BANGKOK — Despite a comfortable margin of victory in a parliamentary no-confidence vote held on Wednedsay, Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva faces considerable challenges if his stalled reconciliation plan is to be implemented.
The no-confidence debate was televised, allowing the issues discussed to reach Thai homes after weeks of government censorship of pro-Redshirt and independent media sites such as Prachatai.
From the time the debate opened on Monday morning until its close on Tuesday, bitter and heated exchanges have highlighted the depth of animosity and distrust between those aligned to the anti-government Redshirts, on the one hand, and the Democrat party-led government, on the other.
While the words exchanged were blunt, giving the debate an air of transparency and frankness, they were not necessarily truthful or accurate. But then such is the way in almost any parliament in the world. the difference is that this debate took place after unprecedented violence on the streets of Bangkok.
And while heated discussion of a variety of incendiary and controversial issues is part and parcel of what parliamentary debate is about in a healthy democracy, it remains to be seen whether the acrimonious debate smoothes the way for Abhisit’s reconciliation plan.
The prime minister constantly refers to “reconciliation”, almost mantra-like. The reconciliation on offer is not to everybody’s liking, however, and the implication is often made that if the plan is refuted or disputed, then ‘reconciliation’ is not wanted by the refuseniks in question.
Abhisit has withdrawn an offer to hold early elections on November 14, saying that the current environment is not conducive to polls. Speaking to the prime minister at a press conference on Saturday, The Irrawaddy compared the situation in Thailand with the Philippines, which held elections on May 10 despite ongoing insurgencies and high pre-election violence, and asked if Thailand would hold early elections in similar, less-than-ideal conditions.
In response, Abhisit said, “reconciliation would have to take place first.” Then he reminded the reporters in attendance of his offer to disband the government prematurely, and asked rhetorically, “What other administration would have done that?”
The Redshirts regard the current administration as illegitimate, arguing that it came to power after courts dissolved two election-winning, pro-Redshirt parties, and this after a military coup ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the only Thai prime minister to win successive elections.
If elections are not held, fears that underground Redshirt militants could take action will grow, and disenchantment with the political process in Redshirt supporters will increase.
If reconciliation—either in the fullest sense of the word or as envisaged by the current government—is to happen, it is likely that a full and impartial investigation into the recent violence will be necessary.
Abhisit has pledged an independent probe, though the mandate, membership and modus operandi of the investigating body remains to be clarified. “Whatever the outcome of the fact-finding investigation, (deputy premier Suthep Thaungsuban) and I are ready to accept it,” Abhisit said on Tuesday.
Each of the government, the Thai military and the protestors stand accused of violence and blame each other for the shootings, bombings and arson that took place on various occasions over recent weeks.
The government repeatedly referred to black-clad “terrorists” as the root of all the recent trouble, with Abhisit applying balm to the burning rhetoric by re-stating his view that the majority of Redshirts were peaceful protestors, apart from a hardline minority under the direction of Thaksin.
Peua Thai MP and Redshirt leader Jatuporn Promphan accused the government of trying to hide the truth about the recent clashes, while the government in turn accused the protestors of harming their own people to discredit the government and security forces. Focusing on Deputy Prime Minister Suthep, Jatuporn said that the government “accuses us of paying people to die.” He added that, “If I can hire someone, I would pay for Suthep to die.”
Such invective ran throughout the often-fiery two-day debate. Redshirts called on Abhisit and Suthep to admit responsibility for ordering soldiers to use lethal violence to break up the protest, saying they had caused death and injury to innocent protesters.
Citing a report by al-Jazeera, Peau Thai MP Cholanan Srikaew claimed soldiers were seen taking away four bodies after a violent clash at Sala Daeng intersection. Suthep, who is also chairman of the Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation, replied that no people had gone “missing” during the rally.
The allegations and accusations bounced back and forth. Abhisit criticized the Redshirts for repeated use of what he described as a doctored clip, in which Abhisit calls for staged violence, to provide the government with justification for a clampdown on the protest. “If I was a villager and made to listen to that tape, I would have come to Bangkok myself,” he said.
Puea Thai Party Chairman Chalerm Yoobamrung questioned a number of government ministers, including the prime minister. His interrogation included a grilling of Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, whom he accused of “wretched and vile comments” about the Thai monarchy in a speech that Kasit gave at Johns Hopkins University in April.
Kasit told the US audience, “I think we have to talk about the institution of the monarchy. How it would have to reform itself to the modern globalized world? Like what the British or the Dutch or the Danish or the Lichtenstein monarchy has gone through to adjust itself to the modern world.” The government later brushed off Kasit’s remarks as being his personal opinion.
Before joining the Abhisit-led government, Kasit was a prominent member of the Yellowshirt protestors who occupied Government House and Bangkok’s international airports in late 2008. The Yellowshirts believe that Thaksin and the Redshirts constitute a threat to the country’s constitutional monarchy, and their protest contributed to the ouster of the pro-Redshirt government in late 2008 and its replacement by the current government.
The government has alleged that the March 12 to May 19 Redshirt protest had a hidden anti-monarchy agenda, infamously producing an intricate diagram to reporters during the recent Redshirt protest, which purported to outline the alleged plot.
With lese-majeste allegations, confusion and counter-argument over who shot who and when, contradictory statements coming from the government, the military and the Redshirts, and a lack of consensus on how to move forward, reconciliation seems a distant prospect, even if Abhisit has gained some breathing space with today’s parliamentary win.
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