Thailand, Reconciled to Division? – ISN

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A government peace plan is viewed with skepticism by opposition leaders as the fallout from recent political violence continues.

By Simon Roughneen in Bangkok for ISN Security Watch

Redshirt leaders give press statement at 6pm on May 17, 3 hours after Government deadline for redshirts to vacate rally area. Speaker Nattawut Saikua is one of the leaders now facing terrorism charges(Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Three weeks after a violent conclusion to a two-month political protest in downtown Bangkok, the Thai government says it wants to implement a five-point reconciliation plan, which Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva believes will address some of the grievances anti-Government redshirts say motivated their mass rally in the capital.

The plan was first proposed on 3 May, and while leaders initially welcomed it as “quite constructive,” they turned it down in the end.The deal pledges constitutional amendments, an independent investigation into the recent political violence, increased social spending and the establishment of a media monitoring body.

Prime Minister Abhisit rescinded an offer to hold early elections after the negative response, but then appeared to revive the prospect of early polls while speaking in Vietnam last weekend. The redshirts regard his administration as illegitimate, as it came to power after courts dissolved the redshirt-aligned party, which was in power up to the end of 2008. Smaller parties then backed Abhisit’s Democrat Party, enabling it form a coalition government.

While this was technically within the rules, redshirts are angry that despite their parties winning successive elections, they were ousted twice by non-electoral means. Firstly a 2006 army coup removed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power while he attended a UN meeting in New York. Redshirt-aligned parties won the next election held after the putsch, but anti-Thaksin yellowshirt protesters occupied the Government House and then the country’s international airports before the current government came to power.

Rule of law

“I have always talked about reconciliation as based on the rule of law,” Abhisit said during a 29 May press conference with foreign journalists attended by ISN Security Watch.

However, redshirt leaders are under arrest, after calling a halt to their protest as the Thai Army encircled their main rally area on 19 May. Court cases against the 2008 yellowshirt protest leaders are pending the conclusion of a police investigation. This apparent disparity may hinder the prime minister’s attempts to heal Thailand’s divisions based on the rule of law.

The redshirt-aligned Peua Thai party is the largest party in the Thai Parliament and is demanding that the prime minister “be held accountable” for his role in the recent army and police crackdown on the protest, before any reconciliation plan can be discussed, according to party spokesman Dr Pithaya Pookaman. He told ISN Security Watch that “the plan is irresponsible given that lives were lost during the protests and that the truth of that has to be clarified first.”

His party has been criticized for its silence about the presence of armed ‘blackshirts’ among the redshirts and its failure to condemn the arson attacks attributed to some protesters in the aftermath. Similarly, Abhisit was criticized for his silence during the yellowshirt airport occupation, which was not disbanded by the military, and for appointing and retaining yellowhsirt protest leader Kasit Piromya as his foreign minister.

Abhisit has promised an impartial and independent investigation into the protest and crackdown, and has pledged to adhere to its findings. However, the opposition says that “the team appointed by the government is not neutral,” according to Pithaya.

Last week, a parliamentary debate about the protest and army clampdown degenerated into a shouting match, highlighting the distrust between the government and Peau Thai, and the disparity between their views not only on what happened during the protest but on what needs to happen next.

The government has reiterated its view that the majority of the protesters are peaceful, but says that former prime minister Thaksin has pushed an uncompromising stance and derailed the early reconciliation plan. Mere days after the 19 May meltdown, the Thai courts approved an arrest warrant for Thaksin on terrorism charges, which redshirts may view as a provocation. Thaksin now lives abroad after fleeing a corruption suit in 2008.

Security reform

Thailand’s array of security forces will need reform if reconciliation is to be achieved, according to Des Ball of the Australian National University. Two high-profile army figures were shot during the protests, hits that Ball believes to at least partly be because of intra-security force rivalries.

Firstly, Colonel Romkhlao, a former royal bodyguard, was assassinated on 10 April when the 2nd Infantry Division tried to clear the protesters from their initial main rally site in downtown Bangkok. Twenty-five people, mostly protesters, died that night. On 13 May, renegade Major-General Seh Daeng, a prominent redshirt backer, was hit by what is thought to be an army sniper’s bullet and later died. Ball believes the hit on Seh Daeng could have been a revenge attack for the 10 April killing of Romkhlao, and an attempt to erase the military leader on the redshirt side.

Professor Ball speculates that a disbanded special forces unit provided the disgruntled manpower for the blackshirts, deemed “terrorists” by the government, and noted that the troops deployed to Bangkok during the protests were not the same north-eastern based units sent to the capital by the previous government, during the 2008 yellowshirt protest.

Analysts speaking at a forum on civil-military relations in Southeast Asia late in 2009 noted that the Thai Army maintained a behind-the-scenes powerbroker role, after its messy attempt at direct rule following the 2006 coup. Redshirts feel aggrieved that the army ousted Thaksin in 2006, and believe that factions within the army conspired to bring the current government to power in 2008.

However, fissures in the security forces illustrate that the relationship between their various elements “is shifting and complex and there is no single policy view within or across these organisations,” as Ball put it, speaking on a podcast on the New Mandala website.

Redshirts mainly come from Thailand’s north and north-east, historically one of the less well-off regions in the country. While in power, Thaksin introduced a number of social and economic measures designed to improve living standards in the vote-rich region, measures dismissed as populism by Thaksin opponents.

The government says it will increase social spending in the next budget as part of the reconciliation plan, even as many on the government side do not see socio-economic issues as a key driver of the redshirt protest.

Speaking at Thailand’s Foreign Correspondent Club last week, Deputy Chair of the Democrat Party Deputy Chair Kraisak Choonhavan said that most of the rally speeches were about political issues, such as the need for early elections, and noted that the protests began a mere two weeks after courts seized $1.4billion of Thaksin’s money on conflict of interest charges while he was prime minister.

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