Thailand searches for a political exit plan

Sakchai Lalit/AP
Thai mother walks with her children past Thai soldier stand guard facing Thailand Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's residence in Bangkok, Thailand on Sunday April 19, 2009. Bangkok remained under emergency rule and security was tightened around Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who said Friday's assassination attempt on Sondhi Limthongkul, leader of the 'yellow shirt' movement, should not serve as an excuse for more conflict.

BANGKOK, THAILAND – The charred buses and metal barricades are gone. Armed soldiers still patrol the capital, but discretely. Even the traffic is back to its usual near-gridlock.

But one week after Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva declared a state of emergency to put down violent protests here by red-shirted opponents, who sought his resignation, the shock waves are still rippling through a polarized, shaken nation.

The emergency laws were reaffirmed Sunday after a meeting between security officials and the prime minister. It may be several days before it’s lifted. Police are hunting for the gunmen behind the shooting on Friday of Sondhi Limthongkul, a leader of a rival protest group, known as “yellow shirts.”

Authorities have separately detained 34 people over the recent protests and closed down opposition radio stations and Internet sites blamed for inciting violence.

Beyond the immediate security threat, however, lies a more complex challenge: restoring faith in Thailand’s fragile democracy to solve its grinding political conflict. If this fails, the outcome could be more turmoil and greater instability, say political analysts and politicians.

Much of the debate centers on proposed changes to a 2007 constitution and a possible amnesty for banned politicians, followed by fresh elections. There is deep disquiet over the role of powerful elites, including the military, in the process, as well as the risk of a popular backlash to any poll results.

Mr. Abhisit, who took power in December after a court disbanded three parties in the previous coalition government, has promised to hold elections, once political reforms are concluded. But he hasn’t laid out a firm timetable for the reforms, which experts have said could take several months to finalize.

Government lawmakers reject calls for snap elections as a way out of the current impasse, arguing that it would harm the economy and exacerbate political tensions.

“The government’s priority is clearly to reconcile and reunite the country and immediately address the economic situation,” Buranaj Smutharaks, a spokesman for the ruling Democrat Party, told reporters on Friday.

Critics say the real reason is that the Democrat Party, which polled second at the last election in 2007, fears losing to allies of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the fugitive figurehead of the “red shirts.” In the 2007 election, a pro-Thaksin party won the biggest share of seats, mostly in Thailand’s populous north and northeast, where the Democrats are weakest.

“I think (the Democrats) are disingenuous. It’s stonewalling. They know that if they go to the polls, even under these conditions, they may still not win,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

One contentious clause in the 2007 constitution, which was drafted under a military government, allows the courts to dissolve a political party and ban its executives if any member is found guilty of corruption. This clause was used in December to disband three parties allied to Mr. Thaksin and pave the way for Abhisit to take power. The constitution has also been criticized for creating a semi-appointed Senate and putting too much power in the hands of bureaucrats and judges.

Forging consensus on these and other rules of the game are essential to any future elections and must be agreed by all parties, says Panitan Wattanyagorn, a spokesman for Abhisit. “If we go to the polls now under the current constitution then you just go back to square one,” he says.

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