Can foreign mediators defuse Thailand’s red shirt protests?

Thailand’s red shirt protesters on Thursday asked the European Union to send monitors to prevent a violent crackdown, one day after they clashed again with soldiers. Nobel peace laureate and East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta, whose country sought foreign aid against political violence, offers advice on outside mediators.

By , Correspondent

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    Some hundreds of antigovernment red shirt supporters ride in a convoy to set up a road block in the outskirts of Bangkok on Wednesday. Antigovernment red-shirt protesters appealed Thursday to the European Union to send monitors to Bangkok to prevent a violent crackdown, one day after a clash with solidiers.
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Anti-government red-shirt demonstrators appealed Thursday to the European Union to send monitors to Bangkok to prevent a violent crackdown on their fortified protest site.

The proposal, in the form of a letter handed to an EU diplomat, was swiftly denounced by Thailand's foreign minister, Kasit Piromya. “There is no need for international intervention at this point in time,” he told a press conference in Jakarta, according to Agence France Presse.

While Thailand insists that its deepening crisis is an internal affair, some Western diplomats are quietly discussing the idea of outside mediation to bring together political rivals. Such an approach is certain to raise nationalist hackles, though, amid continued saber-rattling by the military, which clashed again Wednesday with roving protesters.

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In an interview, East Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta, whose young democracy has relied heavily on international support to tackle political violence, gave his support to foreign mediation. But he warned that it would be hard to find someone who can step into the complex situation.

“I don’t think any international mediator is knowledgeable enough about Thailand to be able to play a critical role,” he says.

Abhisit ‘open to compromise’

On a private visit to Bangkok, Mr. Ramos-Horta met Wednesday with Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is under intense pressure to end the red-shirt rallies. A royalist protest group called Thursday for tougher measures to disperse the demonstrations, now into their seventh week.

During their meeting, Mr. Abhisit said he wanted a negotiated settlement and was open to compromise, says Ramos-Horta. “He wants dialogue. He’s serious about that,” he says.

Last month Abhisit held televised talks with red-shirt leaders. The two sides later reached a tentative agreement via third parties on holding new elections, as protesters had demanded. But Abhisit broke off talks last week after protesters called for a three-month time frame, which was seen as too soon for Abhisit’s coalition government.

Ramos-Horta, a Nobel peace laureate and former diplomat, says any future talks should be held behind closed doors and without using the media to score points. He said Abhisit had admitted that it was hard to find appropriate channels to negotiate with the protest leaders.

Thai troubles benefit Burma

He said regional powers were deeply concerned about prolonged instability. “If Thailand spins out of control it would weaken ASEAN countries as a grouping,” he says, referring to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which East Timor has applied to join.

Thailand’s ailing democracy also plays into the hands of hardliners in neighboring Burma (Myanmar), led by junta chief, Gen. Than Shwe. It is due to hold elections later this year, the first in two decades, while resisting Western pressure for political reform.

Turmoil in Bangkok reinforces the claim of Burma’s rulers that unchecked democracy is dangerous, says Ramos-Horta, who is a strong critic of the regime and of Western sanctions on it. “If anyone is watching Thailand’s troubles with glee, it’s Than Shwe and his government,” he says.

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