ICG On Thailand

Not infallible or without biases perhaps, however the International Crisis Group’s alert on Thailand is worth reading. Jotman has also featured it, I was reading around about the current situation and then today in conversation with my mother she reported how a cousin was worried because their daughter was in the region working and a person was shot right beside them. The ICG proposes an outside mediator as they judge the political system to be in crisis and the risk of a large scale military response to be growing. Mark McKinnon reports the demographic aspects that mitigate against the media friendly Western repackaging of the situation making the Red Shirts more isolated as their interests do not coincide with global corporate goals-

Unlike the “colour revolutions” in Ukraine, Georgia and Lebanon that the Red Shirts are openly trying to copy, the masses on the streets aren’t winning over the other half of Thai society with their resilience. In fact, with each passing day anger is growing in non-Red Thailand – which broadly includes the urban middle and upper classes – over the inconvenience and economic damage caused by the non-stop protests. There are new calls every day, in increasingly hostile language, for the military to do something to restore order, whether it’s a coup or another crackdown.

The problem facing Thailand’s Red Shirts – beyond whether or not their cause is just – is the same one that brought tens of thousands of them into the streets since March 12: They are boxed out from the levers of power.

There is no national television station that will trumpet their cause, as Fifth Channel did for the Orange demonstrators in Ukraine or Rustavi2 did for the Rose Revolutionaries in Georgia. People’s Television, the only station that was broadcasting the Red perspective, was shut down by the government earlier this month for inciting violence, as were several prominent Red websites, leaving the movement reliant on community radio stations that few among the urban elites the Red Shirts need win over are likely to tune into. Most of the remaining mainstream media is openly hostile to the Reds and their cause.

The Red Shirts are also deprived of their most charismatic leader, with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in exile after being convicted of abuse of power after he was ousted in a 2006 military coup. Revolutions are rarely led from abroad.

There’s also the superpower game. In Ukraine, Georgia and Lebanon, powers such as the United States and European Union lent overt political support and covert financial aid to those on the streets. But as Thailand’s turmoil goes on, no outside power seems keen on a Red takeover.

Most crucially, in the other colour revolutions, it was the middle class calling for change. They could stand on the streets and shut down the commercial heart of Tbilisi, Kiev or Beirut because they felt ownership of those streets, it was where they lived and worked. The stores stayed open, and some did a roaring trade. Only the government was greatly inconvenienced.

Which makes the ICG’s approach perhaps the most pressing, not least to avoid a bloody crackdown-

The Thai political system has broken down and seems incapable of pulling the country back from the brink of widespread conflict. The stand-off in the streets of Bangkok between the government and Red Shirt protesters is worsening and could deteriorate into an undeclared civil war. The country’s polarisation demands immediate action in the form of assistance from neutral figures from outside. It is time for Thailand to consider help from international friends to avoid a slide into wider violence. Even the most advanced democracies have accepted this.

Situation on the Ground

So far, at least 26 people have died in clashes between the military and the Red Shirts, a group of mostly rural and urban poor more formally known as the “United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD)”. That number could rise sharply if the military moves to dislodge thousands of protesters camped in the centre of the capital. The Red Shirts demand the immediate dissolution of parliament and quick new elections; Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has refused and handed control of security to the military.

Bangkok is tense. The Red Shirts have ground the capital’s bustling commercial hub to a halt. Businesses in the area have been shuttered for weeks and residents have voluntarily relocated to avoid being caught in clashes between soldiers and protesters positioned only metres from their doors. The city has been hit by dozens of explosions by unidentified assailants while many nervously await an expected army operation to “remove” the Red Shirts from the streets.

Local efforts at mediation have failed. Civil society groups brought the government and the protesters together but the talks faltered over when to dissolve parliament. The Red Shirts offered a 30-day deadline; Abhisit was only willing to agree to go to the polls within nine months. The fault lines are widening between the establishment – an amalgam of elderly courtiers, powerful generals and many middle class supporters – and the protesters, many of whom support former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

While some blame Thaksin for the stand-off, the protests have moved far beyond his control. Many Thais are deeply disillusioned by an elite that denied them the fruits of development for decades and then ousted a government elected mostly by the rural poor. Thailand is a country prone to violence, with a history of bloody insurgencies and authoritarianism – an uncomfortable reality for most Thais to accept. Violence in Bangkok could spread if there is a crackdown.

This crisis comes as the country is facing its first prospect of royal succession in more than six decades. The monarch may no longer be in a position to resolve disputes, and even if he is willing, the current crisis is more complex than previous ones where he stepped in. An unsuccessful intervention could damage royal prestige and the throne’s moral authority.

The government must recognise that a violent crackdown would severely damage them and likely lead to more conflict. The UDD leadership must also accept that further provocations or violence will only do more damage to their democratic credentials, as well as undercut the credibility of their entire campaign for change.

What Should Be Done

The following steps should be taken urgently:

The creation of a high-level facilitation group of international figures. Nobel Laureate and Timor Leste President Jose Ramos Horta has visited Bangkok at his own initiative and could be joined in this effort by other figures, perhaps drawn from The Elders and the ranks of former senior government officials with experience in Thailand.

This group, which should be joined by independent Thai figures, should bring together the government and Red Shirts to encourage immediate steps to prevent violence, such as ending the military operation; the self-limitation of protests to a small, more symbolic number of people who do not disrupt life in Bangkok; and the formation of a national unity committee that pulls together people from all walks of life.

This committee should begin negotiations, facilitated by the international group, on an interim government of national unity and preparations for elections, although these will be controversial and should not be rushed into as quickly as demanded. The government must be led by someone from parliament but should be made up mostly of neutral, respected individuals from across society.

The committee should also facilitate the formation of an independent body to investigate the 10 April clashes between the security forces and Red Shirt protesters at Democracy Monument, as well as other violent incidents related to the current demonstrations.

Once the immediate crisis is defused, with a rapid return to the rule of law, political negotiations may require some time as they will involve confidence-building measures, including accountability on both sides for the violence. Politics needs to return to parliament. Thai political life will have to be refreshed with new elections and, perhaps, a new constitution to replace the country’s military-influenced charter.

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