No textual healing for Thailand – ISN

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Two months after Thailand’s army routed the anti-Government redshirt protest movement from central Bangkok, sixteen provinces including Bangkok remain under emergency law. Thai media carried Government claims that sabotage and political assassinations remained possible, as the now-dormant redshirt movement goes underground.

The retention of emergency law will be reviewed by the Government on a week-by-week, district-by-district basis. Nonetheless, keeping emergency powers has come under fire. William Burns, the third most senior official in the US State Dept. spoke at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University on July 16, saying that the retention of emergency powers “not healthy for a democratic system”

Thailand’s already-shaky press freedom is coming under renewed pressure. According to the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), 26 more radio stations were recently closed by authorities using the emergency powers. Many of these are linked to the redshirts and stand accused of fomenting protestors to come to Bangkok to take part in the March 12-May 19 rallies, which turned violent on April 10 when black-clad ‘ronin’ seemingly-allied to the protestors fought with Thai troops near one Bangkok’s best-known backpacker haunts.

One black-shirt has been arrested, but otherwise there is little clarity on the ninety deaths and around 2000 injuries sustained during the protests, amid numerous acts of violence apparently perpetrated by protestors and by the Army. Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International representative in Thailand, told ISN that “the decree is exacerbating the problem the Government wants to eliminate. As the decree is the prime driver making the red shirt movement go underground, it is counterproductive to retain this. The Government is suppressing legal and lawful dissent.” Under the terms of the emergency law, detainees are being held at military camps, but precise numbers and whereabouts are unknown.

While some argue that a protest movement would not be permitted to successively occupy two important districts of a major capital city anywhere in the world, others believe that the deployment of the army to disperse the protestors was wrong, perhaps illegal. The Government bases its case on its view that the protest was not peaceful, while redshirts try to disown any connection with the armed black-clad faction, which refused to stand down when the redshirt leaders called an end to the rally as the Army advanced on their stronghold back on May 19.

While the Government says it seeks reconciliation via a series of reform measures, there seems to be an inherent contradiction between the stated goal and the methods used – some of which seem likely to foster division and recrimination. Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI) recently got the green light to investigate an anti-monarchy plot – which the Government earlier alleged by way of a much-derided network mapped-out on a diagram given to media before the redshirt protest was disbanded. The Government says that it will seek to prevent politicisation of the country’s revered royal institutions, which officially transcend politics. In a country where lese-majeste convictions can lead to double-digit prison sentences, such allegations may hinder any attempt to reconcile Thailand’s divides.

In a letter sent to media, including ISN, on July 20, redshirt leader Jaran Dittapichai said that the Government is “deceiving the world by creating five committees of political-media-reconciliation and reforms which are composing by the persons who are PM Thaksin’s enemies and enemies of red shirts people (sic).”

The Thai Government is homing-in on the role of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in financing and fomenting the protests. He is deemed a terrorist by the country’s courts and faces a two year jail sentence for corruption while in office. While he made history by winning successive elections in a country noted for fickle electorates, his administrations were marked by a combination of economic populism and draconian media curbs.

Thaksin’s ouster by a military coup, following yellowshirt protests in 2006, still rankles with redshirts, as does the circumstances – or machinations – behind how the current Democrat Party Government led by Abhisit Vejajjiva came to power in late 2008. Although Abhisit’s accession was legal and constitutional, redshirt leaders see a double standard. Yellowshirt protestors occupied the capital’s two international airports in late 2008, days before Abhisit became Prime Minister. While redshirt leaders are currently incarcerated or on the run, yellowshirt leaders are at large, and one, Kasit Piromya, is Thailand’s foreign minister.

Thailand’s export-oriented economy seems to have come through the unrest relatively-unscathed. Outgoing Bank of Thailand Governor Tarisa Watanagase told ISN on July 20 that the unrest “was localised” and that “tourism, the most vulnerable sector, was not as badly hit as we feared”. Redshirts sought early elections as a condition to ending their protest, and while a Government offer of November 14 this year was rejected – an outcome the Government blamed on Thaksin rather than the protest leaders in Thailand – there is still talk that voting could take place before the end of 2011. The current administration may understandably prefer to hold the election when Thailand’s economic recovery is having the greatest impact among ordinary Thais, and the Government is making ‘pro-poor’ social spending a key aspect of its reconciliation plans. Meanwhile a by-election takes place this coming weekend in Bangkok, with the Democrat party candidate Panit Vikitsreth expected to defeat opposition ticket Korkaew Pikulthong , who is being on charges relating to the redshirt protest but is competing for the Thaksin-backed Peua Thai party.

However the incumbent Democrat Party faces two other legal challenges that might undermine future election and reconciliation plans. Charges that the party misused campaign donations could lead to its dissolution, while a gambit undertaken by PM Abhisit and Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij in early 2009 is being reviewed – slowly – by the National Anti-Corruption Commission. They are accused of violating the Anti-Corruption Law by asking mobile phone operators to send text messages to 17 million mobile numbers free of charge, in contravention of Article 103 of the Anti-Corruption Law which prohibits office holders from accepting any gifts worth 3000 Thai Baht ($90) or more.

On Monday the NACC said it could not decide on the case, which could automatically suspend Abhist and Korn from office. To redshirts it sounds like a reprise of the slow judicial processing of yellowshirt cases, given that the same NACC quickly ruled that Thaksin-proxy PM Samak Sunderavej was in breach of his terms of office by taking part in a TV cookery show, removing him from office in the tumultuous months leading up to the Democrat-led coalition’s accession to power.

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