Bangkok’s Referendum on Protests & Crackdown – The Irrawaddy/Sunday Business Post

BANGKOK – With a Government party candidate facing off against a jailed member of the red shirt linked opposition, Sunday’s Bangkok by-election is being viewed by some as a part-referendum on the recent anti-Government red shirt protests and the army crackdown that ultimately dispersed the protestors, amid gunfire, grenade explosions and the burning of almost thirty buildings around Bangkok. Over eighty died and around 2000 people were injured during the two month rally that successively occupied two landmark areas of capital’s downtown.

The Government has retained emergency laws in 16 provinces – including in Bangkok – over two months after the protests ended. Fending off criticism that the laws, which allow for detention without trial, widespread censorship and ban public gatherings of more than five people, are unnecessary now, the Government says that underground redshirt activity is possible in certain parts of the country, but adds that it will review the emergency law implementation as soon as possible.

As part of the Government’s reconciliation plan, reform panels have been set up – though with a three year mandate, far exceeding the 2011 term limit for the current administration. Redshirts have demanded an early election to settle disputes over the the current Government’s legitimacy. A previous offer by the PM to hold an election on November 14 this year was rejected by red shirt leaders. The Government has since said that it may yet offer an early election, but says a vote could not take place in the current circumstances.

One reform panel is headed by former PM Anand Panyarachun, who today told Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva to lift the emergency decree, saying that “the decision [to end the state of emergency] would help improve the political situation and would be useful in helping the government solve problems.” The statement added “Some problems and difficulties might remain, but the committee suggested that the government rely on political measures, rather than tough law enforcement, to solve problems. “The end of the emergency would be a good start.” Later on Friday, Col .Sansern, spokesman of the Centre for the Resolution of Emergency Situations (CRES) the military-civilian oversight body set up to coordinate the Government’s response to the red shirt protests, said that the PM would decide on whether or not to lift emergency law.

Despite the apparent contradiction with the law, both candidates staged public rallies in recent days and weeks, with Puea Thai due to gather at Suan Siam in Bangkok’s outskirts tonight, followed by 4 Democrat Party events tomorrow. Government candidate Panit Vikitsreth is favoured to defeat opposition runner Korkaew Pikulthongpit, who is currently jailed under the emergency powers, on terrorism relating to the redshirt protest and has therefore been unable to campaign. In the last Thai general election held in 2007, 27 of the city’s 36 seats went to the Democrat Party, but the redshirt-linked opposition party was the nationwide winner.

That election came after a 2006 coup that deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is also deemed a terrorist by the Government and regarded as the prime strategic and financial mover behind the redshirts and the Thai opposition. Anti-Thaksin yellowshirt protests in Bangkok during 2008 helped bring down the 2007 Government, with the incumbent Democrat party led administration coming to power after smaller parties crossed the house to support current PM and Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejajjiva, and after the Thai courts dissolved redshirt aligned parties. A yellowshirt candidate in today’s by-election stood down, in an apparent pact with the Government ticket to avoid splitting the anti-redshirt vote.

On Thursday morning, diplomats and opposition leaders mingled in the air-conditioned Peua Thai (For Thais) party headquarters, peering over each other and pausing between small-talk to check out the montage of images from the March-May anti-Government redshirt protest that left 80 dead in the hear of Bangkok.

The genteel vibe was a far cry from the heat and danger of the Bangkok streets during the protest, and went against the grain of the sought-for atmospherics during the display, timed around the by-election. A John Williams-esque background score, over-dubbed with the sound of gunfire and panicked, frightened people shouting, ran as newsreels of PM Abhisit played on a loop on one screen. Volunteers lay still on the ground, playing the part of the six civilians killed – by the Thai Army according to the opposition – a Buddhist temple on May 19, the day the Thai Army moved against the then two month old redshirt protest in central Bangkok

Earlier former Thai foreign minister and current Peua Thai foreign affairs spokesman Noppadon Pattama told the diplomats that his party does not accept the Government as legitimate. While maintaining that his party, which is a successor to the various parties set up by former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, is separate to the redshirt protestors, he aid that redshirts are still bitter at how the protest was crushed and angry that most of their leaders are in jail.

Noppadon sought to play to the diplomats international awareness by comparing the “tepid western reaction to the 2006 coup”, vis-a-vis the condemnation of the coup in Honduras. In a not-so-subtle allusion to Burma, he called the post-coup military Government “a junta”. However the German and South African Ambassadors subsequently took Noppadon to task, saying that they viewed the Democrat Party-led coalition as constitutional and legitimate, adding that many representatives of foreign Governments felt aggrieved at apparent attempts by red shirts and Peua Thai to portray their ‘fact-finding’ presence at opposition events as an endorsement of opposition politics.

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