymaster, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister toppled in a coup in 2006 who is now in exile. In one way, the yellow-shirted elite is right: Mr Thaksin probably did play a malign role, especially in helping scupper attempts at a negotiated end to the protests. At the very least, he did not call on his supporters, as he could have done, to go home to avoid bloodshed. But however self-seeking and power-hungry Mr Thaksin may be, the red-shirt movement now dwarfs his individual ambition. It has become a broad-based response to a broken political system.

That breakdown explains why the risks remain so high. The obvious solution to the crisis in the short term is for parliament to be dissolved and fresh elections held. But the evidence of four elections since 2001 is that a fair one would probably be won by parties loyal to Mr Thaksin. The royalist elite might not accept that. After all, they ousted him in 2006, and saw off subsequent governments led by his proxies through street protests, airport sieges, quirky court rulings and parliamentary horse-trading—any means, it seemed, other than the ballot. No wonder some of the red shirts, even after coming close to achieving their main demand, for an early election, seemed to give up on parliamentary democracy.

With so much blood spilled, they will now be even less inclined to trust the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, the prime minister, to organise a free and fair vote, and to respect the outcome. An interim government of national unity is needed. Sadly, Mr Abhisit’s ministers have set their face against any foreign involvement in helping arrange such an administration. “Thailand is not a failed state,” they say. Better, as proof of that assertion, to accept outside intervention when it is necessary. An interim government should have a remit not just to arrange a new election, but to discuss amending the constitution adopted under military rule in 2007, and to consider the transition few Thais want to talk about: the royal succession.

We’re not in 1992 any more

As the stand-off and then the fighting in Bangkok dragged on, many recalled the last time the city endured a massacre, in 1992. Then, tensions were calmed when the king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, berated both the protest leader and the then military dictator on television. An interim government under a respected technocrat, enjoying the royal seal of approval, took over. This time any hopes that the king might work the same magic came to nought.

It is of course unfair to criticise him for this. He is 82, has been in hospital and may simply not be up for active political intervention. But it is not unfair to criticise the monarchy and its advisers for having created a system where the king is so sorely needed. Thai officials argue that the king is above politics and an important guarantor of stability. One lesson of the latest tragedy is that he cannot be both these things, and in fact, the monarchy is no longer either. The Economist

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