Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Thai standoff close to tipping point

Mark MacKinnon

Bangkok From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Most observers of the increasingly dangerous political crisis in Thailand agree on one thing: that the government can’t allow it to go on much longer. The only person who won’t say as much is the country’s beleaguered Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva.

With tens of thousands of red-shirted anti-government protesters occupying central parts of Bangkok for more than five weeks, tourists fleeing and major shopping malls and hotels forced to close, calls are growing for Mr. Abhisit to either order the army and police to put an end to the demonstrations or to give in to their demands and resign.

The alternative, some say, is to see the situation degenerate into street fighting between rival political factions or even civil war, a dark possibility now openly spoken of by some Thais.

Thailand's 'Red Shirt' protesters protect themselves with a bamboo barricade in Bangkok on Tuesday.

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Thailand's 'Red Shirt' protesters protect themselves with a bamboo barricade in Bangkok on Tuesday.

“A crackdown [on the Red Shirt protests] is certain. The only question is when,” columnist Sopon Onkgara wrote in The Nation, a pro-government newspaper, arguing that control of the situation had now passed from Mr. Abhisit to army chief General Anupong Paochinda. “Getting ready” read the oversized headline on the paper’s website Tuesday.

The Thai army has already tried and failed once to disperse the non-stop protests, resulting in clashes on April 10 that left at least 25 people dead but did little to resolve the situation.

New military action to clear the Red Shirt encampment – which stretches through much of the city’s commercial heart, from the usually bustling Siam Square to Lumphini Park, the city’s largest green space – seems increasingly likely after some 1,500 Thai soldiers and riot police were deployed this week just a few hundred metres south of the protest area. Tensions ratcheted up through the day Tuesday, as the army announced the soldiers were equipped with live rounds and the Red Shirts began making defensive preparations, including distributing sharpened bamboo poles.

Some within the Red camp are known to carry more lethal weapons, including firearms that were used against the army on April 10. Five soldiers were among those killed that day.

But with the pressure mounting for Mr. Abhisit to do something decisive, he has disappeared from the public eye for days on end since declaring a state of emergency on April 7. In rare public comments to state-owned television on Monday, he urged the public to be patient and refused to give a date for when he might order the army to move in and end the protests.

ERIC GAILLARD/REUTERS

Riot police stand guard as anti-government "red shirt" protesters gather outside the SC Park hotel in Bangkok, Friday, April 16, 2010

Mr. Abhisit has also repeatedly said that he won’t give in to Red Shirt demands that he resign or call a snap election, arguing that neither act would solve the country’s deep-rooted problems. He has offered to dissolve parliament later this year, before the expiry of his government’s term in 2011, but Red Shirt leaders rejected the move as insufficient.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister, Panitan Wattanayagorn, said Mr. Abhisit is still hoping to resolve the crisis through negotiations, a path that seems unlikely to succeed given that Red Shirt leaders have said they won’t negotiate with Mr. Abhisit, whom they brand a “murderer” for the bloodshed on April 10.

The angry rhetoric of the Red leaders has left them little room for a compromise that they can sell to their supporters. The government has also avoided direct communications with the chief Red leader, fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a 2006 military coup and later convicted on abuse-of-power charges.

The past two weeks have been the most challenging yet in a tumultuous 16 months in office for Mr. Abhisit, a 45-year-old Oxford University graduate who was plucked from relative obscurity to head the government after an administration loyal to Mr. Thaksin was controversially forced from power in December of 2008.

Mr. Abhisit must also deal with dissent from within his own Democratic Party as well as a ruling by the country’s elections commission that found the party should be dissolved for misuse of election funds. Few pundits believe a party led by Mr. Abhisit could beat the Reds at the polls if he gives in and calls a snap vote.

Mr. Abhisit is an economist by training and a technocrat by temperament. Even his supporters wonder if he’s too indecisive for the kind of hard decisions that may be required to end the current crisis.

“Abhisit’s a good guy, but his decision-making is maybe a bit slow because he thinks about the consequences. A lot of the Democrat Party leaders are lawyers, so maybe they think about the consequences too much,” said Atty, a 35-year-old jewellery designer whose central Bangkok store is among those that have been closed for the past two weeks by the protests.

Most observers feel the situation is hurtling toward the very sort of violent climax that Mr. Abhisit says he wants to avoid.

“We’re in kind of a standoff situation,” an influential Thai blogger who goes by the alias Bangkok Pundit, said by telephone. “The two sides are just in a waiting game. The government is waiting for [the Red Shirts] to make a move so they can prevent them from doing it. It’s a show of strength.”

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