Sunlight creeping through the Bangkok gloom? – The Irrawaddy

Redshirt protestors have conditionally-accepted the Government’s new peace plan. However, looking at these developments in the context of Thailand’s four+ year long cycle of protests, it might be premature to conclude that a long-term solution to Thailand’s political divisions has been found.

Dwindling numbers of redshirts listening on Tuesday morning, May 4 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

With thunder rumbling above in an ash-grey cloud canopy, several hundred die-hards sat listening to a Tuesday morning speech from the main red shirt rally stage at Rajaprasong intersection, in the heart of Bangkok. People fanned

themselves from the dank heat as a rainstorm loomed overhead, while others slept on the overpass running above the rally site. On the eve of Thailand’s Coronation Day, it has been almost two months of non-stop speeches, interspersed with three incidents of serious political violence – deemed as terrorism in some quarters – since the red shirts commenced their optimistically-named ‘Million Man March’ on March 12.

For weeks now, nightly rumours and speculation about an ever-imminent army crackdown on the rally have failed to come to pass. This is despite the Government and army figures repeatedly warning that the protestors would be cleared. On Monday, the Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES) said it was readying armoured vehicles to bolster any attempt to retake Rajaprasong intersection, adding that it could not guarantee the safety of armed red shirt leaders. Confusion in the ranks, or good cop, bad cop?

Tearing down the wall: redshirts open the road to Chulalongkorn Hospital, after apologising for encroaching into the facility. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

But since 9pm Monday night, the focus once more has been thrown back on the redshirts, after Prime Minister Abhisit went on multiple TV channels to announce a five point peace plan, the key facet being an offer to hold elections on November 14 if the redshirts end their rally. The proposed election date means dissolving the House between 45 and 60 days in advance, according to the constitution. That meant the dissolution would be fixed sometime between the end of August or early September, which comes later than the redshirts revised demand for a 30-day deadline.

Redshirts met later on Tuesday to discuss the plan, which they agreed to with the caveat that the PM does not have the authority to set the election date. Earlier, media spokesman Sean Boonpracong told The Irrawaddy that they want to see an official response from the PM’s Democrat Party and coalition partners before they can back the proposals, citing remarks from senior members of the Democrat Party that an early dissolution is unacceptable, as well the prior use of force against the protestors. In the meantime, however, senior figures in the movement have issued their individual and qualified support, coming after reports that behind-the-scenes negotiations were taking place in recent days. After issuing an apology for entering Chulalongkorn Hospital last week, a mini-compromise was achieved over the weekend, when police and redshirts negotiated access to the hospital, as redshirts rerouted their barricade running close to the Silom intersection and Lumphini Park.

Controversial pro-redshirt Major-General 'Seh Daeng' reacts to media as the redshirt leaders grant access to Chulalongkorn Hospital on Saturday (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Chulalongkorn University’s Thitinan Pongsudirak said today that the pressure is now on the redshirts to agree, as haggling over a few weeks difference would be seen as bad faith and could anger the Bangkok public even more. The PM has acknowledged that the the plan will not satisfy everybody. He said “The redshirts want a dissolution in 15 or 30 days, but this cannot be done. Other groups who are against the protests and support the government may not agree to cut this government short by one year.” However, the ‘multi-coloured’ group, fronted by yellowshirt protestors who rallied against the redshirt-aligned administrations prior to 2008, later gave tentative backing the plan. The plan has been backed by Timor-Leste President Dr jose Ramos-Horta, who visited Thailand last week, and is being touted as a possible foreign mediator. In a press release today, Ramos-Horta said “the Prime Minister should be commended for the way he has handled the crisis, with serenity and firmness, but also with much pragmatism. The opposition “Red Shirts” should also be commended for their bravery and restraint.”

The plan contains four other points. Perhaps partly in contradiction of Peau Thai leader Gen Chavalit’s plea for the King to mediate, the PM says that the monarchy must not be used as a tool in political conflicts. This might also be a sop to anti-Thaksin yellowshirt protestors, who have threatened mass action if the Government does not act to its liking. The redshirts have refrained that their movement is not about destabilising the Thai state or a proxy for former PM’s Thaksin Shinawatra’s interests. They say that they want to reform how Thailand is run and address the vast socio-economic inequalities. Perhaps with this in mind, the PM says that Thailand must be reformed by tackling the country’s vast economic disparities, described by Chulalongkorn University academic Pasuk Phongpichi as reminiscent of Latin American oligarchies. Whether or not the rural and agrarian redshirt heartland takes the PM’s propsal as sincere is another issue, despite the the Democrat Party’s claims to have outspent the previous Thaksin-led and pro-redshirt administration when it comes to social spending.

- Sleeping it off: redshirts rest on the skywalk leading to Chitlom station, close to the Rajaprasong rally site, on Tuesday morning. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

More ominously for freedom of speech advocates, Abhisit’s plan says that the media must refrain from reports which exacerbate social or political conflicts – though it is not clear what the criteria for evaluating thes are, or who will adjudicate. This comes after multiple blockings of Thai and foreign websites and the closure of media outlets connected to the redshirts, as well as allegations of intimidation of media by redshirts and others. The PM also pledged an independent investigation of recent violence. Redshirts have been demanding an inquiry into the events of April 10, when 25 protestors and soldiers were killed in street fighting near the redshirts original rally site near Bangkok’s Democracy Monument.

If the redshirts agree to all this, they will pack up their strategically-located makeshift camp, removing their tyre and bamboo barricades along the Langsuan Road and at the Silom metro station intersection. This would allow hotels and shopping malls reopen, after weeks of an eerily dormant silence, and billions of baht in lost revenue. Nok, a fitness instructor who works at the California Wow chain, has been out of work since her branch at Siam Paragon closed. “I hate them”, she said, in a half-jesting reference to the redshirts. “I took leave as I just have to wait for Siam Paragon to open again. It was OK at first to get the break, but I am bored, and need to start earning money again.”

A temporary deal would help investor confidence and likely see the lifting of foreign travel advisories warning against unnecessary travel to Thailand. However it would be little more than a temporary respite in Thailand’s four-year old chromatic political conflict, according to some analysts. Dr Thitinan forecasts that an election campaign could be divisive and potentially-violent, and others feel that there is no guarantee that the result would be respected given the volatile and polarised setting.

Amid mixed signals from the Government, could there be more to the PM offer than meets the eye? Federico Ferrara teaches at the National University of Singapore and is author of the recently-published Thailand Unhinged. In an email to The Irrawaddy, he remarked that “This so-called “offer” strikes me as a classic Abhisit move. He isn’t confident enough in his ability to take on demonstrators he has slandered as traitors and terrorists, but at the same time tries to wiggle his way out of taking responsibility for his utter failure, prolonging his (and the country’s) agony for the sake of protecting the promotion of top military men.” The election date comes after the scheduled changes in Thailand’s military leadership, with current army head Gen Anupong Paochinda due to retire in October.

In another issue that might need to be resolved during any reconciliation process, Deputy PM Suthep maintains that the Government will pursue senior redshirts and Peau Thai politicians for allegedly trying to undermine the monarchy. Analysing the Prime Minister’s performance in office, particularly since the redshirt protests began, Dr Thitinan remarked today that although Abhisit has many qualities suitable for a leader of Thailand, he “seems to have rationalized himself into thinking that he is not just a Prime Minister, but is the saviour of the throne”.

However the PM’s offer will be seen as a significant concession, given that elections are not required until the end of 2011. he must be aware that his party has scant guarantee that it would win an election, as almost all projections point to a Peau Thai, pro-redshirt victory. His party also faces the prospect of dissolution, after the courts agreed to look into an Electoral Commission ruling that the Democrats misused campaign funds and thereby should be dissolved.

The skies opened over the vast sprawling capital on Tuesday afternoon, forcing the ever-dwindling gathering of redshirts to huddle for cover, as their leaders mulled over the Government’s offer. Academic Nicholas Farrelly co-edits the New Mandala blog, which focuses on mainland southeast Asian politics and society. Analysing the PM’s plan, he told The Irrawaddy that it might not be enough for the emboldened redshirts, who “demanding much wider reforms and more immediate changes to Thailand’s political system.” Whether or not they have the will or material resources to continue the protest is unclear but is an issue that “ will probably determine the decision of the Red leadership”, according to Farrelly.

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